Monday, November 10, 2014

Austin Film Festival Notes

Not actual size.
The Austin Film Festival and Conference was held this past month in sunny, hip Austin, Texas. It was my first time at the festival, and it was a thrill.

My action drama sci-fi script, Seize the Sky, was a second-round selection in the screenplay competition. I had heard a terrific podcast on The Handsome Timmy D Express with screenwriter (and Austin alum) Mike Sundy. He had great advice for Austin attendees, but what stuck with me the most was his emphasis on horizontal networking, as opposed to vertical networking. This is the idea that you'll gain more creative and professional traction from connecting with people at the same professional level at which you are (i.e., other filmmakers with official selections, other second-rounders, other semi-finalists) than with people at professional levels above you (i.e., the writer of Groundhog Day, the writer of Guardians of the Galaxy). I took this to heart while attending the festival, and it was the right way to go.

First off, the festival had booked a phenomenal set of panelists. Quite often, there'd be up to a dozen panels running concurrently and my biggest problem was deciding whether to attend the panel with Tom Schulman (Dead Poets Society), Linda Woolverton (Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, Maleficent), Craig Borten (Dallas Buyers Club), or Matthew Weiner (Mad Men). Inevitably, I missed some great speakers but the panels I attended were still creative juggernauts for the mind.

Dig BBQ? REALLY dig BBQ? You need to be here.
The festival organizers asked that attendees refrain from taking photographs of the panelists. However, I took a lot of notes at the panels, and I'm pleased to share some with you.

For the most part, the panelists discussed a broad array of topics, relating to the craft and business of screenwriting. I'm reminded of a talk David Magee (Finding Neverland, Life of Pi) gave at Emerson College once, in which he said that if you asked 100 writers how they broke in, you'd receive 100 different answers. While that's true, the AFF helped me discover some commonalities to every writer's experience, which I take as encouraging.

The first panel I attended was with Richard LaGravenese (The Fisher King, Behind the Candelabra, The Bridges of Madison County), Michael H. Weber ((500) Days of Summer), and Vanessa Taylor (Hope Springs, Divergent, Game of Thrones). The theme of the panel was Romancing the Screenplay, including a discussion about writing the process of romantic love into a script.

Among the tips were:

1. Romance means knowing thyself. What truths have you personally learned that will translate into an on-screen construction (or deconstruction) of two people coming together?

2. "Normal is just a disguise word - there is no normal."

3. A good jumping-off point when you're stuck is to ask, "What would really happen?" and then take it from there. Veer from that, if necessary. Defy how other films have done it.

4. Have a strong obstacle.

I then attended a roundtable discussion in which I was able to speak with Danny Rubin (Groundhog Day), Jason Headley (It's Not About the Nail), and Vanessa Taylor. Headley mentioned how Michael Arndt's (Little Miss. Sunshine, Toy Story 3) work had influenced him, especially with regards to character stakes. It was the first time I had heard mention of philosophical stakes in addition to external stakes (plot) and internal stakes (theme). If external is the pursuit of the tangible goal and internal is the emotional goal, then philosophical refers to the values of the wider community versus the individual. How are these reconciled? Or are they?

The next panel I attended was held with John August (Big Fish, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), Franklin Leonard (creator of The Blacklist), and Ilyse McKimmie (Feature Film Program Director, Sundance Labs). They went over the first three pages of a few competition scripts and discussed what made them want to read the remaining 90-100 pages.

While a lot of good tips were thrown at the audience, my biggest takeaway was the idea of energy. Namely, scripts need to have it. Sounds obvious, right? But even in my own classes back in cozy New England, it astounds me how often my students will write in a scene in which a character sits and thinks or sits and studies or naps or sleeps. Keep us moving! It's lights, camera, action! Not lights, camera, sit! Film is a visual medium and should be written as such. Other takeaways:

1. Good enough is never good enough. Be beyond exceptional.

2. Activate the passive.

3. Exude full confidence in your story.

My next panel was with the venerable Tom Schulman, who wrote Dead Poets Society. He spoke of working with director Peter Weir and how they encouraged improv among the cast of the film. On writing, Schulman encouraged us to "trust your instincts amidst the pressure" and to ask ourselves "what does it mean to rebel?" I think you can expand that even further and ask yourself, "what does it mean to ____?" where the blank represents the theme of your film. In Dead Poets, since it refers to rebelling, how do characters show their resistance to change?

The following panel was about development hell and featured Craig Borten, co-writer of my favorite film of 2013, Dallas Buyers Club. Did you know that from concept to finished film, it took 20 years for Dallas Buyers to be made? Holy crap. Borten's persistence and patience paid off, but it was a sobering reminder of how difficult it could be to achieve any measure of success.

Borten discussed writing characters who were outliers and yet how important it was to show them going about their everyday tasks. Of course, how you and I perform everyday tasks would be quite different from how Dallas Buyers's Ron Woodroof would do it. Borten also cautioned against excessive sentimentality and discussed how characters are often defined by their fates: how it took a death sentence for Woodroof to really begin to live. "A decent character," Borten said, "will never run out of plot. Make the mundane interesting."

The following morning, I attended a panel on comedy writing. The panelists included Steve Faber (We're the Millers, Wedding Crashers), Phil Rosenthal (Everybody Loves Raymond), and Ed Solomon (Men in Black, Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure). It was a lively (and hysterical) discussion. Notes of note include:

1. If you're writing a comedy, line it up like a drama all the same. The stakes still need to be important to the character and the audience. There still must be an element of dramatic truth inherent. What would carry the story if it wasn't a comedy?

2. Humor = tragedy + time.

3. Start with an actual situation and push it into different directions. Then keep pushing.

4. Jokes come last. Story comes first. If need be, go to the darkest place and then bring it back from there.

5. When it comes to developing your own voice, in what are you the only expert?

The next panel included Tom Schulman, Craig Borten, and Jim Uhls (Fight Club). The panel's theme was Status Quo and how characters attempt to fit into and/or subvert it. Takeaways:

1. All films ought to be somehow subversive, embracing the idea of rejecting the status quo. And make the audience agree with a character's reasons for wanting to upend it. After all, hope for the character in many ways means hope for ourselves.

2. The character who changes the most is usually the most interesting character.

3. A character typically starts out with a desire to change things for themselves and ultimately changes things for everyone.

4. Steps in rebelling against the status quo are your main plot points.

5. There must be consequences for the rebellion. What is sacrificed?

6. Characters want to live. How do they define that for themselves?

The following discussion I attended was with Linda Woolverton, the screenwriter behind Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, Alice in Wonderland, and Maleficient. The panel topic was Heroes, Villains, and Happily Ever After. Ideas from this panel included:

1. Very often, the captive changes the captor.

2. What are the constant, direct threats?

3. Why is every character the way they are?

4. Sidekicks reflect the tone, but they also must possess their own stakes and agendas.

5. What's the element of tragedy around each character?

6. What is the story's emotional center? This is why you're writing the story in the first place.

I then attended a talk entitled "Writing Relatable Space Raccoons" with Nicole Perlman (Guardians of the Galaxy). She mentioned how important it was to write down as many ideas as possible, to pay attention to how characters grow together, and ultimately how vulnerability leads to compassion for not only heroes but also for villains.

My final panel was with Mary Coleman, Senior Development Executive at Pixar. It was a hands-on panel, by which I mean that the attendees actually moved about to define signature gestures for ourselves as well as for our characters. A signature gesture is an integrated element, a repeated action a character performs that helps to define a core characteristic. Examples:

1. "Cross your heart!" in Up.

2. WALL-E's desire to hold EVE's hand in WALL-E.

3. Maximus's grasping of the soil beneath his feet in Gladiator.

Signature gestures reinforce that films are visual, and that it's important to write for the eye rather than the ear. This was an enjoyable workshop, and it was nice to stand up and perform after so many seated discussions.

Overall, I was extremely impressed with the AFF. If the hard part is choosing a panel out of so many awesome ones, then they must be doing something right. Quite often, some panelists would appear at the hotel bar, available to talk to any attendees. Even better, everyone in attendance was united by the desire to tell the best damn stories we possibly could. I met some terrific fellow writers and I look forward to keeping up with their endeavors as well as hopefully working with them on future projects.

While at Austin, I came up with an idea for a feature script as well as a pilot. It goes to show, I suppose, that in spending time with the inspirational, you can't help but take a little inspiration for yourself. If the lessons of the AFF are to write, collaborate, and cheer each other on, then I aspire to continue.

I hope this was helpful. In the continuing spirit of AFF, let me know if I could be of any help on your project(s)!

Monday, September 22, 2014

Wound Up

She's a little bit rock 'n roll, he's a lot country. 
Why is your story about one character as opposed to another? If your tale takes place in a city of 7,000,000 people, there are at least 7,000,000 stories there. How do you know which is the most compelling to explore? Which will keep your audience riveted for an entire novel? Or film?

Ideally, your focus will be on the character who has the furthest to grow. The one who has the greatest odds stacked against him. The one with the most to lose. The one with the most relatable wound.

How do wounds happen to characters? Well, how do they happen to us? In one of two ways: passive and active. Passive would be if a forest fire burned your house to the ground through no fault of your own. Active would be if you were the one playing with matches in the woods. Either way, you'll wind up a changed person. However in only one of those examples does the situation paint a more complex, detailed picture of a character.

Either way, if your house burns down, we can learn a lot about you. What do you prioritize? Who/what do you save first? Do you shake a fist at the skies? Do you start rebuilding immediately? But a character who inadvertently burns down her own house instantly has us asking questions. She immediately invests us. Something's wrong. She's troubled. And the best stories are about troubled people becoming people in trouble.

To boil it down simply, the flaw creates the wound. A character's defining characteristic directly causes the inciting incident. In the beginning of your story, your protagonist digs themselves into a mighty hole with a backhoe, and the bulk of your tale is you handing them an olive fork to dig themselves out.

In The Social Network, Mark's flaw is that he's status-obsessed. He creates the wound by demeaning Erica at dinner. She leaves. He spends the rest of the film trying to recover her.

In Finding Nemo, Marlin's flaw is that he's overprotective. He creates the wound by demeaning his son at school. Nemo's abducted. Marlin spends the rest of the film trying to save him.

In Dallas Buyers Club, Ron Woodroof is a homophobe who believes himself invincible. His fast and loose 1980s lifestyle leads to his contraction of HIV, and he spends the rest of the film trying to save his own life as well as the lives of all those infected.

In Casablanca, Rick's broken heart threatens to put Ilsa and Laszlo into unspeakable danger. He spends the film working his way through his bitterness to ultimately make the right decision at the key moment.

In Jurassic Park, Alan Grant doesn't like kids (to an extreme). Then he's thrown into a situation wherein he must save two of them from becoming dinosaur chow. At least one of the children ends up saving his life in the process, and by the end of the film he has a child under each arm, sleeping up against him. Who'd have thought?

Bottom line, your character, by virtue of who they are, must land themselves into huge trouble. By virtue of who they can be and should be, they pull themselves out. When who they are turns into who they can be, their potential, there's your story.

Friday, August 15, 2014

What's on Page 12?

Someone will believe you.
Writing isn't something you just do for fun. You do it because you love the act of creation. The act of making something exist that previously didn't. Of making someone else feel because of something you made. If you sit down every day and write, whether your work sits on your hard drive or the bestseller list on Amazon, you're a writer.

But no one's good at it on the first try. That's why not everyone is a writer. They try it, think they've written something not too shabby, pass it around, and receive a generally lukewarm reception. "I guess I'm not a writer," they say, and continue on with their lives, not-writing. It's like sitting at a piano for the first time and expecting to be Mozart or Marvin Hamlisch. But Mozart and Hamlisch sat down at the piano every day for years and very likely sucked the first time they did it. Maybe even the second time. Maybe even the first dozen times. And beyond that. But we don't hear about those early days. We hear their music as it sounded at the peak of their form.

That can be you. Of course it can. But you need to realize that most of your writing will suck. With courage, you'll realize that if you do it every day, each day it will suck just a bit less. But it's painfully incremental. It takes a patience on the order of years, which again is why so many people spend their lives not-writing. "A thankless, no-paying job that I park myself down to do day after day, year after year? No thanks." As writers, we can understand that. Not everyone is cut out for the job, just as not everyone is cut out to be an astronaut. But being an astronaut is really cool. So is being a writer. If not more so. After all, more people read books or watch films than watch astronauts.

UCLA's Hal Ackerman says, "The reason most of us write is corny, it's sentimental, it's tragically unhip, but it's the truth. We do it because it's what we want to do."

Gospel.

David Koepp, screenwriter of Jurassic Park, Mission: Impossible, and Spider-Man, has mentioned that he's successful because he can tolerate 17 drafts. Often, a writer presents me with a first draft script, I mark it up considerably, pass it back to them, and they scratch their head, thinking that what they had given me was the next Writers Guild award-winner. The issue is that they presented me with a first draft script. Or even a second draft. Or a 10th. Or even a shooting script.

Point being: writers have a lot of obstacles to overcome. I'd posit that nearly half (if not more) of those obstacles exist solely in the mind of the writer. You have to accept that your work won't be very good on the first try, just as your first time playing Beethoven's Für Elise won't be up to Beethoven's standards. But do yourself a favor and do more than accept it: expect it. If you expect magnificent writing to flow from you the first time you put pen to paper, you're setting yourself up for an impossible standard. But if you expect that you'll have more work to do after the first, second, and third drafts, then that's a large part of what separates the professionals from the amateurs. The writers from the not-writers. The fruits of any creative labor can almost certainly be made even better. That applies to writers, painters, sculptors, musicians, and anyone working in the arts.

There's an apocryphal story about an older gentleman strolling into an art gallery, setting up a stool in front of a displayed artwork, and painting over a part of the canvas with his own addition. Horrified, a security guard barreled over and the painter revealed that the work on the original canvas was his own. He was merely "fixing" his own painting to his own specifications.

When I was stuck on page 11 of my 2010 science fiction comedy short, Timothy Feathergrass, I sought the advice of local screenwriter (and scribe of Groundhog Day) Danny Rubin. "All of my ideas suck," I told him, "It's all too complicated and I'm bogged in the minutiae. I'm stuck on page 11."

He asked, "What's on page 12?"

"Nothing. I'm stuck, remember?"

He said, "Any writing is better than nothing. Just plow forward. Even if you think your idea is terrible. You can always turn a bad idea into a better one. But if your page 12 is blank, then what are you going to do with it?"

Sage wisdom. I indeed plowed ahead. Page 12 indeed sucked. But with time and effort and rewrites and coffee, it turned from a chunk of marble into something resembling a sculpture.

In your own writing, don't mistake the chunk of marble for the statue. Take your time. Take the effort. Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite. You're a writer, after all. That's your job, isn't it?

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Eight Story Fixes

Congratulations! The easy part's over.
Something's wrong. You can't put your finger on it, but that brand new manuscript you've been working on for years lacks that something that Stephen King, George R. R. Martin, and R. A. Salvatore have in spades. Or maybe it's your screenplay that for some reason lacks the snappy dialogue you'd expect from a Quentin Tarantino or Aaron Sorkin script. Or your play that's missing the emotional gravitas of an Edward Albee, Martin McDonagh, or Tom Stoppard work. Maybe a short story that aspires to be regarded like the works of James Joyce or John Updike.

Whatever it is, it's yours. You wrote something. You're a writer. And that's awesome. Period.

But could it be better? How?

1. Setting Fatigue

In J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series, most of the series's action takes place in a single location: Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. But the location is really interesting. There are even chapter and book titles named after the various rooms and places on the castle grounds (i.e., The Unknowable Room, The Chamber of Secrets, The Forbidden Forest). The point is, a film audience will grow tired of a single setting after about three minutes. Unless it's the site of a major action set piece (i.e., a race track, a boxing ring, a shootout), if it's in a screenplay, you have about three pages per setting before the scene becomes more of a stage play.

One setting. A zillion possibilities.
But what about a stage play? In so many, most (if not all) of the action takes place in the same place. Neil Simon's Plaza Suite? Martin McDonagh's The Pillowman? How is it that a play can do it but a screenplay usually can't?

In a play, oftentimes a single setting is used (at first) as a blank slate - be it a hotel room in Plaza Suite or a backyard in Arthur Miller's All My Sons. In examples such as these, it's the characters who use the setting (itself arguably a character) to its maximum potential, and no such setting is ever chosen arbitrarily.

In a film, however, you have a bit over 100 pages to move us from place to place to place. Keep it moving, and take us to locations that we don't expect. As much thought should be given to your settings as to your characters.


2. Flat Protagonist


Write or I'll jump out of your closet, tonight.
Stories must move us. The characters who move the stories must be moving, themselves. There's a physical journey (find the grail, rescue the prince/princess, find my father, stop the bad guy, move my house to Paradise Falls, etc.) but too often neglected (and far more important) is the internal journey that the character takes in becoming a new character by story's end. In Braveheart, how does young William Wallace turn into an ideal? A legend? How does Luke Skywalker turn from bumpkin farm boy to savior of the rebellion? How does Red go from hopeless to brimming with hope, in The Shawshank Redemption?

The best protagonists are imperfect. They're flawed. Their flaw is oftentimes their defining characteristic. Why a flaw? Because we are flawed in various ways, and we like projecting ourselves onto screens and imagining ourselves as the hero of the rebellion, as being full of hope, and as leading a charge of disgruntled Scotsmen across a field. It's so much easier when those who do it remind us of ourselves. Ditch the perfect character. They have to learn something the hard way.


3. Flat Antagonist


"Trust me."
It's often easier to name the attributes of an antagonist than those of a main character. "Evil," "mean," "cruel," "sadistic," "British accent," and such. But "antagonist" doesn't mean "bad guy" so much as it means, "person or force who stands in the way of the protagonist." That doesn't always mean evil. In fact, it shouldn't. Why? Because like your protagonist, your antagonist should also be sympathetic. Tragic, even. Your audience should be shaking their heads, saying to themselves, "If only the antagonist had made the right decision at the right moment, he/she'd be a good person." While a protagonist rises to the challenge of overcoming their flaw, an antagonist often falls victim to and is dominated by their issue.

Sometimes, this is turned on its head. In The Social Network, for example, the antagonists are really more sympathetic than the protagonist. The Mark Zuckerberg character comes across as opportunistic and treacherous. Those he tricked sue him and become his antagonists, but they're certainly not awful people. What makes this such a strong script is that each character is worthy of sympathy. Only we're shaking our heads at Mark rather than the Winklevoss twins.

In most cases, however, antagonists are characters we'd like to see put in their place. If only Anakin Skywalker had realized that death was the natural way of things, he never would've turned into a homicidal maniac... if only the Joker had used his incredible intellect to help and believe in society rather than give up on it and subvert it... if only Warden Samuel Norton wasn't corrupt and had a strong sense of justice, he'd have been a champion of Andy's cause in Shawshank... if only Senator Paul Thurman had more faith in humanity and didn't initiate an apocalyptic plot in Hugh Howey's Silo Trilogy...

The road to a good antagonist is paved with if onlys.


4. No Subplots

Subplot on a U.S. postage stamp!
The main plot is your alpha story. It's what you pitch. It's what your audience will relay when someone asks them, "What's it about?" Subplots carry the emotional thread of the story.  If the main plot is the story of the physical journey, then subplots carry the emotional thread of that all-important inner character journey. As such, subplots are character relationships.

In Up, it's Dug the dog's relationship with Carl that ultimately changes Dug from lowest-on-the-totem-pole to pack leader. In In Bruges, it's Ray's relationship with Ken that ultimately ejects him from his suicidal funk. In The Social Network, it's Mark's growing relationship with Sean Parker that undermines and ultimately obliterates his relationship with Eduardo Saverin, completing his journey to full-fledged asshole.

Subplots are relationships that support your main story, and your main story is your story's main relationship. Your subplots demand your attention and care, so don't be stingy.


5. No Conflict

"Why aren't WE on a postage stamp?"
I ran a writers' meeting recently in which I stated that every scene, without exception, must have conflict. A writer laughed at that and asked me why. Simply stated, nothing is more interesting, more arresting, than conflict. Want proof? Glance at the news. Glance at your Facebook feed. Which posts have the most comments? Those that report an injustice, or are otherwise polarizing.

Remember that old saying about how you never really know a person until you see how they perform under pressure? Well, we really want to know your characters, so you had best put them under boatloads of pressure. How best to accomplish that? Conflict! Characters grow through conflict. Characters accomplish through conflict. Characters act through conflict. In Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Indy grows closer to his father but only after fighting through a phalanx of Nazis. We learn more about characters through conflict, and the story charges forward because of it. It's absolutely necessary. Embrace the conflict.


6. Tired Concept

"I like you, too. Why are you holding a lamp?"
"It's similar to Nicholas Sparks" or "It's similar to Jaws" or "It's similar to Alfred Hitchcock." If you begin a description of your story with one of these phrases, then you may want to reconsider. Let me ask you: do you think that Nicholas Sparks, Peter Benchley and Steven Spielberg, or Alfred Hitchcock described the works they set out to make as, "Well, it's similar to such-and-such"?

Of course they didn't.

That's because they came up with new ways to tell stories and they had absolute faith that their particular takes had not been done before. There were romantic tales for over a thousand years before Nicholas Sparks penned The Notebook. Stories of horror long before Jaws. Yarns of the uncanny ages before Hitchcock. Write what only you can write. That doesn't mean tell your life story, but it does mean that if horror interests you, then what's your specific take on the respected old genre? What's your take on the romantic comedy? On drama? What can you bring to it to make it fresh? New? Something we've never, ever seen before? If it's too similar to something that's already been done, then that doesn't make an audience say, "Awesome! Another vampire book!" They'll ask, "Why should I spend my time reading another vampire book? What makes this one different from the flood of vampire books we've already read this summer?"

The trick is to focus less on the story, when you're starting out, and more on the characters. When you're asked, "What's your story about?" you don't want to say, "It's a romantic comedy." You'd be much better off describing it as, "A cynical, obsessive-compulsive romance novelist attempts to woo a struggling single mother who thinks he's creepy. But once he generously pays for her son's medication, they begin a relationship." That's far more specific, far more image-based, and far more intriguing (the film is Oscar winner As Good as it Gets).

I Love You, Man is an example of a romantic comedy... with two guys coming together (platonically) as opposed to a guy chasing a woman. It takes the standard rom-com engine and spins it in a new direction. It's fresh and funny, even if it goes overboard on iPhone product placement. Bridget Jones's Diary is another example, this time of a woman chasing a guy. It's funny and different, and was a success. Maybe every story has already been done... but every character sure as heck hasn't, and that gives you a colossal advantage.

You want people to hear your logline and say, "Why didn't I think of that?"

Don't write the familiar. Write the uniquely familiar


7. Passive Plot

At least it's not a Sharknado.
I call this Twister Syndrome. In a film in which the natural disasters cause the plot, the natural disasters become the most interesting characters in the film. And that shouldn't be. Your protagonist must cause the plot and be the source of every action that pushes it forward.

I read a colleague's script recently about a likable, powerful politician who orders his underlings to stop his rival politician from seizing control of the government. High intrigue, sure, but if all your protagonist does is sit in his armchair and dole out orders, he stops being altogether interesting. He should be the one out there, boots on the ground, stopping his adversary at every turn. After all, that's what makes a hero a hero. They're willing to stick their neck out.

In The Lord of the Rings, Sauron is content to hang out atop his tower and send out everyone and everything to stop his foes... but he never leads the charge himself. He's a static antagonist who literally remains in the same place for the entire trilogy. He's willing to sacrifice legions for his cause, but he never once sets foot on the battlefield (at least during the time period exhibited in the story). He's powerful, but in many ways he remains impotent.

Don't let an impotent protagonist happen to you. Your protagonist must lead the charge into every plot event. Events shouldn't happen to your protagonist so much as your protagonist causes events. The antagonist should take interest in your protagonist because your protagonist is already off somewhere, driving the plot. That's when the antagonist strikes, forcing your active protagonist to strike back, and so on.

In Braveheart, William Wallace tempts fate (and the ire of the aristocracy) by secretly marrying his childhood sweetheart in order to save her from rape. The king's men then execute Wallace's sweetheart, Wallace strikes back, and the conflict spirals out of control from there. All because Wallace acts to help someone he loves. But in doing so, he makes things worse for himself. That's a terrific irony, and all because he's an active fellow.


8. Low Stakes


Bang bang, she shot me down.
What if Darth Vader shot Luke out of the sky in Star Wars? What if Dr. Alan Grant didn't save Lex and Tim in Jurassic Park? What if the Nazis caught up with Victor Laszlo in Casablanca? What happens if your protagonist fails at their quest?

Writer/producer Jim Cirile says that if at any point your protagonist can just throw his hands up during the quest and say, "The hell with this," then you shouldn't be writing that story.

The cost of failure on the part of your protagonist must be absolutely dire.

How do you ratchet up the stakes? A great place to start is death. If your protagonist doesn't win, he/she will die. That's a pretty big deal. But it's not necessarily even the biggest of the stakes you can write. For many people, there exist situations that are a fate worse than death. In Finding Nemo, Marlin would rather die than have a life without his beloved son. In Casablanca, Rick would rather die than lose the love of his life a second time ("Go ahead and shoot," he tells Ilsa, "You'll be doing me a favor."). In The Shawshank Redemption, Andy fears a loss of hope more than death.

Whatever represents death or a fate worse than death for your protagonist must be that which hangs over your story. Screenwriter Blake Snyder made this point succinctly when he wrote that the prime motivators were sex, hunger, fear of death, protection of loved ones, and survival. These are primal motivators, and everyone can relate to them. Any one of these must be threatened over the course of your story in order for the audience to genuinely care about and fear for your protagonist. Keep the stakes high!


Throw an active character into an intriguing setting with a deep antagonist, rich subplot relationships, and plenty of life-or-death conflict. Your readers will thank you for it!

Monday, May 19, 2014

The Beginning Is the End Is the Beginning

"You're wearing my nightgown."
Why do we see films? Character transition. It’s fun to watch a character connect the dots from flawed to complete. From wounded to healed. From partial to whole. From fool to master. Whether you’re writing a short story, a novel, a stage play or screenplay, this is a fundamental (among many) that must be internalized and demonstrated for your audience to care about your characters. In a word, it’s fun to watch a character struggle to acquire wisdom.

A final scene that demonstrates this mastery hammers this point home. This happens in real life. It will remind audiences of themselves, reassuring them that despite our individual idiosyncrasies, we’re all human. We’re in this together. And what’s more, this truth is played out every day. In grade school, if a bully shoves you into a locker, you might catch up with him after school and plant a fist between his eyes. After growing up, you learn that there are more mature (and lasting) ways to handle such a situation. Your character learns that he/she can’t continue with the emotional status quo if he/she is to save him/herself and save the day.

Showing your character’s flaw, as you know, is far more evocative than telling it. How does your character land him/herself in trouble in the story’s beginning, as a result of his/her personal problem? Whether greedy, airheaded, overprotective, status-obsessed, or prone to fits of rage, how are they a good person except for that one thing? And how is that one thing their defining characteristic?

Situation A + character with flaw = character fails critical test. The beginning of your story.
Situation A + character with flaw overcome = character passes critical test. The end of your story.

In Finding Nemo, Nemo jumps on his father Marlin at the beginning of the story: “Time for school!” but Marlin is hesitant. It’s the first day that he’ll be separated from Nemo, and he doesn’t like that idea. At the end of the film, Marlin jumps on Nemo and says the same thing: “Time for school!” He can’t wait for Nemo to go out and have an adventure. This same scene, played over twice, has the same characters at first glance, but as storytellers we know that the Marlin at the film’s end is a very different character from the one at the beginning. Same situation. Very different characteristics in play. The beginning is the promise of the end.

This is why sequels often don’t hold up to their predecessors. Once a character has become a master, where else is there for him/her to go? Once they’ve overcome their flaw, how else can they evolve? Of course, it can happen. In Star Wars, Luke learns that there’s more to the Force than being able to blow up the Death Star. Can he slay the enemy within? That becomes the franchise’s central question, and it takes two more films to answer it. It’s a tough strategy to pull off, but not impossible. Of course, just like people, as your characters’ circumstances change, so too will their personalities in reaction. For example, your character starts out as a flawed pauper, overcomes his flaw, and becomes the king at the story’s end. How about in part two, your character, as king, realizes that with his first taste of power comes the high potential that it can/will be abused? A new situation, a new flaw, and a new chance for growth.

In what ways must your character grow? In James Joyce’s The Dead, one of my favorite short stories, the confident, set-in-his-ways Gabriel Conroy’s life view is shaken when he realizes that passion and a release of control perhaps lead to a more fulfilling, albeit unpredictable, way of living. And perhaps the life he’s been living is not truly a full life at all. In the beginning of the story, he quips about housemaid Lily’s love life (“I suppose we'll be going to your wedding one of these fine days with your young man, eh?”) and in the end is left to reflect on his own love life with his wife, Gretta. Is there love? Is there passion? When he asks similar questions to his wife about her former paramour (“the dull fires of his lust began to glow angrily in his veins”), it’s clear that ultimately, his feelings on it have evolved, and the Gabriel at the end, when presented with a similar situation, is very different.

In Gail E. Haley’s The Green Man, a haughty lord learns that humility and generosity make him into a better person than arrogance. In the beginning, he scoffs at villagers who leave offerings for a legendary forest spirit. In the last scene, he leaves an offering, himself.

In the Arthurian myth, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Sir Gawain brashly volunteers himself to undertake a for-all-appearances simple challenge (decapitate a mysterious green knight) before the entire royal court. But when Gawain realizes that his brashness carries with it a deadly price (the supernatural green knight puts his head back on his shoulders and tells mortal Gawain that Gawain must undergo the same beheading a year hence), he must learn that courage is more than great deeds. At the story’s end, when it’s Gawain who faces a deadly axe, will his courage ultimately save him?

In Breaking Bad, Walter and Jesse cook meth for the first time in a deserted New Mexico canyon. Four seasons later, he buries his money (and ultimately engages in a fateful firefight) in the same exact canyon. On one hand is the Walter who does for his family and on the other is the Walter who does for himself. How does he carry himself differently the second time?

Think of a story’s beginning and end like bookends. They look the same but face opposite directions. Whether it’s two first days of school, two queries about love, two offerings for a forest spirit, or two axes, showing how your character has changed from one to the other can best be accomplished by showing us how the character has changed between the two similar situations – and how, when presented with it the second time, they change beyond where they – or better yet your audience – ever thought they could.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Vince Gilligan at Harvard

This past week, Breaking Bad creator (and The X-Files writer) Vince Gilligan visited Harvard University as part of the Learning from Performers Speaker Series. As someone who's currently making his way through Breaking Bad, this struck me as a terrific opportunity to learn more about the craft from one of its modern masters.

University President Drew Faust queried him on the show for the first 45 minutes of the program, and the latter 45 was opened up to the packed crowd for a Q&A.

Of particular note was Gilligan's emphasis on collaboration between the writers themselves as well as the cast when it came to developing and exploring character. He discussed a particular example of a scene in which characters (and meth cooks) Walter White and Jesse Pinkman are pursued to a dead end situation in which a police officer has them cornered in a junkyard, seconds away from forcing open the door to their RV/rolling meth lab. How could they possibly escape from such a situation? Gilligan himself admits, "At first we said that there was no way out of this."

Gilligan noted that it took his team a week to figure it out. Collaborating with other writers is a useful tool not only to help you explore the potential within your own script, but also to give you the freedom to paint your characters into such a corner that you yourself don't know how they'll ever make it out. If you write the scene and you don't know, your audience won't either. This makes it all the more entertaining (for your audience) and rewarding (for you) when ultimately, you (and/or those with whom you consult on story) do come up with the answer. Gilligan said, "What makes Walter White so brilliant is that he can come up in minutes with an answer that it took us probably hundreds of man-hours to figure out."

Gilligan also stressed the importance of visual storytelling. This is a lesson I drill into my own students. Something needs to happen in a scene. What is an action or series of actions that can take the place of dialogue? Is dialogue even necessary for the scene? Dialogue might be a few to a few dozen words, but an image is truly worth a thousand. Keep dialogue sparse, and use it only when necessary. How is showing a far more effective storytelling tool than telling?

As a further example from Breaking Bad, Gilligan noted the characters of the Cousins (Leonel and Marco), cartel hitmen. Between the two of them, over the course of several episodes, they speak barely a dozen lines. However, they cut a bloody swath of rampaging death from Mexico to Albuquerque. There's no doubt that these characters are serious and deadly. But they never issue a verbal threat. Not once. And they're terrifying. Moral of the story? Dialogue should be in your bag of tricks, but shouldn't always be a first line of attack. It's a film/TV show, after all. Not a radio play.

Perhaps most importantly, Gilligan stressed the significance of character transition. He alluded to shows that had no set end date and how charting a character's emotional arc would be considerably complicated if there was no ending point for their internal journey. On the character of Walter White, the question was raised as to whether Walter underwent a metamorphosis from good to bad, or if he was always bad and his actions simply unveiled who he really was. Gilligan seemed to like keeping that question open-ended, as in life, it can also be. 

By the same token, "you don't want to change your characters too fast," Gilligan warned, "but your only job is to get people excited about the story you're telling. But there's no one right way to do it. Grab the reader." 

I had the great luck to be able to ask him, "How do you construct a character who an actor will want to play?"

He replied, "Actors are looking for the same thing that the reader of the script is looking for. Think of all the ways you've seen that particular archetype, and then go the opposite way or change things up as much as possible. If you can make something feel fresh, that's a good starting point. Actors respond to that like viewers do. What haven't they seen before? You have to really grab them quick and know the story you're telling. Be really interested in the character, yourself."

A great talk from a true class act. Now back to my Breaking Bad binge-watching.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Three Paths to High Concept

Someone's hungry for a good story.
The industry calls it High Concept. Screenwriter Terry Rossio calls it the Strange Attractor. I've called it the needlessly wordy Why Didn't I Come up with That First. Whatever you call it, it's all about concept - it's all about story.

And for goodness' sake: it must be simple.

If someone asks you what your film/script is about and it takes you longer than three sentences, then it's not simple enough. It has to be an idea at once clever, ironic, and easily imagined. It's hard work, which is why scripts sell for as much as they do when they sell.

Jurassic Park: people are stuck on a theme park island full of genetically engineered dinosaurs.
The Godfather: a straight-edge former soldier must commit mass murder to protect his crime family.
Up: An elderly widower physically moves his house from the U.S.A. to Paradise Falls in order to keep a promise he made to his late wife.

Films turn the ordinary into the extraordinary. An ordinary character often (and should) become extraordinary over the course of the story: they awake something within themselves and perform tasks that they (and the audience) never believed they had the power to accomplish.

So much the better if the circumstances in which your characters find themselves are extraordinary. This means coming up with an idea that's at once simple and yet brilliant. Taking something that everyone has heard of and turning it on its head. Dinosaurs - but alive today on an island theme park. A geeky introvert - but an expert on seeing how people connect (The Social Network). Kids going off to boarding school for seven years - to train to be wizards and witches (Harry Potter). Reality - actually virtual reality (The Matrix). A famous, doomed ship - with a love story (Titanic).

The point is, you want a reader to hear your idea and say, why didn't I come up with that? Start with something simple and recognizable - then twist it in a way that only you can do. How?

1. Be Literate - Read the news. Read books. Read classical literature. Read mythology. Read the back of a cereal box. Whatever you choose, make it your business to learn at least half a dozen things each day that you didn't know the prior day. The point is to glean conflict. Who's fighting whom? What's the latest scandal? What's the plot twist in Oedipus Rex? Now how can you turn that on its head? Sure, there's tension between North and South Korea. What if there was a similar tension between North and South Dakota? Or between neighbors? How can you blow up the conflict? How can you shift it to something more comedic? Or darker?

2. Be Primal - Beyond a certain age, we all experience loss, love, pain, death, fear, and desire. Whether you're in America or Nicaragua or Sweden or Ethiopia or China, everyone has a relationship with these primal, human experiences. But not everyone has the same relationship. In fact, no two people have the same relationship with these constants. What's yours? What do you fear or desire? What's something you wish you had? Or wish you never lost? Or wish you had the power to do? See what I'm saying? Luke Skywalker dreamed of adventure... and adventure appeared in his lap in the form of R2-D2 and C-3PO. What little kid doesn't wish for the power to fight bullies and injustice? Thanks to an invitation to Hogwarts, Harry Potter learned just that. What's something we all experience? What's an engaging way to explore it?

3. Be Yourself - Use your voice. It takes that which everyone experiences and distills it down to what you experience, alone. What are your interests, hobbies, tics, superstitions? How can you develop those into full-blown situations? How could you play with time period, setting, and circumstance?

Here's an example: let's say you like board games. Now let's set this idea in the near future - the human race might be expanding into space, and on long interstellar flights, they have to remain occupied in zero-gravity. But how will checkers and chess work in a zero-gravity environment? What if your character came up with a way to create games with artificial gravity, but NASA realizes that your invention could work on a larger scale (i.e., for the humans themselves)? And what if, once abused, this technology could have direct and awful ramifications for gravity on earth?

This is far, far away from the best idea in the world. However, the point is that it only needed to start with something small, something personal, and with a dash of imagination, could become something potentially much, much bigger.

The irony of storytelling is that in telling your own story, you're telling everyone else's story (and vice-versa). In Finding Nemo, Andrew Stanton was telling a tale about relationships between parents and children. However, as a premature baby who was himself not expected to survive (like Nemo himself), Stanton was also telling his own story. Being literal, primal, and yourself means being clever, relatable, and personal. And that's what the very best stories are.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Flaws Are Awesome

Character flaws? They're awesome!
"Human beings can't see anything without wanting to destroy it. That's Original Sin." - Philip Pullman, The Golden Compass

"You are the Special. And so am I. And so is everyone. The prophecy is made up, but it's also true. It's about all of us. Right now, it's about you. And you... still... can change everything." - Phil Lord & Christopher Miller, The Lego Movie

I was recently asked in a class, "How can I simultaneously make my character flawed and yet lovable? Aren't flaws usually dislikable parts of a person? Like someone who's too jealous? Or too greedy?"

It's a good question. But a better one would be, "How does my character's flaw make my character lovable?"

A sympathetic character won't hurt anyone other than him or herself. In hurting him/herself, a character who is his or her own worst enemy is ironic: a character with the most to learn - and is the most fun to watch as he/she undergoes rich conflict to perform the learning.

The Godfather's Michael Corleone - he destroys his family to "save" it.
The Shawshank Redemption's Andy Dufresne - he lands in hopeless situations repeatedly to bring hope to his fellow inmates.
Star Wars's Luke Skywalker - his anger at Darth Vader threatens to destroy everyone he holds dear.
Dallas Buyers Club's Ron Woodruff - those he detests the most are the ones he must befriend in order to save himself and others.
The Lego Movie's Emmet - his low self-image jeopardizes the entire world.
A Clockwork Orange's Alex - his drive to victimize render him into the ultimate victim.
Groundhog Day's Phil Conners - thinks so highly of himself that no one else thinks highly of him.
Harry Potter becomes powerful enough to rival Voldemort - but will his anger and despair drive him to make the same murderous decisions to retain that power?

Here are some questions to ask yourself about character development:

How has your character felt that he/she "missed the boat" on something? What does he/she regret?
What does your character cling to a little too hard?
What does your character take for granted?
Is your protagonist in a funk when the story starts? Why?
Is there an injustice that your character suffers? Is it an actual injustice? Or is it only an injustice from her/her point of view?
What makes that (perceived) injustice relatable?
What or who is the biggest loss your character has ever suffered?
What makes your character likable? And dislikable?

Flawed doesn't mean evil: it means human. It means relatable and universal. Further, a character who overcomes his/her flaw doesn't become a perfect person, but he/she can become perfect for the situation, perfect for handling that which threatens what they hold most dear. Becoming is always more engaging than being and the only characters who have a direction in which to become are those who start as troubled.

You don't have to watch a film to see this in action. Look at any celebrity or politician scandal of the past day (missed today's? There will be more tomorrow). Why are these stories so popular? Celebrity meltdowns and the indiscretions of politicians remind us of something. Those who we put atop pedestals are not that much different from ourselves. As they fall, there is a corresponding elevation - this omnipresent idea that in some way, we're all the same.

A character who learns how to overcome his/her flaw attracts attention like a lightning rod. A new character stands in the place of their old self, who has been destroyed. Destruction means change. It means new life. And that's ultimately good news for your character.

When an audience member projects him/herself upon your character onscreen, or a reader imagines him/herself as the protagonist of your novel (either of which would be ideal for you), you've reminded them of something about themselves. If your character is victimized, a reader/watcher recalls himself or herself as a victim. If your character experiences the healing joy of a long-coming reunification, your audience should feel that, too. We experience the highs because we know the lows, and we experience the lows because we're experts on the highs. We've lived them both, after all. By the same token, to accept a complete character at the end of your work, your audience must be familiar with the character as incomplete. As flawed.

Really, as themselves.

Monday, January 27, 2014

The Visual Makes the Film

"Your hair's not visual enough."
Recently, I discussed a feature script I was writing with a talented fellow screenwriter friend who's also a contributing writer for Script Magazine. After discussing my premise ("A young man, hoping to break out of his drought-stricken town, must stop his brother, in league with a major agricultural concern, from bleeding the town's water supply dry."), he asked, "What makes it visual?"

I was struck by the question. The very fact that I was writing it as a screenplay made it visual! Or so I thought. He followed up my silence with, "What makes it a movie?"

They're the same question.

I tell my students that they're writing a film, not a radio play. You must keep it interesting to watch, first and foremost.

Sounds obvious? It's astonishing how many scenes, even in popular films, violate this basic tenet. It turns out, not every story is visual.

A lightsaber duel is visual. Two characters having a long conversation over dinner is not. A husband walking in on his wife having an affair in their children's bedroom is visual. A character sitting and thinking isn't. Popeye Doyle's chase scene in The French Connection (or just about any chase scene) is visual. A character standing across the desk from his boss and talking is not.

Here's my definition: a visual scene invests you by virtue of what you see onscreen. Great dialogue doesn't make a scene visual. Even an unusual setting, alone, won't make a scene visual (though it helps, especially if it's integrated with the action). Why can this scene not be a radio play? Having solid answers to that question is the first step.

Films are made of scenes. Guess what happens if you don't pump enough visual action into your scenes? The film stops being visual, as a whole. It becomes that radio play I cautioned you against.

I recently saw Enough Said, James Gandolfini's final film. While well-acted on his part, the greater film struck me as one of the least visual works I had seen in recent memory. There were no less than a half-dozen (that I can immediately recall) scenes of characters sitting around, talking, and eating. Just shooting the breeze. What made the settings interesting? What made the conversations have to take place inside of these restaurants or back patios? Why did the characters have to be sitting and eating in the first place? They didn't. They were just truck stops for exposition. They stuck out as if the filmmaker was saying, "Let's take a break from the story for a moment and catch our breath with a bit of character development."

If the film is remembered for anything other than Gandolfini, it'll assuredly be for the scenes that took place outside of the restaurants, outside of the let's-laugh-over-guacamole-on-the-patio scenes. And that shouldn't be. Your whole film should be memorable. Every scene of Jurassic Park, every scene of Captain Phillips, and every scene of American Hustle, for example, is visual. Something happens in each scene. Each scene has a defining action. You're able to sum up what happened in each scene in a word!

More than a way to sit - a way to threaten.
I've been taught to think of such a thing as "trailer moments." What are the scenes, the actions, that will make someone want to see your film, all else being equal? Can you assign a defining verb to each of your scenes? Here's a hint: if "talk" or "think" is the defining verb, then go back to the drawing board. Sure, characters can talk during a scene. The point is that there needs to be something else going on under the dialogue. A threat, for example. In American Beauty, Lester Burnham is told that he has to write out a job description for himself or else risk losing his corporate middle-management position. The scene takes place in an office, with Lester sitting on the wrong side of the desk from an efficiency expert. They're sitting and talking, but there's an implied threat: do this or be fired. It's more than just sitting and talking.

I did a similar exercise with a colleague's script just last week. He showed me a scene with the protagonist sitting at a restaurant table and reminiscing with his family. When I asked the writer what the scene's defining action was, he said, "Remembering." That wont work. Imagine telling your audience, "Now we're going to watch a scene about a character remembering." Is it fun to watch someone remember something? Not nearly as engaging as it is watching a threat. Keep it visual. Keep it a film. Visual scenes are the scenes you should be writing.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Rough Draft to Final Draft

Since my last post, I completed production of Are You with Me. It's amazing how having a great cast and crew make a director's job far easier than it otherwise could've been. Directing, regardless, is not an easy task. When I ask my production students at the beginning of the semester who wants to direct, most hands go up. As they find out over the course of the semester, if it comes easy to you, you're doing it wrong.

My favorite director is Stanley Kubrick. His daughter, Vivian, made a 35-minute documentary on her father's directing of The Shining. It's astounding to watch Kubrick prioritize, direct, and come up with some of the film's most iconic shots. I highly recommend it, not just for fans of the film, but for fans of the art.

As I'm sure you might imagine, Are You with Me went through several drafts and changes. Very often, I'm presented with an obvious first or second draft from a writer who thinks that they're ready to roll. With only one exception that I've ever heard, two drafts won't cut it. Nor will five. Or 10. Good writing is hard. Period.

What's the exception? In Virginia in 2010, I heard screenwriter Scott Kosar (The Machinist, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Crazies) tell an audience that he had only written one and a half drafts of The Machinist before it was picked up. Kosar is phenomenally talented, but stories like his, I promise, are the exceptions to the rule. Children's book author Avi is known to have written over 50 drafts of the first chapter to his book Crispin: The Cross of Lead. Chapter one is only four and a half pages.

A lot can and should change between draft one and the final version. But for what in particular should you keep an eye out?

As an example, I thought I'd share my first draft and final draft of Are You with Me.

Here's the first draft.

As you can see, the first difference starts on the title page. The original working title was Under the Blanket. Like a lot of working titles, this one changed over the course of production. But why? True, there's a little boy under a blanket within the film, but the phrase "under the blanket" doesn't really evoke the film's theme on its own. It sounds like it could be a horror film, or worse, something dirty! That's definitely not what I wanted folks to think!

The first draft also begins with Courtney the babysitter, speaking to Lorraine and Jeff. On page two is our exposition moment, and it's painful. It's not integrated. We don't see it. We just hear about it. Far more effective would be to see Courtney's discovery of the drugs. To see the pain on her face. Like I tell my students, it's not a radio play. Show, don't tell.

It's hard enough to exhibit a character's emotional transition in a feature film. In a short, it's a monumental challenge. In the first draft, it's unclear when or if Courtney's transition from unforgiving to merciful takes place. Jackie cries, Courtney rolls her eyes, and simply embraces him. But what does she learn?

Finally, on pages four and five, comes the twist. It may not have been Eddie under the blanket at all. Hysterical parents over the phone. Lots of conflict. But is it the best way to spend the limited time in the script? Another phone call?

Here's the final draft.

The title is different. As mentioned in my prior blog post, it's a quote taken right from a conversation I had with my late Aunt Wendy. "Are You with Me" struck me as evocative of the theme. Literally, are you with me or against me? What will you decide?

This draft begins with Courtney arriving home to discover the drugs in a beloved stuffed animal. We see it. We don't hear about it afterward. That surprise, anguish, and fury are all there for us to see. Far more interesting than hearing about it all afterward.

I have to be honest. The line "Monsters aren't real. Or is that your word for scared and alone?" gave me the most trouble. That line must have gone through about a dozen rewrites. It's a key line, as it's what triggers a switch in Courtney's head. It's the moment at which she realizes what she's been doing and what her new purpose must be. I wanted little Eddie to be a parallel to Courtney's brother Phil, and the words she speaks to Eddie to soothe him are really being said to Phil. The word "monster" is also integrated into the film, being said three times. Once to refer to Phil, once to refer to Eddie, and once when Eddie challenges Courtney to redefine it. Far tighter.

The decision to drop the final phone conversation was a late change. However, I realized two things: one, if Jackie's spirit was really under the blanket, he wouldn't leave it behind for his parents to discover. Second, the phone call put the focus less on Courtney's decision to forgive Phil and more on the supernatural aspects of the story. This was always meant to be a story about a girl forgiving her brother, not about a girl encountering a possible ghost. So I dropped the phone call and instead inserted the quicker visual image of the blanket simply not being there anymore. Show, don't tell.

Incidentally, I'm running a Kickstarter for the film. The following link has the trailer as well as other information to help you become involved with this exciting project. I hope you enjoy it!

http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/jaredmgordon/are-you-with-me

Thursday, November 7, 2013

What it Means to Use Your Voice

When I tell my students to "use your voice" as a writer, I can't help but feel that I'm telling them something trite and Hallmark-esque. "Who else's voice am I supposed to use?" I can almost hear them ask.

Some of the greatest advice I heard from Tim Albaugh of Hollins and UCLA, it refers to taking the archetypal/universal and baking it into your art as only you can do. There are experiences, once you're past a certain age, that you're guaranteed to experience: love, loss, and death to name a few (in Save the Cat, screenwriter Blake Snyder refers to these themes as primal: survival, protection of loved ones, hunger, sex, and fear of death).

Regardless of culture or home country, you're bound to these themes. They transcend boundaries. They are human experiences. Your unique take on them, fed by your unique experiences with them, are what comprise your voice.

Look at the work of Alan Ball (American Beauty, Six Feet Under, True Blood): in each of his works, you can almost hear him say, "Life is great, but it'll all be over one day and sooner than you'd like."
Or how about Alfred Hitchcock (Psycho, Shadow of a Doubt, Rear Window, The Birds)? His voice concerns the uncanny: a mild-mannered motel clerk, a beloved uncle, neighbors, or a flock of pigeons – all turn from the unexceptional to the dreadful.

And let's not forget Stanley Kubrick (2001: A Space Odyssey, Dr. Strangelove, The Shining, Full Metal Jacket). Omnipresent in each of his works is the theme of irony. Humankind is its own worst enemy. You can take the animal out of the jungle, but you can never take the jungle out of the animal.

When people say, "Alan Ball," "Alfred Hitchcock," "Stanley Kubrick," "Steven Spielberg," "Marleen Gorris," "Tim Burton," or "Ron Howard," images instantly spring to mind, images of a type of film. You know, in general, what you're in for if you pop in anything by one of these artists.

Why should it be any different for you and your work? It shouldn't.

I'd like to share one such experience with you, one that has sharply focused this idea for me.

Back in 2006, I received a frightening call. My Aunt Wendy, then 54, had fallen down some stairs and was in a hospital in New York. I was living in Massachusetts at the time and zipped down to her bedside.

Wendy and I had always had a tight relationship. She was my most vocal supporter when I told my family that I had decided to cease my studies of electrical engineering and go into film. She'd always ask me about my projects and how she could help. Wendy was an aunt, an ally, and a friend. So much so that she's credited as executive producer on each of my films.

So you can imagine how matters were complicated when it came out that she had fallen down the stairs after blacking out due to a bit too much cocaine. I, Wendy's two siblings, and my cousins were upset and hurt. However, I was surprised to discover the depths of the family's anger.

"If she behaves this way, we'll turn our back," became the party line. "She has to choose: the drugs or her family."

At Wendy's bedside, I told her how hurt I felt and how colossally stupid I thought she had been. She said, "I can accept that. But you need to know that I don't mean to stop. I don't want help, I like my life, and I don't want to change anything."

Then, as I'm assuming that both of us had the rest of the family in mind, she asked me something I'll never forget:

"Will you turn your back with the rest of them, or are you with me?"

She had been irresponsible, selfish, and careless.

On the other hand, she was family. She was Wendy.

I told her, "You're an adult. You'll do these things whether I want you to or not. But I can't judge you. I'm with you, Wen. Even if you're an asshole."

She liked that.

The family was upset with me, some going far enough to accuse me of undermining their "plan" to make her quit. They didn't understand that Wendy was Wendy, and that she wasn't going to quit whether we cut contact or not. Given that, while I didn't endorse her life choices, I certainly wanted to maximize whatever time with her that I had left.

As years passed, some of the family returned to speaking terms with her and some didn't. Me? I couldn't turn my back. She had always supported me. I'd be ashamed to turn on her, but I also wasn't afraid to call her on her crap. We continued a strong relationship until she passed away suddenly this past August, due to natural, non-drug-related causes. She was 62.

What's a lesson I took from the experience? That it's okay to be unpopular if you choose the right thing. That people who make bad decisions need love and forgiveness, not vengefulness and victimization.

In the past month, I've written a new short film. It's about a hard, angry young woman who, after a night babysitting a difficult child with a secret, comes to forgive her addict younger brother for hurting her feelings.

I'm in pre-production on it, and production is scheduled for early December.

It's entitled Are You with Me.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

All in the Image

The best images are mirrors in which we see ourselves.

I want something more to my life:



I'm afraid for a loved one:



I have to let someone go, even though it's ripping me to pieces:



I hope:



The best actors wear the same expressions on their faces as we do while we watch them. The writer's job is to make the reader wear the same expression as he/she reads. To elicit emotion from a black and white page is no easy task, but that's what makes writing so difficult - and so important.

As your reader likely won't have access to actors to perform the script live in front of them, you must rely on dialogue and action to make your point. This means keeping your reader on his/her toes and making your characters pop from page one.

Once you've crafted your character and the situation in which they find themselves, what's your poster image? What's a defining snapshot (literally - imagine a photo) that tells us as much as possible about who your character is and what they're up against? What makes them iconic?

How is your beginning the promise of your end? How will you bookend your story? In what way has your protagonist changed?

Of course, it's not enough to think of defining images for your work at large. Can you think of a defining image in each individual sequence? Or scene?

Many actors use a device known as sense memory which reminds them of similar circumstances to those in your script. If you have a scene in which they have to commit an illegal act, they might place themselves back to when they were 17 and sneaked into a neighbor's yard to steal a lawn gnome.

Bottom line, actors become characters through accurately evoking emotion. You become a writer the same way. So when you write a scene and you're not sure how to make a character react, base your conflict on what you've seen in real life, not other films. You relate to it. Your actors will relate to it.

Most importantly, your audience will relate to it, and they'll be back for more from you.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Expositionally Yours

"I choose to expose myself."
"Please! There are ladies present!"


Exposition is like a vegetable on a kid's plate. If you want it eaten, you must disguise it.

While necessary to a point of being obvious, exposition's strength lies in its subtlety. It must be fed to your audience without their knowing. Unlike in this example:















There's a difference between telling and showing. A smart audience picks up on the difference, and a good writer defaults to the latter, every time:

 






















There's drama in the latter example. There's conflict. There's action. Exposition through conflict is the best and most effective way to mask exposition.

In real life, no one ever performs a "catch-up" conversation to bring us up to speed. If it's necessary to transmit to your audience that a character graduated as valedictorian of his business school, has a family, and runs a handful of businesses, you'd never hear someone say, "Ever since he graduated as valedictorian of his business school, got married, had five kids, and successfully ran four businesses, he's been a jerk."

Best to show it. And the best way to show it? Conflict! Every time. You might show the degree on his wall. You might show him on the phone with his business partners while sitting in the front row during his kids' school play. It's an image that shows us way more than any line of dialogue ever could. Show us through visuals. Through action. Through conflict!

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Dialogue Isn't Cheap

That's nothing. You should see inside a writer's head.
I'm a judge for the NYC Midnight Screenwriting Challenge. The first-round participants are asked to write short scripts, no longer than 12 pages each, while incorporating a particular genre, person, and location (i.e., sci-fi, a sports coach, and a hospital. Or comedy, pro golfer, and Times Square). It's gratifying to see how creative and varied the writers can be, given the time limits and constraints imposed upon them.

One thing that's stuck out about a lot of the entries is the dialogue. Broadly, that there's far too much of it. Dialogue is a sticking point for a lot of writers, both novice and experienced. It's the first thing that freshly-minted screenwriters want to write (who doesn't want to take on multiple personalities and make 'em fight?), but among the hardest aspects of the craft to master.

I'm frequently asked by my students, "How can I make the dialogue sound more realistic?" or "I want my dialogue to sound like real people talking. How do I do that?"

My response to these questions is simple. Don't.

UCLA screenwriting co-chair Richard Walter says, "You can hear how real people talk on any street corner for free. Film dialogue is worth the price of admission." But it's more than that.

A common exercise that screenwriting professors give to their students is to have them eavesdrop on a conversation and transcribe it verbatim into screenplay format. Chances are if you're reading this, at some point in your past, an eager screenwriting student sat near you and overheard your conversation about what to buy at the grocery store, or about who's dating whom, or about that weird rash that even your dermatologist can't figure out.

Here's the thing about the way real people talk: it's boring. We say "um," "uh," and "you know." We pause. We lose our train of thought. We go on tangents. Basically, we do everything that should not be put into your characters' dialogue. No one wants to hear how real people talk. On the flip side, if you make your dialogue too pedantic and impeccable, there's the trap of falling into the unrealistic dialogue category. You don't want everyone in your script to sound like they're all the same person.

Bottom line, a lot of thought must go into dialogue. A lot. It needs to be integrated, the idea being that every line has to tell us something more about the character and simultaneously advance the story.

Here's the basics of how I tell my students to think about it:

1. Write it. For starters, just write down whatever you want, at first. Don't worry about making it perfect the first time through. It won't be. This frequently leads to scenes such as:

INT. BELLA'S KITCHEN - DAY

JIM, 14, in a too-big football jersey, munches cereal at the table. His droopy eyes are red.

BELLA, 44, t-crosser and i-dotter, explodes in. A tornado in a scrap yard. She spots an open milk carton on the counter.

                           BELLA
              I don't know why you don't listen to me,
              Jim. If I've told you once, I've told
              you a thousand times: put the milk in
              the fridge when you're done with it! Do
              you know what happens to warm milk?
              It stinks up the whole kitchen, and I
              won't tolerate another bad-smelling
              room in this house. Yours is enough.


We learn a lot in this scene, but it can be better.

2. Truncate it. Take one sentence to say what five sentences say. This is a per-situation directive, but the point is to say the dialogue in as few sentences as possible. This is the foundation of wit:

                           BELLA
              You want my kitchen to smell like your
              shit-house room?

Saying the same thing with less is more effective. But is it the most effective way of all?

3. Default to an action. Go dialogue-free. It's possibly the most powerful and universal method for telling the story (it is "lights, camera, action, after all).

Bella spots an open milk carton on the counter.

She grabs it, throws it into the fridge, slams the door shut.

Jim jumps, his spoonful of cereal flies into his face.

*OR*

Bella spots an open milk carton on the counter.

She grabs it, stomps out.


INT. JIM'S BEDROOM - CONTINUOUS

A catastrophe of biblical proportions. Clothing piles creep up the wall like frozen ocean waves.

Bella pounds in, wrinkles her nose, sets the milk carton atop the clothing pile on Jim's hidden bed, exits.


Either way, Bella makes her point, and without saying a word. In fact, we learn quite a bit about Bella, Jim, and their relationship in very few, dialogue-free lines.

The point is, you'll have trouble going dialogue-free all the time, but if you apply the "less is more" adage, then you may be surprised at how cleverer and more streamlined your script will become.

Another great example of this (thanks to Tim Albaugh for pointing this one out) can be found in Charlie Kaufman's Being John Malkovich screenplay. In this scene, Craig Schwartz (John Cusack) attempts to relay the experience of being in Malkovich's head to his disinterested love interest, Maxine Lund (Catherine Keener). She can say almost anything in response to his rambling, fantastical, dorky story, but she defaults to an action, and it's the scene's punch line:



Sometimes the very best dialogue is no dialogue at all.

But sometimes, you have to use it. That's fine. The point is that it's better to first ask, "Should I use dialogue here?" than "What dialogue should I use here?" at least to start. When you do need dialogue, keep it quick and to the point.

In Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight trilogy, there are scores of examples of tight, well-written dialogue. There's a lot of story packed into every scene, and it's because there's only as much talking as there needs to be.

In the following scene from The Dark Knight, a lot needs to happen:

1. District Attorney Harvey Dent needs to meet Batman.
2. We need to understand that both Lieutenant Jim Gordon and Dent have people working for them who may not be trustworthy.
3. Dent and Gordon don't even necessarily trust each other.
4. The mob's money launderer, Lau, has fled to Hong Kong.
5. Gordon and Dent need Lau back in Gotham.
6. Dent and Gordon lack the legal means to bring Lau back.
7. Are they all on the same page with regards to what will happen to Lau if he's brought back?
8. Are all three men clear on the possible consequences to themselves if Lau's brought back?

That's most of it. But screenwriters Christopher and Jonathan Nolan convey this information in just over a page:



The scene pushes the story ahead. Batman has the green light to "extradite" Lau in his own way. Even the last line, thrown in for a bit of comic relief, also proves to Dent that Batman's the right man for the job. Lots of information in tightly-packed dialogue. Such is good screenwriting, and thus a central tenet of the craft can be distilled: it takes no time to write a lot, but it takes a lot of practice to write a little. Dialogue should not be cheap, and a practiced writer won't use it cheaply.