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Sunday, January 31, 2010

What Do You Learn This Week?

No one knows everything about writing or storytelling. No one. The best they can say is that they know more than most people. To become a writer is to become a constant student. You could write a 100 novels and a 50 screenplays and still learn something new. As writers we should be always open to new ideas and techniques. More than that we should be experimenting

So what did I learn this week?

Let’s start with @filmutopia who was the subject of last week’s #scriptchat. Clive developed an excellent character spreadsheet in Excel. It’s a great tool for creating characters but he uses it for more than that. He uses it generate screenplay plots. To quote him, “…it creates the plot from the pre-existing character conflicts and connections, I created in the spreadsheet.” In other words letting your characters steer your plot and story. I like this spreadsheet a lot. It’s detailed yet very quick and you can easily create a whole cast of character outlines in an evening. The only thing I would change is to add a line of dialogue and an action to the character traits. Dialogue and action is how the characters will be expressed ultimately. I think that will get them to leap off the spreadsheet and onto the page.

Now this sounds like a good tool for indie, edgy dramas and comedies, but what if you’re trying to write a high concept drama? Clive has that area covered with his “Quintessential” tag. To me at any rate “Quintessential” is the same as “Iconic.” So if you want to create a high concept commercial story concentrate your characters’ “Quintessential” tags.

Of course you could start with a concept and basic plot like I do, then apply the spreadsheet and then see what transpires. Nothing is written in stone, especially in screenwriting. The goal is to get a great script, not follow any one particular method religiously.

Elsewhere at Script Secrets, William Martell writes about Watering Your Plants. What he means is setting up, confirming and then paying off your plot points and character traits. He calls this process The Rule of 3 and then demonstrates how the movie Hancock was ruined by not following it. It really makes sense. The Rule of 3 comes from comedians. First you have to set up a behavior, then you confirm it’s still there, then BAM, the punchline which turns the behavior on its head.

It may seem mechanical and arbitrary but it really works. It’s almost like geometry. Between 2 points is a straight line. Between any 3 pts is a plane. In this case, mentioning something once then flipping it isn’t enough. Mention something more than three times and it gets repetitive. 3 just seems to work.

I’ve met and talked with Bill in the past and he’s a great guy. He’s like me, a plot and concept man. What’s interesting is that you can take his Rule of 3 and apply it to Clive’s Character Spreadsheet plotting. So your character is the Quintessential Northern British Bloke. Well you need to establish that bloke-iness in the first act, confirm it in the second, then have it pay off in the third with a twist of some kind. You can go right down the list of character tags if you want and practically fill out your entire screenplay with set ups, confirmations, and payoffs.

Finally over at SellingYourScreenplay and Go Into the Story, two people are asking for advice on how to sell a 175 and 187 page spec screenplay. Now I’ve made my thoughts on this pretty clear, but one of the posters is so passionate about his project. Here’s a quote:

Parallel to Stone’s 205 min. ‘JFK’, and Coppola’s 202 min. ‘Apocalypse Now’, there is a story - let’s call it ‘X’. X is the BIG story and X’s gotta be told, in order to storytell. BUT the even bigger story is the having kept X from being a big story in the first place AND what is interesting about X is only revealed through what is interesting about this bigger story - ‘Y’.

Now ‘Y’ is in itself a story, but what makes Y interesting is its relation to X in particular. So both X and Y must be told in order to tell the story of X in the first place. Let’s now call that story (where both X and Y are combined) XY. Both X and Y really happened and there is no better way to tell the story of X than by telling XY.

Y in itself is interesting enough to take on a life of its own as a story, but it would just be another (good) night at the movies, like De Niro’s 167 min. ‘The Good Shepherd’. X is also a good story by itself, but it would just be another good story without also telling the story of Y. Therefore the XY dilemma.

Add to that ‘Z’ - the protagonist/catalyst – without whom there would have been no X in the first place and you have one modern-day character-driven epic-story of Truth, aka XYZ, aka 187-page-script.

Imagine what Spike’s Malcolm X could have been if it was more about the whys than the whos; what Spielberg’s Schindler’s List would have been if it took place in America instead of Krakow. And do you recall American History X? Imagine that sort of character driven story with dialogue that speaks to a domestic audience spanning from “I Have a Dream-ers” to “Yes We Can-ers” and overseas generations that have questioned The American Way and The American Dream to this day.

THAT IS MY XYZ.

Given the success of Avatar we're probably going to see a lot more 3 hour specs. Scott Meyers very politely suggests that the writer may have fallen too much in love with his own story. That’s something that’s real easy to do. I’m guilty of it myself quite often. It’s hard not to fall head over heels for your own project. This is your ticket to fame and fortune after all, or at least a “try us again with something else. Feel free to email us.” But you have to yourself back.

Be the student. Learn. You may be confident. You may believe. But at least pay attention to differing points of view.

Maybe you are on the verge of revolutionizing the industry. But chances are you didn’t get to that point without a lot of study. So study some more.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

What do you look for in a Script?

Or how you too can be a script reader. Here it is, I’m giving away the trade secrets!

Not really.

If you’ve read any coverage or feedback you should know most of these points I’m about to make. If you’ve read Blake Snyder you know most of it. If you’ve watched really good movies or television (Joss Whedon) you’ve absorbed some of it. But knowing how to do something and executing it are two different animals.

So histrionics aside what do I look for when I read a script?

First a word on grading. Script coverage come in three grades PASS, CONSIDER, RECOMMEND.

PASS isn’t as bad as it sounds. Everybody who’s not Quentin Tarantino or Steven Spielberg gets a PASS. Even James Cameron got a PASS for his first draft of Avatar. PASS doesn’t mean your script is completely no good and worthless (though that is a possibility.) It could just means it’s wrong for the contest or production company you sent it to. It could mean it was good but not great. That it might be a slam dunk if they really worked with you on it, but for various reasons they simply don’t have the time. PASS is not the end of the world or even the end of that script. That’s easier to understand if you know what RECOMMEND really means.

RECOMMEND can mean one of two things. Number one the script is a winner on every level. That anyone who reads any part of it; the logline, the first 10 pages, 10 pages in the beginning, middle and end, or the entire thing will be blown away and completely in awe of your ability. That it’s commercial yet edgy. Breaks new ground yet is somehow familiar. Has characters and dialogue that name actors would kill for. Has an amazing story yet enough room for a director to add his flair and stamp to it. That’s the complete package.
Most of the RECOMMENDs are not complete packages.
Most of the RECOMMENDs come about because they fit what that particular agency or production company is looking for. If you’re reading for a particular producer or director he has a sweet spot, a kind of screenplay and movie he is just nuts about making. Recently on a job I read a script for a producer, it was like a match made in Heaven. In fact I was certain that it was done by one of his friends. Turns out it was somebody completely off his radar. But after he read it, the producer couldn’t stop gushing about it. That is what RECOMMEND really means. Fits. The. Circumstances.
Yeah it sucks because you probably don’t know the circumstances at a given agency or prodco. That’s why guys who live in LA and have contacts in those offices almost always break in sooner or later. That’s why when you go to events or conferences you have to listen very carefully to what they say they want and what they’re looking for. Writing a script that will please anyone who reads it is a noble goal but is not easy to execute. A targeted assault is easier to pull off.

CONSIDER can be harder to get than a RECOMMEND. It’s the area where the reader is exercising his discretion. The whole package isn’t perfect but the reader sees some potential, something in the script that is really amazing, something you can build a RECOMMEND around. Almost always that something is either the concept or fantastic characters and dialogue. The reader is usually sticking his neck out when he issues a CONSIDER. RECOMMENDs are the slam dunks. When in doubt PASS. CONSIDER means extra work for everyone involved. The biggest hurdle is bringing a newbie into the fold. They use the phrase “manage expectations” a lot in the business. That’s hard to do when your not 100% sold on the script to begin with.

So what do you look for when you read a script? How do you tell a PASS from a RECOMMEND from a CONSIDER. There are 10 categories that most everyone in the industry uses in one form or another.

CONCEPT/LOGLINE: What’s the concept? Is the logline catchy? Is it iconic? Does a 2 or 3 sentence summary really hook you?

FORMAT/TYPOS: Better be properly formatted without any typos to get that RECOMMEND

STRUCTURE: You get tired and bored reading one thing. Does the story break into clear acts? Do those acts give it variation and a sense of forward movement?

PLOT/STORY: Does the story and plot grab you? Does it move quickly? Are you compelled to keep reading to find out what happens?

PACING: Related to structure and plot. How is the script moving? Is it too slow? Is it too fast? Pace must match the material.

CHARACTERS: The big one next to Concept/Logline. Are the characters believable? Likable? Interesting? Do they jump off the page? Do you really want to see them win? Do you really like spending a few hours with them?

DIALOGUE: Related to Character. Is it snappy? Does it sound natural? Not everything has to be Tarantino but it should never make you stop dead in your tracks and scratch your head.

THEME: Probably the last thing a reader looks at. Is the story more than just a story? Does it touch on things important to people? Does it ask hard questions? Did it give easy answers?

STYLE/TONE: Is this a silly piece where nothing matters? Is it a dark bleak tale? Does the tone fit the genre? If you’re going to write a family film you’d better not be dropping f bombs, sex scenes, and gut spills all over the place. This can be tricky. You look around and you see movies that vary in tone and do it successfully. But most companies want to see a consistent tone throughout. That’s because variations in tone are very hard to pull off. And even if done correctly it can look wrong on the page.

MARKETABILITY: How are you going to sell this picture? Is anyone going to come see it? New writers often come up with scripts completely unique which is great. But if the story is so unique there isn’t an established audience for it, how is the poor producer going to get his money back? If the writer doesn’t want to chase the market, fine. But when it comes time to actually make money, well, the market isn’t so bad. And the market is big. This is where knowing the prodco comes into play. Not everyone wants to make blockbusters. But you have to know what they DO make and what they DO sell, because at the end of the day they have to make a living as well.

Being a reader has been one of the best things for me as a writer. The more scripts you read and the more different kinds of scripts you read the better you become. You quickly find out there’s more than one way to write a great script.

Monday, January 25, 2010

FROM PAGE TO SCREEN: Soon I Will Be Invincible!

This Christmas I received the IO9 reading list. Nothing but highly recommended sci-fi and fantasy novels. I’ve been plowing through them and so far they’ve all been great reads. But it got me thinking on how I would adapt these into screenplays. They are all wildly different and each poses its own set of challenges to the screenwriter/adapter. So first we’ll look at the stories as they are now and what it would take to successfully turn them into screenplays. Then I’ll put on my producer hat/play “If I ruled the world” and try to package the deal; match our newly adapted screenplay to the perfect director or cast.

SOON I WILL BE INVINCIBLE

Soon I Will Be Invincible

The first book in my reading list was Austin Grossman’s novel of superheroes and one tenacious super villain. Soon I Will Be Invincible was released to a lot of fanfare and made a lot of Holiday gift guides for geeks in 08-09. Its first chapters debuted in the New York Times. According to Wikipedia, Strike Entertainment is already at work adapting it. Well, if you’re listening Strike, here is a free set of notes for ya.

WARNING:

Lot’s of spoilers ahead! If you haven’t read the book yet (and I highly recommend you do so if you have not) STOP READING RIGHT NOW!

Super Quick Synopsis:

Soon I Will Be Invincible follows the super villain Doctor Impossible who it turns out has shared history with the Earth’s mightiest heroes, as he makes his umpteenth attempt to take over the world. Both Doctor Impossible and his enemies the Champions have lots of personal issues that overshadow their battles with each other.

STRENGTHS


Doctor Impossible:
What makes this novel tick is the character of Doctor Impossible. This mash up of Lex Luthor and Doctor Doom is the main character and his inner monologue is incredible. Grossman paints a compelling picture of a chronic anti-hero, someone who is keenly aware that he could be doing something worthwhile or profitable or at least legal with his time, but to him that would just be the final surrender to a world that never gave him much of anything. The book does the nearly impossible feat of actually making you route FOR this guy to defeat the heroes and take over the world. I remember thinking “Oh No!” when accidentally runs into the Champions before he’s ready for them. He’s so desperate for just one thing in his life to turn out the way he planned. It makes everything from the battle blimps to trying to control the moon seem almost logical and believable. The finale between him, CoreFire and Lily is classic writing 101, where the main character’s internal and external conflicts collide but in a way we never would have imagined at the start. In the end his plan is foiled by Lily, his ex lover/partner; a being apparently made out of living indestructible Lucite. But it turns out she’s not who she claims to be. Even as she’s putting the kibosh on his latest scheme, she reveals to the good doctor that he actually did win a victory in the past but never realized it. He did get the girl once.

Fatale: The other main character in the book is a cybernetic heroine called Fatale. She’s described as a cross between an Amazon and Robocop or as a female version of the Teen Titan hero Cyborg. She’s somewhat new to the hero game and has a huge crisis of identity. She literally doesn’t know who she used to be and is ill at ease with her new lot in life. She’d constantly unsure of herself as a hero, always expecting to get drummed out of the Champions every other chapter. She’s as vulnerable as any woman with super strong mechanical limbs can possibly be. We hope that in the end she’ll finally prove herself to herself and take her place among the Champions. It doesn’t turn out that way but we feel she’s finally in a better place inside. Combine Fatale with Dr. Impossible and the personal hang ups of the other Champions and Grossman has really put on a clinic of anti-heroism. To be clear anti-hero does not mean villain necessarily. The term Anti-Hero covers all kinds of flawed characters. Grossman gives us both someone who does the wrong things for understandable reasons (Dr. Impossible) and people who try to do the right thing but who are plagued with personal shortcomings (Fatale and just about every member of the Champions.) It gives this story about people who can fly through space and lift mountains over their heads a sense of grounded humanity. It’s a lot like The Watchmen minus the bracing sting of Alan Moore’s misanthropy.

The Language: Grossman gives both of these creations a unique and at times spellbinding voice. Here are the first lines of book spoken by Dr. Impossible.
This morning on planet Earth, there are one thousand, six hundred, and eighty-six enhanced, gifted, or otherwise-superpowered persons. Of these, one hundred and twenty-six are civilians leading normal lives. Thirty-eight are kept in research facilities funded by the Department of Defense, or foreign equivalents. Two hundred and twenty- six are aquatic, confined to the oceans. Twenty-nine are strictly localized-powerful trees and genii loci, the Great Sphinx, and the Pyramid of Giza. Twenty-five are microscopic (including the Infinitesimal Seven). Three are dogs; four are cats; one is a bird. Six are made of gas. One is a mobile electrical effect, more of a weather pattern than a person. Seventy-seven are alien visitors. Thirty-eight are missing. Forty-one are off-continuity, permanent émigrés to Earth's alternate realities and branching timestreams.
They perfectly set up the comic book universe for the novel and told with complete seriousness yet at the same time you can sense a little bit of snark coming from Grossman, almost like a John Cleese Monty Python skit. He knows what he’s doing. This is the world, you either accept it and are along for the ride or else go find the latest James Patterson novel. It’s the voice and the writing that really sucks you into the novel and what powers it through to the end.

WEAKNESSES


What’s Up with Those Names: Superhero and super villain names are always problematic. SIWBI has a few good ones like CoreFire and Stormcloud. Doctor Impossible and Blackwolf are typical if not very original. But when it comes to the female characters a lot of the names inspire a WTF response. Damsel? Elphin? Regina? Rainbow Triumph is a very interesting character, a cybernetic mash up of Robin and Britney Spears but her name makes her sound like she should be on a shelf at Toys R’ Us with a $11.99 price tag. And what does the name “Lily” have to do with being transparent and indestructible? The best female names are Fatale (ironic since her name is one of the hundred things that she frets about in the book) and Galatea (who’s only seen in archival footage).

The Mythology: The novel revels in its own imagined history. Grossman created a comic book universe stretching back to pre-WWII days. It’s crammed with heroes and villains of every stripe. And nobody except the people who actually read the book will know anything about it. Mass audiences are already struggling trying to keep up with the established comic mythologies of DC and Marvel. Asking them to swallow the history of a whole new, unknown universe is a daunting task. And Grossman made this history and mythology an integral part of his plot. Dr. Impossible assembles his arsenal from the discarded tools of defeated super villains and gets advice from the oldest evil genius on the planet.

The Plot: The main problem is that the plot, what actually happens in the story isn’t that much. There’s a ton of flashbacks. We get Doctor Impossible’s entire life story and plenty of history of the Champions and their forebears, but what happens in the present tense isn’t a whole lot. Doctor Impossible escapes, he executes a plan to take over the world, and fights the Champions using a mystic artifact. It’s a throwback to the Avengers and Justice League comics of the 70’s and early 80’s before everything became a 20 issue event crossover. A villain has a plan, he fights the heroes, he loses, he escapes. (My personal favorite from this period was Avengers vs. Count Nefaria!) But this translates into a very minimal movie plot. If you played it out as is, with the dialogue that’s spoken and minus all the internal monologues and flashbacks, then there really isn’t a whole lot of there there. You present simply the physical action of the story it’s going to come up looking short, like Fantastic Four short. People will be asking, “So what’s the big deal?”

The Ending: While the plot is pretty conventional, the ending is out of left field. It’s a revisionist ending. Lily arrives at the end and saves the day but not in the usual 4 color comic book way. She keeps CoreFire tied up as she smashes the doomsday device and lets both he and Doctor Impossible know who she really is. I read that part as a mild critique of the whole superhero genre. Lily seemed to be saying that this was all just games played by boys who refused to grow up. At least that was my take on it. It’s a great monologue and it works in the book but imagine seeing it on the big screen after a number of super heroic fights and confrontations. If it isn’t done properly the audience is going to be scratching their heads.

THE SCRIPT

The problem is the one all adapters face, when do you repeat what’s in the book and when do you write? The best answer is always to stay true to the spirit of the original source material. Embrace the strengths, minimize the weaknesses.
While the plot may be conventional it does provide a very sturdy screenplay structure. It’s linear, straightforward, it’s direct and to the point. It’s very archetypal. One of the big ironies of the storytelling is that good movie plots don’t always make the best book plots and vice versa. In this case the plot of the boom is very serviceable and you’d be foolish to discard it. It makes a fine skeleton upon which to hang scenes.

Ah but what are you going to hang on your serviceable plot?

That’s the make or break decision there.

You could add more action. Cut back on the voice overs and dialogue and character work. Make it into another Watchmen or Fantastic Four. Pour all your energy into creating FX heavy superhero smackdowns.

But that would violate the spirit of the book.

You’d really just be using the title and the bare bones plot and characters for something totally different. It's been done before (See Wanted.) But it can also backfire. Remember how badly Daredevil sucked because it was trying to Spiderman?

And if you’re going to go that route, why bother adapting this book in the first place?

Why not grab some cheaper title from small or defunct comic company instead?
The whole point of the novel is the character work, the dialogue and more importantly the interior monologues that really put you inside Dr. Impossible’s head. If you’re really going to ADAPT Soon I Will Be Invincible you’re going to have to bring the monologues and the characters to the forefront yet still make it cinematically alive instead of talky and static. And that leads us directly too…

THE PACKAGE


There are a number of directors and actors who could be attracted to this project and who could do the material proud. However there’s only one person who can take the strengths of the novel and turn them into a compelling movie without having to radically rewrite the whole thing.

QUENTIN TARANTINO

inglourious-basterds-trialer-poster-1

Given that Tarantino’s a comic book nut, and a 1970’s comic book nut to boot, this would be the perfect project for him to make his mark in the superhero genre. But the synergies don’t stop there. Tarantino is the master of taking the conventional pulp plot and giving it an unconventional twist. Inglorious Basterds is only his latest example. It’s what he’s done his entire career. SIWBI starts out as a typical 1970’s superhero story but it takes some unusual turns. It ends when Lily, who was at one time Lois Lane to CoreFire’s Superman, steps in to save the day. It’s the kind of twist Tarantino puts in his movies. You think Basterds is about Brad Pitt and his team of killers? In the end it turns into the story of a Jewish girl avenging her family.

He’s also proven he can handle voice overs and make them very cool. See Kill Bill Vol 1 and 2 as prime examples. A few voice overs would have to be used but they can’t take over the whole narrative. Tarantino definitely knows when to call it quits on the VO.

Tarantino also isn't afraid of mythologies or somewhat cliched names. Again look at Kill Bill. He created an lengthy mythology about Bill and his team of assassins. And he felt no shame in calling them the "Deadly Viper Squad." I doubt he'll have much trouble getting his brain around someone like Baron Ether.

Even more pertinent Tarantino could get the most of the scenes in the novel. So many of the key scenes are simply people meeting and talking. Sounds boring? Oh but that’s been Tarantino’s bread and butter since day one. He’s is one of the few writer/directors who can make a two person dialogue scene seem as exciting and violent as a fist fight. Look at the first scene in Basterds. All it is a simple two person scene with dialogue (at least until the end!) but it was one of the most riveting moments of film in 2009. That’s the kind of approach and attitude SIWBI needs. Take for example the scene where Doctor Impossible escapes. It’s a very simple scene. He is brought into an interrogation room, two novice heroes try to beat information out of him, he gets the upper hand and escapes. It’s the kind of scene that’s going to be ho-hum in the hands of most directors. But it’s exactly the kind of scene that Tarantino can inject with energy, suspense and most importantly character. The dialogue would have to change, Phenom, Bluetooth and The Doctor would get a lot more lines, but the spirit of the scene would remain the same.

QT could also handle the novel’s ending. He could keep the spirit in tact while still paying things off dramatically for the audience as opposed to say the Cohen Brothers for example who’ve taken an almost perverse pleasure in frustrating audience expectations with their endings (see No Country for Old Men and Burn After Reading.) Tarantino can make that ending pay off because it is about those three characters at the end. And despite his reputation as a gaudy stylist, Tarantino is almost old fashioned in his attention to and focus on the characters and their stories.

With QT as director the rest of the package would fall into place. I can see him casting Christopher Walken or better Christoph Waltz as Dr. I, John Travolta as CoreFire, Uma Thurman as Fatale, and bringing in Samuel L. as Stormcloud for five minutes of awesomeness as he rips the New Champions a new one around the halfway mark.

Would Tarantino do it?

Good question. He’s pretty ambivalent about CGI and there’s no other way to do Lily and Feral and make them look correct. But everything else lines up perfectly. That still doesn’t mean he’d do it. But hey, we can always hope. And it’s unlikely that Tarantino will ever get a shot at directing a DC or Marvel character. They’d be too worried about the QT brand overshadowing their own brand.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

How to Write a Screenplay in 1 Week

Writing a full length screenplay is easy. Step 1 write an 80-90 page treatment. Step 2 that treatment into a 120 screenplay. Step 3-

What was that? Back up to Step 1? The 80-90 page treatment? How do you get an 80-90 page treatment? You don’t know? Don’t worry it’s not as hard as it sounds.

I met screenwriter Kario Salem once at an event and he talked about writing the teleplay for Don King: Only in America. He said he got the job because he wrote a 90 page treatment of the original book to show the producers that he had a clear vision of the story. At the time I thought that was a little obsessive. In case you don’t know, the word count for a 90 page treatment, single spaced, exceeds the word count of a 120 page properly formatted screenplay by a large margin. In short he’d written way more than the actual the screenplay. But now I see exactly what he was doing. If properly done, a treatment of that size makes “writing” the final screenplay a snap. You’re not really writing so much as editing and formatting. There’s still some writing to do, putting in small establishing shots or a few last minute tweaks of the dialogue. Plus deciding what to leave in and what to jettison is a huge, underrated part of the writing process. But all of this should take only about a week or two.

But how do you get that 90 page treatment to begin with. Now that can take some time. Usually about three months. It can be 60 to 90 days if you’re really on fire with an idea or if it’s dragging it may take you half the year. But 3 months is a pretty good average. John Ford once said he could SHOOT a movie in one week provided he had three months to prepare. That’s what you’ll be doing on these three months; flawlessly preparing your screenplay.

So where do you start? Well a good way to start is to know where you are going to end up. To get to a finished screenplay, you need a super detailed treatment, basically nearly all your dialogue and scenes descriptions written out single spaced. To get to that treatment you start with a shorter less detailed treatment of around 40 pages that has only the most important scenes and dialogue. To get to that stage you need to start with an even less detailed treatment of 10 pages that has only a summary of the scenes and dialogue in the story. To get to 10 pages you need a 1 to 4 page treatment that covers only the characters and the main beats of the story. To get to the 1 to 4 page treatment you need a bare bones outline of the story. To get to the bare bones outline you need a logline. To get to the logline you need an idea.

Whew.

Sounds like a lot of steps and a lot of work but believe it or not the easiest steps are going from 40 pages to 80 or 90 and going from 10 pages to 40. The real hard part occurs from the idea stage to first 10 page treatment. (Going to jump ahead a little bit) What makes these stages so easy is that you’ve created a story “sponge.” You just spend a few hours everyday just adding whatever scene or bit of dialogue pops into your head regardless of where it occurs in the story. Have a great idea for the ending? Put it in. Have a great bit of dialogue in the middle? Put it in. Can’t think of anything for the beginning? Leave it for now and write what does come to you. Just keeping adding bits and pieces to your treatment like layers of varnish on an oak cabinet. You’ll be surprised how quickly your page count shoots up. You just keep filling in blank or grey spots until the whole story is there from the first scene to the last.

To be honest, if you’re diligent and work on the treatment every day it doesn’t take long in the layering stage to get to your 40 or 90 page count. What really takes a lot of time is getting TO that stage. That stage where it’s just a case of letting your imagination and your writer’s spirit roam free. Before you do that there’s a ton of preparation work.

Robert McKee argues that you should do tons of work planning and preparing and outlining your story before even starting to write. He has the right idea. Jump all the way back to beginning of the process. You start with an idea. How do you turn an idea into a story? How do you work that story into the “sponge” state?

You’ve got an idea for a screenplay. Write it down. Take you about ten seconds. And then, leave it. Don’t go back to it. Don’t research it. Don’t do anything. Just leave it. Let other ideas come. Work on something else or do those important things you’ve been putting off like the laundry or paying taxes. Leave it for at least a week. Then look in on it again. Still vibrant? Still alive? Still excited to tell this story? Then we have a winner! It’s important to gage just how committed you are to an idea and how compatible you really are. Sometimes I write down ideas and when I come back to them I can’t believe they were written by me. Maybe I was caught up in the moment but what I wrote down, really wasn’t me. Better to find out this way then to get 10 or 20 pages into a project and find you have no connection with it.

After you’re certain of your idea time to turn it into a logline. Creating a logline can be a weeklong exercise in itself. A logline is a summation of your story. But that’s just the start really. It tells you what happens and who’s doing it. But it also has to sell your story by, among other things, giving the personal stakes for the main character, hooking people with a twist or something unexpected and creating a visual image that encapsulates the narrative. Where to start?
First you decide who your main character is and what he does during the story. A prince avenges a murder. But you can’t leave it at that, you need to give the main character a personal stake like “a prince avenges the murder of his father.” There you have Hamlet. So how is your Hamlet going to be different than that other Hamlet? Hamlet in space! Okay so then what does sci-fi Hamlet have that makes him sci-fi? Time travel. He’s not haunted by a ghost but by his actual father who travels ahead in time to warn him what’s going to happen.
Okay now you’re getting somewhere. Perhaps. Maybe.
Now is a good time to hit people you know with your logline to see what they think. Is it catchy? Does it fire up their imaginations? Does your friend who works in a production company or agency like it? Do they love it? Do they have constructive criticism. If they say no, don’t get too discouraged. If it’s still burning a hole in your imagination it’s probably worth pursuing. Though if your agency friend nixes it and your whole goal is to get repped at THAT agency you may want to take it under advisement. Loglines are a hard thing to get a handle on. You need a LOT of practice to get them right. What excites you may be blah to someone else. It’s not a good sign if it’s blah to EVERYONE else.

After you have a logline, time to structure it out. I hope you’ve been reading up on your Syd Field, Robert McKee or Blake Snyder. You need to decide at this stage how it’s going to play out. You could just start off writing. Bang your head against the keyboard and come out months later with a 120 pgs. But you’re just as likely to wind up with 5 pages of nothing as a full length script.
It’s all in the planning.
This is where things start to get a little hard. From your logline you have to decide on a basic story arc for your character, what’s wrong, how does he try to fix things, does he succeed or fail. From that general yes/no tree you start, just begin to decide on the concrete elements of the screenplay. You fill out the major beats, how does it open, what is the inciting incident, what are the Act breaks, what’s the midpoint, how does it end. You’re just making the barest impression. Nothing’s written in stone. Which is good because you’ll probably changing at least a little bit of it.
Next step you leave the writing alone for a little bit and you research. Research your characters, research your world, research everything you can think of. Write those character biographies. Fill out all the important roles. Your story takes place in 1920’s New York? Well you better read up on 1920’s New York! You may find something or come up with something that makes a major impact in how the story plays out. Better to find out now than when you’re 50 pages in! Fill your head until the world of your story is as real as the one outside your door. Then go back to your structure outline. Does the general direction still make sense? Do the important scenes still sound good or do you have better ones? Make changes if any. Time to move on to your first treatment.

Your first treatment should consist of your major beat scenes written out with some, but not a lot of detail with some loose idea how they transition from one to another. This will usually take between 1 and 4 pages. Then here’s where the real work begins. You start filling in the blanks between those beats with scenes. Sometimes with just a scene header or one sentence. Some people use flashcards for this part. I personally think flashcards are a holdover from the typewriter days. I prefer to just write it out in Word and cut and paste. And cut and paste. And cut and paste. Here is where the bulk of your time should be spent. You’re looking for a dramatic flow, do your scenes move seamlessly from one to the other. Is there something that’s missing? Here’s a good time to throw in a few lines from your characters. Good ones. Ones that make them less paper bios and more flesh and blood characters. Throw in a few details about the world of your story. Just the telling details, the ones that make it stand out. Did you write a lot about the theme of your story or the character’s internal struggle? Did you research the iconography or mythology? Well those notes shouldn’t be in the treatment, but their influence should be obvious. At this stage you are moving away from abstracts towards concretes. By the end of this stage it’s all about the concrete reality of the story. The characters and the world they inhabit should be real in your head. That’s what makes the next bit so much easier.

This is the stage that you should again look for opinions and criticism. If you’ve done your work correctly there shouldn’t be much difference between this treatment and your final screenplay. Any mistakes or shortcomings should be visible in the 10 page version.

After that then you start adding more good stuff. Dialogue mostly as that is what brings characters to life. Then more descriptions and actions. By this stage it should be easy. The world of your story should be as real as the one outside your window. You’re not so much writing as popping your head out for a look and writing down what you see.

And only after all that are you ready to write a screenplay in one week.

Simple wasn’t it?

Oh and step 3, leave it alone for at least a month, forget you wrote it. Then come back with completely fresh eyes to rewrite it.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Avatar The Final Word

Avatar-Teaser-Poster

Expanding a little bit from this blog’s normal focus. I’m going to look at pop culture events, give my two cents and try to give some writer-useful analysis starting with the biggest pop culture explosion in quite a while, Avatar. So warning: spoilers, opinions, and some tasteless humor ahead.

So James Cameron is crowing and deservedly so. He can bask in the now sure Oscar bids and his Everest sized mountain of money. I blogged earlier about the movie here. I liked it but didn’t love it. I pointed out that breaking the top 50 all time Box Office is becoming a more common occurrence. However the amazing success of the film requires a deeper look into it especially for screenwriters. It’s important when dealing with a film as successful as this to gain some perspective hard as that is.

I think Avatar is a good movie but not a great one. I don’t think 10 years from now it’s going to ripped apart on Youtube by some guy doing an impression of Ted Levine from Silence of the Lambs. I also stand by my original assessment about the visuals which I found good but rather generic especially coming from Cameron. And let me stress that I don’t believe it’s all hype. Hype and marketing get you only so much after that the audiences keep coming because there is something in there. So what are the audiences getting out of Avatar?

MYTHOLOGY


I believe the major part of Avatar’s appeal can be found in this clip from Kill Bill Vol. 2. The first bit about why he likes Superman.



I think that sums up my opinion of Avatar perfectly except for the part about the mythology being unique, see here and here. But it definitely has the perfect mythology for a sci-fi blockbuster. It has perfectly idealized mythology. Pandora just isn’t a wild planet. It’s a perfect wild planet. The Na’vi aren’t just aliens but perfectly idealized aliens. The wilderness and the “savages” are more idealized than in Dune or even Dances with Wolves. The Freman are just as likely to kill you for your body’s water as adopt you. And in Dances With Wolves you were just as likely to run into badass Indian Wes Studi as good guy Indian Graham Greene. There’s certainly nothing like the ambiguity of Emerald Forest or At Play In the Fields of the Lord at work here. This clip from the Daily Show (keep watching to the last part) pokes fun at the Avatar as Religion idea but it’s true. Avatar presents an ideal for audiences. The Na’vi and Pandora are like the Force in Star Wars, the United Federation of Planets in Star Trek, the black monolith in 2001, Camelot in King Arthur. The films and franchises that become cultural touchstones have that element of hope and perfection and give their audiences the possibility of happily ever after. Even The Godfather presents an idealized myth about the mafia, one that combines the joys of retribution with the heartwarming father/son story.

The problem is once these films hit as big as they do they spawn imitators. And those who try to imitate the mythology are doomed to failure, simply because Avatar or Star Wars or The Godfather have already been done. They were there the firstest with the mostest. More 30 years on and no one has created a new Force. Nobody’s even trying any more. It really is a hokey idea when you think about it. But in the Star Wars films you’re given license to not think about it and just accept it, same thing with Pandora and Avatar. (Incidentally this is why the midi-chlorians speech in Phantom Menace is the biggest clusterfuck in the history of storytelling. What was mythic became a case of the space flu.)

A MYTH FOR OUR TIMES


Avatar would have bombed in 2003 or 2004. In ‘04 enough of the American public still supported the war in Iraq to re-elect George W. by a million votes. Flashforward to ’09 and George W. and “shock and awe” are punchlines. Timing is everything.

But still, this isn’t a case of Blue State vs. Red State. Avatar is doing well across the board despite wearing its political affiliation on its sleeve. I suspect the fact that Avatar is being released by the same company that owns Fox News has something to do with keeping right wing backlash to a minimum but it has to go further than that.

Americans love the underdog never more so then when times are tough. I think more than the shift in the political winds, the economic downturn really helped to prime the American audience for a story about an underprivileged tribe of aliens under assault by vastly superior forces. Rocky and Star Wars were big hits during the harsh economic times of the mid 70’s. People feel that they’re under siege by superior forces and want to believe that they can overcome. It’s not just any underdog story that we cling to in times like these it’s the anti-technological underdog. We hear people talk about how we’ve lost our way, we’ve trusted too much in technology, that it’s time to get back to basics. You don’t need a gym full of fancy equipment, you need a slab of beef to pound. It’s ironic that the two biggest sci-fi movies in history would have an almost Luddite message at their heart. Luke Skywalker turns off his targeting computer to use the Force to guide in the critical shot. Jake Sully relies on the quasi mystical Earth Mother of Pandora to repel the attack on the Tree of Souls. Faith is rewarded.

But Avatar is also cleaning up overseas even more so than it is over here. Sure the film’s $500 million domestic gross is terrific but it’s the foreign box office that’s putting it in the history books. This heralds a lot of important shifts in the entertainment landscape. Friedman is correct, the world is flat. And it looks like going forward that movie audiences are going to be flat as well. The worldwide audience is now the name of the game and Avatar is proving to be even more pleasing to the foreign audience. I don’t want to go all Glenn Beck and say Avatar will be playing at Taliban recruitment drives. But at the same time I’m willing to bet that the obviously non-white Na’vi battling a military force composed mostly of Caucasian Americans is a pretty big draw to a lot of overseas audiences. And as much as the movie is criticized for being another “white guy leads the savages” story, there is a very important difference. In Avatar Jake Sully literally becomes a Na’vi. He sheds his Caucasian body and takes on the body of a blue skinned, feline featured, ten foot tall humanoid with a tail. He is not John Carter of Mars. He is not a white guy who is better at being a native than the natives. He physically becomes one of them. It’s a slight but important difference. Did it make a huge difference with foreign audiences? I can’t tell for sure but my guess is that they wouldn’t have embraced a movie about a white guy teaching backwards blue aliens how to fight. That poses an interesting question. Will studios release more films with non-white leads to attract a larger worldwide audience? Maybe the key isn’t non-white leads but non-ethnic leads, aliens and robots. Optimus Prime has no earthly ethnicity neither do the Na’vi. Are these the new international stars? As a sci-fi and fantasy fan that’s actually an appealing prospect.

AVATAR AND THE ABYSS HAVE MORE IN COMMON THAN THE LETTER “A”


Idealized sci fi mythology is something Cameron has tried before in the one and only film that could be called a flop, The Abyss. That film really represents the turning point for James Cameron the moviemaker.
Up until that time Cameron had made low budget films that look like they cost a fortune. The original Terminator was made for just $1 million, Aliens for $10 million. Since The Abyss Cameron hasn’t made a film for under $70 million and frequently is breaking the record for Most Expensive Studio Film Ever Made.

And it wasn’t just the budgets that changed. The Terminator and Aliens are both very dark and gritty tales with just the slightest glimmers of hope. The Abyss was just as intense and violent but the overall tone was very different. Hope, faith and love were in the forefront. “You have to see with better eyes than that,” said Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio. That line could easily fit into Avatar’s script. After that Cameron movies had love coming out of their ears. T2 was the heartwarming adventure of a boy and his pet Terminator, True Lies was about Arnold’s love for his wife and daughter as much as it was about battling terrorists, and then there was Titanic. At the time Titanic seemed come out of left field from Cameron, but if you look at the emotional tone of his films after The Abyss, it makes perfect sense.

The Abyss was also Cameron’s biggest failure as a writer. The story is a complete mess. The aliens were idealized to near Christ like proportions, there to provide wisdom and perform miracles for a skeptical humanity. Yet they weren’t wise enough to prevent the sub from crashing in the beginning causing the deaths of hundreds of sailors. They were so idealized that Cameron zen-ed completely them out of the main story. The aliens are only there to provide a little bit of catalyst. Nearly everything that happens on board the undersea station would have happened regardless if they had been around or not. Nothing in the characters really connected them to the aliens or the major action of the story. It was a grade A screw up as far a script went and not even Cameron’s most ardent fans can adequately defend it.

That translated into Cameron’s one and only flop as the film, which cost nearly $70 million to make, barely took in $90 million at the worldwide box office. That sounds like a $20 million profit but remember theater chains keep up to two thirds of box office grosses.

But they say you love all your children, the ugly ones most of all. I think Cameron has shown the love for The Abyss by essentially remaking it as his last two movies, the two biggest hits of all time. He had to break it into two parts because by then even he realized that the pieces didn’t fit. The aquatic disaster/love story became Titanic and the idealized aliens, now fully integrated into the story, became Avatar. And with today’s box office triumph his biggest career failure has been erased and completely reversed.

JAMES CAMERON PORTRAIT OF AN ARTIST AS A FRUSTRATED SCI FI NOVELIST


For a writer, however, idealization goes against every good instinct we have. Perfection is, dramatically speaking, boring. The source of drama is conflict, the source of conflict is flaws. Drama began in ancient Greece when the poets started taking ancient myths and giving them the critical eye. Stories told around the campfire to the young kids became dramas performed in the amphitheater for the adults. Thus began the process of serious writing. Essentially you start with a catchy idea, a modern day myth, and then through hard work, process, craft turn that into a story. When a teenager or young person makes his first stabs at being a writer he often doesn’t get much further past the myth making part. That’s because craft and process take a while to develop. But youth being impatient they rush their new masterpieces off to magazines and book publishers only to get the inevitable rejection. Most will get frustrated and quit. Some will persevere and achieve some ability.

Then there’s James Cameron who became a filmmaker.

I’ve heard that Terminator was based on a story Cameron wrote when he was 17. I heard the same thing about The Abyss. And about Avatar. It wouldn’t surprise me. At heart they are all science fiction stories written by a 17 year old, high on myth, not always very good on actual drama. I can picture him sending off copies to Analog and Amazing stories, only to get the form rejection letter. I can see him vowing to show these narrow minded editors that his stories weren’t just magazine worthy, they were multi million dollar blockbusters.

Today Cameron could probably get an original short story published in whatever magazine he so chose as long as he could stand the pay cut. But if he submitted it to the slushpile under a false name, he’d still receive the same form rejection letter. Fortunately for him, movie scripts are an entirely different animal. Movies aren’t read, they’re seen and heard, they’re performed and directed. You can be a terrible writer and still have a good cast and director bail you out. Cameron is not a bad screenwriter, in fact he’s pretty darn good. But sometimes he reverts back to that 17 year old who’s all myth and no process. According to his bio The Futurist, Cameron doesn’t really write a script so much as he assembles it after getting his cast together and hearing what they have to contribute. That can produce some grand stories. Robert Altman used a similar technique his entire career. But Cameron, as The Abyss demonstrates can completely lose his grip on the story.

The script for Avatar is its biggest weakness. Even its admirers admit that. It’s nowhere near as messed up as The Abyss and the first act is pretty good. But it’s underwritten at its most crucial spots.

The mythology of Avatar is perfect. It’s nearly impossible to screw up when you have such a famous template as Dances With Wolves. In this regard one of the major criticism against the film is actually one of its greatest strengths. Avatar is Dances With Wolves with aliens. Dances With Wolves is one of the most famous movies in the world. You know what’s going to happen before you even see Avatar. The audience didn’t buy tickets to this movie to be surprised by the plot. They went to see Dances With Wolves with aliens and that’s what they got. Sounds simple but incredibly many a flop has failed to deliver what it promises (See Stealth, or rather don’t see Stealth. An AI fighter/bomber goes wrong and has to be brought down by human pilots? Nope, that’s not what happens)

The WAY Avatar delivers on its promised story arc where the script falls short. Cameron has never been a particularly sophisticated story teller. He’s blunt but often quite powerful. But by even Cameron’s own standards there’s something missing storywise. The first act is the best written section. It establishes Pandora, the human compound, Stephen Lang and Giovanni Ribisi’s villain characters make an impression, and best of all it gives Sigourney Weaver’s Grace a tremendous entrance. Jake Sully is a very subdued hero. This is a complaint that’s leveled against every major studio blockbuster. They want their heroes to be everymen, usually they end up being at least a little bland. Things proceed. But once the first act is over and we enter Pandora something very important gets left behind. The drama. The conflict. Specifically the choices the characters are forced to make. Or rather they make the choices and there is no force. That's the problem. Throughout the story there are major decisions for the characters. The Na’vi choose to let Jake Sully into their clan, Grace chooses to keep Jake on her team, Jake at first chooses to share information with the bad guys, and then chooses to fight for the Na’vi. All very important decisions. We’re shown these people carrying out these decisions. But we never see them wrestle with making them. We get a little bit of Jake’s internal struggle but by and large the major turning points are given the yadda yadda yadda treatment. Cameron may not be Peter Morgan, but he didn’t use to give such short shrift to character development. None of this has hurt the film at the box office. It may even be a plus with foreign audiences who are used to losing at least a little bit of the plot through translation. I hope though that doesn’t become a trend. I can too easily envision studio heads pruning the narrative of their tentpole pictures so nothing confuses the foreign markets.

I don’t think the script was underwritten deliberately on Cameron’s part. I think he just got caught up in the six legged horses and the helicopter lizards. The movie is 160 minutes as is and there’s apparently at least another hour that they cut out. Another trait of the 17 year old beginning sci-fi writer, he often gets lost in the minutiae of his own imagination.

So what would Avatar look like if it had been written by an experienced sci-fi writer in full command of his craft and not an enthusiast with more myth than drama in his literary toolbox? The answer is District 9. Avatar and District 9 tell basically the same story, human oppress aliens, human ends up defending aliens by becoming one. But there the similarities end. Where Avatar went for myth and idealization, District 9 went for drama and conflict. It took the difficult road at every turn. Instead of beautiful blue skinned aliens it gave us ugly insect like ones. Instead of a culture living in harmony and beauty, the Prawns lived in a trash filled shanty town (provided by the humans of course.) Instead of giving us a noble good hearted hero like Jake Sully, it gave us Wikus Van De Merwe who looks and acts like he walked out of a South African version of The Office. In short the writers of District 9 gave themselves challenges where they could have taken the easier path. When experienced writers talk about “killing your darlings” this is exactly what they mean. The result, District 9 is no where near as mythic as Avatar. People who bought tickets for District 9 had no clue what they were going to see exactly. I remember it took me a good 5 to 10 minutes before I realized that yes, Wikus was going to be our hero. District 9 doesn’t have a comforting ending or philosophy to share with the audience. By the end it’s quite possible that humanity is fucked. But it is one of the few original screen stories that could stand beside Heinlein and Asimov without apology. And if you really want to be a good WRITER, screen or prose, District 9 is the model you should emulate.

NO THE VISUALS DID NOT BLOW ME AWAY


Let me say that I am a movie super user. I see just about everything, in the theaters if I can or on DVD. In my original Hollyblog post I said that I wasn’t blown away by Avatar’s visuals. I’m not.

The film is not shot in anyway that accentuates the 3D effects. The foreground is almost completely ignored. There’s hardly a moment that really gives you an impression of how large Hometree is or how high up the floating mountains are. There’s certainly nothing that feels like you’re really on the back of a giant flying bird. Modern 3D, the mo-cap, the CGI, they’ve all been used for nearly a decade now yet you hear people, especially critics who should know better, gush about these things like it’s the first time they’ve seen them.

Maybe for a lot of people it IS the first time they’ve seen them. You look at the numbers coming in and there has to be a large number of people for whom this is a completely new experience. And even people who go to the movies don’t actually go to the movies. They treat it like their living room. Hey people, this is what you’ve been missing while you gab on your cell phones!

But for me, I don’t see this film as being the great technical leap forward people are crowing about. Pixar has been making movies entirely in a computer for decades. Some may argue that they weren’t as detailed as Avatar but that was deliberate. Pixar’s shown they could texture their characters and backgrounds much more realistically, they chose not to because it wasn’t appropriate for the aesthetic style of their movies. You could argue that Avatar is the first CGI drama where Pixar has only been making children’s cartoons. I’d say you really haven’t been paying attention to Pixar. Its stories are more adult than most so called dramas. People have attitudes that are completely backwards and based entirely on appearances. Up is cartoony therefore it is for kids, Avatar is realistic looking therefore it’s for adults. But try watching the first ten minutes of Up with your spouse or your parents or grandparents. Avatar doesn’t even come close to addressing those themes.

Most interestingly one of the comments to my blog, a fan, didn’t even bother to defend the film against my charge. Instead he said that was the point. Cameron deliberately held back his normal visual fireworks so it wouldn’t shock the audience or take them out of the story. Hmmm. Could be. Sort of like McDonalds serving billions of bland hamburgers around the world. I hope this doesn’t also become a trend. Movie studios clamping down on visual virtuosity because it might offend delicate eyeballs on the international market. I doubt that will happen. Directors are the big swinging dicks of Hollywood. The town may put up with writer’s being forced to deliver the 120 page equivalent of a cheeseburger. Tell the directors they can’t cut too fast or use their crane shots and there will be blood on the streets. Also, I’m a super user and as super user I can say that if a movie has to resort to CGI and 3D to suck you into its story and its world then it did something wrong.

But I don’t think this was a marketing ploy on Cameron’s part. I think he simply wasn’t at the top of his game in this instance.

Hear me out. Cameron’s game is considerable. If he never made it as a director he could have been one of the best DP’s in Hollywood. There are very few people as good as Cameron when it comes to lensing films, and certainly no one better. This man, if he didn’t invent the cinematic language of the modern action film he at least compiled it. Every action film since Terminator has used that film’s visual vocabulary. Michael Bay, Simon West, Jan De Bont, John McTiernan, they all should be paying royalties to Cameron for borrowing so much from his early work. T2 might be the pinnacle of his craft as a cinematographer. Nearly every frame is perfectly shot, lit, and composed.

Having said all that, you wouldn’t know the same man shot Avatar.

It’s not that it’s poorly shot, it's generically shot. The action in Avatar looks like it could have been shot by Michael Bay or any of the other action specialists. Now granted as I said, he is the man who invented the modern action movie, but Cameron has always been at the forefront of pushing that cinematic language to its fullest. James Cameron has created some the greatest action set pieces in film history. Yet Avatar’s climax easily ranks on the bottom of Cameron action scenes. Yeah I even put the mini sub chase in The Abyss ahead of the assault on the Tree of Souls.

What’s missing?

The element of real danger. Ever since Terminator Cameron’s films have been marked by a physicality born of real jeopardy. Stunt crews have wanted to beat him up. This is the man who dangled Jamie Lee Curtis out of helicopter and drowned Kate Winslet. In the past he’s pushed his films’ budgets by recreating gigantic practical sets. The Titanic had sunk a million times on the big and small screens but before Cameron no one had ever seen a near life sized mock up of the bow tilt all the way in the air with a hundred stunt people clinging to it. Cameron risked his own life often on his own shoots, nearly dying himself a couple of times. And when he wasn’t on set he’d drag race Gale Ann Hurd on Mulholland drive.

So what happens when you remove that element of danger? What happens when it’s all in the computer? You can still see some of that physical exertion in the screen, but this time it’s muted. There aren’t any of the hard edges or wince inducing impacts that are in T2 or True Lies. I think by his nature Cameron isn’t a guy to sit around directing a blue screen crew for six months straight. For somebody like Peter Jackson, playing around with computer images all day is perfectly okay. He can’t even shoot on a real ship because he gets seasick. But I picture Cameron sitting their quietly and wondering if there’s anyway to throw his blue suited dot covered actors out of a real plane. Mo-cap that, bitches! This was probably the safest, easiest shoot James Cameron ever had. But I imagine to him it felt like playing a bunch of videogames.

I kind of feel like the guy who said Dark Knight “was okay” or that Star Wars “wasn’t as bad I thought it would be.” Whatever I think or experienced in the theater a gigantic number of people love Avatar and you can never fully explain love. Where does it really come from? Why this and not that? If you could come up with a rational explanation then it really isn’t love. I’m not going to begrudge the lovers or the beloved. So go ahead and bask James Cameron and Avatar fans. You’ve given the world a new myth for our times.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Mutiple Lives

First a few announcements and updates.

Last post about script sites @CriticalTodd tweeted me and asked what are the sites most crawled by the industry. I’m sure somebody, somewhere is going to collect those stats and put them on the web (probably make a ton of money.) Unfortunately that guy ain’t me. @dawnbierschwal made a great case for VirtualPitchfest.com. I checked out the site and they do list the companies that use them. It is an impressive list. I also checked with one of my contacts. He doesn’t troll for scripts too much on the internet but when he does he uses Inktip.com. And Scriptpimp.com is one of the oldest such sites on the web. So there’s kind of an answer to the question.

Next I just want to mention that the third chapter of my on line Young Audience Fantasy novel The Hidden Kitchen is now posted. I hope you’ll all check it out. It’s one of my quirkier projects, a combo of Harry Potter, Steampunk, and one of my passions food and cooking.

Finally I’ll share a little bit with the projects I’m working on now. I’ve got a screenplay and a new novel in the works. Both are in the treatment stages. The treatment for the screenplay God of Hellfire is done and I’m just getting feedback from some trusted sources. It’s very tricky because one person really loves it, the other isn’t quite seeing it come together. Tough question, who do you go with? I’m still writing the treatment for the novel. I’m at ten pages single spaced and probably just halfway there. Hopefully this will make the actual writing that much quicker. I learned a great layering technique for writing a screenplay and now I can knock one out in a week if I have a finished treatment. Obviously a novel will take longer but we will see, won’t we.

This sort of dovetails to the main point of my post, which is always have a Next Project. After you’ve put the finishing touches to a script, bullet proofed it, proof read it, and sent it out into the wide world give yourself some time off then start writing again. It’ll keep you centered as you wait breathlessly for the agents and production companies to get back to you (assuming they ever do.) More importantly you’re a writer, and a writer writes. He doesn’t just write one story and then stops. If that’s the case are you a writer or a lawyer who wrote a single book/screenplay? It can be tough in the world of novels. It’s nearly impossible in the world of screenplays to survive on just one work. Agents want to represent writers. They want to know you’ll have a long career that will make you both a lot of money. And it can take a long time to really build up a career. A near miss here, an ultra low budget film there. Think of it like a video game with multiple levels and bosses at each level. It’s rare that you will get all the way through the game on single life your first time. If you can it wasn’t a very hard game and believe me Hollywood is an extremely tough game to play. You need multiple lives. By lives I mean scripts.

The problem with some new writers is they get tunnel vision on a particular project. Especially when they start out. It was so hard getting that first one done they can’t imagine having to go through that again and again. Or maybe they really are totally invested in this one story. It’s something very close to there hearts and they’ve poured a lifetime of experience into the script. That’s not something that can be duplicated again and again.

I’ve blogged about this before here and here It’s tough to get just one story made. The amount of effort and pure luck that goes into getting any movie made is incredible. It’s hard for everything to line up correctly. If you have more than one project you can be more flexible. When opportunity breaks you’re in a better position to take advantage of it.

If you love to write I don’t have to tell you this. If this really is in your bones then you should never stop. It should be impossible. You should be all jittery and unbalanced when you don’t write. An Irish poet once said “I’m a drunk with a writing problem.” That’s we all have, or should have, a writing problem. We can’t stop. So make that problem work for you and keep on writing. Keep on giving yourself extra lives. Eventually, if you’re playing the game correctly, you’ll break through to the final level.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Getting Ready PART 5 Setting Your Sites

First I want to give a shout out to Steve Janas, a filmmaker in Philadelphia. Steve was first client in my attempt at being a manager. See here for some of the details. Incidentally if any of you are thinking about becoming a manager don’t do it unless you already have at least 10 or 20 contacts in as many agencies and production companies. Calling up a company and saying you’re a manager doesn’t automatically open up doors.

Well Steve has pushed on and has started a new project called Trashed. I’ve read the script and it is great, a harrowing true life story of addiction. Catch the trailer for it here. I wish him the best of luck. He’s currently looking for financing which can be a bitch.

This is indirectly related to my topic for today which is screenplay sites. I’ve recently had a lot of people ask me about various sites that provide access to industry professionals. For those of you unfamiliar they are online databases where you put in your script name, genre, and a logline. Industry people can then log on and view your submission then ask to see it if they are interested. When I started out I used a few. I actually did get contacted about the scripts I put in there. One contact actually went pretty far and I got optioned.

It was a no money option meaning I didn’t see any money until production was ready to start. Since the project never got off the ground I never got paid. But that’s something for another time.

The question is whether or not these sites are worth your time and their registration fees. I think they can be useful. Go to ScriptPimp.com, they list their success stories on the side. But the problem is with these sites it is a very passive approach to getting your name and your work out there. Now to be fair, I haven’t seriously looked at any of these sites in years. Maybe they’ve become more proactive. Maybe some are like Match.com and actively try to set you up with a producer or agent looking for material.

And they’re always looking for material. That’s how even a passive approach can be successful. My friends in the industry are constantly scouring every resource available to find new talent, websites included.

But many of these avenues are the equivalent of the slush pile at a magazine. Your script gets thrown in with all the others. You really need every advantage you can find. You need to be as proactive about your own career as possible. Even a little thing like personalizing a query to an agency can make all the difference. When you submit to a site you have no way of knowing who might read your entry. The person who reads it might be interested in your pitch, but in the back of his mind he’s wondering how serious you are about your career.

If on the other hand you take the time to research the company you’re submitting to, take the time to find out to the name of the person you’re submitting to, what they’re looking for, what they’ve done in the past (very important to get this correct!) and how your script fits in to all that. Then you’ve already made yourself stand out from the legion of people who just put stuff out on the web at random.

So go ahead and use the sites. They're iffy but chance plays a part in every success. Take a shot into the ether and see what happens. But don’t rely on them as a substitute for good old fashioned sweat and effort. It really does make a difference in the end.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Getting Ready PART 4 Going Back to Cali

Going back to last week’s scriptchat this one is for kingisafink, AKA the fabulous filmmaking duo of Julie Keck and Jessica King who asked “If you have the chance to spend 3 months in LA with a handful of scripts, what's the best way to use that time?”

A very tricky question and one that has a very different answer for Ms. Keck and Ms. King than it does for the average aspiring screenwriter.

First let’s answer the question for the average screenwriter looking for his break. There’s usually two ways of getting that big break, from in LA and from outside LA. From outside LA it’s like lobbing artillery shells from long range. You write scripts, enter it in contests, send out queries, and occasionally attending conferences and pitchfests. Inside LA is relatively easier. You make contacts and learn the business by getting jobs and internships or sometimes just by hanging out. The 3 month period sort of combines the drawbacks of both with the benefits of neither. Actors often head to LA for 3 months out of the year because there’s something called pilot season and you can generally get an audition just by showing up and having a pulse. There is no pilot season for undiscovered writers.

3 months is not enough time to get acclimated to the city, its geography, its traffic, its neighborhoods. 3 months in you’ll still be looking at a map to tell you how to get from Burbank to Hollywood to Culver City. It sure isn’t enough time to find work in the industry. There’s a chance you could scoop up an internship your first week there. They generally last only a few months. But the odds are against that happening and you’d be leaving just as things were starting to make sense. Meanwhile you’re out of your comfort zone and probably finding it hard to write or concentrate on your scripts. When I first moved out, I think it was about my fourth month before I really tackled anything new. And if you think agents and managers are more willing to see you just because you’re in LA, you’re in for a wake up call.

There is a way you CAN make a 3 month trip to LA payoff big time but only if you’ve done your prep time in advance. You should already have people to see before you take off. You should already have people who are interested in you as a writer or as a person or both waiting for you in LA. You should have contacts. You don’t have any contacts? Get some. Check out the local filmmaking clubs or your Alma Mater. Those are good places to start. There’s always this internet thing. It’s all about making connection. Hell, it’s past time people used chat rooms for good!

Seriously my mom got Julie and Julia for Christmas and I watched it with her and what I learned is that one of the most famous celebrities of the 20th Century got her start with the help of her pen pal whom she’d never met face to face until she came to New York. And that was back in the days of pen and paper correspondence.

Aside from social networking you should be professionally networking. Every pitch you make at a pitchfest, every query letter you send out isn’t just an attempt to get your script read it’s an attempt at making a contact. Even if they reject you, you want to make enough of an impression that they want to see more from you.

Also you can do yourself a favor by timing your 3 month trip to coincide with the major pitchfests and screenwriting conferences that occur there. You may also want to check out Jeff Gund’s infolist and the Sherwood Oaks Experimental College for their lists of networking events in LA.

Now here is how King and Keck are different. They are filmmakers with actual films in the can and out in festivals. They’re not just aspiring screenwriters, they’re aspiring writer/directors, the pinnacle of the Hollywood writing career alongside TV showrunner. And while every single person in LA has a screenplay, not everyone has a completed film (although the percentage has increased since Youtube.) Agents and managers who might snort at meeting unknown writers aren’t so easy to dismiss unknown directors. If they have any festival honors, that would increase they’re chances. Then there’s always the expensive definitely attention getting tactic of renting a small theater and showing their films. (Dear Julie and Jessica, if you do go this route, don’t skimp on the publicity. If a tree falls in the woods and nobody hears it…)

Finally they would do well to schedule a few meetings with some publicists. Again unknown screenwriters are nothing special but undiscovered filmmakers are a different story. Publicists can be expensive but so is staying in LA for 3 months.

Julie and Jessica, good luck with your trip and enjoy the sunshine. Unless you go in June in which case there won’t really be any. I’d explain but you’ll find out when you get there.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Getting Ready PART 3 When to Send

This post is for the lovely Mina Zaher AKA DreamsGrafter who asks “When is a script ready to be sent out?”

It’s ready when it’s ready.

Don’t like that one.

Okay, first off you have to make sure there’s nothing really wrong with the script. But that goes deeper than just eliminating the obvious flaws; typos and formatting errors, tin ear dialogue, boring or annoying characters, tired plot devices, slow pacing. These are easy to spot by anyone with even a little bit of talent or experience. But once you get rid of all the easy to spot bad stuff, once you’re no longer bad, well that just means you’re average. And you have to be more than average. You need to be at least above average in all areas to have a chance of getting a CONSIDER. That’s the biggest hurdle going from merely competent, merely good to being really great.

And it’s something new writers struggle with or openly rebel against. They look at what’s being produced and say, “Why do I have to be so damn great? Look at all these hacks.”

True. There are hacks. Plenty of them. That’s the problem. We don’t need anymore. You have to prove that you’re not a hack. That you’ve got the potential at least to be something great.

So how do you go from good to great? If there was a surefire method, I’d be Quentin Tarantino by now. But here are a few things I have learned:

CHARACTERS: They must pop off the page. This is the most important thing next to concept. The best way to make us care about your story is to make us care about the characters. This is where so many writers come up short. They go for an everyman character and make him boring. They try to write somebody edgy and end up pissing off readers. Really good characters should be like your best friends, they may have their faults but there are reasons you keep hanging out and having a good time with them. That’s what I want when I read a screenplay. If I’m going to spend two hours plus with these characters I want to like them. And don’t give me that pseudo serious macho artist argument that you’re writing a horror or a bleak Michael Haneke style drama. Look up this IO9 article on how great horror (or bleakness) is heartbreaking. Instead of killing off your jerk face boss or the guy who stole your lunch money, start killing off your own friends and family. See how tough you are then.

CONCEPT: How are we going to sell this story? That’s going to be the first question an agent or producer asks if he’s interested in your script. Unfortunately it’s often the last question writers ask themselves. If you’ve gone to a pitchfest and seen others strike out time and again at the tables, that’s because they haven’t really thought about their story as product to be sold. And when they do they think in clichéd bad Madison Avenue terms. They try sticking as many adjectives to their long line in an effort to make it colorful. They try and create an MTV like montage of images that might not have anything to do with the main story. The best ideas sell themselves. The best commercials are the ones that tell you what you’re selling and why you should buy it. Is your logline, unadorned with any fancy adjectives, compelling? This really throws people off because it goes down to the bones of their story, even past structure. Contrary to what you may have heard, not every story can be made into an exciting logline. They don’t focus enough or they reuse a common set up. This doesn’t mean the story itself is bad. It might actually be quite good and well executed. It just means that its not very sellable and that’s a huge problem.

STORY: Here’s where the advice gets vague again. There are so many variables involved that it’s hard to cover them all. But the most important ones are:

Personal Stakes:
Your main character must have a deeply personal connection to the story. This can’t just be something he tries on a lark. This ties your best asset, your character directly to the narrative structure. Remember, plot and conflict is nothing more than a physical manifestation of the main character’s inner conflict. That’s an old lesson but everyone needs to be reminded of it.

Visual Storytelling:
As I said in scriptchat you’re not the director. Don’t write a shooting script. On the other hand don’t write a stage play either. This is a visual medium and you have to tell your story visual terms without it turning into a set of instructions for the DP. This isn’t really anything you haven’t heard in High School creative writing classes. Show, don’t tell is the mantra and that goes double for screenplays.

Brevity is the Soul of Wit:
Also an old High School chestnut. Don’t spend time describing every object on a desk, say the desk of a neat freak with lifetime supply of sterile wipes. Keep dialogue fast and clipped. This ties in with visual storytelling as a picture can say a thousand words. And you’ll need as many shortcuts as possible because…

The 10, 10, 10 Rule: Here’s the tough news. Most execs or more accurately the assistants who work for them don’t read the entire script. They’ll read the first 10 pages. Then if those are good they’ll read 10 pages in the middle. Then if they’re still interested they’ll read 10 pages at the end. Based on that they’ll write their review. Tough news but there it is. You as a writer have to be aware of that by writing 10 great pages in the beginning. If you’ve structured correctly the middle 10 will contain a vital scene that will spur the action on to the next half of the screenplay. And of course you should always end with a bang. But that first 10 is the most important. You have to blow them away. And by blow them away don’t fill it with a meaningless action sequence. You have those first 10 pages to make a reader fall in love with your characters, be wowed by your premise, and be totally invested in your story.

There we go, the best advice I can give to you on when your script is ready for the big time. It’s no guarantee. There aren’t any. But this will give you your best chances.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Getting Ready Part 2

The query.

So you’ve written a screenplay and you’ve taken the time to get it covered, proofread and otherwise bullet proofed.

Now what?

That’s the question that can ruin your day. After months of hard work and some hard earned cash invested, you now have either your ticket to Hollywood or a doorstop. What do you do next?

Well time to call up your contacts in the industry and-

You don’t have any contacts. Hmm. Okay, well getting contacts should be a long term career goal of any aspiring screenwriter. Get yourself a copy of How to Make Friends and Influence People. Because that’s all a contact is, a friend who happens to work in the industry. Nothing fancy about it.

But that can take a while.

There’s contests. There are always contests. Several of my writer friends who have reps still enter contests for reasons that we’ll get to.

Want something even more pro-active? Well then it’s time to break out the query letter. Head on over to Amazon.com and order yourself the latest edition of the Hollywood Representation Directory or if you really have the stones for it the Hollywood Creative Directory which lists production companies.

There are phone numbers but I would really recommend query letters or emails unless you are a super duper, ninth degree phone salesman.

So what do you put in a query? Here’s a list of attention getters in order of importance.

BASED ON A BESTSELLER NOVEL (or videogame or comic book): Sounds like I’m cheating, but hey this is the top branch on the decision tree. If there’s already a proven market they will be interested. It’s rare, but if you’ve got this 800 pound gorilla on your side, use it immediately. It should be the first line in your query after Dear Whomever.

I’M A SYNDICATED COLUMNIST: You can also put “Regular Contributor to the Huffington Post/Other Top Website” or “My Blog is one of the top 25 viewed on the Web.” You have a national audience, or at least that’s what it implies. That’s brilliant. When somebody asks “who’s this clown” your potential rep/producer can provide them a link to your latest rant. Again this demonstrates that any time invested in you will not be completely wasted. Mention it in the right off the bat.


BASED ON A NOVEL: So you sold a novel but it isn’t a bestseller. That’s usually a bad sign but all is not lost. At the very least you write well enough to get paid for it. For this reason alone self publishing and vanity press is a no go. What’s the big whoop in impressing yourself? Maybe your publishing house was too small. Maybe you weren’t wise in the ways of self promotion. It’s okay. You still qualify as a professional and that should get a few parties interested. Mention this right off the bat, make sure to mention the publisher so they know it isn’t a vanity press.

BASED ON A TRUE STORY: Still a very powerful selling point. If you’re not directly involved with the incident make sure you specify that you have secured the rights and have all the signed documents (put that part towards the end of the query. You want to tell them a story not a deposition) And please, please, please make sure it’s a true story WORTH telling.

CONTEST WINNER OR FINALIST: Depending on the contest you can go deeper into the rounds. A Nicholls semi-finalist is still pretty impressive. Yes this does decrease your chances of getting a particular script produced, but it is still one of the better door openers around.

A KILLER LOGLINE: This is really the meat of your query. The logline. It’s really the screenwriter’s Swiss army knife in that it can serve so many functions both during and after writing your screenplay. To me it’s the heart of the pitch. Is your story, boiled down to just two or three sentences, really compelling, iconic and easy to visualize? Really if you have nothing else, and your logline is really, really good, someone will give your script a read.

PERTINENT EXPERIENCE: Pop quiz. Pretend you’re a junior exec and you receive two query letters, both are pitching crime thrillers. One is written by a kid working as a barista at a Starbucks in the mall. The other is by a 10 year veteran of the Detroit homicide unit. Which catches your eye all else being equal?

EDUCATION: An MFA in screenwriting from USC, UCLA or NYU is impressive. Other colleges are offering screenwriting and film studies tracks. They may not be as impressive as the big three just yet, but they still count as an accomplishment.

MISCELLANEOUS INTRIGUING FACTOIDS: Preferably related to the script. Maybe there’s some article in the NY Times that just happens to cover your subject matter or some other cosmic coincidence. Lastly of all you should include little factoids about yourself. The main point of your query should be your screenplay but you’re also trying to sell yourself. This should not take over your query but a few lines at the end to make yourself stand out can be a good thing.

The rest of the query should be devoted to your story. Expand a little bit on the logline, but don’t go overboard. Remember brevity is the soul of wit. Never more so than with a query letter.

Finally I need to stress this point…

DON’T EVER, EVER LIE

Don’t say you met at a conference months ago if you didn’t really. Don’t say “you requested this script at such and such pitchfest” if it didn’t happen. People do keep notes on that kind of thing. My favorite lie of all time went something like this,

“I’m really a big time producer. I’m submitting this screenplay under a fake name to see what you really think of it.”

Be professional. You get marked every time you send something in. Unless you want your name to be associated with the words, “desperate” and “liar” always be straight up. Never misrepresent the facts.

After you’ve sent out your queries, time to wait. It can be a bruising process. You collect rejections or never hear back from the majority of people. But hopefully you can get enough read requests. Then the script has to do its job.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Getting Ready PART 1

Had a great #scriptchat yesterday. Much thanks to Jeannevb, Yeah_write, DreamsGrafter and ZacSanford for a busy but wonderful evening.
Click here for the transcript!

But there’s so much still to be said and to cover.

I’m going to pick up with something that I was only able to touch on last night. DreamsGrafter asked, “DreamsGrafter: In 140 characters, what makes a winning script?”

My answer was, “Format/typos, Concept/logline, Characters, Dialogue, Story, Structure, Pacing, Style/Tone, Theme, and Marketability”

To which mckormickastley tweeted back “That's cheating, like saying everything - what hooks a script for you?”

That’s the problem. A lot of things can grab your attention, from a piece of dialogue, to a character, to an action scene, to just the title. But hooking isn’t the same as reeling it in. If you’re strong in one area but weak in another you miss the YES pile and end up in the MAYBE pile. You land on the MAYBE pile, chances are you’re going to end up being pushed to the NO by somebody else. Somebody who took the time to work on each facet of the script. That’s called bulletproofing and you really need to bulletproof your script before you send it in.

Do other people have to do this? No, obviously. So many movie projects don’t even start with a completed screenplay. They get a hot property, a name actor and throw 250K at some writer to come up with something. They won’t be throwing it your way. At least not until you log a bulletproof script into their databases first.

That’s why it’s a good idea to get a reader. Script Department, StoryPros, and ,not to sound completely self serving, but yours truly. Contests that offer feedback are a good two for one deal. The only problem is you have to wait months to get notes back usually. After you’ve put The End on your masterpiece you need to get some objective idea of the strengths and weaknesses. What do you still have to work on? We’re a critical bunch but if you can get a RECOMMEND on your coverage you’re in good shape.

Of course that’s just part of the process. But that’s for another post.

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