December 11, 2009

FLATTERY WILL GET YOU EVERYWHERE

Okay, so one of the winners of the Champion Competition told me that the reason he came 2,000 miles to my weekend class was because of my article on The Edge. And it's because of my classes: 8 straight days of A-List: The Immersion that I haven't been able to post. So I thought I would post a link to the article that he liked.

Logical?  No.

Good article?  Yes.

Tonight or tomorrow I wil post the winners at the Champion Blog.

November 23, 2009

THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A MOTIF AND A PROP

I have been hesitating to write this blog because I can’t study the scene from Inglourious Basterds because it isn’t out on DVD yet. I may do things illegally on the downlow but I don’t do illegal downloads. But since this is just a blog, I can be sloppy, vague and maybe even wrong, right? Well, if I am, I promise you will still learn something.

IB is actually an example of a movie that succeeds (or fails) mostly on the scene level. This movie isn’t about the “structure”. If you are engaged by the several long mini-story scenes, then the movie works for you. If not, it probably doesn’t. So I want to look at one of the most fascinating scenes in the movie. It’s the one where Hans (the “Jew Hunter”) talks to Shosanna at the restaurant to vet her for the movie premiere to be held at her theater.

This scene has a lot of really high-end craft stuff that excites the film school geek and art-film lover in me. The way Tarantino plays with point-of-view is amazing.

FROM THE SCRIPT:

The empty chair next to the young Jewish girl is suddenly filled with the bottom half of a grey ss officer uniform


In the script, Tarantino has him sit down almost immediately, but by allowing him to stay standing up, we get a cool allusion to the opening scene. In the film Tarantino chooses to hold on the isolated CU of Shosanna while only Landa’s uniform can be seen behind her.

CU SHOSANNA


A bomb is dropped and detonated behind her eyes. But if she gives any indication of this, her war story ends here.

Although it’s a bit of a cheat, the moment is done so well that I forgive it. It’s not a gimmick or a stretch that she would recognize the voice of the man who executed her family. It echoes the opening scene but this time we get to see “it” from Shosanna’s POV. Earlier, she was offscreen and had to quietly and helplessly listen to Landa.

There is another little cheat.

FROM THE SCRIPT (his typos):

The fluency and poetic proficiency of the S.S. Jew hunters French, revels to the audience, that his feigning clumsiness at French with Monsieur Lapadite in the films first scene, was simply a interrogation technique.

Sadly, my four years of French in high school weren't enough for me to “get” this on my first viewing. It shows Tarantino’s considerable craft. It’s a clever demonstration of Landa’s character. Tarantino seemed to intend it to be for the audience and not for the characters themselves. But it’s possible that Landa's fluency could actually play in the scene. It would be an additional source of surprise and, possibly, fear for Shosanna in the scene.

Imagine this. She comments on his fluent French. He asks her to clarify why she would suspect that he speaks proficiently. And then she would have to cover by diverting attention from the fact that she has heard him speak before. Tarantino could have easily used this not just for the audience, for the characters.

INFORMAL DEFINITION ALERT

Actually, this question of whether his fluent French is recognized by her or just the audience, is a way to look at the definition and differences of motifs and props.

A motif is an image or idea something that has cumulative power from rhyming with a collection of other images or ideas like it. It may be the way that “eyes” and “seeing” are used in Silence of the Lambs or flawed eyes in Chinatown. It might even be the way oranges or the color orange shows up in The Godfather before most of the deaths. Motifs are there for the viewer or maybe even the reader. They aren’t there for the characters in the story. No character in The Godfather should be able to say “Orange! Boss, duck!” although maybe a henchman ordering Chinese takeout could ask, “Orange Duck, Boss?” (What? It could happen.)

A “prop” in the metaphysical sense of anything physically in the world of the story differs from a motif in that the characters are very much aware of it. It might be the expensive dress the wife has just bought with the husband’s credit card. It might be the murder weapon. It might be the bill at the restaurant over which two people argue. That item is part of the scene, story and the characters react to it.

Sometimes a motif and prop can overlap. Two characters with a chain link fence between them have to deal with the fence as a physical obstacle (reaching fingers through, being frustrated by inability to achieve physical contact) but the fence might also represent something bigger in the story: separation, being trapped, the nature of the relationship. And it might rhyme with other images of consriction. If I were watching a movie where three consecutive murders all happened in a red room, the appearance of another red room would have some effect on me. But if I were the character of the detective in that red room and I knew the pattern, I might also be suspicious or anxious. Why didn’t Brad Pitt in Se7en say, “If I don’t get to anger management class and FAST, I could be in big trouble”?

In the scene from IB, Tarantino has another really clever touch that walks this prop/motif line. While Landa is interrogating/talking to Shosanna, he orders milk and cream. I immediately got off on this in a film school geek sort of way. I get the irony that she was a dairy farmer and it is someone like her family that made or provided the milk for this cream. And the glass of milk harks back to the opening scene.

FROM THE SCRIPT:

COL LANDA: Yes, two strudels, one for myself and one for the Mademoiselle. A cup of Expresso, with a container of steamed milk, on the side. For the Mademoiselle, a glass of milk.

Considering Shosanna grew up on a dairy farm an the last time she was on a dairy farm, her strudel companion murdered her entire famiy, his ordering her milk is, to say the least….disconcerting.

We probably get it without the 4-line (in the script) cheat, but Tarantino is so effective in making all of these ideas and images resonate, I don’t mind it. It seems that the usage of the cream here is definitely as a motif, i.e., as a Christmas tree ornament for the audience only. There are several cuts to close-ups of the dairy in the scene, but (I believe on my 2 viewings) the characters don’t react to it at all. It’s only there as an extra layer of meaning, irony and stakes for us, the viewer and reader.

Just like his proficiency in French wasn’t recognized by Shosanna, but could have been, we can ask a similar question here. Could the cream be used as prop and not just a motif? I was careful not to ask the question with should. I am not judging (Myers-Briggs: I am at least 99% P, I swear); I don’t judge. I am about the process. And here the process is “what if?” What if Tarantino used this fact in the scene for the characters, not just the audience?

Could Shosanna look at the milk or cream and get flustered? Or would it distract her at a key point in the scene? Could she have to determine whether or not it’s a ploy by him? I am not saying that it takes over the scene but notice that it would be an organic reaction very much within the character, her background, her familiarity with dairy and its association with the milk-drinking nazi who gunned her family down.

I think because we have already seen Landa have the upper hand in an interrogation in the opening scene (where he asked for milk), then it might be redundant to do it again here. But at least be aware of what a powerful tool it would be to have him use her reaction to the cream as way to put pressure on her or call her bluff might seem a bit redundant.

There is a cool moment in Ronin when a guy knocks over a thermos to force another guy to catch it. This seemingly physically unassuming guy betrays lightning quick reflexes in grabbing it and we AND THE CHARACTER realize that this was a calculated trap to out him. The cream could be a way to Landa out Shosanna.

This sort of paradigmatically powerful moments is one of the most densely packed moments in recent film. It’s one of those moments where so much is going on that it’s almost mind boggling. It reminds me of two of my favorite moments in cinema: when Noah Cross asks "Mr. Gitts" in Chinatown if he is sleeping with his daughter and the opening of Midnight Cowboy. (Hey, I just got ideas for more blogs!)

I am surprised that some more of the elements of the scene didn’t rise up from the unconscious world of motifs to the conscious world of props, but IB is done and over. You now have to ask questions about your scenes to help them dig deeper AND be more cinematic? Are there images or items I can add to the scene to make it resonate more? Do these elements have thematic meaning? Do the characters respond to them? If not, could they? Do the characters’ responses help to define them? Is the characters’ interaction with the element/prop/motif the only way for the audience to understand this subtle point?

There is so many cool and advanced stuff – points of views, motifs, allusions - going on in the IB scene that make it exciting. Make sure you aim as high. How high? Check out the name of the blog.

November 5, 2009

DAMN IT, JIM, I AM A CONTEST ENTRANT NOT A CONTEST ADDICT

A long time (okay, yesterday), I suggested a way to evaluate screenwriting competitions from a more mathematical and logical perspective. If that was a little too Mr. Spock for you, there is another way to look at the equation. From Bones’ perspective. Take logic out of it.

It wasn’t just an arbitrary comparison or Freudian slip when I likened a contest to a poker hand. There is definitely an element of chance and excitement in contests. When I wrote the unused foreword to Erik Joseph’s book on screenwriting contests years ago (Curse thee, unknown writer of said foreword!), I talked about gamblng addiction. It’s never about winning or losing the coin toss; it’s about the moment when the coin is in the air and the butterflies in the stomach and the anticipation and excitement just knowing that you COULD win.

Contests are the same way. If they can help you enjoy this sometimes lonely and always rejection-filled process of writing screenplays by giving you something to look forward to, then figure out your, as they call it in poker, bankroll: What you are willing to risk on contests.  Even losing poker players can have an appropriate bankroll: The amount of money they are willing to lose in spending X hours of their life doing something they enjoy.

But Yikes, Jim, how do I know whether I should be signing up for WAB or GA? Hmm, well, if you’re an aspiring writer and spent $2000 on contest entry fees last year and advanced in none of them, listen to me. It’s intervention time:

Step away from the Internet Explorer Window that is open to Withoutabox, put down the mouse. I repeat, put down the mouse.
If you are having less than a 10% advance rate in contests, put your money and time into books, classes, consultants, coverage or notes. Here are some free resources from me: howtowriteascreenplay.net, my newsletter. You can find all other sorts of help on the web. And if you are going to take a big step into an expensive class or program or a high-end consultant, make sure you do some due diligence. Get a sample, look for testimonials, talk to former students/clients/graduates, read articles or watch their DVDS.  (What?  I didn't plug anything.)

But if you are having some moderate success even without winning, embrace the fact that it should be fun. Check out boards like Moviebytes (ignore some of the crazies) and the Done Deal forums and use them as a way to connect with other writers who have advanced or entered the same contests as you. As an extrovert who writes, I know it’s sometimes HARD to block out the impulse to be talking and hanging out with other people when you’re supposed to be, ah, interacting with your keyboard. Use the social aspects of contests as a reward for your time spent immersed in the interior fantasyland of your story and the writing thereof.

And if a deadline, a $50 entry fee and the hope of praise, promotion and money that you will get from a decent placement or win motivates you to write (or rewrite) a script, then we’re back to no-brainer territory: enter some contests. Of course, there might be a diminishing marginal utility in entering several, but the intangible (or arguably tangible) value in motivating you to write is worth much more than a few entry fees. If you find yourself in this scenario, you (cue: new age music) have already won.

As a storyteller, I am supposed to pay off the Kirk/Bones/Spock thing, right? Well, try to be like Captain Kirk. Use a little logic and a little emotion to come up with a sensible strategy. Remember the coin flip thing. Until the coin lands and the contest decides, there is excitement. So when you are a quarterfinalist, use that energy to query people and create momentum. Or if you meet some cool people who are also quarterfinalists for scripts of similar tone or genre, swap notes. Or use the deadlines to force yourself to finish a rewrite.

Contests are a game where there is a lot of luck involved. Unlike chess, it’s a game of imperfect information and chance. I could teach a 7 year old kid how to beat the best Monopoly player in the world 20 percent of the time. But I can't teach an Oscar winner how to advance in every contest.  You will always have to deal with some readers who don’t “get” your script. So don’t get down when a contest doesn’t go your way. Try to think of it like any other game. The goal is to have fun. Everything else is a bonus.

November 4, 2009

CONTESTS: LEFT BRAIN, RIGHT BRAIN, NO-BRAINER

Heather Hale did a cool article about screenwriting contests in the last issue of Craft & Career, so I just wanted to add my 2 cents and give you a certain way to look at contests. Full disclosure: I have won a couple of contests, been in contention a handful of times and I started or helped to start 3 contests and I wrote a foreword to Erik Joseph’s book on contests, but alas the publisher used a different one.

In this blog I will look at a way to look at contests from a mathematical and logical perspective and then in couple of days, I will follow up with a way to look at contests in a more emotional way. Is either way correct? Nah. It’s like who’s the coolest character? Spock or Bones? Neither, it’s Kirk, the guy who is an integration of the logic and emotion. (reminder: blog about character orchestration sometime) Like Kirk, you must use your left and right brain to protect the 400 people on the ship, uh, I mean, your screenplay contest budget.

On a cold and calculating level, you can look at contests like a poker hand, a calculated risk. It’s a pure mathematical equation of EV (Expected Value). “If I spend $50 to enter and so do 999 other people and the only prize is $50,001 for first place and my odds of winning are 1 in a 1000, then it’s a good risk for me.” If the grand prize is only $25,000, the question to ask is simply, “Do I have a better than 500:1 shot to win this contest?” If so, then it’s a good deal from a pure mathematical point of view.

You can modify this equation in several ways. The Nicholl Fellowship gives away $150,000 but since it gets more than 5000 entries, the math doesn’t work out to give it a positive expected value for every entrant. But if you are sure you are better than half the writers that enter (or are sure that your material is the sort that fits their taste(check out Scriptshadow’s review of recent Nicholl winner Victoria Falls)) and are willing to ride out the element of luck and chance, then it’s a great deal. (You only have to be a little bit better than the average entrant to make it +EV.) 

But you may even factor in the fact that, say, 5 percent of the people are going to be a semifinalist and for your ability to promote that fact if you win is worth $2,000. Even if you are only a 5% chance to make the semifinals, your expected value just from making the semifinals is .05 X $2000 which is $100. So from a mathematical standpoint, entering this contest is a no-brainer.  (Do the math with the real numbers and your own estimation of the value.)  The priceless (IMHO) nature of getting into the Sundance Lab is why I keep banging my head up against that wall of "almost."   Curse you, John Leguizamo!

You can also use this principle for contests that offer other prizes. In your calculations, consider the cash at 100% of its value obviously and then assign a subjective percentage to the other prizes. Maybe the $5000 in notes, classes and promotion is really worth only about 50% of the retail value to you in your subjective opinion. So add the cash value plus the adjusted prize value to determine your overall potential gain versus the number of entrants and your predicted chance to win.

An obvious corollary to this approach is that if you are a very good amateur writer and your script is a professional read (tight and polished) and fits the scope of the contest’s tastes, then many contests are worth entering from the perspective of expected gains. I know a few writers who made a living off of contests for a couple of years because their stuff was really good and they entered a lot of contests. Have faith that quality will eventually get noticed. (However, if your script fails to advance in 4-5 contests in a row, think about putting some of your contest resources into verifying your script is ready to go.)

The Nicholl isn’t a profit making endeavor; their money comes from a trust, so that’s why they can be so generous. But contests run by companies that can use their promotional power to generate a bunch of additional prizes can also be really worth it. If a company is giving away $20,000 in seats to a class or event you really want to attend, then that can be really valuable too.

Not every contest by this method will be wonderful, but you can use this approach to sort of determine the ones to stay away from. If a contest gets 4000 scripts at $50 a pop and gives away only $15,000 in cash, you gotta break it down and ask yourself where is the money going? $200,000 in revenue, $40,000 to readers, $15,000 to prizes, $10,000 to administration, maybe $10,000 in advertising? That leaves $115,000 unaccounted for. Do you want to enter this contest? I don’t. I want them to give away another $25k in cash or do some work and find another $50,000 in decent prizes.

As I mentioned, I have been involved with several contests and have entered several contests, so I am not going to make any judgments or point out what contests score well or poorly in this paradigm. Just giving you some ways to think about it.

I am currently reading the last 25 feature quarterfinalists for the Champion Competition (retail value of prizes =net revenue (entry fees minus Withoutabox fees)), so expect some news in a few days. I will take a break from reading in a day or two to discuss an alternate way to look at contests: from an emotional perspective.

October 31, 2009

BLOCKBUSTERS: TAKE THE BEST, LEAVE THE REST

Sorry, I was away for a while.  I had a Film Analysis and Scene Workshop on the East Coast and then had to catch up with a few clients and am finishing up the last 30 features for the Champion Contest.

I was giving a talk about blockbuster films at an Apple Store the night before my class and I asked people what they loved about the HUGEly successul films - Star Wars, Titanic, Spider Man, Finding Nemo, etc. - and suprisingly I got one person who said "the action" and then the other responded with these facets: character, theme, good conquering evil, clever set ups, dialogue, likeability of characters.  And it was like I expected: the huge spectacle aspect is not the first thing people remember about these films.

And taking that as a cue... I think it's important to remember that what some teachers teach about the blockbusters is sort of irrelevant.  Why?  I will answer it in much greater detail and with supporting data in an upcoming blog but you, the aspiring writer with no major credits, aren't going to be the one to write them.  (Two specs in top 40 US all-time box office: Hangover (pre-packaged with successful director) and Sixth Sense)  And you aren't going to sell a script that could only be made for $200,000,000.  So from a practical career perspective, it doesn't make sense to write an unmakeable and unsellable script other than as a writing sample or maybe to win contests.  Or because you just want to.

However, there is a boat- (or butt-) load of talented filmmakers and great storytelling in that top 40.  So I think writers would be alot better off learning some of the principles behind this storytelling without trying to emulate all aspects of it.  Here is an exanple.  Check out one of the coolest action scenes in a long time and a set-piece of a movie that cost 2 jillion dollars to make.  Here is the scene in LOTR:ROTK where Legolas single-handedly takes down the elephant-like beastie...



THE SCENE STARTS AT AROUND 2:27

The real beauty of this moment is not the scope and the huge landscape on which this plays out but the cleverness of the beats.  If you're a beginning writer, don't worry so much if your story has 6 new races, 4 new species of animals, 4 warring factions, magic users of different levels, 14 doubles, dragons, mammoths, magical swords, etc...  What you can REALLY take from Mr. Jackson and his writing partners Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens is a respect for how much damn cleverness and cool and surprising beats there are in about a minute of film time.

Here are most of the beats, escalations and surprises:
  1. Counting their kills.  A bit of humor
  2. Someone calls upon Legolas, raising suspense...why is he the one to deal with this beast?
  3. Mario Bros, way of getting on the beast
  4. Swinging to back legs.
  5. Using arrows as ladder
  6. Swinging from rope
  7. Cutting rope
  8. Riding up as the thing falls
  9. Watching the people discover that they are going overboard and then watching them go
  10. Deftly avoids attackers and arrows while perched on beast's back and even shoots some enemies
  11. Since we already saw him use arrows....he reaches into quiver and SURPRISE his bow has THREE arrows in it....kills the beast
  12. Skateboards down the trunk as it collapses
  13. Dwarf says that only counts as one.  Downplaying the awesomness of what we just witnessed.
  14. Did I miss any?
Great sitcoms have this rule of having at least 3 jokes per page.  Imagine this scene on its page or page-and-a-half (it's only about a minute long).  Circle the "jokes" - the really cool and clever and inspired moments.  You have a circle every inch.  There are no generic beats.  Everything is linked to the character and the physical environment.  The arrows for ladders, riding the rope up.  There is no repetition.  He uses his bow AGAIN to kill it but there is a twist, something new: THREE ARROWS (and don't you dare give this away in the moment when he reaches to his quiver...snoring!)

You argue that this scene was created with a team of special effects people and three writers and probably wasn't even written and the writer was the director and blah blah blah?  So what?  You have a page or so for your action scene.  You know what great is.  Are you going to settle for less?  If your action scene is filled with generic and unsurprising stuff  -- the car careens around the corner, he speeds up, he bumps in to the car, he jumps the fence, he shoots, a bullet ricochets by his head -- and it doesn't escalate and surprise us and integrate the setting and find a clever beat every few lines, well, then make it short, rewrite it or don't write action. 

If you need help reminding yourself what great is.  Check out the opening of Casino Royale....several locations, people who are chasing each other like ONLY they can chase each other.  Legolas uses his bow, his dexterity, his cleverness, the physical reality in front of him.  See how James Bond's clumsy and brute approach contrasts with his chasee's dexterity and surprisingly deft moves.  If you only have 4 cool beats in your action scene, fine.  Make it 1/4 of a page, but if you need to make it a page, make sure that just like a dramatic scene in Oscar-winning film, make sure you have characters, uniqueness, surprises, stakes, escalation, integration of setting, cleverness. 

You want a shot at being a working writer on Hollywood's B-list (or better), here's a hint: you gotta aim higher.  Raise your expectations for every beat and every word on your page and you are already ahead of the herd and on your way.

October 16, 2009

WHEN IS SEIZE THE DAY NOT SEIZE THE DAY?

Here is the answer to the A-List Quiz of the Week which I posted on our Facebook page.

In case, you don't want to look at the clips, here is the lowdown.

In Dead Poets Society, Knox goes to a party where his love interest Chris will be.  He ends up kissing her which sort of sounds like Seize the Day, right? 

Wrong? 

If you want the long explanation and some more discussion about this sort of thematic beat in general, checkout my article on The F-d Up Permutation in the last issue of Craft & Career.

Or if you want to play along, watch the videos and try to see the dozen or so clues that the writer and filmmaker are giving us that this is not seize the day.

Otherwise, scroll down to the quick and dirty answer.

Watch from about 2:20ish to 4:00ish here...



And then watch the first bit here, the continuation of the party...



This movie is about having the courage to stand up and defy everyone else's expectactions and find your own passion.  Well, there are like a dozen hints that his need to kiss her is more akin to peer pressure and insecurity than passion

A couple making out is our first image of him in the party and we see that he enviously watches them and eventually Chris dancing with her boyfriend.  He gets drunk which takes him further away from his true self.  And there is even an ironic twist: he gets drunk faster because two guys mistake who he is.   That's funny.

Then he stumbles into the party and the framing is such that he is surrounded by two or three kissing couples in every shot.  In the CU he actually gets smushed by the kissing couple.  Hmm, what's on his mind?

Then he discovers he is sitting next to a sleeping (passed out?) Chris.  She is not interacting or being part of this choice.  She is just an object to him.  And then Knox still takes a swig of alcohol to get the (liquid) courage to kiss her. 

Okay, do you get it?

The lesson is that when you tell your story, you have to hit this thematically icky moment where the hero gets close to what looks like the victory/achievement but will actually turn out to be the exact opposite: the worst thing he or she could have done. 

I heard a rumor of a thing called a short blog post, so that's all for now.  If you want more, check out the newsletter.

I am off to see a really bad Hollywood movie.  Parameters: matinee, less than 95 minutes and can fit in before the next important thing I have to do.

October 12, 2009

DANCES WITH COSTNER

The South Dakota Film Festival invited me to come and attend and be a judge as well as give a talk on screenwriting. As the date got closer, I found out I was going to be following Kevin Costner on stage in a little Aberdeen theater. Yikes. I remember what happened to Anne Murray when she let Bruce Springsteen open for her in 1974.

I came up with, what I thought was, a bulletproof topic: “All I Ever Needed to Know about Screenwriting I Learned from Watching A-List Actors.” But I was still relieved when I found out later that Costner was going to go after me. Whew! As an amateur comedian in college, I opened for Tim Allen once. And now I can say I opened for Kevin Costner.


THE OPENING ACT: ME(RCURIO)

Ed Norton and Sean Penn were in two of my clips. I realized it wasn’t a coincidence that they also happened to be directors. They are picky as hell about their material. Watch their films. Whether it’s the material they pick, the way they develop it or the way they rewrite it, you can watch their scenes and just see there are certain things they aren’t willing to do.

They just won’t give a generic answer or speak a line because of its exposition or thematic value. They will pick a prop or activity that’s meaningful in the scene and cling to it before they get stuck in a static talky-head scene. They won’t give the standard reaction to common situations.

I also had clips involving Heath Ledger, Nicole Kidman and Meryl Streep. Amazing actors can give us huge insight into screenwriting. We can steal from them and use it in our screenwriting. In fact, today, we are going to take a look at this from a playful perspective.

THE HEADLINER: COSTNER

I will address the topic more seriously in a later blog or in Craft & Career , but for now…

Consider all of the mean-spirited clichés about A-list prima donnas. Imagine the most hyperbolic examples of the awful attributes that movie stars have or supposedly have. Now let’s look at them one by one and see if we can actually learn something positive and productive about screenwriting from these clichés. Is there a way to reverse engineer our process so that it meets the needs of these supposedly entitled set of demands?


MY CHARACTER WOULD NEVER SAY THAT
You know what? Maybe they have a point. Why would you want your protagonist to have to explain exposition? Why would Tom Hanks or Jack Nicholson or Meryl Streep want to play a scene where they have to answer a yes/no question with, well, “yes” or “no.” When consoling a grieving person, don’t let your protagonist say, “I know how you feel.” If you can imagine Harrison Ford taking a red pen to it and saying, “How about if I just give him a look and walk out of the room?” consider writing it that way to begin with.

MY CHARACTER IS SMARTER (AND MORE ACTIVE) THAN THAT
Your protagonist is usually the smartest or most proficient character in the story’s world. Could he or she be the one who intuits the solution? Do you want the audience to sit around and watch supporting characters explain things to him? Which character and dialogue do you want in your sci-fi space opera?

SCENE 1

COOL PROTAGONIST walks into the Hypermylithium chamber and immediately
approaches the SCIENCE TECH.

SCIENCE TECH: Thank god, you’re here, I was just about to fuse the migration-fissure process to the weldian plug-in to achieve hyper-overdrive in the main cylinder.

COOL PROTAGONIST: Really, you can do that? And I suppose you are going to take the data flow from the neutron laser and...

SCIENCE TECH: ...warp it into a hyper accelerated arching process that uses mustard seeds in a ripple-effect sort of shamanistic genre-confused androgynous way to upstart the missile chamber reaction.

COOL PROTAGONIST: Tell me more…

OR

SCENE 2

COOL PROTAGONIST walks into the Hypermylithium chamber and immediately
approaches the SCIENCE TECH.

SCIENCE TECH: Thank god, you’re here, I was just about to fuse the migration-fissure process to the weldi--

COOL PROTAGONIST: --weldian plug-in, hyperdrive. Did you warp the neutron laser?

A FLUNKIE nods, surprised and impressed at CP’s knowledge.

SCIENCE TECH: Of course. And the shamanistic genre-confused…

Cool Protagonist nods.

COOL PROTAGONIST: The chamber reaction. Nice job. Now let's try the Mercurion Brilgamakjig?

Flunkie’s eyes light up.

SCIENCE TECH: Good call.

Science Tech runs off …

Or a simpler scene with a little more personal conflict.

SCENE 3

COOL PROTAGONIST walks into the Hypermylithium chamber and immediately approaches the SCIENCE TECH.

SCIENCE TECH: Thank god, you’re here, I was just about to fuse the migration-fissure process to the weldian –

COOL PROTAGONIST: Jesus, Christ, Jerry, you more so than anyone should have known about using hyper-accelerated arching…. Guards, get him out of here. (To all) We are taking over the lab. Everyone will report to me, effective immediately.

And then even work some more on this last line of dialogue.

PARTIAL REWRITE OF SCENE 3

COOL PROTAGONIST: Jesus, Christ, Jerry, you more so than anyone should have known about using hyper-accelerated arching…. (motions to the sentries) Guards!

The guards haul ST away.

CP looks to his RIGHTHAND MAN who steps to the top of the steps.

RIGHTHAND MAN: We are taking over the lab. Everyone will report to us, effective immediately.

Although it’s a huge improvement from the original, I know even my rewrites here are comically bad. But you see how they are moving in the direction of acceptable by just selfishly thinking of how to make the protagonist have to listen to and spout fewer inanities. 2-3 more revisions and this scene would be presentable. If you were going to give him a line that implies that the lab belongs to him, you wouldn't make it so on the nose. The star would get a line something like "There's a new sheriff in town. And his name is Reggie Hammond."
GIVE ME THE GOOD LINES
Well, ah, duh. And really, like, make sure you write some good lines. Then give most of them to the protagonist.

WHAT’S MY MOTIVATION? WHAT AM I FIGHTING FOR
We’ve all heard the cliché of an actor asking this question, but seriously what is your scene about? Imagine you’re on a set of a 120 million dollar movie and you have an actor who is getting paid $50,000 per hour to be there. Your production costs for the day are $500,000 and you have to call that actor out of the trailer to spend 8 hours doing a 2-page scene? Is that scene worth a million bucks?

Let’s say you are the writer-director and you tell your actors, “In this scene, your character wants to know if this woman knows the address of the killer?” He or she will start asking questions like “Really, is that it?”, “Am I attracted to this person?”, “Do I suspect that they are hiding something?”, “Why should I believe her?”, “Does this situation remind me of something from my past? Does he or she push my buttons?” If the scene is REALLY about only what you said it is, then are you sure it needs to be in the film? Are you sure it needs to be 2 pages?

Consider the scene that opens Inglourious Basterds. In the middle of the scene, the farmer grabs his pipe to smoke it. Do you realize the stakes? As part of this elaborate poker game where he has to conceal his bluff/lie from the Jew hunter. From his perspective, several of his friends will be killed if he doesn't smoke this pipe naturally, like he does every day.

Look at it from the character's or actor's perspective and find some surprising level of stakes and importance in every scene.

I NEED THREE ASSISTANTS, WEIGHT ROOM, CHEF, PENTHOUSE, PRIVATE FLIGHT
What is the upside to this? Well, we do want our actors to have to worry about nothing else but acting. Hopefully, this will allow them to be relaxed and in the moment. When great actors work together, a lot of their performance comes from reacting, not acting. They are in the moment and paying attention to what’s going on in the scene and the person opposite him.

How does this help you as a writer? Make sure your characters are listening to and reacting to each other. If you identify with one more than the other, you might tend to honor that POV more and make dialogue more of a monologue. Even if one character has most of the lines, there will be an implicit dialogue in the reactions, body movement and in the eyes of the characters. This will help you cut excessive words because if your characters are really in tune with each other, they will understand the situation before all of the words are even said. And if you get in the zone and listen to your characters, they will do alot of the heavy lifting (writing) for you.

Check out my first blog below about Heath Ledger. Maybe even check it out in better quality on YouTube. You will see what an actor can come up with if he is paying attention.

YOUR TURN
Sometimes I watch the best actors in the world elevate mediocre material. They do it by destroying clichés, coming up with surprising responses, saying less, not saying the obvious, letting body language or eyes express the beat or using the space around them as part of their blocking and performance.

Look at a character like House on the medical drama House. He makes almost magically prophetic “reads” of people and situations and we go with it. Look at how Harrison Ford’s Jack Ryan figures things out, proposes solutions and is always a step ahead. Remember Nicholson in Batman after Jerry Hall looks at him in the mirror and tells him he looks great…remember what he said? I do. “I didn’t ask.” I don’t know if that’s his adlib or if it’s in the screenplay, but how’s that for a cliché-busting surprise of an answer?
Make your main characters smart and active. Let them understand something before anyone else could. Let them make the huge leaps of logic that only they can make but that will save the audience a few minutes of boring details. Let your character enter a moment with an understanding of as much of the boring details as possible, so he or she can get on with the cool stuff that only he or she can deal with.

If you can think of more clichés (whether or not they can be twisted into a writing lesson), leave them in a comment below.

October 8, 2009

The Business of Adaptation

If you have been following my monthly e-newsletter Craft & Career*, you will notice that I interviewed two friends (Michael Lent, Laura Harkcom) about their recent comic book projects as well as Michael's non-fiction homerun with Disney/Hyperion. Does this mean that I am secretly trying to brainwash screenwriters to become comic book writers or graphic novel artists? Am I closet Fanboy? Do I have a third rhetorical question to make this flow smoothly? No, no and no.

The reason I have been discussing screenwriting tangents like comic books and even songwriting is that I believe that writers have to adapt. If I were a 22 year old kid right now....or let me put it another way...it really hurts me to think about the pain and frustration for kids trying to break into screenwriting now. Outside of the big 4-5 agencies, there were like a dozenish spec sales in August. The industry is a completely different beast than it was a few years ago. Completely diferent from the Biz literature from a few years ago. If you want to make it now, you have to be on the top of your game (COUGH**week long class with me in December don't hurt**COUGH! Excuse me.) and you have to be smart about understanding the business side and what's selling and how you can find your niche.

Apparently Bill Mechanic, former head of Fox Studios, has the same advice in a slightly different way. I am telling you to adapt. He is saying that it's about survival. Here is his recent keynote speech that has been making its rounds among the boards.

I can't tell you what your niche is or what you should write. But a few excerpts from an article I wrote in my last newsletter might help you start thinking in terms of the current spec market:

I tread carefully when I have to make a subjective call about a project's marketability and/or premise. On their first or second script, I think writers should be left alone with whatever concept they want to write. The process of finishing those scripts is so important to the writers' growth that trying to point them in a different direction (however slight) could be hazardous to the passion and drive needed for them to finish their daunting and, for them, seemingly uncharted task. Also, once in a while, a writer is well aware of a concept's limitations but the story just has to be told.

Buyers are looking for stories with strong "hooks." If you understand the concept of hook and have or are willing to develop the craft of writing within a strong concept, I encourage it. And if you can do it on a reasonable budget so that you open yourself up to more potential buyers, that's a huge plus.

Here are some examples of good movies with clever hooks and reasonable budgets: District 9, (500) Days of Summer, Memento, The Hangover. I haven't read or seen the new Youth in Revolt, but the trailer made me think "Fight Club as a teen comedy," which is a pretty cool idea. Blair Witch Project made a jillion times its budget and the same premise applied to Cloverfield made it much less expensive than the standard take on Godzilla.

I am going to keep it short and sweet today until I actually know people are reading this stuff. If you are and you use the discount code: ALISTBLOG, you can get 25% discount on my DVDs and free shipping.

More soon!

* And why wouldn't you be following it? It's free and it's got intensive articles on WRITING....sort of like the old school Creative Screenwriting. Remember back when it was a little blue journal sort of like Cahiers Du Screenwriting. Sign up for C & C and the next issue will link to all of the back issues.

October 6, 2009

THE JOKER IS IN THE DETAILS

My premiere blog will kill a few birds with one stone. This will answer the A-List Quiz of the week I posted on Facebook. Check out the clip below from The Dark Knight. Nolans are great at just packing in character, theme and details into all of their films. I want to show you how their specificity and attention to detail allowed Heath Ledger to stumble upon a brilliant character moment.

Whether you credit the Nolan boys or Ledger for this genius, it’s clear that we can all learn something from looking at their craft. A-List Screenwriting and I are all about the details. Every single screenwriting book out there about structure is pretty much all true. Stories have to twist, turn. Every 15 pages? Sure? Every 8 pages? Sure, too. Ever 8 seconds? Probably. Characters have to have arcs and subplots have to echo the main plot. True. Characters have to hit low-points, rock-bottoms, dark (k)nights of the soul. Of course.

But what do these moments look like? How does writing a great scene help define the meaning of a character’s worst mistake/regression? How can a line of dialogue make clarify a protagonist’s dilemma? And then how does that line of dialogue help to define a subplot, a mentor and the antagonist even better? Well, keep coming back here and you will find out.

If you want to take your screenwriting all the way, aim to be the best screenwriter in the world, aim for the A-list. The principles I discuss here can be applied to masterpieces and blockbusters. There is no reason, genre and Hollywood films can’t be fun, captivating AND smart. I hope this blog gives you a chance to take your screenwriting from A to Z to A-List.

So what’s so special about this moment?


Okay, first of all, notice the Joker’s speech about killing the cops. On the page, it’s only a few lines but because Ledger savors every moment, it actually seems like a bit of a showy monologue. Kind of like when Mamet or Tarantino have characters use rhetoric or storytelling as dialogue. So are the Nolans being lazy here? Are they just showing off?

Let’s put it through the most basic of tests. Is what the Joker saying interesting in and of itself? Sure. Is it true? True enough or plausible. Does the dialogue at least have a purpose on the very basic level? Yes, he is trying to antagonize the cop. Not just to be a jerk or to cause chaos but to get him so mad that he hits him or gets close enough to hit him, which is part of the Joker’s plan. He needs the cop to hit him like Dennis Hopper NEEDS the Christopher Walken character to KILL him FAST in True Romance.

For what little we and the Joker know of the cop, picking the legacy of his dead friends, seems like a pretty good initial stab to get under his skin. When I ask students what the cop’s dilemma is, their first guess is that it’s whether or not he should lose his cool and beat up the Joker. Well, that is, for him, A DILEMMA. But it’s not THE DILEMMA for that character. Back to that in a second.

Another great thing the Nolans do is that they cut away before the beating? Joker getting beaten up by minor character is not interesting (and it would be repetitive because of the ass-whooping Batman gave him). The point of the scene was to get him to try to rough him up, so the actual beating is pretty irrelevant.

Then in the next scene, the Joker now has the cop as a hostage and is holding him at knifepoint. Come on. How many times have we seen THIS scene? A guy has a gun or a knife to his head or throat and he encourages cops to take the shot anyway. (It all comes back to my not so guilty pleasure 48 Hours.) Well, the Nolans quickly end the scene with the surprise revelation that the Joker only wants a phone call. It’s a nice way to surprise us. This sort of surprise or twist would be the bare minimum required to even touch a been-there-done that scene like this.

But that’s not the magic. The really cool moment that’s not even in the script happens because Heath Ledger is paying attention. During the ruckus the cop is telling his buddies to shoot him but then when the noise fades, he is suddenly quiet. And Ledger notices, looks at him and (the sound mix keeps it subtle) says, “What? Sorry?” He implies, “Now that it’s quiet are you really going to put your life on the line and encourage them to shoot?” The Joker is giving him a chance, now that the knife is to HIS throat to be a coward or not a coward.

This is THE DILEMMA for him. And he chooses, in this context, to be a coward. The Ledger adlibs are so small and seemingly inconsequential but they come organically from his character, they are a pay off to the set up, they are in conflict with the cop character and they make the cop’s choice clear. These adlibs are huge. They are magic. The way to destroy clichés and to elevate your stuff is through attention to details. And the details in this case happen to be the attention to character.

In a matter of a minute or so half a dozen really cool things are going on: sassy dialogue, set up, character conflict, pay off to the dialogue and the culmination of the character in his final dilemma. So many scripts are weak on what I playfully call: Story Density, which is the amount of cool stuff in any given section compared to its length. Make sure you jam pack your story full of, well, story.

This cop is in the movie for only a couple of minutes yet he has a BIG CHOICE, one whose meaning is foreshadowed with dialogue and given to him by the Joker. The Nolans put all of their characters--even the minor ones--in major dilemmas: Uncredited Shooter (who aims for Coleman Reese), the Ferry Boat Passengers (mother, captain, tattooed prisoner, etc.) as well as the rhyming dilemmas of Detective Anna Ramirez and Officer Berg. Give your characters and their character that much attention.