Gaining Perspective

There are two major categories of research I believe that writers need to spend time on.

First, the most obvious, is research relating to the story being written.  A lack of understanding and knowledge about the selected era, location, subject matter and characters of a story will quickly show.  For this category, I will dedicate a future post.

The second category is where I want to share insights that I’ve recently gained. The script is merely one of several critical pieces to putting together a great film.  As a writer, you have probably consulted dozens of books, articles and seminars on how to write a great script.  You’ve probably been told that the script is the foundation of film.  The importance of character, conflict and story has been drilled home.  Perhaps you take this at face value and work to make a great script.   But imagine you also explore the other pieces and roles in film making to gain perspective.

This is something I have been doing recently.  I have found it very valuable.

The first thing I did was take an introductory acting course at a local acting studio.  I was fortunate enough to have a Living Social deal come across my Inbox for “Acting for Non-Actors.”  It was a four week course, one 90-minute class each Tuesday night, at the Bay Area Acting Studio in San Jose.  Not really sure what to expect, I was still surprised at the great turn out as well as the diversity of students (age, background, nationality).  Most students were just out to try something new, and a handful were people with previous or current interest in filmmaking roles.  I was the only person self identifying as a hobbyist/aspiring screenwriter.  I soon learned that at least one other student had also shared the interest.  About 2/3 of the class time was spent on games/drills that were pretty fun and effective at bringing up the energy and drawing out the more introverted people of the group.  The other 1/3 of the class was spent on very basic Meisner technique and scene work. I have signed up for the next section called “Acting for Fun” to continue gaining the actor’s perspective.

So far, from just a few classes, the main lessons from this experience, as a writer, were:

1) A speaking character must know who/how/where she or he is focusing their attention and energy. Be clear in your writing.

2) The character really must be unique enough that an actor can channel and use the particular relatable parts of themselves.

3) The dialogue must not get in the way.  Keep it simple.  An actor can do a lot with a few words.  Trust them to communicate the ‘real story.’ Do not write out dialogue that really should come from subtext.

4) If you are doing a good job with the characters and story, you will also reduce or eliminate the need to direct from the page.  That is, fewer movement action lines and parentheticals will feel necessary.

5) Make your characters such that actors *want* to play them.  Boring (e.g. no personality, no voice) or vague characters (e.g. no real conflict or struggle) will not be educational, pivotal, defining or motivating – they won’t be exciting to study and portray.

I would love to hear from any readers that also took acting class and what you found helpful from the experience…

The second step I have taken, is to enroll in the Intro to Film class at local DeAnza Community College.  DeAnza is especially recognized in California for its Film/TV program.  The tuition is affordable, and the schedule provided several options, including the evening section that I selected.   While only a couple of weeks into the class, I have already developed greater appreciation of a great foundational script. Casting, location selection, props, scene framing, camera work, actor positioning – all of this can help tell the story.  But the characters and story have to be strong enough and clear enough to allow these important pieces to do so.

If you haven’t already educated yourself about these aspects of filmmaking, I encourage you to do so.  There are a couple of books on my shelf that are great references, and also, one of my course references is the publicly available Yale site on Film Analysis. The textbook for my class is Looking at Movies.

I assure you will watch your favorite (and despised) films with a new perspective in what makes them great or miss the mark.  It will challenge you to look at your writing with a critical eye for what is needed to turn your story into reality.

What other steps have you taken to gain perspective about the other roles in filmmaking and the importance of the script outside of the writer’s view?

Using Scene Cards

One nice feature of screenwriting software is how it can aid in tracking scenes – allowing scene-specific text, providing scene reports and even providing the option to print scene cards.  Scene cards allow you to look at the flow of the story, reorder, remove and find gaps.  I have typically used hand-written index cards because sometimes the scene information that is automatically included in the software card isn’t clear enough (and usually I didn’t manually enter enough information to be helpful). I’m sure that all roles involved in film rely on the scene cards a lot, but I am focusing on the writer.  This writing tool would likely be useful for playwrights and novelists, as well.

Recently, I started using this tool again for my current rewrite.   First, I ran through my script and marked all of the scenes and numbered them.  Second, I made a card for each scene, then grouped them by storyline. This was hard at times because most of my storylines are fairly intertwined.

Scene Cards

Next, I marked each with a ‘-‘ or ‘+’ for the change in the main character (of the storyline) energy/emotion charge of the scene.  If there wasn’t one, I marked an ‘o’ – knowing I’d probably need to remove, change or replace the scene.

Later, I took advantage of the large tables at the community center, where my daughter is taking a class, to lay out the storyline cards. I made storyline “header” cards, in green.  I then faked a timeline, and spaced the cards according to time passing.

WP_20140322_001

This exercise helped locate several issues and opportunities for different flow.  As I walked through the sequence, I started eliminating cards, marking some for edits, and putting in new placeholder cards (yellow). To preserve the timeline, I made purple cards to demarcate time (Day 1, Day 2, Week later, etc), and then stacked the whole story up in the new order.  On the back, I noted the new order number.

Today, I’m now using the cards to make modifications in Final Draft.  Some scenes are just placeholders, to be written after the restructuring. After I do the writing edits, I’ll do an overall analysis and check the state of the rewrite.

I recommend this exercise, it’s been very useful.

Script Review (Part 2): It’s Kind of a Funny Story

This post is a continuation from the last – a two part review of the script and movie It’s Kind of a Funny Story.

Part 2

Now having seen the movie, my general assessment from the read alone is confirmed – this version of story is lacking.  I actually was a bit antsy and frustrated watching, as I was at times suffering through scenes I had just crawled through in print.  Now, as I haven’t read the book, I don’t know if it’s just a miss on paring for the feature structure, or if the story fundamentally has a lack of flow and depth. I suspect there must be some elements of the novel that just aren’t carrying through, as the book is rated consistently high, unlike the film.  With such a rich opportunity for real emotion, the drama should work, and sparing that, comedy found – but nothing lands, for the most part.

It is unfortunate because I actually think the casting is pretty great. Keir Gilchrist really is a perfect match for Craig.  I think he did the best job handling his role and making it as real as possible.  I also think that Zach Galifianakis was a superb pick for Bobby.  Perhaps if he strayed from the script a little more and tried to help recover the timing of the lines, the lacking sincerity, the movie would have benefited.  Emma Roberts did pretty well but perhaps someone with a little more hidden beauty would have made more sense here.

Dialogue

Have you ever seen someone doing something and understand what they are trying to do, but seeing that isn’t quite doing it right or getting the effect they want? This is how it seemed to me.  Many of the dialogue exchanges seem ideas thrown in and not a natural progression.

Changes from the Script

This section is possibly more interesting because the writers also directed the movie.  Now, some of these changes certainly could have been made in editing. But that also was done by one of the writers!

-        Changes I understood

  • When Bobby returns from his interview, he’s upset, he’s worried he messed it up.  In the script it is described as a child-like tantrum on the couch, but in the film it is a bigger, more grown-up outburst.
  • In the script there are a couple of places where Craig imagines Aaron being present and chiming in.  This didn’t happen in the film.  I think that’s good as it takes the emphasis away from the frustration with Aaron and keeps the focus on Craig.
  • Noelle meeting parents was removed – for simplicity and not moving them along too far, I think it works.

-        Changes I didn’t understand

  • Left out parental help montage.  I thought this was a good way to show the parents have tried to help and he has a good support system.
  • Nia says therapist, not pills, when confiding to Craig.  I guess it might be good to not state all driven kids are on stress pills, but it lost some of the connection for them, I thought.
  • Overall change in the ending is for the better.  The scene and dialogue is condensed.

Opinion

A few specific things bothered me the read, the film or both:

  • I don’t get the Cribs reference.  Some of the vision in the sequence about “what happens if you don’t get in” didn’t make sense.  A presidential person isn’t usually obsessed with pop culture.
  • Bobby should understand Craig, but doesn’t. This might not be fair, perhaps Bobby is where he is because he didn’t have it as “good” as Craig, but that really isn’t the point, right? Everything is relative. When you feel depressed, it really doesn’t matter what you have in your life that is good.
  • The brain maps don’t look like brain maps. They looked like city-scapes. This really bugged me for some reason. When I look at the cover of the novel, it makes more sense.
  • Bobby decides to throw in an inspirational line.  To me, it doesn’t resonate with Bobby, it doesn’t seem natural. And there really is no set up – it’s just thrown in when Bobby stops by.
  • I wanted to really like seeing the honesty in Aaron at the end. But I have a hard time with the inconsistency from every other image of him in the movie. Perhaps if he just stopped to show concern for his friend that would be enough, but the other words just aren’t believable.
  • There is a scene where the group in the hospital plays instruments and Craig is put up to singing.  This is meant to be a sort of transformational scene, but we get completely robbed of witnessing the actual transformation.  Instead we get some fantasy reel.  I would have loved seeing him start timid then come to life as he embraces the lyrics and energy of the song.

Summary

So, I write all of this, and I’m sure it sounds like I hated it, but there were some good pieces.  Remember that I’m just an amateur and to take everything with about ten grains of salt!  The reviews on movie sites are pretty mixed. Some thought it was pretty funny (unlike me).  The novel, however, is rated very high.  Perhaps it is simply a miss in translation from print to screen and it still worked for some but not others.

This was a fun exercise and I’m likely to do it again.

Script Review (Part 1): It’s Kind of a Funny Story

For this exercise, I elected to read a script for a movie I have not yet seen, so that I can see how the movie played out compared to my read.  This analysis will have two posts.  Part 1, below, will be my analysis of the script itself, and the next post, Part 2, will be my comments after viewing the film.

Please remember, my intent with these script review posts will be to point out the things I thought were notable – unique aspects of the script or story based on my (albeit novice) experience and as seen from my eyes.

Part 1 – The Read

Why

I picked this script because of the title and the fact that I had not yet seen the movie (or read the book).  In fact, I had forgotten hearing or seeing anything about it. While I have since looked at the IMDB listing to check the user rating and other details.  You can find the script online (http://gointothestory.blcklst.com/free-script-downloads/).

Story

Young Craig is caving under the pressures of the expectations of his current academic path and the awkward situation of being in love with his best friend’s girl.  Fearing his ongoing and escalating suicidal feelings, he seeks admission to the hospital for treatment. The story was written for the screen by Ryan Fleck & Anna Boden, based on the novel by Ned Vizzini.

Genre

The movie is listed several ways on the major sites: “Comedy-drama”, “Art House”, “Drama”, and the trifecta “Comedy-drama-romance.”  One could even give it a nod as a coming-of-age drama, so possibly this movie is trying to be everything.

Art House – After wading through a few pretentious article on what constitutes an Art film, and the state of the art film today, I did find a good source linked from Wikipedia topic “Art film”.  In the article by Lindsay Steenberg, actually referring to one of the references, we find an informative view on what the art film is:

Bordwell further describes the structuring basis of the art cinema as based on “‘objective’ realism, ‘expressive’ or subjective realism, and narrational commentary.” In brief, the art cinema relies on a recognizable authorial voice (or narrational commentary), self-reflexive stylistic choices, causal gaps in the narrative, episodic structure, ambiguity in reading, and a plot which relies on complex psychology rather than goal fixated action to provide forward momentum.  

You can read Steenberg’s full article here:  https://web.archive.org/web/20081113113059/http://www.film.ubc.ca/ubcinephile/cinephile/steenberg-framingwar.pdf

Drama – If drama is meant to show us characters as we would like to be, whereas comedy is meant to show how we really are (per our excellent teacher, Steve Kaplan), then we are inclined to classify this script as a drama.  Even though we don’t necessarily hope to land in the mental hospital, we may hope that 1) we would be strong enough to seek help and admit ourselves before taking drastic steps, just as Craig did, and 2) we would maintain a caring and pleasant attitude such as Bobby’s, if we found ourselves in his situation.

Comedy – While there are humorous lines, I don’t really see the typical comic conventions in this film, so I think it’s a stretch to put it in this category. If I’m in the mood for a comedy, and someone recommends this movie, I’m not satisfied at the end. In fact, it seems a bit odd that we are supposed to take Craig’s situation as serious, but also be encouraged to laugh at his fellow patients.

Romance – While there are two key romantic sub-plots, I would hesitate to refer to this as a romance.  The thin-ness of the two connections may actually be good representation of teen love, however.

General Structure

The script is at 115 pages, for the copy that I have. The movie clocks in at 1:41.

  • The setup of the situation and scenario runs until Craig is resolved to spend the minimum 5 days in the hospital; this covers the first 22 pages.
  • The journey for Craig lasts most of the five days, until he gets the turning words of wisdom from Bobby, which is on page 93 (71 pages).
  • From here, it’s a quick run through tying up loose ends and getting Craig out (22 pages).

Because of the schema we are dealing with, I’m not forming an opinion on the ratio of the sections.

Notable Script Tidbits

Voice Overs – Given the storyline is in the psychology of Craig, it makes sense that there is a heavy dose of voice overs.  In reading, I have become concerned it will be too much.  It will be interesting to see how it plays out on the screen.

Dream sequence, Flashbacks and Fantasy – Again, because we are really going through the story with full access of Craig’s point of view, we also wander through his thoughts in these varying forms. Technically, even within the same variation type the directives are noted a bit inconsistently (leaving me to wonder if it is intentional or not). One of the markings isn’t clear to me, where each step is marked with a reverse order letter with an ID which seemed to correspond to nothing (Possibly scene? But the number seems high…see page 35).

Supers – These are used to help keep the user oriented to the timeline and what is real.

Insert – This was a shot directive, used a few times. It is not one I see used often.

Speaking of scenes, I’d be interested to see how the non-current-day pieces are included in the scene counting.

Dialogue

The characters do seem to have their own voices.  A few things stand out to me:

  • The interaction with the parents seems authentic.  The sort of obliviousness to the severity of the situation, the roles each parent plays, and the relation of the concern for the sister.
  • I think the writers do a nice job with the play between Craig and Noelle, mostly in the beginning.
  • The other is that the difference between Bobby, Craig and Noelle and the other patients in the way they speak demonstrated they were in different parts of the spectrum.

Review

The premise is understandable: Teens dealing with pressure and not wanting to fail, the stress one feels, falling for a best friend’s significant other.  While I can see the transitions and identify transformational scene, it feels a bit forced, and overall a bit shallow of a story.  There are all of these touch points with people with real problems, but we don’t get deep enough, really, with anyone to truly achieve empathy or understand how the triggers really come to have impact. Even with Craig, we understand the idea of what makes him decide to stop the track he’s on, but we don’t buy into it fully.  Same can be said with suddenly getting over Nia.  I am hoping that the acting and directing help elevate the script, but seeing how little there is to work with, I’m not optimistic that this will happen.

 

Script Review: Ocean’s Eleven

I chose Ted Griffin’s Ocean’s Eleven as my first script review because it was the first one I purchased in hard copy.  That purchase pushed me into trying my hand at screenwriting.  I know that the version of the script I have is not final because there are many differences between what I have and what you see in the final cut (it also has Steve Carpenter as the writer – Griffin is listed as revisions writer, and the credited writer on IMDB).

My intent with these script review posts will be to point out the things I thought were notable – unique aspects of the script or story based on my (albeit novice) experience and as seen from my eyes.

The main reason I thought it would be interesting to read this script is the timing aspect.  That much of the movie is the setup but it is only when the heist actually starts that we understand exactly how they are going to do it.  None come to mind but I seem to recall there are heist movies that let you in on the plan, and where the risks are, so you have to watch it play out and see if those risks become issues to bear.   The other reason I love this movie and script, is the dialogue.  So many efficient exchanges. Finally, I think they do a good job at making the film funny not cheesy.

General Structure

It’s a long script, at 143 pages.  To me, the story seems to be laid out like this:

  • The initial heist partnership setup and recruiting take place over the first 48 pages. I think this is Act I.
  • The heist preparation and setup with Tess cover the next 46 pages, concluding Act II.
  • The Third Act consists of the actual heist and aftermath are over pages 94-143.

I struggled to decide if the first part of the heist is in Act II. I think it neatly goes into Act III but that Act then takes half of the time.  Given the ratio of setup (94 pages) to heist (49) is about 2:1, you have to wonder if too much time is spent on the entire setup, or if all of that is needed for the audience to be rooting for the crew to succeed.

Heist Genre

It seems that with the heist, it is important to make sure the audience roots for the crew, or at least doesn’t mind the victim being robbed.  I think Ocean’s Eleven does both.

We get to know each character as humans doing a job, so we want them to succeed. We also don’t think they will be dangerous criminals. In fact, there is a point where Rusty and Danny talk about the rules:

“Rust, when we started in this business, we had three rules. We weren’t gonna hurt anybody. We weren’t gonna steal from anybody didn’t have it coming.”

“And we were gonna play the game list we had nothing to lose.”

For the second part – not minding that the victim gets robbed – well, we are talking about a casino. In fact, three casinos.  People like to gamble but don’t like losing money to the house. The audience won’t feel bad that the house gives some back here.

What’s is interesting in Ocean’s Eleven, is that while we come to respect the work ethic of Benedict and see that he does seem to care and try to be good to Tess, we also see his true colors as a casino owner and business man. Again, we don’t mind seeing him lose here.

Notable Script Tidbits

- Quick exposition – While Danny is waiting for Frank to join him, he’s looking at the newspaper, which also informs us about man we later learn is the target (Terry) and the disgruntled-man-turned-Ocean-partner (Reuben). Included but unnamed in the picture is Tess. The fact that this is in the newspaper means these are recent events, at least between Terry and Reuben.

- Flashbacks to failed casino robberies – I love that Reuben doesn’t just talk about the prior attempts, there are quick snippets of flashbacks to emphasize the point. The efforts are futile.

- Recruiting – As I mentioned, I do think how each person is convinced to join this crazy mission gets screen time because helps us understand more about that specific character and their role.  We become more invested in the success of the criminal crew.

- Setup makes you sweat – I love that just the setup of the heist poses a few moments of risk that keep you on edge – when Roscoe gets into the IT center, for example. When Saul first approaches Benedict about storing something important in the casino safe, for another.

Dialogue

Rusty and Danny

One of the best scenes has two people but only one of them speaks.

“Ten should do it, don’t you think?

You think we need one more?

You think we need one more.

Okay, we’ll get one more.”

There are also two scenes that I love and for which I’m grateful there are snips on YouTube.

Tess and Danny

The dialogue between these two, throughout the film, is fantastic. It’s reminiscent of older romance films in the efficiency and cleverness of the quips.

“You know what your problem is?”

“I only have one?”

Rusty and Linus

The second great exchange is when Rusty is coaching Linus. The completely unhelpful contradicting advice from Rusty which ends in a desperate Linus waiting for Rusty to tell him the most important thing.

“Be funny but don’t make him laugh.”

Comedy

One thing that Ocean’s Eleven does, that so many caper films don’t, is to be funny without seeming cheesy.  The one liners scattered throughout make it even more fun for audiences.

The story starts with Danny Ocean getting out of prison. On his way out he receives his divorce papers. When the mail prisoner asks him what the mail is about, Danny says “I’m a free man.”

When Danny crashes Rusty’s poker lesson, when asked about his line of work, Danny provides a vague answer and mentions that “Of late, I’ve been lucky to get an hour a day outside of the office.”

At the same game, Rusty’s student thinks he won the hand with “All reds!”

Reuben makes a cliche line funny – “Look, we all go way back, I owe you from the thing with the guy with the place.”

Describing casino security, Reuben says “They got enough armed personnel to occupy Paris. Okay, bad example…”

I could go on and on.

We also take joy in the goofy play between Virgil and Turk, the stress of neurotic Roscoe, watching old timer Saul deal with being back in the business and Linus moving into the big leagues.

Summary

I believe the characteristics of the Ocean’s Eleven rewritten script mentioned above are what make it a really enjoyable one. The facts that the movie was also directed well, scored well and had a host of recognizable, talented folks in the cast all came together to make a great movie.

A.

Unanswered Technical Questions

I suppose if I were to take an academic course on screenwriting, I might know the answers to these. Or, if I had read hundreds not dozens of scripts, I may, as well.

I thought on #scriptchat Sunday it might be fun to post these here and see if I can draw on the expertise of others to help the community with these questions on technical issues with the formatted script.

- Some scripts – as on the first page of the Ocean’s Eleven script – start with a single sentence in the middle of the page (“In any other town, they’d be bad guys.”)  Why is this here? It sets the tone, I suppose, but just for the script reader. Maybe it is just there for fun?

- I thought I had noted from reading scripts that the introduction of a character is done in all-caps in the scene description. That is not the case in this script. Perhaps it’s only important to be consistent?

- There also seems to be inconsistency, to me anyway, about when props or small part characters are in ALL CAPS or not. What is the guideline?

- There seem to be many parentheticals in some scripts I read – this was something I tried but got dinged for in coverage. I don’t seem to know the rule of thumb here.

- Changing locations within a room or building – what is the best way to communicate this? I assume it’s not through continued formal INTs. Can this be done informally with left justified text?

- Similarly when action moves from inside the building to outside – how to write and format this transition.

- How about if one character is in the building and the other is outside, or each are in different rooms while speaking to each other – how do you communicate this? Or is this the director’s job to figure out who should be where?

- When do you write simply that a character is doing something and when do you include that the shot is focused on that action – say, checking a wallet and finding a slip of paper with key information

- What is the right way to communicate passage of time? I mean days, weeks, years, holidays, etc.

Thanks for reading and commenting!

April