Screenwriting

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.

Image

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.