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.