Monday, December 20, 2010

A Screenplay Is Only As Good As The Idea At Its Heart


As film audiences become increasingly savvy and demanding, it’s more important than ever that screenwriters have something authentic and meaningful to say.

It’s that time of year then, willing or unwilling, you get swept along by the general wave of people evaluating the past year and looking forward to the next one. Of course, there’s nothing stopping you from doing this every day of the year, but somehow the symbolic nature of our calendar and the annual cycle of seasons and festivities seems to encourage this annual stock-taking. For me, this past year has been mostly one of writing short screenplays, of which a few have been doing nicely in competitions and receiving encouraging endorsements from script readers and fellow filmmakers alike. And the process of writing shorts has taught me a lot of things, not least of all the paramount importance of good ideas.

Quick and Dirty or Slowly but Surely?
It seems to me there are basically two schools of thought in this respect. On the one hand you have the “quantity first” school and on the other side, the “quality above all” folks. Either you believe that writing a lot of screenplays, regardless of their originality, inevitably leads to you writing your best possible material, or you believe that the only screenplay worth writing is one based on a killer idea. I’m increasingly coming down on the side of the people who advocate brainstorming a lot of ideas and finding the most suitable one before embarking on a first draft. “Suitable” can mean marketable or meaningful or both. And I think this is true for short scripts as well as features. I came across an old post on Christopher Lockhart’s blog, The Inside Pitch, which sums it up nicely. It’s from the beginning of 2010, and it features advice from Hollywood Exec Adam Levenberg. Among the tips Levenberg gives is the following:

Be willing to NOT move ahead to a screenplay after completing your beat sheet.
Some writers need to write 3-5 full beat sheets to find the idea they are excited about and that works. Not all stories are movies. Most aren’t. Yet some writers finish a beat sheet and reflexively jump into a first draft. Don’t. You’re better off writing twenty beat sheet outlines over the next year and waiting until [next year] to pick the best one to take to the next level (a first draft screenplay).

Beware of Your Talent
It’s that last sentence more than anything that caught my attention. Don’t jump into writing a screenplay before working out its essence and judging whether it’s worth the time and effort. This resonates with what I’ve written previously about the ten things to ask yourself before you start writing a screenplay, and with something I’ve heard Linda Aronson say a number of times: Talent can be a disadvantage. Because you love writing and you’re good at it, even a mediocre concept can start looking attractive if you let yourself get carried away. One of the most difficult things for a screenwriter, is recognizing that a particular story or concept isn’t good enough to do your writing talent justice. It goes against all your instincts to say: I’m not going to write this script because I can write a better one. It’s difficult for other reasons too, including the influence of people who insist that not writing a mediocre script is worse than writing it.

The Only Thing that Counts: Believing in Your Material
Of course, nothing is this black and white. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to screenwriting. The point for me is, looking back on 2010, that I’m very happy to have achieved this insight. Regardless of whether any of my shorts and other projects are ever produced (statistically, I know most of them won’t be), it feels good to be completely at ease with the ideas at the heart of my work. Finding outlets for scripts is hard enough as it is, but at least this way I don’t have the added handicap of having to pitch material that I don’t genuinely believe in.

The Most Interesting Questions are the Unanswerable Ones

So that’s my little message of hope for the coming New Year: Take the time to find the really good, authentic ideas before you start writing the scripts, using whatever method works best. For me personally, that means constantly trying to push past questions I’ve seen dealt with far too often already in films, until I encounter awkward, uncomfortable questions to which I don’t know the answer. I know that’s a risky attitude (for one thing, I might turn out to be embarrassingly stupid) but then again, at least I’m constantly learning more about life...

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Screenwriting: It’s The Idea That Counts


You often hear it said that screenwriting is 98% craft and 2% talent, but after the recent London Screenwriters’ Festival, I wonder if ideas aren’t more important?

If I took one thing away from the recent London Screenwriters’ Festival, it’s confirmation of my conviction that the most important thing about a screenplay is the idea at its core. Whether you’re talking about writing for TV, short films, features, writing for games, it makes no difference; what separates a generic script from an enthralling one, is the quality of the central idea.

Non-linear Screenwriting
One of my absolute favourite speakers at the festival, was Linda Aronson. She presented her brand new book, The 21st Century Screenplay, which is a paradigm-busting collection of practical guidelines for writing screenplays that don’t follow the conventional three-act model (in which a single protagonist learns some moral lesson by encountering a serious of increasingly challenging obstacles). This is the one-size-fits all, monomyth model which is held up by Hollywood (and now elsewhere too) as the only valid screen story form, despite the success of many movies which don’t adhere to it. Aronson’s basic premise is this: There are many ways to structure a screenplay, and you have to find the form that best expresses the idea you want to write about.

Pitching your Material
Another great aspect of the Festival, was the opportunity to pitch material. Besides the formal “speed pitching” sessions, Raindance organized one of its famous public Live!Ammunition! pitching events, plus there was ample opportunity during informal networking sessions to pitch material to other delegates too. It’s one of the unfortunate essentials of screenwriting, that you have to be able to pitch your stories to complete strangers, in order to convince them to read your script and help you get the film made. Imagine a painter having to describe a painting in order to get someone to come and look at it… But here too: it doesn’t matter how intricate your plot is, how much action, violence, sex, or whatever it contains, it’s the basic idea on which the screenplay is based, that ultimately hooks the potential reader.

Writing Samples
For screenwriters who haven’t had any of their material produced yet, every spec script is a potential calling card. A writing sample for potential collaborators or commissioners. In this respect, it was interesting to hear various TV and film industry professionals at the festival reiterate, that what they’re looking for is an original voice. People like Ollie Madden, VP of Warner Brothers UK, Noelle Morris Head of Development at Kudos, and several other speakers, all emphasized that a calling-card spec script which demonstrates that a new writer has interesting ideas and an original voice, is much more informative to them than, say, a spec episode of an existing TV series.

Write What You’re Good at Writing
Literary agent Julian Friedmann, said something that stuck with me too: Write what you write best, rather than what you like watching most. Because these two things are often confused. It may sound trivial, but it comes down to the same notion: You may love watching action thrillers, but perhaps what you’re best at writing are period dramas, or stage plays or poems. Again, it’s important to make this distinction, because the difference between generic writing and great writing, is finding the right form in which to express the idea you want to write about.

Jumping Through Hoops
Another inspiring figure at the Festival, was Tim Clague, whose entire way of approaching filmmaking and writing is refreshingly independent and unconventional. He thinks it’s a mistake to see yourself as someone trying to “break in.” For example, making a short film as a calling card, in order to get your foot in the door and maybe, just perhaps, inshallah, finding approval in the eyes of a producer who might then be gracious enough to throw you a bone in the shape of a commission… This is what Tim calls jumping through hoops, and it’s not his way of doing things. He writes, produces and distributes his own work, using digital technology to keep costs low. But then again, without any ideas worth pursuing, no amount of independent spirit is going to result in a film anyone else would want to see, right?

A Universal Theory of Screenwriting. Not.
Film is a relatively new medium (just compare it to poetry, painting, theatre, etc.), and it’s evolving all the time. The only thing about it that remains constant, is that it’s made by human beings for human beings. Apart from that, storytelling techniques come and go, as do technologies and cinematic conventions. There’s always some form or technique that is held up as contemporary, which previously seemed unthinkable and tomorrow will feel stale and derivative. It’s easy to become fixated on ephemeral forms and structures, while forgetting that at the heart of a great film is an enduring, engaging idea. It’s also very difficult, but perhaps essential, to maintain enough distance from prevailing “business models” in order to remain focused on what you want to write about, rather than trying to second-guess the industry’s current preferences.

Ironically, though, it’s always rule-breaking, innovative voices with great ideas, that the lumbering media industry craves most.

Monday, October 4, 2010

More Thoughts On Writing From Theme

Opinions are always divided as to whether the screenwriter benefits from focusing on theme ahead of other aspects of a screenplay.

I’ve been thinking more about FilmUtopia’s recent thought-provoking article, inspired by another blog, quoting an interview with screenwriter-director, Paul Schrader. In the interview, Schrader discusses the importance of knowing your theme and finding an appropriate metaphor, before you build your story. This in contrast to many screenwriting books and seminars—at least those I’m familiar with—which discourage the aspiring screenwriter from thinking about theme before knowing what they are going to write in terms of genre, plot, characters, etc. And FilmUtopia builds on this by emphasizing the importance of writing screenplays in order to explore and express something meaningful, rather than simply to create a safe, familiar and readily marketable rehash of existing films.

As Many Screenwriting Methods as Screenwriters
My response was to applaud the validation of screenwriters whose way of working doesn’t necessarily conform to the models advocated by screenwriting gurus or to the logline-synopsis-treatment-outline-first draft step plan taught on most screenwriting degree courses. Screenwriters come from all kinds of backgrounds, and there are about as many ways to write a screenplay as there are screenwriters. Just listen to Jeff Goldsmith’s podcasts, or read books like The 101 Habits of Highly Successful Screenwriters by Karl Iglesias, and Story and Character by Alistair Owen.

Theme is like Radiation
So why is the concept of theme always so contentious? Why do many screenwriting teachers treat it with such circumspection? Because theme is a bit like radiation: given in the right dosage it’s medicinal, given in the wrong dosage it’s lethal. So, assuming that you don’t want to poison your audience, but rather give them some kind of meaningful experience, what are the main pitfalls to watch out for?

Pontification
People don’t go to see movies in order to find out what some more or less anonymous screenwriter thinks about, say, the ethics of marital infidelity. They don’t usually care how erudite the screenwriter is, either. And a person who wants to hear a sermon, will go to their church, mosque, etc. People generally watch films, first and foremost, in order to be swept up and away from their daily reality for a couple of hours. Emotionally, intellectually, physically. For some, a romantic comedy does the trick, for others it’s horror or art house drama, and so on. Speaking from experience, as soon as I feel like a film is trying too hard to tell me what’s right and wrong, or is pushing a particular political agenda too forcefully, I become distracted and even annoyed.

Monotony
It’s not a simple thing to weave theme into action and dialogue. As a result, what can easily happen, is that a movie spends too much time repeating the same “message,” scene after scene. It’s often a symptom of the screenwriter underestimating the intelligence of the audience, being afraid the audience (or the producer) won’t “get it.” But whatever the reason, once you understand what a film is about, you don’t want to be constantly reminded of it.

Superficiality
We all know it’s not good to cheat, murder, steal and so on. However, it can be very tempting, especially when confronted with people in the film industry who demand everything be spelled out for them, to “dumb down” your theme. For example, instead of, say, writing about how different people deal differently with the responsibility that comes with parenthood, you choose to paint a black and white picture in which there are good and bad parents. In my opinion, a degree of moral ambiguity can turn the audience into active participants in the film, making the experience far more meaningful for them personally.

Explicitness
Although sometimes being up-front about theme is the right way to go, I find as a viewer, that if there are too many explicit references to what everything in the film is supposed to be about, I switch off. I like a nice bit of subtlety! Let the theme go underground, or into the background for a while. My feeling as a screenwriter is, if you know what you’re writing about, then the theme will permeate all the choices the characters make anyway. It’s in these choices that the audience can experience the questions you’re addressing, rather than consume some kind of processed, pre-packaged message.

Personally, when I’m writing, I love nothing more than to ramble on for page after page about a question that intrigues me. At some point, I inevitably find a kernel of a question which then evolves into a story. This may not be the most productive screenwriting method. It’s certainly not the most lucrative and often leads to awkward situations when someone wants to know why I wrote what I wrote. But it does ensure that the writing process itself contains its own, intrinsic reward: I am constantly learning and discovering new questions to explore. That, to me, is what writing is all about.

Well, that’s my two cents for today on theme. Thanks again to FilmUtopia for stimulating my brain on this issue once again.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Movie Characters And The Stoic Trichotomy Of Control


You might associate the word Stoicism with asceticism and suffering, but this ancient philosophy has a lot to teach screenwriters about writing great characters.

One of my favourite books of late is: A Guide to the Good Life; The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, by William B. Irvine. This is not a book written for screenwriters, in fact it’s not about films or screenplays at all. It’s a book which makes the principles and values of Stoicism relevant and applicable to the 21st century, and advocates adopting them as a philosophy of life. It’s a fascinating and enlightening read in and of itself, but also contains many surprisingly relevant and practical insights for screenwriters. The main reason for this is because the book deals with how we can and should relate to the things we desire, if we want to live a joyful and fulfilling life. Which is kind of what most great movies are about too, when you scratch beneath the surface.

I want to highlight just one of these insights here, which Irvine, in typical philosopher-speak, calls the trichotomy of control.

So, What is this Trichotomy of Control?
The ancient philosopher Epictetus advocated the following: Don’t set your desires on things over which you have no control, as this will inevitably lead to disappointment and misery. In other words, he divides the things human beings have to deal with, into things over which we have control, and things over which we have no control.

Irvine expands these two categories into three:

Things over which we have absolutely no control. This includes external things such as the weather, the economy, traffic, etc., and internal phenomena like impulses, aversions, cravings, urges, and any sensation or thought that arises spontaneously.

Things over which we have complete control. These would be things like our opinions, the goals we set ourselves, the values we decide to live by, etc.

Things over which we have some, but not complete control. This refers to things like, achieving goals we set for ourselves, developing our skills to the best of our ability, living according to our values as much as possible, acting or not acting on our impulses, etc.

    Using these three categories, it’s possible to decide quite rationally where to invest effort and where not to. And besides being a very useful way of analysing and dealing with real life situations, it’s also a great way to focus your character’s behaviour too.

    What does your character have absolutely no control over?
    Externally, this is the physical threat or opposition a character faces from a powerful antagonist. Whether the hostile force takes the specific form of an individual, a natural environment, an organization, etc., doesn’t matter: The fact of the opposition is something the character has no control over, and must somehow deal with. Internally, the character is confronted with their own unconsciously generated, spontaneously occurring impulses, aversions, and desires. Perhaps these internal forces are initially less obvious to the character than to the antagonist (and the audience…), but they are nevertheless events over which the character has no control and which they must deal with.

    Some examples:

    - Phonebooth – External: Stuart (Colin Farrell) is powerless in the face of the invisible sniper who has him in his sights. Internal: Stuart has to contend with his intense aversion to being honest.

    - A Serious Man - External: Larry (Michael Stuhlbarg) is confronted with a fait accomplis, his wife’s infidelity. Internal: Larry must deal with his incessant need to understand what’s happening to him.

    - Ratatouille – External: Remy the rat can do nothing about the fact that he’s regarded by the human world as vermin. Internal: Remy can’t help his relentless desire to cook.


    What does your character have complete control over?
    These are mostly internal phenomena, like opinions, goals, values. In other words, a character can quite rationally and consciously decide to take sides in a military conflict, or to strive to achieve a particular academic or professional qualification, or to try and win the love of a particular woman, and so on. The character is also in complete control over how he or she tries to achieve their goal, or defend their position, and so on. This says nothing about their chances of succeeding, of course, because as often happens in films, the character is free to choose the wrong approach, too. In most mainstream, narrative films, the main character will face a final, painful moral dilemma at some point. Here too, the character has complete control over their choice.

    Some examples:

    - The Lives of Others - Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe) chooses to work for the repressive East German state security police.

    - Avatar - Jake (Sam Worthington) chooses to switch sides and defend the values of the Na’vi.

    - An Education – David (Peter Sarsgaard) consciously chooses to deceive Jenny (Carey Mulligan) by not telling her he’s married.

    What does your character have some, but not complete control over?
    Here’s where a character’s choices become interesting, and where conflict and dilemmas can really take hold. We all know how hard it is to live consistently according to values we hold dear, or how hard it can be to resist acting on impulses which we know will lead to trouble. Equally, we all know when we’re cutting corners or doing our utmost, and that choice is within our control. Even more so, then, for a fictional character, whom you deliberately place in the worst possible circumstances in order to test their mettle. Because it’s when a character has some, but not complete control over events, that their choices become dramatic. The screenwriter deliberately confronts their characters with difficult choices in order to emphasize a particular moral issue. The drama, or comedy, comes from the uncertainty about whether the character can distinguish between what is within their control and what isn’t. Will they recognize temptation and withstand it? Will they see the danger but persevere anyway? Will they overestimate their powers? In the end, what characters have control over, are their choices and the lengths they’re willing to go to achieve their goals.

    Some examples:

    - Greenberg – Greenberg (Ben Stiller) constantly faces the negative social consequences of having acted impulsively in the past, and still struggles with this urge in the present.

    - Little Miss Sunshine – Olive (Abigail Breslin) is never destined to win the beauty pageant, but because she makes such an effort, she achieves something far more valuable.

    - The Crying Game – Fergus (Stephen Rea) finds his conscience at odds with life as an IRA gunman and chooses to desert. Interestingly, Jody (Forest Whitaker) mocks Fergus, saying he has no control over his choices because of his intrinsic nature!

    Is your character trying to change something over which he has no control?
    Here we get to the crux of the drama or comedy in a story. Because before a character understands he’s battling something he has no control over, instead of focusing on the thing he can control, he will continue to bang his head and get into worse trouble. This confusion is often resolved in a kind of “aha” moment, when the character realizes they’ve been focusing too much on some insurmountable, external opposition, when really they need to face their inner demons first.

    Some examples:

    - The Fountain - Tommy (Hugh Jackman) spends almost the entire film fighting against something no one has any control over: death. It’s only after his wife has died that he acknowledges this and finds some degree of peace.

    - The Crucible – Proctor (Daniel Day-Lewis) struggles against the absolute power of the church, almost saves himself by confessing to something he didn’t do, and eventually chooses death above hypocrisy.

    - Nemo –Marlin tries to prevent his son Nemo from taking risks, but must finally acknowledge that he can’t stop Nemo growing up and becoming independent.

    All the above examples deal with big-picture, basic story elements. But the same trichotmoy is just as useful for examining other, more detailed aspects of a screenplay, such as sequences, scenes and even individual beats or lines of dialogue.

    So you see, those dusty old Greek philosophers knew a thing or two about human nature, which is, essentially, the screenwriter’s main raw material.

    Wednesday, August 18, 2010

    Character Equals Choice Under Pressure… Really?

    Character = choice under pressure. Another of those damned screenwriting axioms that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

    Sure, it’s what we would like reality to be like, so in that sense it’s perfect. It explains why films, certainly mainstream commercial films, always have to have heroes who get stuck in increasingly difficult dilemmas and who eventually choose the right thing. That delicious fantasy, the monomyth in which good prevails over bad, purely through the individual force of will of the hero.

    Instant, Unconscious and Irrational Decisions
    Wouldn’t it be great if human decision-making worked like that? Unfortunately current neuroscientific and psychological insights show conclusively, it doesn’t. We take most of our decisions instantaneously, unconsciously and pretty much irrationally. Usually we embellish our motives with rationalized explanations after the fact. But it’s very rarely a simple, albeit painful, conscious cost–benefit analysis that drives a decision. Especially not the kind of dramatic decisions portrayed in films.

    Memento
    I personally haven’t yet found a way to deal with this challenge to such a pillar of screenwriting dogma, in my writing. I still write characters who, in one way or another, take difficult but conscious decisions and learn from them. Neither have I seen many movies that successfully subvert the current paradigm of the hero taking charge of his fate, while remaining entertaining. Perhaps Memento gets close, because the main character is unable to consciously control his decisions due to a memory defect.

    How Free is your Character’s Will?
    It’s no wonder that changing the way we think about film heroes isn’t easy. Look at the underlying philosophical assumptions we would have to challenge: free will, individual autonomy, the nature of consciousness… Not trivial issues. We like to think of ourselves as rationally and morally motivated beings. We like to imagine we mature over time and learn, through experience, to assess choices and take decisions based on what’s right rather than on some indefinable, unconscious criteria.

    In your dreams.

    Goodbye Freud, Hello… What Exactly?
    Although it does happen sometimes. But to my mind, more by coincidence and facilitated by context, than because of moral backbone. In fact, this entire notion of force of will, the individual forcing him- or herself to act counter to their own unconscious interests, is a complete myth. It’s clear that unconscious prompts and conditioning are far more important in the decisions we take, than any noble, parochial moral considerations. Just read Dan Arielly, Jonah Lehrer, Richard Wiseman, Philip Zimbardo, or any other post-Freudian, scientific approach to decision-making.

    The Road to Hell…
    Which doesn’t mean we don’t decide to do things. What it does mean, is that most of the time we have to deal with the consequences of choices we didn’t intentionally, consciously take. A lot of our mental energy is spent making up stories for ourselves and our surroundings, that appear to explain why we did what we did. Which is another reason we love traditional narrative films so much, I guess, because they reinforce this idea that our decisions are always fundamentally reducible to psychological motives.

    Honest, I Don’t Know Why I did it, Sir!
    Films characters appear to wrestle with the moral aspects of choices they made, or have to make. In real life morality is far less relevant, even though we don’t like to think so. What most of us experience far more than moral dilemmas, is ignorance about why we do things. Sure, we like to frame this ignorance as moral confusion, but often is just a simple lack of insight into how a decision actually came about.

    Up in Arms… I think
    We love to think we’re in charge, little drivers in huge Avatar-like robots or androids which are our bodies. The bad news is, that Cartesian notion has long since run its course. A revolution in the self-image of Homo sapiens has been going on for quite a while now. Welcome to the new reality, in which:

    Character equals rationalization in retrospect due to complete ignorance of how choices were made.

    So what does this mean for screenwriting? It means breaking rules of convenience that govern how to portray human experience in films. It means considering the significance, in terms of morality, of not necessarily being consciously in charge of your actions. It means challenging the stale old screenwriting mantras that lead to mountains of multiplex cheese…

    Now then, why did I write this? I have no idea. I’m going to go away and fabricate a narrative that rationalizes my tirade.

    Friday, August 6, 2010

    Screenwriting - The Vomit Phase

    Thinking too rationally, too early in the creative process can kill all sorts of possibilities dead in the water and leave you with an anaemic, generic screenplay.

    The other day I listened to Nicholas Stoller, screenwriter of Get Him to the Greek, being interviewed on the Creative Screenwriting podcast (what a brilliant service to the screenwriting community that podcast is! Jeff Goldsmith should get a knighthood or something). When Stoller described his writing habits, he said he always gets to a point where he writes a “vomit draft.” This is a first draft, which is certainly going to be too long, unsophisticated, and far removed from the end product in terms of quality. But he gives himself permission to write it, in order to get the basic story onto paper. Then the real writing work starts, i.e., the rewriting.

    The Creative Process: Inspiration and Elaboration
    In any creative endeavour, the initial phase of coming up with ideas—the inspirational phase— has to be allowed to flow freely, without any thought about practicalities. In her book Screenwriting Updated, Linda Aronson equates this phase of the writing with lateral thinking. The kind of brainstorming technique, made famous by Edward de Bono, that can go in any direction, and that isn’t bound by any critical evaluation of the quality of the ideas. It’s only in a subsequent phase that more rational, task-oriented vertical thinking, takes over. This is the elaboration phase, or the craft aspect of the writing. A phase in which logic and conscious considerations play a more dominant role.

    The Vomit Draft Gives you Something to Work on
    Inspiration and elaboration are phases in every stage of the process of writing a screenplay. Whether you’re writing a logline, a synopsis, a treatment or a first draft, there’s a time to let rip and a time to be critical. The point is, that once you allow yourself to get something down on paper, however rough and unruly it might be, that gives you something to rewrite. And it’s in the rewriting that specific details begin to emerge and decisions about structure become important.

    Giving Yourself Permission to Vomit, is Half the Work
    The final draft of a screenplay usually contains about 15,000 words. However, the road to that final draft is littered with hundreds of thousands of words of discarded scenes, characters, dialogue, and so on. That is in the nature of screenwriting. The end result is tiny in comparison with the huge amount of material generated along the way, that isn’t used. So it’s essential to allow yourself to, uncritically, get all those initial ideas out of your mind, in order to be able to subsequently whittle them down into an imaginative, original and well-crafted screenplay. Of course, without a really firm understanding of the craft aspects of screenwriting, all you end up with is an uninspiring generic screenplay, or, well... a pile of vomit.

    Saturday, July 31, 2010

    How Being Up-Front About Theme Influences The Audience

    Stating the theme of a film loud and clear at the beginning of a screenplay is sometimes the best way to focus the audience’s attention.

    I recently watched Woody Allen’s wonderful Match Point, which I thoroughly enjoyed on all sorts of levels. Beautiful acting, great tension and suspense, gorgeous cinematography. But what struck me above all about this film, is the boldness with which its theme is presented right at the beginning of the opening scene, both in voiceover and as a visual metaphor. Here’s what it looks like in the screenplay:

    EXT. TENNIS COURT - DAY

    In slow motion, a tennis ball passes back and forth over the net.

    ....................CHRIS (V.O.)
    .........The man who said “I’d rather be
    .........lucky than good” saw deeply into
    .........life. People are afraid to face how
    .........great a part of life is dependent
    .........on luck. It’s scary to think so
    .........much is out of one’s control –
    .........there are moments in a match when
    .........the ball hits the top of the net,
    .........and for a split second it can
    .........either go forward…or fall back.
    .........With a little luck, it goes
    .........forward…and you win. Or maybe it
    .........doesn’t…and you lose.

    The ball hitting the top of net and hanging for a beat in the air, is actually visible on screen too during this voiceover, although it’s not mentioned in the script. Either way, what this opening does is set the tone and focus your attention on the meaning and point of everything that follows. There’s no need to speculate about what the theme of the film is, it’s laid out for you in the clearest terms.

    What’s in a Theme?
    Nuances aside, pretty much everyone agrees that the definition of theme is something like: What the film is really about. The issues which, ideally, all the film’s action and dialogue refer to, and the moral aspect of the main character’s core problem. Sometimes you can express the theme in a single word, such as, honesty, greed, etc. Other times it’s the type of specific moral premise advocated by Stanley D. Williams. And there are all sorts of variation in between. But however it’s formulated, the theme of a film is the moral or philosophical case the film is trying to make.

    Ladies and Gentlemen… The Theme!
    Not all screenplays state their theme as brazenly as Match Point, but they almost always contain a moment, usually during the initial phase of the story, when the theme is alluded to, or even explicitly stated. It’s often a line of dialogue, such as on page 4 of Doubt by John Patrick Shanley, when father Flynn addresses his congregation in church:

    ..................FLYNN
    .........What do you do when you’re not
    .........sure? That is the topic of my sermon
    .........today.

    Or page 4 of The Reader, by David Hare, when Michael’s father Peter responds to his wife nagging the boy to see a doctor:

    ..................PETER
    .........We’re not going to argue about
    .........this. People have to take
    .........responsibility for their own lives.

    Sometimes it’s the lyrics of a song, such as Rock, Rock Till You Drop, the Def Leppard song which opens The Wrestler, written by Rob Siegel.

    Stating the Theme Primes the Audience
    So what’s the advantage of stating theme as early and explicitly as possible? A lot has been written about the phenomenon of priming , which is basically the fact that we are unconsciously influenced by the choice of words and metaphors we’re presented with. For example, in his recently updated book Predictably Irrational, psychologist Dan Ariely gives some striking examples from psychological experiments, where exposure to a set of selected words prior to the experiments, significantly influences their outcome. Even to the extent that, for example, subjects exposed to words relating to elderly people, walked slower than subjects who hadn’t been exposed to these words, after the experiment was over. Advertisers make use of this phenomenon all the time, as do professional debaters, politicians, salespeople and all sorts of other people whose business it is to influence their audience.

    It’s a Screenwriter’s Job to Influence The Audience
    In more than one sense, screenwriters should weigh every word in their scripts. Not just because you have to limit yourself to writing what you can see and hear, but also because the way you prime the audience is going to influence how they perceive the rest of the film. I’ve written before about how European films tend to be less emotionally manipulative than Hollywood films, but however much you leave up to the audience to work out for themselves, you still want the film to have a sense of thematic unity. The more your screenplay is about one thing, and the earlier you focus the audience’s attention on that thing, the more engaging an experience it’s likely to be.

    Thursday, July 8, 2010

    What’s Your Character’s Intention?

    Knowing a character’s backstory helps you write them consistently, but knowing what’s moving them in the here and now of a scene makes them really come to life.

    I have to admit, I never write character biographies. I’ve often tried, using lists, charts and diagrams offered up by various screenwriting books and mentors, but I always find that there are only a few key items that really matter, and those are really only characterization. Things like level of education, social class, a character’s main frustration in life, that kind of thing. Because when it comes to writing the scene, I often find characters wants to do things I hadn’t anticipated. Which forces me to examine their immediate intention rather than analyze their history.









    Intention: preparedness for action
    The term intention, as it’s used by mindful awareness practitioners such as psychotherapist Daniel Siegel denotes a purposeful orientation of which you’re not necessarily aware but which you can easily bring into consciousness by reflection. An intention is an unconsciously generated state of preparedness, an anticipation of how to respond to other people’s actions or to circumstances as they pan out in real time. All based on lessons learned from experience. In terms of screenwriting, a character’s intention is what drives them to behave in a particular way in a specific situation, based on how they unconsciously expect the immediate situation and their own actions, to unfold. This is not the same as a character’s “want” or “need,” as these are more longer-term, goal-oriented traits.

    What a character wants
    What the main character in a screenplay wants, is to solve a specific problem. Or put differently, to achieve a specific goal. The character is aware of what the problem is. Depending on the genre, the goal is normally a concrete objective, such as to escape from captivity, to obtain an object or money, to win someone’s love, to save someone or something, etc.. The story is then the account of the various ways the character goes about trying to solve the problem, and the obstacles they encounter along the way.

    What a character needs
    What the character needs is more abstract, and takes us into more murky, psychological waters. Usually, what the character needs is something they only become aware of during the course of the story. Although they may think they know what they need to begin with. This is the stuff of the character arc, the (moral) lesson the character learns by the end of the story.








    What the character’s intention is
    The character’s intention is a kind of intermediate phenomenon, a purposeful focus that sits somewhere in between an unconscious psychological need and a conscious, concrete goal. As long as the character is unaware of their own intention, their behaviour is dictated by habit and they react automatically. If the character is aware of their intention, they are free to act on it or not, but this then becomes a choice. Or in terms of drama: the character experiences a conflict, a dilemma. It’s usually another character who, deliberately or otherwise, points out to the main character what their intention is. This may be an attempt by an enemy to undermine the main character, but it could also be a friend trying to help them by showing them what they’re really up to.

    Why intention is more important in a scene than biography
    The old-school Freudian model, which posits that individuals are slaves to their past, can lead to a reductive, over-simplified view of individuals, where behaviour in the here and now is always a reflection of some unresolved personal problem in the past. In that context, as long as the screenwriter knows the character’s backstory, they can always point to it and reassure everyone from script readers to studio heads by explaining: That’s why the character behaves the way he does. Very neat, clinical, and unequivocal. But human beings and the decisions they take are far more complex than that. So what matters more than where a character went to school or whether they like broccoli (assuming these details aren’t crucial to the plot), is what the character’s intention is in the scene. That’s what determines their emotions and so their actions and speech. This can’t be surgically separated from the larger, overall picture of who the character is and what aspect of their life is driving the narrative, but it is a distinct phenomenon.

    Paying attention to intention
    Intention is a funny thing. If you pay specific attention to your own intention in various situations, you might be surprised as to how much less you are consciously “in control” of yourself than you imagined. Your mind is constantly taking stock of events as they happen and formulating intentions concerning what to do next. The same goes for characters in a screenplay. Sometimes it’s more productive to ask what a character’s intention is in a given scene, than to ask why they’re behaving in a particular way. The “why” question automatically generates an analytical, logical answer, but the “intention” question opens up possibilities.

    Tuesday, June 22, 2010

    Is Your Idea For A Screenplay Worth The Effort?

    Here’s a quote I love from Bob Kosberg of moviepitch.com, alias The Pitch King:

    The biggest mistake screenwriters make is - they come up with an idea on a Monday and decide that's going to be the script they're going to spend the next three to six months working on, rather than spending an equal amount of time going through lots of ideas and making sure the one they're going to write is tested, critically received by lots of people and then, when they know they really have something strong, they sit down and spend the time writing it. They work and sweat and bleed on screenplays that are wrong-headed to begin with. It may have good writing, but the idea, story, and concept aren't that commercial or strong and thus, will never sell.

    Of course there are those who would say that you have to “follow your passion” whether that leads to a commercially viable screenplay or not. I certainly thought that way for a long time, and I’ve ended up with far too many projects either unfinished or unproduced. And not because I can’t write or because I’m unfamiliar with screenwriting conventions.

    The point of the matter is, that writing a good screenplay takes a huge amount of effort and perseverance, and it really only makes sense to put in that work if the idea at the heart of the screenplay is genuinely well thought through. That is, at least, if you’re serious about earning a living writing screenplays.

    Does that mean that the only screenplays worth writing are clones or imitations of successful Hollywood movies? I don’t think so. I think the main criterion should be: Is there potentially (and realistically) a market for your movie idea? Does the screenplay have at its core a unique enough idea, or an intriguing enough twist on a familiar genre, to pique an audience’s interest?

    Which kind of translates to: Is this idea going to be interesting to anyone besides you? I mean, would your neighbour pay to go and see this movie?

    I hate dealing with this issue, because it brings up the whole question of whether film is primarily an art form or a business enterprise. And like most screenwriters, I like to think that what I write has some relevance, that it’s more than “mere entertainment.” The misconception being that an entertaining movie is by definition superficial and vacuous.

    Increasingly, I’m convinced that time spent testing and selecting ideas for screenplays before committing to writing a screenplay, is time very well spent. And although writing anything is good practice, it’s a pity to spend months or years writing a screenplay that has no real potential of being produced.

    Tuesday, June 8, 2010

    Does Writing Chick Flicks Make Good Business Sense?

    I recently read Emily Blake’s fuming blog post about a screenplay she had to read, in which there was only one female character, who was a passive victim, waiting for a man to save her. It’s well worth a read, just to see the sparks of fury flying off your screen.

    Besides that, though, Emily raises an interesting point, which was also discussed recently on BBC’s The Review Show, when one of the topics was Sex and the City 2: How come women’s experience is not more often the focus of mainstream movies? As Abby McDonald, one of the writers participating in the show said, there are plenty of movies with great roles for actresses, but very few films really portray a woman’s point of view.

    Which goes some way to explaining the huge response from female audiences to movies like Mama Mia and Sex and the City.


    To some extent I guess the dearth of authentic female points of view in mainstream cinema is just a another manifestation of prevalent gender status differences: Most people who write, direct, produce, fund and distribute movies are men. But I don’t think that’s the whole story. And I don’t believe there’s a deliberate, male chauvinist conspiracy to prevent movies that appeal to women from being made. After all, the same industry that churns out testosterone-driven action movies, also produced those female audience hits I just mentioned.

    There are so many factors involved in getting a film made (and seen), that there’s probably no point trying to pinpoint any one issue that prevents more “female” films being made. Although… wait… actually, there is one thing: MONEY. And it’s ubiquitous flipside: RISK.

    If only more of the conservative-minded men working in the movie business would sit up and take notice of the fact that hundreds of millions of women around the world, with enough disposable income to go to the movies with their girlfriends now and again, are dying to see their lives and problems portrayed more authentically on the silver screen... They’d see that there’s a lot less risk involved than they fear.

    And as for simplistic representations of passive female characters with nothing better to do than wait for some muscle-bound numbskull to come along and sweep them off their feet… To me that just sounds like lazy and derivative writing. Isn’t it much more interesting to do something innovative with stereotypes rather than simply repeat them? And what else is Hollywood looking for, if it’s not new and surprising versions of familiar stories?



    So I guess it’s really up to us screenwriters to recognize that it does make good business sense to write “female stories” which have the same dramatic, comedic impact as the overcooked macho stuff we’re used to seeing. At the very least it sets your screenplay above the masses of generic and lazily written scripts.

    And if you’re a male screenwriter, clueless as to how to go about writing good female characters, take some advice from Melvin Udall (Jack Nicholson) in As Good As It Gets: “…think of a man and take away reason and accountability.” He was speaking ironically, right?

    Monday, May 17, 2010

    Does Your Main Character Have The Right Adjective?

    Having an intriguing main character at the centre of your screenplay is hugely important, especially when it comes to writing loglines and pitching story ideas. One of the ingredients that make a main character interesting, is a recognizable weakness, with which the audience can identify emotionally.

    Which is why one of the essential components of a logline is a description of the main character that includes a suggestion of the journey they are about to embark on. A description of their profession, family or social status is informative, but doesn’t suggest a story. What the description requires is something that points at the main character’s inner conflict, the emotional obstacle they will have to confront in the story. Choosing the right adjective or descriptive phrase is paramount.

    Imagine the main character is a plumber. Here are some very different plumbers:

    - A depressed, recently divorced plumber
    - A plumber guilty of domestic violence
    - A sex-addicted plumber
    - An overbearing, gay plumber
    - A plumber suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder
    - An overambitious, female plumber
    - A self-conscious, overweight plumber
    - A plumber on the verge of retirement

    Each description evokes different story possibilities, whether dramatic or comedic. Each description hints at what is causing problems in this particular plumber’s life at the beginning of the story. This is what drives the main narrative conflict. It suggests the internal obstacle the character has to deal with, a trait or habit which makes them their own worst enemy, in the context of this particular story.

    How about the same adjectives applied to, say, a nurse?

    - A depressed, recently divorced nurse
    - A male nurse guilty of domestic violence
    - A sex-addicted nurse
    - An overbearing, gay nurse
    - A nurse suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder
    - An overambitious nurse
    - A self-conscious, overweight nurse
    - A nurse on the verge of retirement

    The same description, coupled with a different occupation, suggests a whole set of different story possibilities.

    The adjective, or descriptive phrase, hints at the basic flaw with which the main character starts out. Together with a simple description of their occupation, it immediately suggests a basic narrative and a story world, as well as indicating the character’s main weakness.

    In the above examples, depressed, recently divorced suggests a story in which the main character might learn that love is still possible, or that they need to make drastic changes in their life, or they might attempt suicide, and so on. Overambitious suggests a story in which the main character is going to be painfully (or comically) confronted with their limitations, or perhaps a story in which we gradually realize the main character is severely deluded. And so on, each description suggesting different emotional conflicts at the heart of the story.

    So the main character’s basic position at the outset of the story, contained in that brief description, is the starting point of their arc. It suggests what the character will have learned (or not learned, depending on the genre) by the end of the story. Which is why the choice of adjective describing the main character in the logline is far more important than you might imagine.

    Wednesday, May 5, 2010

    Planning Your Work: Distinguish The Project From The Task

    If, like most screenwriters, you work on more than one project at a time, you know how easy it is to lose focus and productivity. Screenwriter’s Diffuse Attention Disorder, I believe it’s called. To-do lists usually make matters worse, and lists of what not to do invariably end up being turned over and used as scrap paper to jot down a new idea for a story. The creative mind just isn’t conducive to careful and sensible planning.

    So the other day I was happy to be pointed by Michael Bungay Stanier of Box Of Crayons to a great blog for unfocused creatives like me, called: Productive Flourishing. The blog is the handiwork of writer, designer and coach Charlie Gilkey, who outlines various ways to customize schedules or to-do lists to suit your particular line of creative work.

    The one major take-home from this blog for me, is the distinction Charlie points out between project verbs and next-action/task verbs (which he in turn learned from Getting Things Done).

    In the particular context of screenwriting, a project verb refers to a general-level activity such as: outline, rewrite, polish, complete, fine-tune, network, think about, and so on. The verbs referring to screenwriting tasks or next-actions are basically just smaller subdivisions of those larger activities, and might be things like: Sketch first act turning point, or: Follow up yesterday’s pitch meeting with an email to X, and so on.

    Screenwriters are always acutely aware of their choice of words in their scripts. However, I’ve found that I’m hopeless at articulating in a simple, unambiguous sentence what I’m going to do, say, tomorrow morning between nine and twelve. Even though I know that if don’t commit to one task at a time, I get much less work done.

    So, following Charlie’s advice, I’ve had a closer look at different ways of formulating a work plan. For example, look at the difference between these reminders:

    A) Continue working towards completing a short script.

    B) Describe the main character’s central dilemma and its consequences in short script X

    In version A) you leave open which script to work on, which in itself can lead to endless mulling before you even get to writing. But even choosing which story to focus on is not always sufficient, which is why it’s helpful to add which aspect of the story to work on.

    Because B) specifies where to start working, it reduces the likelihood of procrastination by demanding a commitment to a specific task. Of course A) also contains a commitment, to finish a short screenplay (e.g., in time for a competition deadline), but that’s a commitment to a project, to a longer-term goal. Which in itself is a good thing, but it doesn’t necessarily indicate specifically what work to do this afternoon or tomorrow morning.

    The bottom line is, if you’re one of those people whose productivity suffers as the number of ongoing projects increases, one way to help yourself is to pay attention to the verbs you use on your to-do list. It’s useful to have long-term screenwriting goals (using project verbs) but you also need to know how to get the most out of your working day (using task/next-action verbs).

    So, now that I’ve completed my action item of “write a blog entry about the distinction between a project and a task with regard to planning one’s working hours,” I can tick the box and move on to my next action item: “go and have that beer with the lady next door.”

    Toodle-pip.

    Wednesday, April 28, 2010

    What Transcribing A Non-Native Speaker’s English Can Teach You

    So here’s another instalment on the subject of learning about writing dialogue by transcribing real speech, this time a non-native English speaker, speaking English.

    As witnessed by a recent discussion on the Shooting People screenwriting forum, it’s not always obvious how to write dialogue which has a strong regional or foreign accent. The consensus seems to be that it’s best to keep phonetic spelling to a minimum, while making sure the speech itself reflects characteristic local phrases or grammatical errors, and indicating the particular accent in parenthesis.

    The following excerpts are taken from another favourite podcast of mine, CBC’s Writers & Company, presented by Eleanor Wachtel. In this interview she talks to Antonio Skarmeta, the renowned Chilean novelist and screenwriter, whose English is excellent, but still clearly not his first language.

    In this snippet there are a couple of aspects which typify his use of English. Try reading this with the requisite pronunciation:

    ....................SKARMETA
    .................(Chilean accent)
    ............…and one day my father said to
    ............me: “Listen son, have you seen
    ............that you have now enough stories
    ............to publish a book?” And I
    ............haven't notice it, because
    ............for me it was fun to write!

    “…have you seen that you have now…” is a not turn of phrase a native speaker would normally use, and “I haven’t notice it…” is the kind of grammatical error that a Spanish speaker would easily make.

    Here Skarmeta talks about one of his mother’s favourite songs:

    ....................SKARMETA
    ............This a very sad song, because
    ............it's about a couple who cannot
    ............go living together because of
    ............some mysterious thing, that is
    ............never made clear. The man say
    ............to the woman, we have to part,
    ............I'm sorry... I'm so sorry about
    ............it, but there's nothing we can
    ............do about it.

    Here too, a couple of characteristic mistakes: “This a very sad song…” and “…who cannot go living together…” and “The man say…” which when coupled with the accent are more than enough to suggest a Spanish speaker, speaking English.



    Using these kinds of real-life speech patterns is far more effective than trying to mimic a Spanish accent phonetically. And nowadays, with so much speech available in MP3 format on the web, eets a piss of cayk to practees zis skeel. You see?

    The main priority is to make the dialogue just as easy to read as the dialogue of a native English speaker. As soon as the reader has to make an extra effort to read unconventionally spelled dialogue, you run the risk of distracting their attention from the flow of the story.

    I hope Mr. Skarmeta, whose impressive oeuvre includes the classic Il Postino, doesn’t mind me using his English to make a screenwriting point. Suffice it to say that his English is infinitely more impressive than my Spanish…

    Thursday, April 15, 2010

    What Transcribing Real-Life Speech Can Teach You

    Here’s an exercise I’ve taken to recently: Writing out, verbatim, sections of speech from podcast interviews. Not scripted shows, but interviews with people in live situations. Not only does it give you great ideas for idiom, jargon and so on, it also forces you to really listen closely to what speakers do in between their words. There’s a hell of a lot of humming and hawing, umming and erring going on there! Not always simple to transcribe, and not always essential, but a great way of sharpening your awareness of what makes for authentic sounding dialogue nonetheless.

    One of my favourite podcasts at the moment is To The Best Of Our Knowledge, which has some fascinating reports, including one about karaoke, from which the following dialogue is transcribed.

    The speakers are members of The Gomers, a live backing band that plays request tunes for singers to get up on stage and sing to at the High Noon Saloon in Madison Wisconsin. They call their live karaoke style, Rock Star Gomeroke. In the following excerpt, band member Steve describes how a woman with a broken leg got up to sing:

    ....................STEVE
    ..........There's a woman who came up,
    ..........who was extremely drunk, AND she had
    ..........a broken leg, so she was on
    ..........crutches, in a cast… in a fairly
    ..........full leg cast, like it was a big
    ..........boot that kinda went up to the
    ..........knee area but down to the foot…
    ..........and she started spinning around!

    Doesn’t this create a nice crescendo? Not just a broken leg, not just a cast, not just a big cast, but a big boot, and the woman spins around!! The general tone of speech here is informal without being slang, and the person speaking is trying hard to describe the scene accurately. Plus he’s also trying to make it fun to listen to, he’s performing as he speaks, as it were.

    Here’s regular Gomeroke singer Terry-Lynn describing what it’s like to sing with the Gomers:

    ....................TERRY-LYNN
    ..........…and it's… drawing you out of
    ..........your daily humdrum existence,
    ..........where sometimes, frankly, maybe
    ..........somebody doesn't really give a
    ..........crap about you as long as you
    ..........show up for work…

    I personally wouldn’t have thought to write, “sometimes, frankly, maybe… etc.” but there it is, it’s functional, authentic and it renders a subtext: A person trying to be diplomatic while at the same time expressing an emotion (frustration, anger). Plus the phrase humdrum existence gives this speech an educated register.

    Here’s band member Bith (hope I got his name right…) talking about the joy of playing in the Gomers:

    ....................BITH
    ..........Each of us has, like, different
    ..........biases, and everything? I think…
    ..........when we're on stage… together…
    ..........it's like, whatever we're
    ..........playing? We're gonna, like, do
    ..........our best, no matter what… and
    ..........that's what makes Gomers
    ..........enjoyable for me… to play with…
    ..........for me.

    This guy also has a very distinct way of speaking, with his constant interjection of “like” and his question tag “and everything?” Plus he does the sing-song “ending a sentence that isn’t a question on a question-mark thing?” So here’s someone who is perhaps less verbally oriented than the other two, who perhaps doesn’t think he’s finding the right words to express what he’s feeling?

    And so, the subtleties of these different people appear in the way they speak. Of course, in real life, as participants in conversation, we pick up all the nuances unconsciously. However, in order to be able to write dialogue which deliberately expresses something about a fictional character, you need to know what your options are. And this is one way of honing that skill.

    In a following post: Transcribing a non-native speaker speaking English…

    Saturday, April 10, 2010

    Selling Pitches To Hollywood, Dream Or Business Model?

    I’ve been quiet for a while, as I’ve been busy investigating the possibility of selling pitches to Hollywood, as opposed to hawking an actual finished screenplay. My thinking is: If I can support my spec writing by selling a few ideas this year, I’ll be a happy man.

    But not being convinced this is a sound business model, I started out by posing the question of whether an outsider like me has any chance of selling ideas rather than scripts to Hollywood, on Twitter, TwelvePoint and Shooting People. The responses there, mainly from fellow screenwriters, was overwhelmingly: “Yeah, wouldn’t that be cool? But dream on, my friend!”

    Not satisfied with that response, I went on to query various people who have more substantial industry access, and whose answers might be based on current, first-hand experience. Here are just a few of the responses I received:

    Steve Kaire, high concept pitch guru:

    It's extremely difficult to sell an idea on its own. I've done it with the contacts I made in Hollywood but it's a lot more difficult these days.

    David H. Steinberg, aka Hollywhooped!, at DoneDealPro

    The age of selling naked ideas is long gone. Maybe in 1988 you could have walked into a studio with Ace Ventura, but these days you need a completed script, A-list talent attached, and if possible, financing!

    There are still people in the business of brokering ideas, but guys like Bob Kosberg are now forced to get someone else to write it on spec, or at least to try to package the project. That’s a lot of work and it means that the idea itself is worth less and less. As you know, the hard work is in the execution so ideas aren’t worth very much to begin with, but now, the odds of selling an original idea are so small that the naked idea is practically worthless, even if you could get someone interested.

    Philip Botana, independent producer:

    The only people who can sell off of a concept are those that have access to decision makers that can make it possible. This is usually a sales agent, producer with a distribution deal or someone with access to finance and the other two elements (producer and sales agent).

    The market is also changing. There was a time when you could sell a concept at AFM and raise the money through the foreign market. This has become increasingly difficult despite the exceptions to the rule often mentioned in the press.

    Scott Myer at Go Into The Story:

    Sure, you can sell a treatment. The question is where does the money go? Answer: Not much your way. I don't have direct experience with this on the scripted side of things, but re non-scripted TV, networks pay anywhere from $10-25K for series concepts. That may seem like a decent amount of money, but if the thing actually goes to series, you're looking at an overall budget of anywhere from $2-10M. I would think you'd be looking at a similar, if not greater disparity on the feature film side.

    … my instinct would be to do the work and write a spec script -- to maximize the possible financial benefit and give yourself - and your story concept - the most protection.

    Marylin Horowitz, New York based producer-writer and script coach:

    My personal opinion is that a great idea is so rare that when there is one, and it's communicated clearly, a deal is made. As to the form it is sold in, it varies from situation to situation. Someone always seems to be winning "script lotto," and someone's nepotist bad idea story is also always getting made. Bill Goldman said something to the effect regarding Hollywood that "Nobody knows anything."

    So the opinions from inside the industry seem to suggest that pitches do get bought from time to time, but there are a number of qualifications:

    • The idea has to be exceptionally good.
    • It doesn’t happen very often.
    • Almost only established and represented screenwriters sell pitches.
    • The price paid for a pitch is a fraction of what is paid for a script.
    • Selling a treatment is more feasible and safer in terms of copyright.

    As far as I’m concerned, the jury is still out. I’m still brainstorming pitches as well as working on a spec script, and at some point soon I plan to approach the market with a small collection of my best pitches. Because one thing seems clear to me above all else in this context: It’s worth a try.

    I’ll keep you posted on developments!

    Sunday, March 14, 2010

    Is There A Market For One-Page Pitches?

    This past week I initiated some interesting discussion over at twelvepoint, as well as on Twitter and various other forums. The question I’ve been trying to find an answer to is whether there is a market for one-page film concepts. Not as a pitch for a finished screenplay or as a means of soliciting a writing gig, but as a stand-alone commodity.

    Writing one-pagers is an excellent way of honing your storytelling and pitching skills. It forces you to articulate the main elements of a story idea clearly and enticingly. So compiling a stock of one-pagers is probably a good idea for any screenwriter. But what if you could monetize the one-pagers themselves too?

    It’s not an academic question. Imagine being able to support your spec writing with a day job consisting of brainstorming, writing up and selling great ideas for movies. Sounds ideal to me. Which is why I’m looking into it so seriously. However, so far the only thing I’ve been able to confirm is William Goldman’s famous adage: No one knows anything.

    Various places and people on the web offer facilities for selling pitches. People like Robert Kosberg, sites such as buymymovieidea and tvfilmrights all claim to be in the business of buying synopses rather than completed screenplays.

    Equally, there are plenty of people out there, such as Christopher Lockhart who vociferously advise against trying to sell ideas rather than screenplays to Hollywood. Not just because you can’t copyright an idea, but also because the chances of anyone buying an idea rather than a script are infinitesimally small.

    So who’s right? Does Hollywood buy ideas or not?

    I haven’t found out yet, but I’m continuing my investigations. I’m also continuing to write the one-pagers, working on the assumption that it can’t do any harm to build up a portfolio… As Jared Kelly, commented in the twelvepoint thread:

    Completed GOOD screenplays take so long there's an excuse for not having many of those to hand (but never an excuse for not increasing the numbers) but all writers have too many ideas and not enough time to write them, so develop those ideas into pitches during down time and have them ready to dazzle the world. You never know...

    Indeed. I’ll keep you posted on this story as it unfolds…

    Wednesday, March 3, 2010

    When Knowing Your Screenplay Inside-Out Can Be A Disadvantage

    I recently listened to the director’s commentary on Duplicity, written and directed by Tony Gilroy. Because of his hyphenated position on this movie, he is in a unique position to provide some insight into various choices he made before and while directing his own script. One such choice relates to the opening sequence, which was only added at a very late stage, when it became clear that without it, audiences were confused.

    The sequence, which isn’t included in the only pdf version of the screenplay I could locate online, is a piece of backstory featuring the two main characters, a pair of corporate spies played by Clive Owens and Julia Roberts.

    Owens comes on to Roberts at a garden party in Dubai. He doesn’t know she’s a spy. She knows he is, but pretends not to know. From the garden we cut to Owens in a deep, drug-induced sleep in a hotel room, while Roberts goes through his personal items and removes a secret file.

    From this brief sequence we learn that the world these characters populate is one of deception and double-crossing, in which any tactic is acceptable. We also learn that Julia Roberts is a sophisticated, ruthless operator, and that Clive Owens, although suave and full of self-confidence, is also vulnerable.

    During the rest of the film Roberts and Owens, who have meanwhile become a couple, refer to “Dubai” a number of times. Owens refers to the incident with bitterness, while Roberts is annoyed that he won’t just let it go.

    Now, the nature of the story is such that you never really know who’s deceiving whom. Plus the structure of the story is a chronological mix of the present and increasingly recent episodes from the past. It’s quite a puzzle, which is the perfect form for a story dealing with people constantly trying to second-guess all the other characters’ intentions.

    However, test screenings of the film without the opening sequence showed that repeated references to an incident the audience hadn’t seen, was just too much mystery. So the opening sequence was added.

    As Gilroy looked through the rest of the film to see if this addition necessitated any other edits, he realized that the backstory sequence added an entire new layer to the rest of the story. Simply showing up front what the characters refer back to during the rest of the film, adds humour, raises intriguing rather than confusing questions about what the characters really feel, and leaves the suspense intact.

    Gilroy was surprised to see the effect of such a seemingly cosmetic change, and his anecdote clearly shows how challenging it is to know how much information and backstory to show and when. It’s crucial to spell enough out for the audience so they understand the story, and leave enough up to their imagination to keep them actively involved.

    It’s easy to forget that what may seem obvious to you, because you’ve been living with the characters and the story forever, might be invisible to a completely fresh audience. In this case, I think Gilroy got the balance just right, but only after test audiences had shown him that they needed more information.

    Thursday, February 18, 2010

    Ten Questions To Answer BEFORE You Write Your Screenplay

    As a result of a couple of false starts I made on screenplays recently, I’ve been giving some more thought to the kind of considerations you need to make before you commit to writing up an idea. The result is a rather longer post than usual, but hopefully worth the read!

    It’s kind of counter-intuitive to the creative mind to consider whether it would be sensible to do something that tickles the creative fancy. After all, creativity has a lot to do with being able to tolerate and integrate seemingly irrelevant information and intuitive, undirected activity.

    However, there are at least two important arguments to make against writing in the seclusion of your ivory tower, without thought for what you’re going to do with the screenplay after it’s finished.

    Firstly, you will have infinitely more ideas for films than you will ever be able to write up as finished scripts. You can afford to be picky without fear of running out of ideas.

    Secondly, a screenplay is the starting point for a sizeable business venture, organized by people other than you. If the screenplay isn’t in some way obviously going to attract an audience, no one will put their money or time on the table to produce it.

    Which doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go ahead and make your own films, especially shorts (in fact I’m exploring that option right now myself). But when it comes to longer-form material which you plan to sell or pitch to producers, I think it pays to ask yourself some serious questions before you start writing.

    Here are ten question I’ve come up with. I’m sure there are others.

    Does the idea fit a recognizable genre?
    If you tell someone what kind of film it is, will they be confused? It makes no difference if your story combines different genres, if it’s art house or hi concept, the question is: Will your story fall into some recognizable category? If not, how will you pitch it? How will you explain (to a producer, an investor, an actor) who the potential audience is?

    Is it also original?
    Is your idea what Karl Iglesias calls “uniquely familiar,” or what Linda Aronson calls “real but unusual?” It’s no good writing a generic romantic comedy or a boilerplate crime thriller. Your screenplay has to have some element in it which makes it stand out from other, similar, screenplays in the genre. That could be an aspect of the subject matter, something extraordinary about the main character, a little-known story world or location.

    Is there an obvious marketing hook?
    Is there something famous and intriguing you can refer to when you pitch the idea? Your story might be related to a dramatic event in history, or a political controversy, or an international sporting event, or a well known urban myth, or an unsolved scientific or theological problem, etc. In other words, does the idea spark the imagination by referring to something that most people can immediately relate to?

    Does the main character have an unequivocal, concrete goal?
    Can you explain in a simple sentence, specifically, what the main character wants and how the audience will know if he’s achieved it? Is it clear why the main character wants to achieve that goal? Check out what people like Laura Cross have to say on this topic. The same goes for the main character’s weakness. Can you describe it easily?

    Is the main character interesting?
    Which can mean all sorts of things at the specific level, but at the general level this question asks whether the main character is memorable and intriguing. That could be because of something special the character wants to achieve, or it may be a way of behaving that arouses curiosity.

    Is the idea meaningful to me?
    Here’s one to consider carefully in your ivory tower, because this really only relates to you personally. How are you going to persevere through months of writing if the idea has no resonance with what you believe in, or doesn’t explore a question that intrigues and challenges you? It’s one thing to take on a paid job with a certain professional distance between yourself and the material. It’s quite another to slave away on your own on something you have no idea if anyone will want to produce, and which you yourself don’t really believe in anyway.

    Can I articulate its moral premise?
    I’m really into Stanley Williams’s moral premise concept these days, and although I don’t agree with his politics, I’m convinced he’s right in asserting that you can find the DNA of your story if you articulate its moral premise. What sets of values are in conflict in your story? What psychological and physical dilemmas relating to these values do the various characters have to deal with? Is the story all about just one thing? Big things to think about, but worth investing the time.

    Is it a film I’d pay to watch? Really?
    Or as Marilyn Horowitz puts it: Are you your own film’s biggest fan?. I often find this a surprisingly difficult question to answer truthfully. It really requires a radical shift in perspective to imagine your story as a trailer or a poster and be honest about whether you would take an evening off to go and see it. This relates to the question of whether the idea is meaningful to you, but it’s at a different level. The level of the consumer, faced with an array of movies at the multiplex or online, and having to choose. Would you rather see your movie than the latest offering starring Meryl Streep or directed by Quentin Tarantino?

    Is the narrative a good metaphor for what the story is about?
    Does the story express an idea without it literally being a story about that idea? Can you describe, or do you have an intuition about what the theme of the film is? There are so many different opinions about whether a screenwriter “needs” to be able to articulate the theme of a screenplay before writing it, that I’m not going to burn my fingers on that question. But you should at least have a sense that your story is dealing with something larger than just its plot.

    Are there any immediately obvious pitfalls?
    This is tricky, because you don’t want to think critically about your idea too soon. But as soon you feel yourself committing to an idea, which usually means imagining scenes, mulling over story beats, hearing bits of dialogue, etc., it’s time to take a step back and ask the difficult questions before you go any further. Are there any huge holes in the basic plot? Does the story require prohibitively expensive locations or special effects? Is there some glaring lack of logic in the basic set-up? And so on. Usually these are the things you know intuitively but prefer to ignore so that you can get down to the writing. And sometimes these are issues which can realistically be solved further down the road. But if you sense there is something fundamentally wrong with the idea, don’t even go there.

    I honestly never thought I’d think about writing screenplays this way. It seems calculating and mercenary. But then again, a screenplay is more or less a business plan you’re about to write. And I’m sure I would have saved myself a LOT of time and effort if I had asked myself these questions before embarking on some of my less, shall I say, sellable projects. Still, you live and learn.