Author: A Reagan

Novice screenwriter. Follow me as I learn more about the world of screenwriting and how to create the clever script.

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

Learning by Example

People have a variety of methods that they use to familiarize themselves with the unfamiliar. For me, my first step is often seeing how others have done it. Screenwriting has been no different.  I choose to read scripts for movies that I’m fairly familiar with.  Here I will describe the hard copy screenplays in my library (I have dozens more in soft form, more on this later), and what lead me to plucking them out of the script bin for study.

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These are listed in no particular order, only categorized with a quick snip of the category and the reason I thought the example was relevant. You’ll see some entered in more than one category.

Timeline
These stories have some interesting aspect to them with regards to the story timeline.  For example, Ocean’s Eleven. If you don’t already know, this is a fun heist story where the audience follows along curiously about how the crew will pull it off given the comprehensive security around their target. After recruiting for all of the different roles, it is revealed that the leader, Danny Ocean, isn’t just in this for the loot – he wants revenge and to win his ex-wife, Tess, back.  After convincing the crew that this won’t jeopardize the operation, the heist gets back underway.   The reason I loved reviewing this script for timing was that  the key part of the movie – the heist itself – takes place over just a few minutes and is done without completely confusing or losing the audience. I thought this was a rather interesting writing challenge.  Similarly, I’m looking at these scripts for timeline challenges:

  • Pulp Fiction – This asynchronous audience-puzzle of a story is a clear example of owning the story timeline and laying out in a clever and entertaining way.
  • The Hangover – A fairly recent story showing how to handle backtracking through a series of events without cheating the audience with an obvious outcome.
  • The Social Network – The story itself is told in a straightforward way in terms of the story timeline, but the audience has knowledge of some of the history here and would be watching for the timeline to jive with their knowledge (or fill in holes, but certainly not conflict). I think that creates an interesting constraint on this script.
  • The Bourne Identity – In this story we take the issue of a dual-past to be uncovered and teased apart all while under immediate time pressure.  Handling these two vectors in one story is challenging.
  • When Harry Met Sally – This story takes place over some 15 years. It was important for the offer to allow the time pass to be believable and not a short cut to the characters’ development.

Romance / Romantic Comedy

Being my primary genre for writing, I picked a few well-loved examples. Most stories have a romance plot or sub-plot, but the light-hearted romance is as difficult to write as a complex song in Major keys.  The first is listed often not just as a popular romance but as the best written movie of all time. I think romantic comedy is especially challenging because there is an audience mandated outcome, yet that outcome must be delivered in an unexpected way.

  • Casablanca – A classic tale. Can you choose to not be with your love for a greater purpose? Are there different types of love?
  • When Harry Met Sally – There are a few questions that might be answered here – Can love grow over time? Is it ever too late to be more than friends? Opposites may attract but can it work long term? Can women and men be ‘just’ friends?
  • You’ve Got Mail – This one is not only in my library because it’s a great romantic comedy but it incorporates modern technology and the challenges not only for the characters in meeting in person but also for the writer to not bore the audience when technology is being used.

Dialogue

What’s great about the Ocean’s Eleven script – and I would love to see the original script to see if this was something carried forward or recaptured –  is that it has an old style dialogue, especially between Danny and Tess.  One of my favorite sections of dialogue is in the restaurant when Danny approaches Tess while she waits for Terry. I started to put a snippet here but I think I’ll wait for a full post on the script for that.  It’s for similar reasons I love Casablanca.  Prime examples of accomplishing the most bang with the fewest words. It’s an art, for sure. When Harry Met Sally also features some simple and effective dialogue. I think they call this efficient dialogue in writing circles.

Character Development

The following are a mix of genres but all present a fantastic exploration into one or more characters. Some even surprise us in the end – for example Ferris, seemingly a teen punk, and may normally be, but in this story a caring friend who just may have saved his friend, Cameron.  Others feature every-day people that help us learn or once-again recognize something about ourselves.

  • The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel – The general study of older characters in later stages of life and relationships – tolerated and forbidden.
  • The Silver Linings Playbook – A ground-breaking appropriate humanization of extreme personalities.
  • Sideways – The joy of finding someone who can look beyond the cover of a person who has a lot to offer and does not even realize it himself.
  • Napoleon Dynamite – Really a time period piece but also the complexity of what seems simple.
  • The Breakfast Club – Everything is relative and deserves perspective. These reps of various walks of life exposed and finding common ground is a beautiful mental watermark for the audience.
  • Ferris Bueller’s Day Off – The child of absent, demanding parents has to be rescued from despair by a trouble-making friend with good intentions if with risky methods.
  • It’s a Wonderful Life – I watch this movie every Thanksgiving. This classic helps us recognize the impact we have had even when we currently feel like a failure or that life is too unfair to bear.

Comedy

I never appreciated good comedies more until I tried to write comic aspects into my script. I’m still trying to address comments that my story needs to be ‘funnier’!

  • Wedding Crashers – Chalk full of several types of comedy, a great example and often quoted movie.
  • This is 40 – A recent addition which has few dramatic lines but the ability to pull in things that suck about being middle-aged (I am well aware at present) without being cliché is fantastic
  • Office Space – Another case of brining things out of the office experience that drive us all nuts in a hilarious way
  • Swingers – Probably primarily a favorite because I know it was early work of Favreau’s, more subtle humor and humor in characters

A few others already mentioned like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and The Hangover, are good to study for their comedic elements as well.

I hope this has helped trigger some ideas for movies to look study for certain aspects of screenwriting.  Next I will blog some great sources of scripts that I have found.

A.

Course Review: Kaplan Comedy Intensive

Last month, in a rare rainy weekend in Burbank, California, I attended the Steve Kaplan comedy intensive. The course was on a Saturday and Sunday from ~9-5. The website is http://kaplancomedy.com/

Comedy TragedyI thoroughly enjoyed the class and recommend it. Steve is a happy and warm instructor, which lends to the domain and also makes spending the weekend in a hotel conference room chair tolerable. I appreciated that he seems to keep the content relatively current while also using more classic material where appropriate. He provides handouts which is great because you can stress less about capturing all of the right notes. He kept it fairly interactive, with a few audience-participation bits and a group activity, which helped keep the room from feeling stuffy. He also tries to answer as many questions from students as possible.

As with the McKee class, I won’t give away all the key material, but lucky for you, even if you can’t make it to a class, you can pick up his book which comes out this summer. The class is well structured – going over the tools and concepts on Day 1, then looking at these things applied in material, on Day 2.

I actually wish I had this class before I ever wrote my first script. That’s because I had a romantic-comedy premise but didn’t have the tools to apply the genre constructs without feeling like it was cliché or overly-predictable. A future post will explain that I actually plan to tackle the premise from scratch again with the tools in mind, and see where it goes. The script that I wrote from the first, trying to work around what I conceived to be problems, will undergo a change to something new.

There are two nuggets I think I can safely share. First, Where McKee and Kaplan don’t see comedy in the same light, Kaplan did say that comedy tells the truth about people, and McKee says – write the truth. This really is what brings people to the theaters. We want to see people, like us, trying to make their days better, and dealing with what Life throws at them. Second, that all art is based upon death; as far as we know, man is the only animal with the working knowledge of our own eventual demise. This fact alone allows comedy and tragedy to have any meaning whatsoever.

Early in the course he helps clarify the difference between “funny” and “comedy” – he also provides a simple exercise to help explain how these relate to one another, and the differences between the types of comedies (comedy of manners, comedy of tragedy, satire, black comedy, sitcom, slapstick, etc.)

Kaplan spends a decent amount of time over the two days providing great tips about how to write and think about comedic characters, non-heros. Again, he provides lots of great examples, in both written and video form. And not just of things done well – he points out missed opportunities in material, as well.

One cool feature for students (which, I still need to take advantage of), is the opportunity to submit a small ‘homework’ exercise and get (*eventually*) feedback directly from Steve.

Steve also makes sure to cover the keys to a good joke, and when to use jokes, in general.

Early feedback on my first and second drafts of my romantic comedy were that it wasn’t “funny enough.” I’m confident that I now have the right tools to fix that and to write comedies much more effectively in the future.

Enrichment of the Cast of Characters

With regards to characters, I’ve been doing several things.  The two biggest are the cast mapping and the casting of the characters. Both have been challenging and quite revealing.

First, the cast map.  There are plenty of resources online and in books to help you develop deep characters.  But the characters must interact with other characters, and the attributes and values that the characters bring out in one another are just as important.  This is something McKee teaches.  In fact, earlier this week, my sister and I watched an older film – A Fish Called Wanda (1988) – so I could take a look at the sample cast map he provides on StoryLogue. As I put the two together, it made perfect sense.  Once I drew out my own cast map – the circles, the attributes, how the characters relate. I found some potential problems.  I found some holes in the map and relationships which might not be that interesting.

Second, casting the characters.  This was amazing fun, but far harder than I expected.  As I browsed through IMDB and entertainment sites, I found myself looking for people that had attribute requirements that I knew about in my mind but that I hadn’t written down, and probably didn’t expose anywhere, in the script.  Where characters might have been missing depth on the page, they may have had it in my head, and I just didn’t translate it well.  As I hunted down each actor, I noted the specific things that would rule OUT certain choices as well as rule IN. Once I found a match, I printed out a photo and taped it to a 5×7 index card and wrote all of the attributes that made them the perfect fit.  Then, for each, I went through their parts of my story and captured key details.  In some cases I discovered I had inconsistencies to address.

So far, I recommend these two activities. I think they are contributing to the richness of the story.

Help with Scene Headings

I’m having to do some basic clean-up of my script, even though I have imported it into Final Draft.  Some things didn’t translate well in this proper format, and others, like scene headings, I just have not been familiar enough with to know if I am entering them correctly.   A quick search for help lead me to this page, which as been really helpful and answered my immediate questions.  Take a look.

http://www.storysense.com/format/headings.htm

Rewriting Update

Once I sit down and get situated back into my story, I can easily stay lost in its  world for a couple of hours.  Getting started can often be the toughest part.  I’ve allowed the rewrite to take residence on part of the dining table. Note the lack of a computer here. I’m living in my story in hardcopy and pencils.

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I had already done three full scrubs on the scenes/sequences and dialogue, based on coverage I received in the Blue Cat Screenwriting Competition.  I also revisited the outline I had assembled in completing the first draft, to look for holes after deciding to somewhat majorly change the ending.

Now, I’m doing a couple of things at once.  I am able to find tweaks to make to the dialogue with every read, so I’m doing that, again.  I am also indexing the scenes manually – I realize I could do this from Final Draft, but I am comfortable with using purple index cards for sequencing, capturing thoughts, checking attributes, etc. I want to actually draw small story board pictures on the back and try to visualize the full story, end-to-end, on my table or wall. The comfort with physical cards comes from my project management background where we use them for feature lists and breakdown, prioritizing, etc.  I’m also writing down little “ah-ha”s on the green sticky notes; these are thoughts that tie back to the seminar content where I didn’t have an answer for my story, or, where the story might be missing something.

Funny note on the purple index cards: despite having stacks of white index cards at home – given my obsession with them – I went out and bought colored cards.  I refused to use white after McKee scolded everyone writing on white paper!

I mentioned last post that I have driving factors.  I have three dates close together, by which to finish it by, but I’m trying not to rush too much in this process.  I like that I have about 3 weeks to get it to a full version 2.0.  One, I owe an update from version 1, to a producer that is possibly interested; two, I want it ready for the Great American Pitchfest; and 3, the Final Draft contest deadlines are approaching and I’m considering submitting if nothing comes through 1 or 2!

Controlling Idea

 Ever since I left the Story Seminar I have been trying to figure out the controlling idea of my story.  I figure as I rewrite, I should have this clearly in mind, so it can help me guide the changes and ensure consistency.  I noodled on it while driving, while cooking, while waiting for a hockey game to start – pretty much anytime it comes to mind, I’m working the problem in my head.  As I have a couple of driving reasons to get this rewrite finished, I decided I would sit down once and for all and decide on one.  I wrote down a list of potential lines.

Nothing seemed right, and finally, tonight, I understand why.  I went back to two books – Story, by Robert McKee, as mentioned a couple times now, and, John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story.  It’s from McKee that I use the phrase Controlling Idea. Truby calls it a Theme Line.  In either case, it is the essence of what your story is about – a value change – Truby would say a moral value – and a cause – the human behavior.

An example from McKee is, for Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry – “Justice triumphs because the protagonist is more violent than the criminals.”  One of Truby’s examples is, for Four Weddings and a Funeral, “When you find your one true love, you must commit to that person with your whole heart.”

Now, I had this understanding with all of my noodling.  But, how you figure it out, well, it differs between these two authors.  McKee says that the well written story tells you what it is – by evaluating the climax of the story, seeing what value is brought to the protagonist.  Ah-ha – this was a huge relief to re-read in the Story book.  I don’t need to get hung up on figuring it out, but the story, when done, should make this easy to state.  Now, Truby, if I follow his thinking correctly, presents that this should be tackled fairly early in planning the story, through analysis of other fundamental aspects of the premise of the story.  Perhaps when I get to seriously developing one of my other story ideas, I’ll try shaping it up front, but in the case of my rewrite, I think I will go the route of letting the story tell me the controlling idea, rather than trying to retrofit one.

On Robert McKee Story Seminar

I can’t believe it’s already been two full weeks since I completed the Story Seminar.  After an extra day off in L.A., and flying home, it was right back into the daily grind of work and home duties.  I knew I should have just written a post while I was still there!  Still, the time has given me time to reflect and decide which thoughts to share, from the four days.

As an amateur, I wasn’t sure I should be spending this much on a set of talks on screenwriting.  I had investigated less expensive options, through local community school and Seattle Film school offerings, and investigated other traveling pro-workshops that might be passing through the Pacific Northwest.  But then, as I was trying to at least read books I hadn’t read yet, and re-read books I knew were valuable, to focus my rewriting efforts, I found, in one book, the mention of McKee’s seminar as a must-do.  Honestly, even then, if it were anywhere but my favorite place in the world – L.A., specifically near Manhattan Beach – I might have still waited.  But I’m so glad I didn’t.

The McKee Story Seminar isn’t just a seminar on screenwriting, or even ‘just’ writing – it’s a seminar on life.  Now, one key lesson was that movies are Not life, and this fact is what brings people to see movies.  But by learning about how events change the charges of our personal values, how we make adjustments to gaps between expectations and reality, that we realize in our maturity the difference between character and characterization, and then, in the ultimate lesson, learned by analyzing Casablanca (sorry, I won’t give away that one, as the journey of learning it is more important than the final lesson), through the course of four days, it is hard to just consider the characters on your pages and in your minds. You also find yourself considering, well, yourself, in your own life movie.  One evening Mr. McKee passed me while I was eating dinner, and I wanted to stop him and ask – “Does the tuition include the cost of therapy?”

It is rare in my life that looking under the hood, or behind the curtain, of something I truly love does not ruin or degrade that love.  Such as my brief student internship at NASA in the late 80s.  I expected everything to be modern and advanced, to be space-age-like.  Instead, it seemed to be an organization stuck in the 50s, in personnel and their wardrobes, office technology and practices.  The workers that had been around seemed beaten down by bureaucracy. But, unlike that experience, learning about what makes movies work, made me love movies even more.  I will not watch another movie or television program without seeing them in a whole new way, and I am happy about that – not sad.  In fact, by the end of the third day, I no longer felt bad for liking commercial movies, and I found a new appreciation for genres that I haven’t really liked up until now.

I do not think it would be appropriate for me to summarize here all of the key lessons, as you should buy the book or attend the seminar if that’s what you want.  It’s not that I don’t have details – I took 60 single-sided pages of notes.  But, I do think I can share what I liked and didn’t care for.

The days are indeed long, with 8 hours of talks worked into a 10 hour daily schedule.  It’s a grind, for sure, but for me that was a good thing.  Total immersion was effective.  And managing a few days together was logistically easier than, say, 16 2-hour sessions over as many weeks.  Part of what made the seminar wonderful was that the full seminar – all 32 hours – is, itself, scripted.  And, after thirty years of doing this seminar, it was certainly well rehearsed.  While at times you felt like your class was unique, with McKee going off on little tangents about current events, society or a particular scene in a recent film, most of the time you could see the class progressing through the curriculum as designed, complete with deliberate mannerisms and delivery of punch lines.  On the down side, movements you thought were natural and charming day one were a bit annoyingly predictable by day four. (For me this was also true of the tangents, which students were fairly warned of in the handout at start of class, which usually consisted of extreme opinions, and often not politically correct ways.  Some I agreed with, some I did not, and some I simply wrote off to generational gap.) Ultimately, the scripted nature assured that you covered all of the material. And, with clear, if rigid, rules about participating in the seminar, you know your time and investment is respected and that b.s. on the part of your cohort won’t be tolerated.

This was true of even the final day, mostly spent bonding with 230 other people, through an analysis of Casablanca and a champagne toast in its honor.  This was a great finale – a bittersweet one.  On one hand you are done being in that classroom, on the other, you feel like you could listen four more, even eight more days, trying to sponge more knowledge from McKee. You scoop up various books  and media for sale (which I will review here in the future), hoping to take a piece of McKee home with you (I don’t, by the way, recommend the topic DVDs; was surprised at the age and brevity of the content on the one I purchased). You can see why Storylogue was created and if you didn’t think you would subscribe before class, you are probably convinced you must by class end.

In the end you leave feeling like you witnessed your own little piece of history and that you graduated into a very special part of the film industry – you are a McKee student.

– April

The Declining Box-Office

In a recent issue of Time (January 16, 2012), in The Culture, writer Richard Corliss highlighted a few facts about declining box-office revenues and offered a few potential contributing factors.  According to the snippet, revenue was down nearly 5% in 2011 with attendance at the 1992 level.  The highest gross of a film in its domestic run (Harry Potter) was less than the most popular video game day-one sales (Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3).

Corliss takes to five points on why this may be happening:

  • Seasonality of movie-going – what must be an apparent change from before, films were most successful between April and Labor Day.
  • Demographic changes – Apparently young men found substitute entertainment, while women and customers of 40 were doing more than their share.
  • Traditional stars aren’t pulling crowds – Corliss looked at the films with actors that usually draw large crowds – and found few of them in the top 20 for the year.
  • Sequels are sagging” – Oddly enough Corliss acknowledges that the year’s top seven films were sequels, but then explains he add this point because none of this years originals are likely to lead to a sequel.
  • Cartoons are crashing” – According to Corliss, five of the top ten films in 2010 were animated, but only one of the top films in 2011 was.

Now, when I sat down to write this post, I wanted to mention this article and throw out my own thoughts on why people aren’t going to the movies.  But having summarized it, I’m not sure I really agree with what it has to say.

  • The seasonality point could be true and is easily verified in data. Fair enough, but I’d sure like to understand how dramatic of a change this really is.
  • Demographic changes – again, potentially an interesting change, but not clear from what is provided that it is a leading cause in the decline.
  • Stars don’t pull crowds – Okay, this one I have a hard time going along with.  Certainly yesterday’s clear stars won’t necessarily be favorites tomorrow.  The stars that Corliss looked at have been around awhile – why not look at current and younger actors that have popularity? Most everyone I know asks about films in this order: Name (what movie?) Cast (who’s in it?) and Log line (what’s it about?).  WHO is in a film is always going to matter. And it usually needs to be a recognizable name – stars.  I’m tempted to follow-up this post with a double-click on some of this data.
  • “Sequels are sagging” – If we just ignore the fact that the author highlighted – that the top 7 films were sequels – and turn our attention to the potential for sequels, my issue isn’t so much that I disagree (e.g. I’m not going to name a 2011 film that I’m sure will have a sequel), but it is that movies should not fundamentally be written and produced for that potential.  So, while this may be true, I don’t think it’s for the reason the author states.  One factor I will talk about below, is that consumers of entertainment are wiser and do not want to be thought of us long-term revenue streams.  That said, if a story is good and it makes sense, there is obviously evidence that sequels can be popular.
  • Animated features – This is the point that I find the hardest to believe in.  Animated features take a very long time to create, and it seems like a very competitive space, in that many times you see look-alike films coming out about the same time, and certainly competing for family dollars at peak periods mean trying to have something out there before the other studio.  With so many coming out in 2010, it would make sense the pipeline was a bit dry for 2011.  And, once again, I point to the obvious, that there will always be kids that want to go to the movies, and a certain age group that prefer animation.

From a regular Jane point of view – I point to the movie-going experience itself as a problem for box-office struggles.  I mean, sure, I get that more and more people have 60″ high-definition televisions and sources in their homes, but the movie theater still provides an important place in activity and entertainment for a large number of people.  The top complaints I hear from would-be-movie-goers aren’t that they’d rather stay home, it’s that the experience isn’t meeting their needs.

  • The cost – The cost for a couple or a family to go to a primetime movie is ridiculous. Anywhere from $10-$20 per person, just for a ticket, means just to show up and view the movie is going to cost you $20-$80.  That price point puts the activity into some serious competition from other activities.  Once you add in the unreasonably priced food and beverages, which average $10-15 per person, you are up to $50 for a date and as much as a whopping $120 for a family. For what is on average a 90 minute activity! Ouch!  Especially when you consider it might be likely that people who want to go to movie theaters are those that cannot afford fancy in-home-theaters or don’t have their own homes yet.
  • Food and drink options – While it has taken our country a while to start coming around to truly healthful eating, and it still has a long ways to go, it is already true, in my experience, that the traditional snacks and beverages are losing popularity.  The amount and nature of the calories found behind that lobby counter are all wrong!  Theaters need to change more quickly.
  • Location – Because movies have moved away from the many neighborhood theaters and to massive movie-plexes, many of my friends have to look at driving 20-40 minutes to the theater.  And many of my friends prefer art and international films, which usually only appear in one or two local theaters in downtown Seattle.  I know many people in my little part of town would love a one or two screen theater that we could just walk to.
  • Selection – In general, think it’s time that Hollywood stray a bit from its magic formulas.  Today’s consumers are wiser and demand more uniqueness from the subjects of their attention.  Continuing to re-run storylines and depend on obvious gimmicks simply won’t work as well, any more.  That said, I think that every time a theater dedicates 2-4 of it’s theaters to the hit-of-the-week, they are reducing selection for the larger movie-going population.

I do think movies are doing a couple of things right in adapting to today’s consumers:

  • Reinventing – In recent years I have seen several 21+ and/or ‘gold service’ theaters crop up and they seem to be popular.  IMAX, 3D and 4D options have increased.
  • Flexibility – I remember when you couldn’t plan on going to a movie until mid-afternoon, at the earliest.  Now, there are usually plenty of times to choose from, including early morning for family features.

In the end, I feel that Corliss’ article isn’t well-grounded and generates more questions than it answers.  But, reading that article, and writing this post, has made me a lot more curious about the patterns and changes of theaters and consumers over the years, so look for more on this topic in the future. It is an important one for screenwriters to consider.

– April