Saturday, December 29, 2007
The same can be said of the way believers find strength in religious images or personalities. It’s also true of the positive side of the therapeutic relationship.
All these situations have in common that an individual vicariously experiences the love, strength, determination, courage or whatever it is they feel they lack. Of course this vicarious experience is a bit of an oxymoron. You can’t really have an emotion without … well, having the emotion.
By attributing the feeling or trait to an external figure, an individual allows that repressed or underdeveloped aspect of themselves to express itself safely. It’s not them feeling brave or loving, it’s God, Saint Bono, their yoga instructor, etc.
Does this sound a little like what happens when you see a really great movie? No coincidence. It’s the same mechanism at work here too. Which is why a main character has to be designed in such a way that the audience can experience their emotions while keeping up the pretence that it’s the character on the screen who is being brave, loving, terrified, etc.
Whether the audience does anything with the emotions they permitted themselves to feel, is their business. But if the film makes them experience compassion, courage, self-confidence or whatever else, it proves the film was well-made and that they have that potential within them.
Which kind of sums up the unspoken deal between audience and filmmaker: The audience pays to be made to experience emotions they normally keep under wraps.
Next time you re-read one of your scenes, imagine yourself in the audience watching it. If you don’t feel anything, uplifting or otherwise, you’re not keeping your side of the bargain.
Saturday, December 22, 2007
For those of you with a Freudian bias, it might come as a surprise that a bush can stand for anything other than a bush.
However, according to the Jungian school of analytical psychology, especially the late great Marie-Louise von Franz, this image is a depiction of procrastination. It’s a symbolic version of the wrong kind of perfectionism: a person getting caught up in preparation rather than getting down to the task at hand. It’s the epitome of the difference between activity and action. Between the dabbler and the do-er.
One of the reasons I like this image so much is because it's the perfect representation of a screenwriter spending too much time thinking and planning instead of writing. Not that I think preparation is wrong. On the contrary, I use outlines and scene lists myself and for me they work.
The wisdom of this image is that too much focus on preparation is counter-productive. At some point you have to just dive in and start writing. At which point you give the characters the opportunity to come alive and show you, the writer, who they are. That’s when the real fun starts! Plus that’s when you really discover what works and what doesn’t.
In this respect I agree totally with Pixar’s Andrew Stanton, whose wonderful quote I’ve added to this page: “The first draft is nothing more than a starting point, so be wrong as fast as you can.”
Tuesday, December 11, 2007
In itself a cute idea, but perhaps there’s something to learn here as well.
How about being ordered, unexpectedly, every twenty days or so, to drop everything and spend half an hour brainstorming a completely new story?
How often do you have an idea but tell yourself you’re too busy to waste time imagining some new endeavour because you’re up to your ears in your current work? Probably too often. And yet there’s nothing more reassuring (other than a very fat bank account, perhaps) than having a healthy stock of original ideas up your sleeve.
It's not just reassuring, it makes good professional sense too.
You never know when you might be able to pitch an idea or to whom. It’s always good to have a choice of projects to hawk rather than just that single script you’ve been rewriting for seven years.
Anyway, I’ve set up precisely the hassle I described above. No doubt I’ll have forgotten all about it when the first nag arrives in a few weeks’ time. I’ll let you know what happens…
Monday, December 10, 2007
Which is one reason government ministers aren’t the best paid executives in the world.
But seriously. What makes you interesting as a screenwriter is what makes you irreplaceable. What can you write that no one else can? Go ahead, make a list. What do you write best? When do you feel most comfortable and “in the flow” while writing?
Some screenwriters are absolutely the best at writing dialogue, others have a special talent for plot. Some screenwriters write fascinating original stories, while others are experts at adapting novels and short stories for the screen.
You may have inside knowledge of an ethnic or religious group, or perhaps you have experience in a specific trade or profession. Then again, maybe an aspect of the writing itself (dialogue, gags, structure, plot) is what you love doing most.
There are only so many stories to tell, but a unique and intriguing retelling of a familiar story is a highly sought after commodity in the film industry. So whatever raises your writing above the generic, is what makes you an interesting prospect to work with.
The only way to succeed is to acknowledge and nurture what is personal and unique about your writing. That is what makes your writing attractive, not contrived plot devices or derivative rehashes of the latest Hollywood genre crossover.
This also means recognizing what you’re not good at, which is perhaps even more arduous but equally worthwhile. But more about that some other time. I need to get back to work.
Now then, where’s that hugely original outline I was writing about a genetically mutated child prodigy born to an Eskimo mother and an Italian newspaper magnate, who travels back in time in an attempt to prevent the dinosaurs from going extinct …
Monday, November 26, 2007
According to Peter Day a recent episode of the BBC radio programme In Business entitled Eureka Democracy, when Proctor & Gamble need a particular molecule for a new product nowadays, they put up an online announcement. Instead of having to make do with the hundreds of scientists they employ, they can now appeal to thousands of people all over the world. The risk is that they reveal the nature of the new product they’re working on, but the rewards make this risk entirely worth taking: They get their molecule far more rapidly than in the old system, and they create new and exciting working relationships in the process.
Imagine Steven Spielberg posting the following online:
“I want to make a film about a great white shark that terrorizes a small town on the west coast of the US. The local sheriff acknowledges the danger, but is told by the mayor to keep quiet in order not to scare off potential investors in new real estate. In terms of theme: The shark symbolizes our fear of the unknown. In terms of plot: the central conflict is the power struggle between the sheriff and the mayor, a metaphor for the struggle between greed and integrity. Please send scripts to …”
The risk Spielberg takes is that he’s publicizing his idea for a movie, which other producers might “steal.” But doesn’t it also make a lot of sense? Or at least more sense than all this secretive, paranoid behaviour? I mean how likely is it, that if Spielberg puts up a posting like this, someone with a “shark” script lying around is going to look for a different producer?
Production companies would get what they’re looking for quickly and efficiently and writers would get to send their scripts to people they know are interested in their subject matter.
Friday, November 23, 2007
I saw a great illustration of this yesterday on Lead Balloon. To my mind the comedy in last night’s episode worked wonderfully because of the underlying drama.
Rick Spleen, desperate to break into mainstream TV, bumps into a high-ranking TV producer in the neighbourhood and hastily invites him and his wife to dinner. He tells him he’s got a (non-existing) project he wants to discuss with him. We then follow him desperately trying to think up a project and nervously preparing to host the important evening. He buys champagne and cigars and splashes out on all sorts of other unaffordable items meant to impress his visitor. He’s obviously not used to entertaining important guests and is desperate to make it look as if he is. He even rehearses the nonchalant lines he’s going to use. So when the guests finally arrive, we the audience are fully keyed up to the impending drama: Is he going to make an impression and land himself that all-important TV project?
What really happens, though, is that his wife recognizes their guest. He's not a TV mogul at all, he's the building contractor who repaired their roof four years ago. Rick is gutted and has to wrestle his way through the rest of the evening attempting to be polite while feeling like shit.
I found the comedy in Rick’s pain, embarrassment and self-loathing excruciatingly funny. It would certainly have been a far less intense experience if the build-up to the reversal hadn’t been as dramatic (and cleverly misleading!). The lengthy set-up, during which I unwittingly identified with Rick’s mixture of ambition and lack of self-confidence, made his deflation that much more entertaining.
The moral of the story? You have to show what’s at stake in the story in order to be able to make fun of the characters in an emotionally engaging way. If the audience identifies with the comedic character’s desires, then they will experience whatever happens to them far more intensively.
Monday, November 12, 2007
While I write, I like to distract the critical, anxious and agitated parts of my mind with the blandest new-age type meditation music. If you actually sit and listen to this kind of music, it’s utterly boring. But as an accompaniment to a creative (or indeed erotic) activity, it’s the best. I’m no neurologist, but my guess is it’s something to do with alpha waves, left/right brains and stuff like that.
Whatever works for you. As long as you can relax, be 100% with what you’re writing and let what you’re visualizing flow naturally into the text. That seems to be the most important thing. Just as your lovemaking can be ruined by concerns about “performance” or other distractions, so too your writing.
As long as you are completely present in what you’re doing, you have the best chance of enjoying the experience, and possibly being invited to do it again.
Saturday, November 10, 2007
Forster gives examples ranging from tidying a drawer to buying a new house. But his idea is not only useful for procrastinators, screenwriters can also learn a thing or two from him.
If you stop to consider it for a moment, this a is a hugely powerful way of identifying a character’s goals and conflicts.
Simply by imagining (or writing) your character in a situation and having them ask themselves, “Is this the way I want it?” you hit the ground running. You activate that part of your imagination where your character resides. Especially when you follow up with, “What do I need to do to make things the way I want them?”
These two highly evocative questions set your character in motion, get them talking.
Each “What do I need to do to …” yields a concrete task. Something a character has to do (i.e., something visual) to work towards getting things the way they want them to be. And each “What do I need to do …” can be followed up with another one until you finally arrive at the very basic and frightening thing the character has been avoiding all along.
Of course, to make things even more interesting, your character can be wrong. They think they know what to do to make things better, but they’re actually making things worse.
As I’ve written before screenwriting is often about asking yourself the right questions.
Tuesday, October 30, 2007
We screenwriters, being mere mortals like the rest of humanity, don’t much like uncertainty either. But “not yet knowing” where a story is going or exactly what a character is going to do, is an important phase in the writing process and should not be hurried.
It’s often hard to imagine, but there’s always another way of writing everything.
Sometimes a great idea only occurs when lots of scenes have already been put in place and the perspective on the whole screenplay changes. Or when you’re halfway through the storyboard. Or when you do a table reading.
Tolerating the discomfort of knowing where you want to go but not yet knowing the way, is a skill you have to master as a screenwriter. And it’s actually easy once you learn to go with Zen of screenwriting and see each idea for what it is: One of an endless stream of ideas passing through you.
It’s a bit like having forgotten where you put your car keys when you’re already late, or not for the life of you being able to come up with the right word even though you know it exists. The harder you try to recall that trivial little piece of information, the more hopeless it seems.
The best policy in these situations is more often than not: Do something else.
Same with the unarticulated screenplay element you’re struggling with. Do something else. Relax. Trust your unconscious mind to do the work while you’re looking the other way.
Don’t take my word for it, go to Creative Screenwriting Magazine and listen to their podcast interview with David Lynch in which he talks about his fascinating relationship with ideas.
Or, of course, you could go and do something else ...
Tuesday, October 16, 2007
Flashbacks, voice-overs and dream scenes are frowned upon by most in the film industry these days. The mantra goes like this: These cinematic tools digress from the action. They take the audience out of the movie, disturb the narrative flow of the story. They’ve been used too much. And anyway, there’s always a better way to get the same information or emotion across.
Is any of this true?
Not on TV. Where would Six Feet Under, Medium, Heroes and all the rest of contemporary small-screen magical realism be without a parallel fantasy world?
And there are plenty of box-office hit films that use these techniques beautifully too: What would The Shawshank Redemption be without Morgan Freeman’s voiceover? What would Prince of Tides be without Nick Nolte’s flashbacks? What would Open Range be without Kevin Costner’s nightmare scene?
Nevertheless, the general consensus in movie-land is that these are the exceptions that prove the rule. “Use these tools in a spec script at your peril,” we’re warned. Screenplays are “stories told in pictures and sound,” and the accepted way to draw the audience in and give them insight into the characters, is by having the characters do things in the (fictional) here and now.
Question: Who ever heard of a production company turning down a thrilling, hilarious, or intriguing script because it had a voice-over in it? Or a flashback, or a dream sequence? More than likely, if this is given as a reason for rejecting the script, the basic idea isn’t strong enough to begin with. Because if the idea at the core of a screenplay is great, then the exact details of the writing are of secondary importance.
So will we use the voice-over or not? I think it might just work …
Sunday, October 7, 2007
Imagine you had a device like this in your mind. You’re stuck with a scene, a character, an idea, whatever. It just won’t gel. Probably because you’re sticking too closely to some preconceived direction you were travelling in. For some reason you’re convinced that this is the way it has to be. Even though it’s not working. Hey, it happens to the best of us.
Well lucky for you, you’ve just hit the turntable. You’re about to shunt.
Drive your scene, character, whatever, slowly onto the turntable and stop. Look around. You can pick any of the available alternative directions. You can change drivers. You can change destinations. It’s the ultimate "What if?" Let your imagination go down any of the different tracks leading away from the turntable.
And if you get the jitters (damn, what about my perfect set-up in scene 3?) you can always decide you were right in the first place and choose straight ahead.
P.S. For the nitpickers among you: Yes, changing tack is a nautical metaphor. But isn’t creativity all about taking two disparate concepts and conjuring up something new with them?
Monday, September 24, 2007
Because each of the main characters has a relatively limited amount of screen time, only ten scenes altogether for some of them, I have to force myself to be absolutely unequivocal about the function of every scene. I have very little time to establish characterization and conflict, so my choices become that much more critical.
So the question “when is a scene not a scene?” isn’t an academic one. It’s a practical query concerning how to keep the audience engaged with the story even though they’re following more characters and plotlines than they’re used to.
The answer is: A scene isn’t a scene when it’s merely a situation, a series of actions or images which depict a set of circumstances without raising a dramatic question.
A situation can certainly be as interesting as a scene in terms of imagery, acting, dialogue, and so on. And I’m not an Aristotelian fundamentalist who demands that every element in a screenplay must develop character and move the plot forward, as the manuals say. But in the screenplay I’m writing at the moment, if I don’t leave the audience wondering what’s going to happen next, then my multi-whatever structure is going to confuse rather than intrigue.
My way of making sure each scene earns its place in the screenplay, is to ask myself these basic questions at the outline or treatment stage (i.e., before I start writing the scene itself):
1. What action dominates the scene? That becomes my scene title in a scene list. Not necessarily anything dramatic, but a title which I will recognize immediately.
2. What’s the main conflict in the scene? This becomes my “scene subtitle” in a scene list.
3. What are the main beats in the scene? This becomes the kind of simple, one paragraph prose description I use in a treatment.
4. What further action does the scene cause? This becomes the hook at the end of the scene which makes you want to know what happens next.
Of course these are not the only questions I ask myself whilst planning the scene, but if I’ve got these items covered, at least I know the basics are sound. And being an anal, analytic type, I’ve created separate headings in Word which remind me to articulate these four items whenever I plan a scene. So when I type the scene title and press enter, the heading for Main Conflict appears, after which there’s a heading for a slugline, then a scene description and finally a turning point.
Each item looks different and is immediately recognizable. Here’s what it looks like:
The format is also collapsible, so I can see a list of only the scene titles, or the scene titles with the main conflict, etc.
This way of thinking about scenes forces me to remain focused on the essentials of each character’s story and to present them visually.
I’ll post the date of the premiere well in advance …
Sunday, September 16, 2007
They claim a film is too formulaic, or on the contrary, that it doesn’t deliver on genre promises. Sometimes they’ll slam the structure of the film because it deviates from or sticks too closely to a popular screenwriting model. Other times it’s the use of unfashionable techniques such as voice-overs or flashbacks which raises the briter’s* hackles.
And then there’s the subtextual envy of huge box office success for a film that isn’t exactly earth-shatteringly original or artful. That’s just not right!
But even if this criticism is in some way justified, a commercially successful film must still be pushing some of the right buttons, because the audience has already voted with its feet and propelled the film into the black. And this is the same audience the critical authors hope someday to entertain with their own creative efforts.
Contrast this with the common inarticulateness of many successful screenwriters when it comes to how they write. Even the most talented and oft-produced screenwriters are usually at a loss to explain where they get their ideas from and how exactly they turn these ideas into hot scripts. In fact you often hear writers say they don’t want to analyse their method or their ideas because it would kill their muse.
We live in age of analysis in real time. No sooner has a new trend been identified than it is analysed, abstracted and processed into a module which is then offered at a college near you. But of course when it comes to film, there’s no such thing as instant. It takes years for a compelling idea to progress from being an initial scribble on a screenwriter’s notepad to being a well-marketed product showing at your local multiplex.
Trends will always come and go. No amount of analysis is going to change that. Better to spend your time jotting down ideas for films you’d like to see than essays on films you’d rather not have seen. In the end all that counts is a strong, intriguing idea. And the only effective way to find one of those is to keep your creative mind open and be receptive to whatever's going on around you.
* briter = webwriter
Monday, August 20, 2007
We started off with the usual small talk about developments in the industry, the price of tea in China and so on. The sizzling subtext of this pleasant chit-chat was unmistakably our shared vision and ambition for this hugely exciting project. The banter continued for a minute or two until we realized the guys we were bantering to were staring at something and grinning stupidly.
There it was in the middle of the table. Unexpectedly small but unmistakably accurate: An initial Plasticine “sketch” of our main character’s head. We both had to do a double take and the room went silent for a little while. Wow!
It might help to explain that this project has already been two years in the making. We have endless stacks of sketches of characters and locations. We’ve written episodes and songs for various TV formats and penned numerous feature story ideas. We’ve planned a website with all kinds of interactive goodies. But only now are we finally embarking on production after endless false starts and disappointments.
And for the first time, our beloved main character has made the quantum leap from two- to three dimensions.
No longer is he merely a cute cartoon character on a page. No longer is he just a potentially great comedic character. He’s now out there, given shape and form by these wonderful, talented people who’ve taken our designs and done with them what we hoped they would: Given them life!
Some people call this activity playing God. I’m not sure about that, but it’s certainly a peculiar feeling to see something you’ve held in your mind for a long time suddenly out there in the world staring back at you. It’s a bit like that creepy feeling you get whenever there’s a scene in a morgue and you can’t help but expect one of the bodies to suddenly sit up.
A monumental day for us and for our main character. Let’s hope he never turns on us.
Wednesday, August 15, 2007
Why would you ever want to learn to ride a bike in the first place? Simple. You watch other kids gliding around, manoeuvring with great skill, having the time of their lives apparently without giving a second though to what they’re doing. And you think, “Hey, I want that too!”
Which is when your parents (hopefully) begin to tone down your expectations: “It’s not as easy as it looks. It takes a while to learn. You’ll need to start with side wheels. And a helmet.”
That’s the cue for the following inner monologue: “Not in my case. I’m special. I’m one of a kind. I know I can get up on that thing and just do it right away.” Which is admirably positive and enthusiastic, but a little unrealistic. As you discover fairly rapidly when you first mount the vehicle and suddenly feel completely vulnerable and utterly unable to move or keep your balance.
And so begins a learning process punctuated by milestones such as your first painful fall, your first encounter with a brick wall, your first head-on crash with another cyclist, and so on. All of which are experiences that teach you some important aspect of riding a bicycle which you will never again forget. Basic things like using the brakes, for example, or steering.
Then comes that wonderful day when, after having grown from hapless novice with side wheels to ambitious and eager candidate for the next Tour de France, you finally experience the exhilaration of the centrifugal force of the wheels keeping you upright and allowing you to really work up some serious speed! You’re flying! It’s real! It’s this sensation you’ve been after all along, and you’ve finally achieved it. What a victory!
This experience is soon followed by the realization that this is just the beginning. You now know how to ride a bike. Big deal. You begin to look around and see just how many different kinds and classes of bikes there are. A bike can take you to the sweetshop and back, but it can also take you up and down a mountain. Now you start dreaming all over again. Only this time you know what it takes.
Of course there is another similarity between screenwriting and riding a bicycle: Anyone can learn to ride a bicycle, but only a few cyclists have what it takes to become professionals: Talent. But that’s a whole different topic.
Tuesday, August 14, 2007
I know there are those who advise against thinking explicitly about theme at all until the story is finished. But there are also different opinions about outlining, knowing how your story ends before you start writing, and any other aspect of the craft of screenwriting you care to mention. Except, of course, the necessity of frequent breaks for displacement activities such as .. writing a blog. On that we all agree.
To me it makes perfect sense to know specifically what issue you want your screenplay to address, because this is what drives all the characters in one direction or another. It’s what the characters fight about, deceive each other for, challenge each other to disprove, and so on.
Of course, knowing so consciously in advance what you want to say, carries a risk with it. The risk being that your theme isn’t a theme at all, it’s a sermon.
That happens when you hit the audience so hard over the head with the moral point you’re trying to make that you make them feel as if they are being lectured to rather than entertained. Or when you make your message so explicit that you may as well hand out flyers on the street corner saying, “The conflict between friendship and family loyalties is a manifestation of the uniquely human conflict between biology and conscious thought.”
So as far as I can tell, the trick is to be clear in your mind what you want the film to be about before you start writing, so that it becomes an integral part of the story structure. You know the characters are going to be in situations where they’re torn between what their instincts dictate and what their conscious mind is advising. Once that’s in place and the characters begin to “take over,” let them have their say. To me that’s the only real way to discover whether they’re the right characters to express the theme, or whether perhaps I actually want to say something else …
A bit like writing a blog. Today I knew I wanted to communicate something about … well, that would be lecturing, wouldn’t it?
Monday, August 6, 2007
Because we both have so much invested in the script already, and because we’re both such pig-headed egomaniacs, the struggle felt a bit like the fight scene in Casino Royale on the high-rise crane. In the end we came to an agreement. Hanging by our fingernails above the abyss, we both realized what would be best for the story and that it no longer mattered who had thought of it first, if either of us even had.
The experience made me realize yet again what a fascinating and wonderful thing a writing partnership is. It’s a bit like the best and worst of friendship and family relations all compressed into one task-oriented blitzkrieg. But it’s a professional relationship, so you’re constantly aware of the stakes when conflicts arise. This forces you to make choices where you might otherwise avoid them.
When you write on your own, until you’ve completed something you feel comfortable asking people to read, you only have your own creative and critical faculties to rely on and contend with. But when you work together with another writer, you’re exposed much earlier in the creative process. It’s as if right from the get-go there’s an angry mob in the room, and they’re all shouting at you. By far the most demanding task under these circumstances is to remain true to the story rather than to try and prove you’re right. You have to leave your ego in the vestibule along with your coat.
Of course, you strive to do this even if you’re writing on your own, but in a writing partnership everything is much more explicit and unavoidable. Which is an unqualified advantage, even though it can initially appear threatening. Like most writers who haven’t had this experience, I never imagined I’d be able to function creatively in a situation where I would constantly have to share my “process.” But fate put the opportunity on my path and advised me to at least take stab, and I’m glad I did.
I wouldn’t be surprised if we eventually decide to scrap the scene we argued so heatedly about. But if we do, you can be sure it will be for the sake of the story.
Monday, July 23, 2007
He and I discussed his nerve-jangling encounter over a couple of beers, and as he told me how he’d responded to the rejection, I realized this guy had his head screwed on the right way. The following, paraphrased and screened for adult content, is what he told me:
“My initial response was anger. I needed the gig and these bastards obviously hadn’t taken the time to understand or visualize what I’d written. But then I thought: hey, that’s MY job. If they don’t get it, I didn’t do my job properly. That’s not a self-piteous put-down, that’s just a statement of fact. My anger disappeared as soon as I began imagining myself re-writing the script.”
This made sense! More beer was ordered. He continued:
“Then I realized something else: One of the specific criticisms was that all the characters seemed to conveniently represent a different aspect of the theme, which came across as contrived. But that’s exactly what I intended! Well, not the contrived bit, of course, but the distribution of thematic angles among the main characters. It’s a structural thing I’m experimenting with. I’m obviously not quite there yet. Anyway, by pointing to what they considered a weakness, they’d given me a huge compliment and indicated precisely where I needed to do some more work!”
Talk about positive thinking! Rhonda Byrne is a pessimist by comparison. He concluded, grinningly:
“So, pretty soon after receiving this scathing criticism, I actually wanted to get down to work rewriting the thing. But I couldn’t, because in the interim I’d already started work on two other ideas I had lying around. Like getting straight back in the saddle after a fall? Know what I mean?”
Indeed I do. Rejection is par for the screenwriter’s course. Make it your friend instead of your enemy. And never throw away any of those crumpled, stained scraps of paper with illegible ideas scribbled on them that you accidentally wash along with your trousers.
Thursday, June 28, 2007
It’s a rush, a physical sense of excitement as in an instant you realize the potential of what you’re imagining. But you’re also in a panic. It’s too much to be able to capture on paper and elements have already begun evaporating and disappearing even as you desperately rush to note them down. It’s like waking up and writing down a dream which is fast being pushed out of your mind by the responsibilities of the day ahead.
Of course one of the basic facts of writing films is that it’s the idea that counts. So the main priority in an emergency imagination situation is to do the opposite of the instinctive response I just described. Instead of scrambling to hold on to whatever details you can salvage, stand back and scrutinize the flood of information as it careens past. Until, that is, The Idea becomes visible. Aha! It’s about … and that’s what you grab. Because the idea is the key to the place where all that imagination (and more) came from. Once you have articulated the idea, however rudimentarily, you will be able to return at will to the river of imagination whence you fished it up.
The idea might be a neat premise, a general theme, a situation, or a character with a goal, whatever. The important thing is that you remember what this story idea is about in a way that makes sense to you. It’s no good demanding of yourself from the get-go that you formulate a dazzling 30-second pitch, ready to spring on Spielberg if you happen to get stuck in an elevator with him. It’s enough to hold on to an image, a sentence, a character description, or any other nugget which typifies the idea for you. That will tame the torrent and give you the power to go back to it when you have the time and inclination. Now isn’t that comforting?
Sunday, June 24, 2007
What if it starts to rain during the ceremony?
What if he turns out to be an alien in disguise?
What if the theme were honour rather than greed?
What if she’s infertile?
What if they only have four hours to break the code?
“What if?” is a beautiful tool but it only works if you’re prepared to let go of preconceptions. Especially if someone else is asking the question.
Like if your producer asks, after reading the fifth re-write, “What if the protagonist were ten years younger, and a woman instead of a man?” You know it’s implausible, you know you’ve meticulously constructed every beat and scene in the script around the concept of a man in his fifties, you know you’ll have to almost start from scratch. But hey, she might have a point. What if …?
“What if?” can also be of great value in terms of method.
What if I approach this scene in a completely different way? What if I set aside all my pre-conceived ideas about character arc, structure, acts, sequences and so on, and just let my creative mind wander for a while? What if I allow myself to simply imagine things?
And here’s another great thing about the “What if?” question: There’s no right or wrong answer. Sometimes the question will yield a long list of possible outcomes, sometimes it will point to that one twist that’s been eluding you for months. But it always clarifies something, as long as you’re willing and able to take the answer seriously. So don’t be afraid of asking. In fact fear of “What if?” is a sure sign you’re clinging to a baby you might intuitively know you should kill but don’t want to because of all the extra work that entails …
One last thing about “What if?”: It’s just an exploratory question. By asking “What if?” you haven’t committed to anything. Nothing in the script changes unless you start typing. If none of the answers make your story better, then just put them aside (or store them in your “ideas” file) and get on with your life.
Monday, June 4, 2007
What is it about the combination of this specific character and these particular obstacles that ensures that the audience is going to want to know what happens?
This touches on one of the basic reasons people enjoy watching movies: It’s a vicarious emotional experience. You identify with a fictional character confronting a fabricated problem, deliberately designed to refer to analogous issues in real life. You want to board the metaphor and go along for the ride, perhaps secretly hoping to disembark a changed person.
The metaphorical value of the specific challenge the main character faces is what engages the audience. The prince has to kill the dragon in order to win the hand of the princess. He’s scared, concerned he’ll fail and not win the princess, perhaps worried he’ll ruin his hair in the fiery scuffle. We, the audience, feel what the prince is going through and unconsciously, or even consciously relate those feelings to our own lives. We intuitively know what it’s like to have to face a frightening obstacle in the way of something we really, really want. Whether it’s asking the boss for a raise or taking a first scuba-diving lesson. Everyone has their own fears and desires.
So the main character has to face problems which evoke the kind of emotions we’re all familiar with in our own real lives. Naming the dire consequences of not overcoming the obstacles is an effective way of eliciting the desired emotion. The main character must succeed, or:
- ... lose the love of his life forever.
- ... die a horrible or shameful death.
- ... miss a once in a lifetime opportunity to see justice done.
And so on. The more catastrophic the outcome of failing to reach the goal, the more emotion the audience invests in the main character’s struggle. Of course catastrophic isn’t synonymous with gory or violent. It’s relative to the life of the main character. In the context of very different stories it would be equally horrific to fail to save the world from alien attack (e.g., Independence Day) and to fail to fulfil one’s potential (e.g., Good Will Hunting).
Some examples for good measure:
"A working-class single mother campaigns to prove the guilt of a huge, polluting corporation, and resorts to unorthodox methods when no one takes her seriously (Erin Brockovich)." The vicarious emotional experience? The frustration of someone who is judged by their social status, their gender and education rather than by their actual merit. A very familiar experience for many people, especially women. Erin is obviously going to give it all she has, not only to prove the big, bad corporation is guilty, but also to prove that she is worth taking seriously as an individual. This is her now or never moment, her chance to shake off the stigma with which society has burdened her. If she fails, she’ll be doomed to live out the rest of her life in poverty and dependence.
"An indignant twelve-year old demands the return of his toys from a creepy neighbour, but discovers that the real villain is the neighbour’s house, and it’s alive! (Monster House)." The emotion here is abject fear. He’s just a kid, and he’s finally plucked up the courage to confront the creepy old guy across the street. Most of us had elderly neighbours we were frightened of as children, right? A very basic fear of being sucked into a strange house and eaten alive. And that’s exactly what (almost) happens. As if the kid’s fear of the neighbour weren’t enough of an obstacle, and the retrieval of his toys not a worthy enough goal, it turns out that the house is a vicious monster (the neighbour’s wife’s ghost has possessed it). Instead of having to get the toys back, the kid now has to figure out how to destroy the house or literally be eaten alive.
"After his British hostage is killed, a remorseful IRA gunman flees from his vengeful comrades to England and falls for his ex-hostage’s lover who turns out to be a transvestite (The Crying Game)." Here’s someone on the run from both the British and Irish, who is having trouble with his conscience, who becomes infatuated with someone and then discovers this person isn’t a woman at all. Now there’s an emotional web to be stuck in! The plot of this film is far more complex than a mere logline can convey, but the central obstacle for the main character stands out like a sore thumb: In order to find peace, this man has to reconcile his feelings of affection with the completely unexpected and for him inappropriate object of his infatuation. Not only has he fallen in love with someone who is grieving partly due to his actions, but she turns out to be a he to boot! Impossible but undeniable love. Sound familiar?
Any of the loglines I’ve used as examples here and in previous postings can obviously be formulated differently and no doubt more effectively. However, the basic elements of a logline remain the same whichever specific words you choose:
1. The Main Character: Who is the story about and what is their main trait or weakness?
2. The Goal: What do they want, need to achieve or avoid?
3. The Obstacle: What makes achieving the goal problematic?
It’s a simple recipe, but don’t be fooled: The less words you’re allowed to use, the more carefully you have to choose them. A bit like writing Haiku.
Thursday, May 31, 2007
The type of goal depends on the kind of film. In an action-driven film, the goal will often be concrete and easily described, e.g., the main character must defuse a ticking bomb, retrieve a magic ring, prove his client’s innocence, escape the psychopathic killer, and so on. In a more internal, character-driven story, the main character will often be trying to avoid some aspect of themselves due to fear. They may be not even be aware of what they really want until very late in the film. Of course in an action film, the main character also tries to avoid some aspect of themselves, and in a character-driven story the main character must also undertake something concrete. So it’s not a black and white distinction, rather a matter of emphasis.
Generally speaking, the main character has to do something difficult, unpleasant or frightening in order to achieve the ultimate goal.
The logline must reflect the main narrative drive of the film in a simple, easily comprehensible way. One of the most effective ways to describe succinctly what the film is about is to sketch the chief dilemma or danger into which the main character is thrown.
Describe what the main character has to do in the simplest possible terms, but using words which show the character has no choice but to follow this path, even though they would actually rather not. The main character must ... or is forced to ... or struggles to ... undertake some kind of activity, in order to achieve what it is they (think) they want.
An affable, bourgeois psychotherapist struggles to come to terms with the accidental death of his teenage son ... (The Son’s Room). The conflict and contrast is there in a nutshell: he’s a nice, well-educated, family man who wouldn’t hurt a fly, and his son is killed. Bam. His life is turned upside down and his seemingly unattainable goal is to make sense of what has happened.
An absent-minded but well-meaning ant ruins the colony’s harvest and must redeem himself by finding help in the hostile outside world ... (A Bug’s Life). The poor ant is sent on a mission impossible because of a mistake he made. He has no choice (although he thinks it’s his decision) and will obviously face great dangers for which he is totally ill-prepared. His aim is to make up for his mistake.
When his wife is brutally murdered, an exemplary young British diplomat in Africa, becomes obsessed with identifying the killers and their motive ... (The Constant Gardener). Here is a man whose life is expected to follow a very predictable and probably hypocritical path, but suddenly his focus changes completely. The only thing he cares about now is uncovering the truth, even to the detriment of his carefully prepared career.
Of course, if the main character were able to achieve the goal fairly straightforwardly, the film would be over pretty quickly. So the writer puts all sorts of obstacles in the main character’s way. But more about that next time.
Sunday, May 13, 2007
The tiny logline is one of the most difficult things for screenwriters to write. That’s because, apart from the title, it’s the most compact summary of the film there is. Like the film poster, it must accurately and intriguingly convey who the story is about, what genre the film is, and what sort of conflict it portrays. If the concept hasn’t been thought through properly, it just won’t squeeze into a logline.
There are various formulae for writing loglines, but all boil down to the same thing: In one sentence, preferably under 25 words, describe the main character, what they desperately want and the huge obstacle or dilemma standing in their way.
Here’s something about the first element: The Main Character.
The most common way to describe the main character* is a noun (often a profession or a station in life) embellished with an adjective or a very concise descriptive phrase. This combination serves to communicate a huge amount of information in just a few words. The reader can already picture what kind of world the main character inhabits because of their job or position in life. The adjective or descriptive phrase indicates why they’re in such a predicament. It hints at the main character’s conflict.
Some examples, just for fun:
An horrendously deformed down-and-outer. (The Elephant Man). Obviously someone who is limited socially and economically, and quite likely extremely unhappy and without many prospects in life. Someone who has hit rock bottom.
A vengeful but aging master swordsman (The Mask of Zorro). Someone who has revenge on his mind, which suggests an injustice committed against him (perhaps long ago), which he still hasn’t forgiven or forgotten. But also someone with formidable knowledge of fighting techniques, a force to be reckoned with.
A newly-wed architect with an incorrigible bachelor buddy (You, Me, and Dupree). A bit lengthy that, I admit, but it’s a tough one. Here’s a serious professional who has settled down, but whose main problem is, apparently, his best friend. This immediately suggests a conflict in the new marriage, someone who perhaps hasn’t quite made the transition to being part of a couple and whose friend is going to be the source of his problems.
Next time, something about the second element: What the main character desperately wants.
*The main character can also be a group of people, Like a group of army surgeons (MASH).
Saturday, May 12, 2007
Monday, February 12, 2007
I can still see the cover of the LP, Barry White’s Greatest Hits: Dark blue and silver. I only bought it because Sheree Mendelson was nuts about Barry White and had danced with me to his song at a party. Long ago, that was, in the heady days of early puberty, when girls were women and boys were boys. Hormones heaving and bursting all over the place, oozing out of our faces and bodily orifices like there was no tomorrow. And amidst all this physical turmoil the intense and brief emotional attachments that felt like they would never end.
So too with Sheree, who became my dancing partner for a few minutes through the classical method: A friend of hers talked me into it while she herself grinned and waved from the other side of the room. I remember a fire-place and sundry other dancers, so it must have been a party in someone’s house. I also distinctly remember her distractingly large chest pressing against mine as we slowly shuffled about the darkened room to the smoochy sounds of the Love Unlimited Orchestra. Ooooh, Never Gonna Give You up … I almost believed it.
This wasn’t love, it was pure adrenalin, arousal, excitement, potential. There was no way she and I were going to be partners, but that dance lasted longer than any other I can remember. I was insanely proud to have been selected by a pretty girl who wanted me to hold her and squeeze her soft, warm shapeliness against me. The fact that she wanted to dance with me, was reason enough for me to remember the occasion.
Afterwards I bought the album just in case Sheree were to ever ask me at school if I had any Barry White records, or—who could tell—if she were to ever come to my house to see my stamp collection. The soaring, gravel-like bass tones of Barry White’s voice always conjure up the same image of Sheree’s coy smile. She was short, had small teeth and big hair. She was an inconspicuous girl, but the kind who seemed destined to have a lot of fun for the rest of her life. In my memory, she’s always in her school uniform, walking away from me and looking over her shoulder with that smile, those little teeth, holding out her hand, inviting me to join her for some fun and games.
For her sake I was able to overcome my aversion for disco music, although I kept the LP carefully hidden from my friends. The music fit her perfectly: Uncomplicated, harmonious and full of unconditional love and affection. Much like Barry White himself in fact, except that she was Jewish, a lot younger and far smaller. But in her heart of hearts she was just like his music: Passionate, sexy and loving. The kind of girl who wanted nothing more than to make me happy for a couple of minutes on the dance floor. Just like that, because it made her feel good too. Nothing more.
Who knows how many other people she has made happy in the intervening thirty odd years? I wonder if she also has fond memories of Barry White?
Wednesday, February 7, 2007
I turned forty in the aftermath of the NASDAQ crash of 2000 and was promptly fired from the hi-tech company where I worked. It was one of those classical now-or-never moments, when you add up all the risks and decide to go ahead and follow your instincts anyway. I told my wife we were going to live on my severance pay while I wrote a screenplay like I’d wanted to do for so long but never could because of the long hours I worked. Then I ducked to avoid the flying ashtrays and vases.
I don’t blame her. Change can be pretty scary, especially if you didn’t ask for it. But I persevered, and one of the things I quickly discovered, was that in this new line of business I’d chosen, I had a distinct disadvantage compared to the competition (and I’m not referring to the violent spouse). I didn’t have a track record.
In many industries, but certainly in the media industry, a track record is the most important asset you possess. The track record has an organic structure which includes a natural correlation with age. So a filmmaker might have stuck together some home-made movies as a student, then made some professionally produced shorts in his first years in the business, followed by a feature or two, etc. By the time someone with a normal career path reaches my age, they’ve either made it or they haven’t. And it’s their track record that shows this. Mercilessly.
In my case, the complete absence of a track record has been the cause of not a few embarrassing silences, followed by, “So nothing of yours has actually been produced yet?” Understandably, people who spend their time and money making TV shows and movies, are reluctant to invest in someone they can’t pigeonhole (other than in the category of: Pathetic old person who wants a life). They’re reluctant to even speak to you, let alone read any of your material. I call it track-recordism.
Fortunately, film producers are usually pragmatic business people. They decide on the basis of a gut feeling about the commercial viability of material in front of them. Much like a prosthetics manufacturer will consider a new line of plastic knee joints in terms of profit margins, exit strategies, and so on. And when you do manage to get your material read, and the powers that be like what you’ve written, meritocracy overrules track-recordism. So there’s only one way to combat track-recordism: Keep going and write better and better all the time.
Since my career change I’ve met some weird, wonderful and awful people in the media business, all of whom have track records. It mostly means nothing. Maybe I’ll tell you something about some of them soon.
Tuesday, February 6, 2007
I was taken for an enlightening spin the other day in a brand new hybrid car (a combination of electric and petrol driven). The car itself didn ’t particularly impress me, except for its wonderful quietness when running on its electric motor, but what did strike me, was my companion’s enthusiasm for the on-board technology. I have no aversion to technology (here I sit, working at my computer, using the internet), but what struck me was the assumption that the more technology, the better. One of my initial thoughts, as we drove down a quiet country lane where I often enjoy exceeding the speed limit because there’s never anyone around, was: It won’t be long before cars will be fitted with electronic speed controls, which will enforce speed limits automatically. Not that this matters much, but the idea touches on two dangers of becoming too dependent on technology. Firstly, one is rendered helpless when the technology fails, and secondly one becomes unnervingly susceptible to external control.
I have no aversion to technology (here I sit, working at my computer, using the internet), but what struck me was the assumption that the more technology, the better. One of my initial thoughts, as we drove down a quiet country lane where I often enjoy exceeding the speed limit because there’s never anyone around, was: It won’t be long before cars will be fitted with electronic speed controls, which will enforce speed limits automatically. Not that this matters much, but the idea touches on two dangers of becoming too dependent on technology. Firstly, one is rendered helpless when the technology fails, and secondly one becomes unnervingly susceptible to external control.
Monday, February 5, 2007
We now have a pet dog. My wife ordered it through an agency that rescues abused strays from various Mediterranean countries and delivers them to caring homes in northern
Let’s just say it’s intuitively understandable how people in affluent, relatively peaceful societies can be genuinely upset and concerned about abandoned dogs in less affluent and apparently less humane societies, while at the same time displaying equally genuine indifference to large-scale human suffering in even poorer countries.
On the face of it, if there is such a hierarchy of empathy (and apparently this is not self-evident) the fate of stray dogs on the Canary Islands should rank quite a bit lower than the fate of, say, the hundreds of refugees from Africa who die each year trying to reach the relative safety and security of that same European outpost on makeshift boats. And isn’t it reasonable to assert that the death through neglect of pets left to their fate in, say, Greece, is a tragedy of a completely different order of magnitude from the death by deliberate, racially motivated attack of hundreds of thousands of people in Darfur?
Evidently it’s easier for conscientious, self-respecting citizens of privileged societies to make room in their hearts for a dog than for a human being. Of course this is an unfair comparison, because dogs don’t take jobs or threaten the local culture. But then again dogs don’t sweep the streets or work in noisy factories for little pay either. So how come this is understandable? It’s human nature. Just as the human mind isn’t equipped to think in terms of geological time or infinity, it is also not good at empathizing over long distances with large numbers of faceless victims in a conflict which doesn’t affect it directly.
And now I need to take the dog out.>