Sunday, January 30, 2011

The one subplot you really need | Allen Palmer

As human beings, we often lose sight of what's really important. We think it's about getting the prize and having the toys, despite experience telling us that life's great joys are internal rather than external.

A great transformative story reminds us of this eternal truth. How do you do that? With a subplot that offers your protagonist what they need – but that requires them to give up on their illusory want.

Full article:
The one subplot you really need | Allen Palmer

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Scheduled Cast | OPEN Magazine

Almost every big-budget movie is losing money in Bollywood. And yet, even if a small-budget movie makes thrice its cost, the industry does not count it as a blockbuster. Welcome to the warped economics of la-la-land.

Scheduled Cast | OPEN Magazine

Sunday, January 23, 2011

How They Write A Script: Paul Schrader | Go Into The Story

Go Into The Story: How They Write A Script: Paul Schrader

In a previous post, I noted two radically different approaches to writing as represented by Neil Simon, who doesn't "make outlines at all" and Paul Schrader, who not only creates an outline, he re-outlines it. Let's look more closely at how Schrader writes a script:

"I know exactly where I'm going beforehand. I know to the half page if I'm on or off target. I draw up charts before I do a script. I endlessly chart and re-chart a movie. Before I sit down to write, I have all the scenes listed, what happens in each scene, how many pages I anticipate each scene will take. I have a running log on the film. I can look down and see what happens by page thirty, what happens by page forty, fifty, sixty and so forth. I have the whole thing timed out to a hundred and five, a hundred and ten pages. You may go two, three pages ahead or behind, you may add or drop dialogue or scenes; but if you're two pages ahead or behind, you have to work that into the timing. Especially if you get five pages ahead, or, worse, five pages behind, then something you had planned to work on page forty may not work the same way on page forty-five."

The thing is as a writer works with screenplay structure over time on a number of projects, they can start to get a Gestalt sense of how it works. Schrader describes that experience this way:
"It's like running the mile. You start to recognize signposts peripherally, and you know as you're running past this house, the corner, whether you're ahead or behind your time. And if you're pushing too hard, you back off, if you're not pushing hard enough, you speed up--because you have to reach that point at the end of the mile where you are totally spent. If you have any energy left, you have failed; and if you run out of energy before the end, you have failed."
Schrader is a cerebral individual, so perhaps his intensely analytical approach to screenwriting shouldn't be too surprising. Also, he was raised as part of a strict Calvinist family, so perhaps a certain amount of his, shall we say, 'rigor' toward the prep-writing process might echo from the theological experiences of his youth. That said, most screenwriters I know, have heard speak, or read about adopt some sort of analytical approach to prepare them before they type FADE IN. In some ways, it's born out of the unique necessities of screenwriting as Schrader points out:
"Like in the movie American Gigolo (1980), I have the characters meet eight times in the movie, and I can see what pages they would meet on those eight times, and the different things that happen between the times they meet, so that there's always something to talk about when they meet, something to pick up, something they had discussed previously, something to develop."

"You have to try--in the structure of an hour-and-a-half movie--to arrange scenes that appear to follow each other in what seems to be a natural way, but is anything but natural. Because you can choose only forty, forty-five, fifty scenes to tell a story. You have to pick those fifty scenes very carefully if you're going to get a rich story."
Even Neil Simon admits, "I don't make outlines at all. I make an outline only in my mind." So while Simon may not put it down onto paper, he's got some sort of idea of what he's going to write rattling around in his head.

These excerpts with Schrader are taken from an excellent book called "The Craft of the Screenwriter", which features interviews with Paddy Chayefsky, William Goldman, Ernest Lehman, Neil Simon, Robert Towne, and Schrader.

Go Into The Story: How They Write A Script: Paul Schrader

Friday, January 14, 2011

Shane Black on spec scripts | Go Into The Story

Go Into The Story: Shane Black on spec scripts

If your prime motivation in writing a story is a big paycheck, probably a good idea to reassess the situation. 
  • (A) The odds of selling a spec script are extremely long. 

  • (B) While the money from selling a spec can be great, it's inconsistent. 

  • (C) Better to learn the skills of what it takes to be a professional screenwriter, one who can go from project to project, knowing what they can write well and with passion, and doing your work on a daily basis. 

  • (D) All of which is to say choose to write a spec script about a story you absolutely love.  Indeed, like Black says, something your mom will love, that is if she's a tough-ass critic and not a sycophant.

For more:
Go Into The Story: Shane Black on spec scripts

My question answered at GITS: On the timing of the Threshold Crossing

Go Into The Story: Reader Question: Is it okay to take more time than normal to set up the story in Act One?

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Reader Question: Is it okay to take more time than normal to set up the story in Act One?

Hi Scott,
Most of what I have read on Acts division shows it typically like: 20:40-40:20, in 120-page script, with 40-40 being the middle Act and with a mid-point. However in some films I have observed that the Act I point comes around 25-30 page mark. As in 30:35-35:20.

Of course each story has it's own structure and it's not a sacrosanct equation to follow, yet I admit that I felt a relief, since working on a romantic drama I couldn't get that Act 1-end, the Threshold Crisis/Crossing come in too soon. Establishing the world and characters is taking time; I will confess that when I dig in more I may realize that the Crisis should come earlier.

What's your take - do you believe it typically takes a wee bit extra time for the first Act to end or is it wise to get in early? it more genre dependent? Guess can't have a thriller sitting 'low' for a while.

I had another query, which I had mailed you earlier: I haven't heard of it but I can't say why couldn't it happen - writing for a preview/trailer? Or...what could be the stuff to focus on to make a trailer? Does it even make sense?

Thanks for your wonderful endeavor...
First off, despite all the screenplay structure paradigms, theories, methodologies, and approaches floating around, there are no hard-and-fast rules about this stuff.  So if your first act lands on P. 31, it's not like the Script Police are going to burst into your room and haul you away to Final Draft Prison.

There are principles and three-act structure is one of the most commonly used versions in Hollywood.  While some would decry it as old-fashioned or irrelevant, they are missing the point.  All stories have a Beginning, Middle and End. 

Beginning: Act One
Middle: Act Two
End: Act Three

If there is a Golden Principle related to screenplay (indeed story) structure, it's probably this one.

So your question is how long can Act One be?

Answer: As long as it needs to be.

I'm serious.  On the heels of my 4-part analysis of True Grit, the recent remake by the Coen brothers, Act One -- where Mattie finally gets Cogburn to agree to go after Chaney -- doesn't end until P. 39.  And in fact, there's an argument to be made that Act Two doesn't officially begin until Mattie rides off with Cogburn and LeBouef -- and that scene ends on P. 45.

So here you have a story with a long first act.  This is especially true in light of the fact scripts are getting shorter.  It used to be you had 120 pages (1 page per minute of screen time).  Now the upper end of page count is around 110.  And for certain genres like Action, Comedy, Horror, scripts can clock in at 100 or even 95 pages.  As a result of the overall script shrinking in length, so, too Act Ones.  I have a colleague who teaches screenwriting in a well-known university and he tells his students Act One should be no longer than 20 pages.

But then we have True Grit.  And I've read several articles and interviews with screenwriters who state they tend to write longish first acts primarily because they feel a story needs that much time to set up characters, story universe, plot conceit, genre, tone, and so on.

Again if it works, then a first act can be as long as it needs to be.

Of course, there is a difference between how a script written by a professional screenwriter and an aspiring screenwriter will be read and perceived.  And scripts by the former are less likely to draw quibbles from a script reader / coverage than the latter. 

So after all that, let me land on this advice: If you write a script and your first act is 35 pages long, and you are certain it has to be that length to work, then you're probably okay -- as long as those pages rock, are entertaining, don't feel slow, etc. 

However my guess is you can tighten up those pages.  Why do I say that?  Because there's not a script written that couldn't be tightened.  In fact, I'll be running a 4-part series next week called Trimming Tricks of the Trade, so look for that.

Re writing a movie trailer: No point in it.  Trailers are cut by post shops who specialize in that sort of thing.  They do tons of market testing, then re-cut and re-cut trailers.  In other words, it's not a writer's domain at least directly (obviously what you write and what gets shot becomes the assets for the trailer). 

My advice: Focus on writing a great script so you can sell it and get it produced.  Then sit back in a theater and enjoy the trailer to your movie!

Go Into The Story: Reader Question: Is it okay to take more time than normal to set up the story in Act One?

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

2 things should happen at the midpoint | Allen Palmer

2 things should happen at the midpoint – and raising the stakes isn't one of them
by Allen Palmer

Brokeback Mountain Heath Ledger Jake Gyllenhall Fight

If all you do at the midpoint is raise the stakes your script has little chance of packing much emotional punch in the climax. Here are the 2 things you should be focussed on delivering around the middle of Act 2.

The element of Syd Field's structural analysis that was considered a major advance on Aristotle's work 2000 years previously was his identification of the "midpoint" – a critical scene/sequence half way through the second act. Field said that, in great screenplays he had studied, something important almost always happened around page 55-60. Typically, he said, the hero would pass a point of no return and the stakes would be raised.

Now, those aren't bad things to happen around the middle of the second act. But, I can't say I ever found this "breakthrough" particularly helpful to me as a screenwriter. You can have the hero burn their bridges and raise the stakes up the Ying Yang at the midpoint without delivering what the audience really wants – emotional release at the Act 3 climax.

So "midpoint" is not a term I would ever actually use in relation to my own writing. I only use it so I can talk the same language as people who have been introduced to "Classical Structure" but who aren't familiar with the blessed insights of Chris Vogler's Hero's Journey. Elsewhere, I elaborate on why I find the Hero's Journey a more helpful structural paradigm, but it's particularly useful in helping unmask the mysteries of the middle of Act 2.

In Vogler's Hero's Journey, he says our protagonist should be faced with a "Supreme Ordeal" around page 60 of the screenplay – a scene/sequence of high drama that represents a life and death moment for the hero. But the key to understanding this element of the script and to making it work for your audience is to stop thinking about the midpoint in terms of plot. And start thinking about it in terms of character.

The plot is not the end. It's just the means. The end is transformation of your hero and the midpoint is the fulcrum for that transformation.

In the first act – or the Ordinary World for Campbell devotees – your character will have revealed their flaw. In Act 3, at the climax, they will prove they have addressed that flaw (or not, in the case of some, though not all tragedies). So where does the character actually change?

Vogler's character arc says there is a gradual change that begins at the start of Act 2 – but it's actually one of the few places where I disagree with my one-time lecturer. Certainly, in most of the films I love, in the early part of Act 2 the hero is doing everything they can to avoid change. Think Phil Connors in Groundhog Day. Or Zac Mayo (Richard Gere) in An Officer and a Gentleman. Or Oscar Schindler. I would have said that in comedy, having your hero soften from the start of Act 2 would guarantee the end of all laughter because in comedy it's the pathological nature of the hero's flaw that makes them funny.

So where does the hero change? At the midpoint or, in Vogler's language, at the Supreme Ordeal. And the change is most effective if it's signalled in two ways.

The first thing that should happen at the midpoint or the Ordeal is that someone (generally the antagonist) should hold up a mirror to the hero and make them aware of their flaw – typically in none too subtle terms. In doing this, it should be clear that the hero CANNOT continue towards their goal without addressing this flaw.

Think about Groundhog Day. In the previous sequence, with his flaw in full flight, he beds (and proposes marriage to) Nancy. No problem. This is easy peasy. Why would he ever change?

But in the Ordeal, he tries to move from the NRL up to State of Origin (or, for State-side readers, from the farm leagues to the majors) by going after Rita (Andie MacDowell).

What happens? He gets within an inch of the promised land until she smells a rat and she tells him, "Is this what love is to you? You'll never love anyone but yourself". And she slaps his face.

And the next day, she slaps his face again. And the next day. And the next. The message for Phil is that if he wants to get Rita, he's going to have to change his ways. Face slapping is a good metaphor, in fact, for what's going on here. Slap, goes the antagonist. Wake up to yourself!!!

In Tootsie, this moment is where Julie (Jessica Lange) throws a glass of water in Michael Dorsey's face when he tries to use the line on her that she has told him in confidence as Dorothy Michaels. Another good metaphor. Splash! What the hell are you thinking?!?

So that's the first thing that should happen at the midpoint or the Ordeal. The hero needs to be confronted with their flaw in a way that makes them appreciate that they simply must change. That is an important stepping stone on the way to transformation. But, if you really want to get your audience where it counts, you'll go a step further.

In Dead Poets Society, An Officer and a Gentleman, and Brokeback Mountain, the heroes are all confronted with their flaws at the midpoint. But, in each of these wonderful films, the writers push a little harder to produce three of the most memorable, emotionally powerful scenes in all cinema. In each film, the antagonist not only holds up a mirror to the hero to reveal their flaw. They push them so hard that their ego – which embodies their flaw – shatters into a million pieces and their shining essence is revealed.

Dead Poets Society - "Sweaty Toothed Madman" - Ethan Hawke Robin Williams

Mr Keating forces Todd to confront his flaw - and reveal his essence - in Dead Poets Society

In Dead Poets, this is the "sweaty toothed madman" scene. Mr Keating (Robin Williams) asks Todd (Ethan Hawke) to recite a poem he's written, knowing it scares the hell out of him, and Todd says he hasn't written one. Keating won't be beaten that easily and says that "Mr Anderson thinks that everything inside him is worthless, isn't that your greatest fear, Todd?". He holds a mirror up and says, there, pal, that's your flaw. But he doesn't stop there.

Then, in Todd's worst nightmare scenario, he's forced to extemporise a poem in front of the whole class. He's resistant, he's humiliated and embarrassed and the less sensitive members of the class laugh at his predicament, but under this extreme pressure he conceives images and metaphors that silence the room and reveal the lyrical romanticist that's been lurking in his high-achieving brother's shadow. Todd emerges from his trance reborn. Neil looks at him in awe and Keating says, "Don't you ever forget this". And he doesn't. It's this moment that allows him to rise up, literally, in Act 3 and stand in defence of both his dead friend and beloved mentor.

In Brokeback Mountain, up until the Ordeal, Ennis (Heath Ledger) has been able to have his cake and eat it too. He's been able to retain his tough cowboy image – that's really his want – and enjoy physical and emotional intimacy with his gay lover Jack (Jake Gyllenhall) up on Brokeback Mountain – that's his need. But in this scene, Jack's had enough of their part-time love:

"You know, friend, this is a god-damned bitch of an unsatisfactory situation".

He says he wants more than Ennis is willing to give and reveals he's had other lovers down in Mexico. Ennis is provoked first to almost murderous rage, but then when he realises he's about to lose the one thing that makes his life worth living, he breaks down. "Why don't you just let me be? It's because of you Jack, that I'm like this! I'm nothin'… I'm nowhere… ".

Jack tries to put a consoling arm around him and Ennis fights back initially but ultimately he collapses in a heap on the ground, surrounded by the shards of his shattered identity and the soundtrack rises to reinforce the power of what we've just experienced. Glorious cinema.

Alas, Ennis won't acknowledge the life lesson he's just experienced. Because it's a tragedy, he'll gather up those shards, reassemble his unfulfilling identity, go back to his inauthentic life and soon lose his lover for all time.

In An Officer and a Gentleman, up until the midpoint, Zac has been entirely in his identity (ego). He's been all about him, he's been running black market scams, and he's been dating a "Puget Sound Deb" (Debra Winger) without any intention of ever taking her with him when he leaves. Then his antagonist, Drill Sergeant Foley (Lou Gosset Jr) finds his stash of booty and says that by the end of the weekend he'll have his DOR (Dropped On Request).

An Officer and a Gentleman - Richard Gere Lou Gossett Jr

Sgt Foley's antagonist confronts Zac with his flaw in An Officer and a Gentleman

Foley pushes him physically and taunts him mentally, telling him that his father is "an alcoholic and a whore chaser" and that he knows that "deep down inside" you know that all the other candidates "are better than you". Zac denies it but we know it's exactly what he thinks. Again, the antagonist is holding a mirror up to the hero. Here – see your flaw! But, he goes further.
He pushes and pushes and pushes but Zac simply won't quit, so Foley says finally, "You're can forget it. You're out!"

Then Zac's impervious façade finally cracks:

"Don't you do it! Don't you … I got nowhere else to go! I got nowhere else to g … I got nothin' else …"

And he breaks down.

Foley can't believe his eyes. Why? Because he is no longer seeing Zac's wise guy identity, but his sensitive, never-loved child within. His essence. Amazingly powerful. And my personal favourite Ordeal moment of all time.

Zac changes from this point. He's no longer about himself. And ultimately he's willing to risk his want (graduating from flight school) to satisfy his need (honour his love for Worley who tragically committed suicide).

Did any of these scenes raise the stakes? Not really. I guess you could argue that we appreciate more fully just how important graduating from flight school is to Zac. But that's not what makes the moment special and it's not what ultimately makes the journey so satisfying. Why? Because it's not about the plot. The plot is just the means.

If you want your film to move your audience – ie if you want it to enjoy any measure of commercial acceptance – you'll demand more of your midpoint than just "raising the stakes". I encourage you to try to achieve two things in a scene/sequence around page 55-60.

Firstly, you'll have your hero confronted with their flaw – almost invariably by your antagonist. Have a metaphorical face-slapping scene. That's a mandatory.

But if you want to really get your audience where it matters, you'll try to push your hero a little further, shatter their identity and reveal their essence. And when I say "push", I mean drag them kicking and screaming to their essence. If their identity fractures too easily, the scene will feel contrived and won't move us.

Will the hero remain transformed? Sometimes, but sometimes they'll slip back (John Book in Witness does and it triggers Act 3). But what we see in that midpoint moment will affect us deeply and make credible the decisive action the hero takes at the Act 3 climax.

2 things should happen at the midpoint – and raising the stakes isn't one of them

The 6 most common logline weaknesses | Allen Palmer

In an earller post I gave tips on how to write a logline but even people who've read that article have been sending me loglines that aren't as strong as they should be. So here is a companion piece to help sharpen your understanding of one of the screenwriter's most powerful tools.

I love the logline. Specifically, I love the logline that's just a single sentence of no more than 27 words. I love it because it helps you identify the dramatic conflict at the core of your story and it helps you test whether your concept is sufficiently simple and compelling to attract a cinematic audience. But there are good loglines and there are ordinary loglines. Here are the 6 most common mistakes I see – and how to avoid them.

Most common logline weakness #6: Too complex

Take a look at this logline I pulled from this week's TV guide for the Keira Knightley flop, Domino:

While being profiled by a reality TV crew, a teenage-model-turned-bounty hunter and her companions get in over their heads tracking down those responsible for an armoured car robbery.

That's a single sentence and remarkably it's only 28 words. But is it simple? Reality TV crew? Model turned bounty hunter? Armoured car robbery? Of course, if you'd questioned the writer, they would have said, "But this really happened!", because it did. But if I'd been pitched this, I would have responded with the immortal words of Sydney Pollack in Tootsie, "Who gives a shit?". It's too complex and, what's more, none of the elements complement one another.

By contrast, take a look at Inception. The plot of this Christopher Nolan blockbuster is, depending on your point of view, either breathtakingly or mind-numbingly complex, but the concept is simple. Here's my take on the logline for Inception:

To regain his estranged children, a guilt-ridden dream thief risks his life to overcome heavily armed cerebral defences and plant an idea in a business mogul's mind.

Plant an idea in someone's mind? If you haven't seen the film, you'll have no idea how he might do that but it's an intriguing quest, yes?

Your plots can be complex but your logline must clearly and simply express the big idea that's central to your story.

Most common logline weakness #5: No external quest

A lot of loglines I see describe the character's inner journey but contain no external quest. Here's an example I've made up to illustrate the point:

A political crisis forces a cynical, womanising US President to choose between career and family.

There's a transformation here. He's going to move from being focussed on his ambition to caring about his wife and children. Great. But what's the quest? A political crisis? Not specific enough. What does the guy have to DO that's going to trigger this epiphany? This logline is all inner journey and not enough outer conflict.

Don't get me wrong. I love the inner journey. I love it because it's the inner journey, the transformation of the protagonist, that ultimately moves us – not the getting of the McGuffin.

But audiences generally don't decide to go see a film because of the inner journey.

"Hey, Joe. We gotta go see The Hangover."
"Why? What's it about?"
"It's about a bunch of guys whose lives are changed by a weekend in Vegas. Totally freakin' transformed. You with me?"
"… No, I think I'm gonna go shoot me an elk. With my man friends."

Yes, The Hangover does transform its characters and it's a very important part of why the movie works but that's not why people went to see it. Why did they go see it?

After a wild Vegas Buck's Party, a dysfunctional bunch of guys wakes with no memory of last night, a tiger in the bathroom – and no groom.

Audiences flocked to see a bunch of hung-over guys try to find Doug – and maybe to find out who was the rightful owner of that feline. They didn't go for the inner journey. They went for the external journey.

In the logline, the inner journey is generally much less important. I like to see the hint of it. Which is why I suggest that you include the hero's flaw. But if your logline doesn't indicate a strong and enticing external quest for the hero, and you're relying largely on the internal journey, you're probably in trouble. Why? Because in many ways the inner journey is always the same.

The inner journey typically moves the hero from striving for achievement to seeking fulfilment. From thinking about the self to thinking about others. More generally, I would say that the inner journey is about transforming the hero from a child into an adult – which is why in many ways every good film is a coming-of-age story.

That's why my illustrative logline is so unconvincing. No-one is going to go to the movies to see a politician choosing family over career. They can see that on the evening news. I expect your screenplay to contain an inner journey, but unless you can tell me something about that crisis that makes me sit up and take notice, I too might go and shoot me an elk rather than go to this particular movie.

Most common logline weakness #4: Not enough conflict

Let's take that last logline and get more specific about the crisis:

As he strives for a second term, a cynical womanising US president must choose between his career and his family.

OK, so the quest is now more specific. He's trying to be re-elected. Great. But why is that going to be difficult? True, his womanising is a potential obstacle in a Presidential race – just ask John Edwards – but as the incumbent, he's got a huge advantage over any challenger. Why is this going to be so hard?

This is a very typical weakness in loglines. There's an external journey but it's not clear to me why it's going to be difficult for the hero to achieve their goal. And, that's not going to work. Because drama is conflict.

Life is tough – we know that from our own struggles. So we're not going to shell out our hard-earned to go see someone do something that is less challenging than what we do on a daily basis.

Look at the quest described in your logline? Does it sound difficult enough? Does the goal seem impossible to attain? Are the forces of antagonism sufficiently intimidating? If not, beef up that conflict either by diminishing the capacities of the protagonist or increasing the power of the antagonist.

Most common logline weakness #3: Not original enough

Let's take that last logline and beef up the conflict:

When aliens invade Earth, a cynical womanising US president must choose between his career and his family.

OK, so the quest is now more difficult because those aliens, typically, are tough little varmints. But why won't we flock to see it? Because there's no novelty factor.

Since, as I've pointed out, there's not a lot of variation in the inner journey, what audiences are looking for is a fresh skin on that hero's transformation. They want to see someone do something they haven't seen done before.

The inner journey of Dead Poets Society is exactly the same as The King's Speech. It's about a character finding the courage they need to give voice to their essence. Both Todd (Ethan Hawke) and King George VI (Colin Firth) are metaphorically mute at the beginning but overcome their fears to gain self-respect and inspire others. But we go to see The King's Speech because it has a fresh take on this timeless transformation.

As he prepares to tell Britain it's at war with Germany, King George VI engages an impertinent Australian speech therapist to try to overcome a crippling stammer.

The inner journey is implicit. The stammer is just the most obvious manifestation of his lack of self-belief. So the logline can focus on the specifics of its totally original external quest. It's made all the more intriguing because it's true. This is a GREAT concept.

Take a look at your logline. Is it like anything else that's already been made? You might say that your feature animation concept about a bunch of gentrified zoo animals that gets stranded on the Maldives is TOTALLY different to the film about the gentrified zoo animals that get stranded on Madagascar. But will Hollywood's script readers read past the logline to discern the nuanced distinctions?

If it's not original, try to tweak your idea so that it is or ditch it.

Most common logline weakness #2: Stakes not high enough

To illustrate this point, I'm going to look at two different loglines for the film, Easy A.

Firstly, here is the official logline pulled from IMDb:

A clean-cut high school student relies on the school's rumour mill to advance her social and financial standing.

OK, now I would say there were stakes here. At high school, what could be more important than your social standing. They are massive stakes and it's what drives Tina Fey's film, Mean Girls. However, that's not an accurate description of the Easy A you'll see on the screen.

Here is my logline for the Easy A I saw:

After she pretends to sleep with a gay friend to enhance his social standing, a confident, attractive, sharp-witted teenage girl is overwhelmed by nerds seeking to lift their daggy profiles.

Her gay friend wants to raise his social standing. He's got stakes. The nerds want to raise their social standing. They've got stakes. But what's in it for Olive? Emma Stone is fabulous in this role but the film dies in Act 2 because Olive has no compelling reason to do any of this. There are no stakes. And if there are no stakes, why should we care?

Why must your protagonist undertake their quest? What is their motivation? We don't have to agree with their motivation – they could be doing it for wholly selfish reasons. But we need to sense the stakes or we'll question whether the film will have sufficient narrative drive to maintain our interest.

Most common logline weakness #1: No anticipation

Sometimes your logline can tick all the boxes:

  • Engaging protagonist
  • Clear external quest
  • Strong forces of antagonism
  • Flaw hinting at hero's transformation
  • Original idea

But it still might not mean you're sitting on a massive cinematic property. Why? Because your logline might not get our juices flowing.

A great logline, in just 27 magical words, conjures the film in our heads. We can see it. We imagine the dramatic or comedic possibilities and we go, oh, yeah, I've never seen that before. I've GOT to go see that.

Think about 40 Year Old Virgin. Hell, they've got me with the title. Already I have two questions I want answered:
1. Why is he still a virgin?
2. How is finally going to get laid?

The logline might have read something like this:

After his wham-bam workmates learn he's never had sex, a shy nerd has to suffer their crude tutelage as the girl of his dreams sails away.

We're going to see his buddies try to teach him how to get on with "the ladies"– that's where the comedy's going to be. The "Fun and Games", as Blake Snyder puts it. That's what we're anticipating. But we also know that ultimately he's going to have to find the courage to ignore their "advice" and win his one true love. High concept married to inner journey. Winner.

But you don't have to be at the blockbuster end of the concept spectrum to create a sense of anticipation. Here's the logline for Brokeback Mountain.

When a taciturn cowboy falls for a fellow married cowboy in 60s Midwest America, he'll have to come out or risk losing the love of his life.

Brokeback wouldn't be considered a high concept film. But when you read that logline you can see the film. Gay cowboy? In the 60s? In the American Midwest? You can feel the dramatic tension. You can sense the silences heavy with unexpressed emotion. And, with a title like Brokeback Mountain, you can picture the spectacular backdrop. It's a great idea because it makes you ache with anticipation.

Of course, sometimes a concept creates a sense of anticipation that the film doesn't fully deliver on – I'd put Yes Man in this category – but that's not the fault of the idea. That's down to execution.

Does your logline create a sense of anticipation? When you tell people your idea, do they get a smile on their face even before you've finished pitching it? That's always a good sign. If they go, "That's … interesting", chances are it isn't.

Of course, it's true, you don't need to have a big idea to create a successful film. Pulp Fiction wouldn't have read well in a logline – multi-strand narratives rarely do – but it was huge. Star Wars, at a concept level, was unremarkable, but it did reasonably well too I believe. And take a look at this logline:

After being dumped by his girlfriend, an abrasive nerd creates a massive website that triggers 2 lawsuits – including one by his one true friend in the world.

Would you have gone to see The Social Network based on the logline? No, probably not.

So concept isn't everything and the logline isn't an infallible indicator of a movie's merit. But you're competing with hundreds of thousands of other screenwriters who are trying to get their films into production. And that's before you get to fight the real battle of putting bums on cinema seats. I can assure you that if you're able to not only communicate your concept but create a genuine sense of anticipation in a single sentence of just 27 words, you are WAY ahead of the pack.

If your logline either isn't sufficiently dramatic or it doesn't have that wow factor, you're left with a difficult call. Do you persist, confident that you can still write a great screenplay despite an uninspiring logline, or do you set the idea aside and try to find a concept that is unarguably compelling?

That's a call only you can make. But I hope this post has helped ensure that you write a logline that realises the full potential of your idea and gives your screenplay the best possible chance of going into production.

The 6 most common logline weaknesses

Writing Logline | Allen Palmer

Before you write a single scene of your 120-page screenplay, try to express your film's logline in 27 words or less. Putting your concept to this simple, early test can help focus your narrative, gauge potential and save years of wasted effort.

Write your logline at the beginning – not the end

Typically, screenwriters sweat for months or years over a screenplay, going through endless drafts, major revisions and minor refinements. Only when the script is "finished", and even then only at the request of the producer, will they write the logline. This is arse about. Here's why.

Writing the logline up front could save you years

I was recently asked to produce script notes for a project that has been in development for several years. Yet after reading just 10-15 pages of the screenplay I knew the project was in trouble because the fundamental concept wasn't sound. Thousands of dollars could have been spared and years could have been saved – if only the writer had first written a logline.

What is a logline?

The logline is a single sentence description of your film's basic story idea in 27* words or less. You might also hear it referred to as the concept or the premise. It's the concisely written version of what you say when people ask you the question, "So what's your film about?".

Why the logline is a good test of story – simplicity

Film is a demanding medium. You have just an hour and a half – 2 hours if you're lucky – to tell your story. That's nothing. The average 300-page novel might take 6 hours to film – which is one reason why book adaptations are so hit-and-miss in the cinema. So good movies tend to have simple story ideas. The plots might be complex, but the concepts are almost always simple. That's why the logline is such a great test of film stories. One sentence. 27 words. If your story's too complex to be told in 27 words, then it's almost certainly too complicated for a 90 min movie.

Why the logline is a good test of story – marketability

Writing films is tough but marketing them is even more difficult. How do you arrest people's attention in a one-sheet poster? How do you hook them with a tagline? How do you open a window in their diary with a 15 second trailer? Again, it's going to need to be a simple, easily communicatable idea. But it's also going to need to be immediately compelling. If you can't hook me in 27 words you'll have no chance with the cinema-going public.

What should you include in the logline?

Learning to write loglines is an art in itself. Here are some tips for what you should include in those precious 27 words:

Who is the hero? – You should identify the protagonist (though not necessarily by name), the person whose story this is, the character with whom we are meant to identify. e.g. an ageing baseball player, an alcoholic lawyer, a struggling single mother.

What is the Quest? – What does the hero want? What is the overarching external goal that is going to drive the events of the second act at least and possibly even the third act as well. e.g. has to kill a great white shark, rescue the princess from a dragon, find the groom.

What is the hero's flaw? – Stories are plots that force the hero to grow. What is your hero's failing? Does he lack courage or compassion? What sort of opportunity is there here for emotional growth? e.g. selfish, cowardly, greedy, materialistic, immoral, womanising, ruthless, workaholic, obsessive.

Where is the conflict? – Drama is all about conflict so we need to understand why this quest is going to be difficult for the hero.

What's at stake? – For audiences to care, the hero has to have a very strong motivation. If they don't achieve this goal, the consequences are massive – in their eyes any way. You will generally try to convey in your logline what's at stake .

Who is the antagonist? – You won't always include the antagonist – unless it's a romantic comedy – but it can be a good way to establish the conflict and the impossibility of the hero's quest.

What is the tone? – If it's a comedy, it's a good idea to try to convey that through either the title or the logline.

What's the USP – In advertising, they used to talk about Unique Selling Point (USP). The thing that set the product apart from its competitors. What is it about your film that is most likely to appeal to the audience? Your logline should attempt to convey this quality or element to us.

How do you do all that in 27 words? Yeah, it's not easy but here are some clues.

How to write your logline

If you've read any Joseph Campbell or Chris Vogler, or you've been to one of my courses on classic film story structure, you'll know that we meet the hero in their Ordinary World, that they get a Call to Adventure and that this quest presents a challenge to their character. Consequently, it's often effective for your logline to have a structure something like this:

When < flawed hero at start of story> is forced to <call to adventure>, he has to <opportunity for emotional growth> or risk <what's at stake>.

What you don't include in the logline

There's one thing you shouldn't include in the logline. The ending. It must tease, tempt and demand that the person reads your script. Give away the ending in the logline and you've removed that need.

You also shouldn't include a goal that isn't concrete. e.g. "must find true love". What is that? How will we know when they've got it? The goal has to drive the drama so it needs to be specific.

Examples of film loglines:
Here are some examples of loglines for well-known films:

Schindler's List:
When a materialistic, womanising Aryan industrialist discovers his Jewish workers are being sent to Nazi death camps, he risks his life and fortune to save them.

Groundhog Day:
An egotistical TV personality must relive the same day in small town Punxsutawney and be denied the girl of his dreams unless he can become more selfless.

Raiders of the Lost Ark:
A dashing archaeologist must reunite with the ex he dumped if he is to beat the Nazis to find the all-powerful lost Ark of the Covenant.

Little Miss Sunshine:
When a dysfunctional family reluctantly embarks on a road trip to a Californian junior beauty pageant it's forced to address its serious underlying tensions or fall apart forever.

When Harry Met Sally:
When a cynical anti-romantic befriends a cheery optimist he's forced to challenge his belief that men and women can't have a Platonic relationship.

The Hangover: After a wild Vegas Buck's Party, a dysfunctional bunch of guys wakes with no memory of last night, a tiger in the bathroom, and no groom.

Judging your logline – try to be objective

One of the great things about the logline is that it's almost self-regulating. The 27-word limit will make it impossible to communicate ideas that are too sprawling or ill-focused for a mainstream movie. However, just because you've written a logline that complies with the word limit doesn't mean you've got a blockbuster on your hands. Be honest in your assessment of your logline. Better still, give it to someone who isn't your lover, spouse or mother. Does it intrigue them? Do they want to know what happens? If not, chances are your idea isn't strong enough for a movie. If you're disciplined, you'll rework the idea or ditch it altogether. If you're a fool, you'll persist and potentially waste years on a project that has only the slimmest chance of success.

The logline – write it early and write it often

I would encourage you to put your film idea to the logline test very early in the writing process. Trying to express the idea in a single sentence of 27 words can help distil the essence of your idea.

  • Whose story is it?
  • What do they want?
  • What's stopping them getting it?
  • What's at stake?

Constantly revisit your logline during the writing process. Is your story still true to the logline? Or have you strayed? Sometimes during the writing process you'll come up with an idea that takes the story in a new direction that you believe has even better potential. If so, rewrite your logline. Move from logline, to story, to screenplay, then back to logline again. In this way, you'll hopefully avoid the all-too-common mistake – particularly in Australia – of spending years writing a screenplay that either no-one wants to make or no-one wants to see.

A former student sent me a one-page synopsis to read but there was no logline. I said I wanted to read the logline before I read the synopsis, so he sent me back the 27-word logline. In the middle of the logline were 5 words that raised a red flag about the viability of the story. We chatted about those 5 words, and unfortunately my fears were confirmed. The story wasn't going to work in its present incarnation. So he's now going to rework the story – without having wasted time writing a screenplay that wasn't going to work. You will very often not need to read a script or even a one-page synopsis to assess a story. 90% of the time any problem will be evident in the 27 word logline. Learn to love the logline. It could save your screenwriting career.

* Why 27 words? That's what I asked my lecturer at UCLA Extension, Peter Exline (who, incidentally, was one of the inspirations for the Dude in The Big Lebowski.) He said "Because it works". He was right. It does.

The most important 27 words a screenwriter will ever write

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Everything You Need to Know About Writing Successfully: in Ten Minutes | Stephen King

Everything You Need to Know About Writing Successfully: in Ten Minutes - Stephen King

  1. Be talented

    This, of course, is the killer. What is talent? I can hear someone shouting, and here we are, ready to get into a discussion right up there with "what is the meaning of life?" for weighty pronouncements and total uselessness. For the purposes of the beginning writer, talent may as well be defined as eventual success - publication and money. If you wrote something for which someone sent you a check, if you cashed the check and it didn't bounce, and if you then paid the light bill with the money, I consider you talented.

    Now some of you are really hollering. Some of you are calling me one crass money-fixated creep. And some of you are calling me bad names. Are you calling Harold Robbins talented? someone in one of the Great English Departments of America is screeching. V.C. Andrews? Theodore Dreiser? Or what about you, you dyslexic moron?

    Nonsense. Worse than nonsense, off the subject. We're not talking about good or bad here. I'm interested in telling you how to get your stuff published, not in critical judgments of who's good or bad. As a rule the critical judgments come after the check's been spent, anyway. I have my own opinions, but most times I keep them to myself. People who are published steadily and are paid for what they are writing may be either saints or trollops, but they are clearly reaching a great many someones who want what they have. Ergo, they are communicating. Ergo, they are talented. The biggest part of writing successfully is being talented, and in the context of marketing, the only bad writer is one who doesn't get paid. If you're not talented, you won't succeed. And if you're not succeeding, you should know when to quit.

    When is that? I don't know. It's different for each writer. Not after six rejection slips, certainly, nor after sixty. But after six hundred? Maybe. After six thousand? My friend, after six thousand pinks, it's time you tried painting or computer programming.

    Further, almost every aspiring writer knows when he is getting warmer - you start getting little jotted notes on your rejection slips, or personal letters . . . maybe a commiserating phone call. It's lonely out there in the cold, but there are encouraging voices ... unless there is nothing in your words which warrants encouragement. I think you owe it to yourself to skip as much of the self-illusion as possible. If your eyes are open, you'll know which way to go ... or when to turn back.

  2. Be neat

    Type. Double-space. Use a nice heavy white paper, never that erasable onion-skin stuff. If you've marked up your manuscript a lot, do another draft.

  3. Be self-critical

    If you haven't marked up your manuscript a lot, you did a lazy job. Only God gets things right the first time. Don't be a slob.

  4. Remove every extraneous word

    You want to get up on a soapbox and preach? Fine. Get one and try your local park. You want to write for money? Get to the point. And if you remove all the excess garbage and discover you can't find the point, tear up what you wrote and start all over again . . . or try something new.

  5. Never look at a reference book while doing a first draft

    You want to write a story? Fine. Put away your dictionary, your encyclopedias, your World Almanac, and your thesaurus. Better yet, throw your thesaurus into the wastebasket. The only things creepier than a thesaurus are those little paperbacks college students too lazy to read the assigned novels buy around exam time. Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule. You think you might have misspelled a word? O.K., so here is your choice: either look it up in the dictionary, thereby making sure you have it right - and breaking your train of thought and the writer's trance in the bargain - or just spell it phonetically and correct it later. Why not? Did you think it was going to go somewhere? And if you need to know the largest city in Brazil and you find you don't have it in your head, why not write in Miami, or Cleveland? You can check it ... but later. When you sit down to write, write. Don't do anything else except go to the bathroom, and only do that if it absolutely cannot be put off.

  6. Know the markets

    Only a dimwit would send a story about giant vampire bats surrounding a high school to McCall's. Only a dimwit would send a tender story about a mother and daughter making up their differences on Christmas Eve to Playboy ... but people do it all the time. I'm not exaggerating; I have seen such stories in the slush piles of the actual magazines. If you write a good story, why send it out in an ignorant fashion? Would you send your kid out in a snowstorm dressed in Bermuda shorts and a tank top? If you like science fiction, read the magazines. If you want to write confession stories, read the magazines. And so on. It isn't just a matter of knowing what's right for the present story; you can begin to catch on, after awhile, to overall rhythms, editorial likes and dislikes, a magazine's entire slant. Sometimes your reading can influence the next story, and create a sale.

  7. Write to entertain

    Does this mean you can't write "serious fiction"? It does not. Somewhere along the line pernicious critics have invested the American reading and writing public with the idea that entertaining fiction and serious ideas do not overlap. This would have surprised Charles Dickens, not to mention Jane Austen, John Steinbeck, William Faulkner, Bernard Malamud, and hundreds of others. But your serious ideas must always serve your story, not the other way around. I repeat: if you want to preach, get a soapbox.

  8. Ask yourself frequently, "Am I having fun?"

    The answer needn't always be yes. But if it's always no, it's time for a new project or a new career.

  9. How to evaluate criticism

    Show your piece to a number of people - ten, let us say. Listen carefully to what they tell you. Smile and nod a lot. Then review what was said very carefully. If your critics are all telling you the same thing about some facet of your story - a plot twist that doesn't work, a character who rings false, stilted narrative, or half a dozen other possibles - change that facet. It doesn't matter if you really liked that twist of that character; if a lot of people are telling you something is wrong with you piece, it is. If seven or eight of them are hitting on that same thing, I'd still suggest changing it. But if everyone - or even most everyone - is criticizing something different, you can safely disregard what all of them say.

  10. Observe all rules for proper submission

    Return postage, self-addressed envelope, all of that.

  11. An agent? Forget it. For now

    Agents get 10% of monies earned by their clients. 10% of nothing is nothing. Agents also have to pay the rent. Beginning writers do not contribute to that or any other necessity of life. Flog your stories around yourself. If you've done a novel, send around query letters to publishers, one by one, and follow up with sample chapters and/or the manuscript complete. And remember Stephen King's First Rule of Writers and Agents, learned by bitter personal experience: You don't need one until you're making enough for someone to steal ... and if you're making that much, you'll be able to take your pick of good agents.

  12. If it's bad, kill it

    When it comes to people, mercy killing is against the law. When it comes to fiction, it is the law.

That's everything you need to know. And if you listened, you can write everything and anything you want. Now I believe I will wish you a pleasant day and sign off.

My ten minutes are up.

Everything You Need to Know About Writing Successfully: in Ten Minutes - Stephen King

How Oscar Scripts Really Work | The Writers Store

How Oscar Scripts Really Work

How Oscar Scripts Really Work

By John Truby

Whether a screenplay deserves an Oscar nomination depends on how it reads on the page and plays on the screen. But if you want to learn how Hollywood's best screenwriters got that way, you have to begin by determining the challenges they faced at the outset of their tasks. Then you can identify, and learn, the techniques they used to meet the challenges.

For Oscar nominees, these techniques typically fall into three major categories: mixing and transcending genres, and connecting character to plot to theme. Best script nominees, even when they are indie films, not only combine two or three genres, they tend to come up with unique hybrids, or mashups, where the genres play off each other in ways we haven't seen. These top scripts also transcend their primary form, which means the writer has twisted the genre beats in an original way so the film stands above the crowd.

Tying character to plot to theme is actually an entire set of techniques designed to create a seamless, organic story, an original living thing that shows real people grappling with life problems. Let's look at how the writers of three likely script nominees use these techniques to create the best scripts of the year.

It would be hard to find more severe challenges than those faced by Christopher Nolan in writing Inception, certainly one of the favorites to win Best Original Screenplay. This is a story set in the dream world. So Nolan's first problem was how to create a plot that doesn't quickly spiral out of control into utter confusion. An even bigger problem was how to generate deep emotion when the story takes place in a dream world and the hero's family, for whom he is fighting, is never present in the story.

Nolan's most brilliant move in writing this script may have been in combining two genres that are almost never together: science fiction and caper. Science fiction is the biggest of all genres, as huge as the universe and beyond. That's why it's so notoriously difficult to write well. It has a broad, loose structure that covers vast scales of space and time. The caper, also known as the heist film, is among the tightest and most focused of forms, built on a specific and high-speed desire line. That's why caper stories are almost always popular.

By combining these virtually opposite forms, Nolan allows the audience to have their cake and eat it too. They get the epic power of science fiction with the driving speed of the caper.

Using the caper gives Nolan one other big advantage. The caper is one of the most plot-heavy of all genres, right up there with detective stories and thrillers, and is designed to fool not only the opponent in the story but also the audience. Nolan juices the plot even more by creating three levels of the dream world, using the technique of "revelation plot." Plot in this kind of story comes from digging deeper and deeper into the same world, with each new level providing a whole new batch of reveals, and thus plot, for the audience.

Nolan's work in Inception confirms his position as the premiere master of plot in Hollywood screenwriting. But there's a catch. All this plot can kill emotion if you are not extremely careful in how you connect the plot to the character. I'm not talking about the other members of the team, which is where most caper stories gain their emotional juice. Think of the buddy camaraderie among the Ocean's Eleven team. I'm talking about the hero's wife and children. From the beginning of the film, the wife is already dead so there is no chance to get to know her or see her interact in the present with the hero. What interaction they do have is tainted by the fact that she is morose, deadly and generally a real drag. Supposedly the hero is doing all this to get back with his kids, but again he has no personal interaction with them, except to see them as an unreachable image.

Nolan's unique genre combination and his incredible plotting may be enough to win him the Best Original Screenplay prize. But the lack of emotional payoff as the film moves toward the end is a flaw that may be too serious for other writers to accept.

Aaron Sorkin faced a very different set of challenges when he adapted the book "The Accidental Billionaires" by Ben Mezrich for The Social Network. First he had to make a true story dramatic. Events in real life rarely have the dramatic density and punch of fiction, especially when the events involve the formation of a business. Also, the actual events of the building of Facebook suggest a rise story, with no fall, a story shape that has no plot.

Sorkin's third major challenge was a nasty main character, Mark Zuckerberg, guilty of massive theft and betrayal. No one in the audience wants to identify with someone this unpleasant (though they may want this much success), or see such a person accomplish his goal. So the writer is left with a character who is at most clinically interesting to the audience, much like a strange beast in the zoo.

The main technique Sorkin used to solve these challenges is the Story Frame, a technique found in a vast number of true stories because it allows the writer to solve the form's biggest restriction, which is the anti-dramatic sequence of true events. In The Social Network, the frame is provided by the depositions in which Zuckerberg has to answer to the Winklevoss brothers and Mark's business partner, Eduardo Saverin, for his theft. Like most frames, the depositions are the chronological endpoint of the story. They are the story equivalent of a trial, or battle, which allows Sorkin a natural funnel point toward which all plot events build. The frame also lets Sorkin cut out the boring moments that are part of real life, along with the mundane but necessary steps of building a business.

But Sorkin clearly knew that this structure still left him with a thin plot. In my Memoir-True Story class, I talk about how to combine fiction genres with a true story to juice the plot. Sorkin's inspired choice was the thriller form. The thriller is a type of story in which the hero is placed under constant attack and increasing pressure as he goes after his goal. Like the story frame, this genre combination creates a vortex in which events assault the viewer at a faster and faster pace. To see how much this helps the plot, imagine telling the story of the creation of a business, even one that grew this fast, in a strictly non-fiction, chronological style.

Sorkin largely overcomes his biggest challenge, the repellant hero, using a structural technique that is both rare and risky: Sorkin turns the hero into the opponent, and the ally, Eduardo, into the hero. Instead of trying to create sympathy for a bad guy, Sorkin changes the focus of the story to the question: will the bad guy lose the deposition and have to pay the people he cheated? Eduardo literally tells the second half of the story, making him the hero, and he gains the audience's sympathy because he has so clearly been wronged.

Toy Story 3 gives us even more proof, if any were still needed, that Pixar makes the best-written films in Hollywood. For the last fifteen years, their films have provided a strong argument for why the screenwriter is the true "author" of a film.

This script has some serious lineage. Story writers include John Lasseter, who also worked on the story for 1 and 2, and Andrew Stanton, who wrote the story and script for Wall-E and Finding Nemo, and the script for Monsters, Inc. The Toy Story 3 script was written by Michael Arndt, who won Best Original Screenplay for the amazing Little Miss Sunshine in 2006. Like I say, Pixar knows it's all about the script.

These great writers faced some tough challenges of their own. First and foremost, Toy Story 3 is the third in a series, which usually guarantees that the script will be noticeably weaker than the previous two. But the writers also have to deal with the problems that come with a tricky combination of genres, in this case, myth + action + comedy. For example, how do you avoid the episodic quality of most myth journey stories? How do you tap into real emotion in a fast-moving action story?

The main technique the writers used to overcome these challenges was to create a prison break action comedy, and then combine it with elements of family drama to transcend the form and create stronger emotional involvement. In my Myth Class, I talk about one of the best techniques for overcoming the episodic quality of most myth stories: bring the family along for the ride. The writers use this technique perfectly when they make sure that all the toys except Woody are trapped in the day care center together. But they take the techniques of family drama even further when they make Andy's impending trip to college the fulcrum of the story.

One of the main ways you connect character to plot to theme is with the story's desire line. Desire is one of the seven major structure steps, and it provides the story's spine. Here the goal is to get back home, a goal we've seen in myth stories from The Odyssey through The Wizard of Oz. In Toy Story 3, this goal gives us the "clothesline" on which to hang the myriad jokes and gags – the Barbie and Ken stuff is priceless – without stalling the story. And it gives us an organic tie between character, plot and theme, which is the value of home and community in making a good life.

The drive to bring everyone home sets the main plotline. But the writers knew that line wouldn't provide enough thrills. So they increased the density of the plot through the crosscut, the fundamental technique of the action form. Through the middle of the story, we go back and forth between the toys trapped in the day care center and Woody trying to get them out.

The ending is where this film surpasses the other potential nominees and highlights the most advanced techniques of the screenwriting craft. The characters have all returned home, but they are divided as they have been throughout the film. The other toys go into the attic box; Woody is in the box that Andy will take to college.

But Woody is wiser than Andy. He sacrifices his love for the boy so he can rejoin the community of his friends. And then he gets Andy to give all the toys to the little girl around the block who will play with them as only a child's imagination can. When Andy plays with his toys one last time along with the little girl, he becomes Wendy, the adult saying goodbye, while Woody, Buzz and the other fabulous toys are the Peter Pan that will always remain young. The pain is bittersweet, and there isn't a dry eye in the house.

That is what great screenwriting is all about, and what I hope the Academy screenwriters will celebrate this year when they cast their vote.

How Oscar Scripts Really Work

Written Interview: Christopher Nolan | Go Into The Story

Go Into The Story: Written Interview: Christopher Nolan

Written Interview: Christopher Nolan

Terrific Q&A via Deadline with Nolan focusing on his writing process.  Some excerpts:
DEADLINE: How was writing Inception different for you?

NOLAN: What I try to do is write from the inside out. I really try to jump into the world of the film and the characters, try to imagine myself in that world rather than imagining it as a film I'm watching onscreen. Sometimes, that means I'm discovering things the way the audience will, with character and story. Other times, you're plotting it out with diagrams and taking a very objective view. Writing, for me, is a combination of both. You take an objective approach at times to get you through things, and you take a subjective approach at other times, and that allows you to find an emotional experience for the audience. This was one of those projects that burned inside me for a long time, but I wouldn't say in a completely unique way. I made a film earlier called The Prestige. For four or five years, that burned inside me. It was something I really wanted to crack with my brother Jonah, and eventually we did it. I certainly have other ideas I've not been able to crack that I see great potential in, sitting in the back of a drawer. You never quite know what you're going to come back to and figure out how to make it work. You never quite know where that desire to finish something, or return to something in a fresh way, is going to come from. Every time I finished a film and went back and looked at it, I had changed as a person. The script was different to me. And, eventually, who I was as a writer, as a filmmaker, and what the script needed to be, all these things coincided.

DEADLINE: What breakthrough ended Inception's 10-year script gestation period?

NOLAN: The final piece of the puzzle for me with the script I'd been trying to finish for about 10 years was figuring out how to connect emotionally with the central character in a way that would make it a more emotional story. The reason I got hung up on this is that I had first devised the rules of the world, using the heist genre as a way in. That genre embraces exposition and so it's good for teaching a new set of rules to an audience. The problem is, heist movies tend to be a bit superficial, glamorous, and fun. They don't tend to be emotionally engaging. What I realized after banging my head into a wall for 10 years trying to finish it is that when you're dealing with the world of dreams, the psyche, and potential of a human mind, there has to be emotional stakes. You have to deal with issues of memory and desire. I figured out the emotional connection of the central character to the audience and made this about following his journey home to his children and his love for his wife. Those really were the final pieces of the puzzle that let me finish the script.


DEADLINE: What advantages did writing on spec give you?

NOLAN: I had actually gone in and met with Warner Bros years before, right after I'd finished Insomnia, and described the project when I was starting to write it. They wanted to hire me then to write it, but I turned away from that opportunity. I realized with a project like Inception I would be trying to cross certain boundaries of genre and push the envelope of what mainstream movies are allowed to with an audience. I felt it very important that I develop the script on my own. I had to finish it on the page, so at least there would be a specific and clear document in front of the studio of what this film was going to be. The advantage of writing on spec was I got to really thrash out in my own head how to make these things work, and then offer it to the studio for backing and collaboration. I don't think I would have been able to develop this with someone else. I needed to at least get the first practical draft done on my own and then bring the studio into the process.


DEADLINE: Did Warner Bros and Legendary Pictures say yes when they read the script or did you have to show them visuals?

NOLAN: I try and get everybody on board with a project simply through the words on the page and my explanation of what I see, how I'm going to put these things onscreen and what they're going to feel like. And so, the process of getting Inception greenlit was involving a wide group of people at Warner Bros, from creative and production, distribution and marketing. Everybody read the script. Then I came in and fielded a lot of their questions about how particular visuals were going to be done, and what the feel of the film would be, and very much about how the audience would be able to orient themselves to the film. That was always a concern by everybody who read the script. I was happy to talk about that, how we would use the design of the different dream levels to help orient the audience as the film rolls into more furious cross-cutting in the last third.

DEADLINE: How did you explain to them the three levels of dreams?

NOLAN: I told them one of the dream levels is in the rain, one of them is a night interior, one is outdoors in the snow. That meant that even in a close-up, you would be able to tell which level you were in as you cross-cut. They were very aware of the risky nature of the project, but they just got very excited about seeing the film.
Consider this quote: Writing, for me, is a combination of both. You take an objective approach at times to get you through things, and you take a subjective approach at other times, and that allows you to find an emotional experience for the audience.

Sometimes as writers, we find ourselves deep inside the story universe and that's important for a variety of reasons: To get a sense of the reality of the place, a feel for it, to bump up against the characters, see who they are in their own environment and how they live.  I like to call this writer as observer.  But then there are times where we need to step back and outside that story universe: To shape the plot, move the characters around, influence events.  I call this writer as manipulator.   

Like Nolan says, what we do is a combination of both, each necessary, each important.  And it can be helpful to remind ourselves where we are at any given time when we're working on our stories.

For the rest of the interview with Chris Nolan, go here.

Go Into The Story: Written Interview: Christopher Nolan

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Peter Morgan Interview | Creative Screenwriting

Reel Life: Known for Dramatizing Real-Life Events, Peter Morgan Examines the Afterlife in Hereafter

Peter Morgan says he's never had to get "a real job," having worked as a writer since his days at University of Leeds. It was there he wrote his first play, which landed him an agent, who got him a job writing training films—all before college graduation. Morgan says he had some years of struggle, but things changed after he penned The Deal, the first of three films that utilized British Prime Minister Tony Blair as a character. Director Stephen Frears and actor Michael Sheen reprised their roles from The Deal in The Queen, which earned Morgan an Oscar nomination, and this year's HBO film The Special Relationship.  

In theatres now is the Clint Eastwood-directed Hereafter, a film that grapples with issues of life and death—literally and figuratively. The plot revolves around three character in different parts of the world who lives ultimately intersect. Matt Damon plays a reluctant psychic in America, Cecile de France is a French TV reporter affected by a near-death experience, and Frankie McLaren is a London schoolboy mourning the loss of his twin brother. But Morgan will soon return to real life; he's currently penning a biopic of rocker Freddie Mercury to star Sacha Baron Cohen.

CSW: How did you manage to go from training films to writing for the big screen?

Morgan: My big break came when I did all the rewrites on a movie with John Schlesinger called Madame Sousatzka, which was not necessarily one of his best films, but it got me out there and I worked for six months. And ever since then I've done this job.

CSW: How did that job come about?

Morgan: My agent sent me to meet John, who was not getting along with Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. He famously said, "I have a suspicion she doesn't enjoy eating, shitting, or fucking. And he wouldn't know where to start with somebody who didn't enjoy all three." That's how I got my start.

CSW: Did you ever wonder how they went from Ruth Prawer Jhabvala to you?

Morgan: Oh, all the time! But it was answered by virtue of the fact they didn't pay me for six months' work.

CSW: How did you learn screenwriting at the time? Had you seen a screenplay before? Did they even have Final Draft then?

Morgan: No, I hadn't really seen one. They didn't have Final Draft, they had the very first computers that were coming out that were the size of a cupboard and had less processing capability than my watch. I think most people were hand-writing or using a typewriter. I had bought a typewriter, I used them for my play and first few training films.

CSW: You mentioned you had some hard years; when do you feel things changed?

Morgan: After The Deal. That made me take myself more seriously and it gave me some prestige. Even though it wasn't big in terms of ratings and it wasn't big in terms of DVD sales; it was just a TV movie. But it created waves within the industry and people's view of me changed after that.

CSW: Where did you get the idea for The Deal?

Morgan: It was an idea I wrote out. We were looking at all sorts of different places to do it and then Stephen Frears' agent read it and asked if he could show it to Stephen. I said, "Of course! Are you mad?" I never thought for a minute he would do it, it was just for TV.

CSW: You revisited the character of Tony Blair in The Queen and Special Relationship. What do you think draws you back to him again and again?

Morgan: Originally, Stephen and the producers didn't want Blair in The Queen. It was me that insisted the only way the story worked was to have him. If you were writing The Queen just about those people, it's not very interesting. It's only interesting when it connects to the real world, and Tony Blair was our way in. I've used Tony as a way of piggybacking through contemporary history. He's a very useful character to do that with. It's interesting, neither Michael nor I love Tony Blair, but he's become for us the horse we ride through the way that we live now. I'm not beyond the idea of using him again, if the time is right.

CSW: You wrote Frost/Nixon as a play, and then adapted the screenplay for director Ron Howard. Was there anything you had to lose in the translation that was difficult for you?

Morgan: No. I just had such a nice time with Ron Howard. It was as pleasant a working experience as you can have. Though the play had several sort of narrators, I didn't want narration in the film. He kept insisting on it, I kept saying, "No, no, no." Then he came up with the idea of doing a mock documentary style, with people addressing the camera, and I thought it worked fine and it allowed us to say all the things we wanted to say.

CSW: How did Hereafter come about?

Morgan: I wrote it very quickly and on spec for myself. Then a friend of

mine died after I'd written it and it made me want to focus on it. Having written one draft, I thought, "Okay now I'm going to start the work." So I sent it to my agent for some feedback and they sent it to Kathleen Kennedy without telling me, and she sent it to Steven Spielberg, and he sent it to Clint. The next thing I know, they're making it and they don't want to change it. I said, "Don't be ridiculous, I've only done one draft." Clint's message back was: "Clint likes it the way it is, he doesn't want to change it."

CSW: Do you prefer to be on set or are you fine with letting the script go once a director has signed on?

Morgan: I complain whatever I do. I'm always complaining. But in retrospect I feel the perfect balance was Frost/Nixon, which was, on days of complicated dialogue I would go and I would be there to make adjustments and changes. I sort of think of what I do like a tailor. I cut the suit and an actor puts it on, but then you get to do a whole load of extra work to make it really fit so it's just right. Each actor brings something so unique to it.

CSW: Do you have a set process? When and how do you write?

Morgan: I don't listen to music. I write in the mornings. Generally, after lunch, I don't do much. And I write something every day, even Christmas. At least an hour a day.

CSW: Do you ever get writer's block?

Morgan: Never. I think writer's block happens when you're so self-critical you paralyze yourself. So you basically saying, "This is going to be shit" before you start. So you don't even start. I think the biggest thing to avoid writer's block is not worry about the script, but work on an outline. I don't write dialogue until the end of the process. I will storyline and storyline and storyline until dialogue literally comes bursting out. I will generally write a script in about three weeks, but I will plot it for about six months. And if what you're doing is plotting, it's not really writer's block.

CSW: Which do you find more difficult; writing about real events or creating something from scratch?

Morgan: In each case, I think there are bits which are easier and bits which are harder. You have freedoms and confinements in both.

CSW: How beholden are you to the truth when trying to dramatize real events? Do you ever create a scene from scratch?

Morgan: There's a difference between accuracy and truth. I would always want it to be truthful, but I am completely comfortable writing something inaccurate. What people take away from a film is an overriding truth. When I did Frost/Nixon, everyone's memories were so at odds with one another, I wondered if these people had ever been in the same room together. But what's the big takeaway—who won? So the important thing is to not misrepresent the essence of a situation or a person. And you have to act with great responsibility.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

20 good movies you didn't see in 2010 | Metromix Chicago

I have been aware of more than half: A Prophet, Inside Job, Please Give, Cairo Time, Dogtooth, A Film Unfinished, It's Kind of a Funny Story, Lebanon, Nowhere Boy, Restrepo, Summer in Genoa and...the only one that I have seen: Solitary Man, for which I didn't flip much.

Others: Cropsey, Four Lions, Heartbreaker, Holy Rollers (Eissenberg in it), Howl, The Square, The Wildest Dream: Conquest of Everest.

20 good movies you didn't see in 2010 | 'Cropsey' | Photo 1/20 | Metromix Chicago

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Five-Page Writing Sample | Done Deal

From Done Deal newsletter:

I have a lot of completed feature scripts. I get asked for a five-page writing sample a lot when applying for work. I understand its purpose is to show what you can do. What should your best five-page writing sample look like and contain?
You want to show that you can write, that you are in command of your craft. That means a scene that delivers what you promise. If you're a comedy writer, give me an opening set piece that is really funny. I want to see how well you write dialogue, and if your characters pop, and if you've set up a premise that is going somewhere. You can tell a lot in five pages.
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Pros and Cons to a Screenwriter LLC?
What do you guys think about screenwriters setting up their own LLC? Is there any point, especially if you don't have a steady or large stream of income through screenwriting?
I only ask because I have some career momentum (an optioned script that's making some headway and a free writing assignment). End of the day, I might not make a dime. But I had someone ask me why I don't set up an LLC, and my response was, "I'm not really sure." LLCs are generally useful in protecting the individual from lawsuits, but I'm not sure how or if that applies to "amateur" screenwriting.
Most writers, directors, producers, etc. who make a good living in Hollywood will set up corporations rather than LLCs... Often referred to as "loan outs" or "personal services" corporations, because typically, the "artist" will be loaning out their personal services through the corporation. This provides that protection of lawsuit vs. the individual that can be absorbed by the corporation instead. Usually an S Corp is what is set up.
No sense in doing it until you have certain income thresholds—check with your accountant. Because there are fees in California of $800 per year even if you make nothing... plus startup costs, which can be a few thousand.
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