screenwriting

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.

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

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

And so it began…

My interest in screenwriting, is, logically, rooted in the love of the feature film.  I have known the power of a good film since I was young: the emotions it can take you through, the escapism it provides, the characters that become a part of your life.  Knowing I would write this post, I have been trying to think about the first movie memory that I have.  I originally believed it was a movie called Rollercoaster in 1977.  I don’t remember much about the movie, except the thrill of the first person view of riding coasters and the speakers vibrating my seat and the floor of the theater.  I vaguely remember the facade of that theater, which was still standing when I moved away from Colorado Springs in 1989.  Searching the Internet I don’t immediately find an image or name that sounds right, but I will ask around to see if I can find and add that info here.  I also remember, at that same theater, waiting in line with my family for a much more recognizable title – Star Wars.  Rollercoaster was out just a few weeks later, so it must have been Star Wars that was my first memorable theater visit.  And reminiscing brought up many other memories of movies while I was growing up.

The next year, my first memory of a drive-in theater was made.  I recall my sister and I trying to go to sleep in the back seat of a car, while my parents watched FM.  Another vivid memory is that of being introduced to my Dad’s cousin’s awesome theater room – they had an amazing sound system, projector TV and a Laser Disc player.  We watched Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1978).

The Shining (1980) can’t be skipped; it was the first scary movie I ever watched and I was brilliant enough to watch it at home, alone, at night, when I was 12.  I don’t think I slept for a week.  That would pretty much be the story for the rest of my life – I can’t do horror flicks. I’m so impressionable, that the little black subway ghosts from Ghost (1990) gave me nightmares for weeks!!  The only movie I’ve brought myself to watch – for reasons that escape me – was the Blair Witch Project (1999).  I can’t even stand previews of scary movies or TV drama.  I have to close my eyes and plug my ears.

Flash forward to 1983, past Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Slap Shot (1977), Caddy Shack (1980), another chapter in the Star Wars story (1980), and ET (1982).  War Games – this movie really captured my attention.  I felt like I was David (I wasn’t even close).  I had my own computer (Vic20) and peripherals (tape disk drive, four-color plotter/printer) that I had saved for and purchased on my own. I had the little programming magazines and would type in programs.  I felt different and smarter than others and knew I loved working with computers.  I still recall going to some career fair and coming home clutching a Broderbund brochure.  Very few movies hold a permanent place in my heart, and this is a big one!

After my Dad finally created his own home theater in our family room, with a big screen TV and a Laser Disc player, anyone that came to our house would be required to sit through a demo of the really loud parts of Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) – I have the scene with the mailboxes shaking permanently burned into my brain) – and the hockey scene from Strange Brew (1983).  I remember my parents also really loving the Woody Allen film, Sleeper (1973), but I never really understood it, and in fact, I have just never been a big Woody Allen fan.

The Right Stuff (1983), Space Camp and Top Gun (both of 1986) would be the biggest memories after that. My love of the space program was in place from the start of the shuttle program, and was far from dampened by the shuttle tragedy; and, well, how could a 15-year-old girl not fall in love with Maverick and Ice Man. Volleyball, anyone?

Into the 90s, I favored drama and romance flicks.  I would readily purchase VHS tapes, and later DVDs, of movies I wanted to watch over and over again.  I’ll highlight those in an upcoming post. I remember being really moved by Forrest Gump (1994) and other dramas around the time. I also loved the asynchronous Pulp Fiction (1994). By now, I have become fairly partial to romantic comedies.  I love laughing, I love happily-ever-afters, and if I’m going to escape the drama of my own life, I want to laugh and dream of how-it-could-be.

Ocean's Eleven Script
Ocean’s Eleven Script

And while romantic comedies are my favorite genre, it was my fascination with the remake of Ocean’s Eleven (2001) that drew me to screenplays.  A little comic book shop in the Pike Place Market stocks printed copies of screen plays, and one day in 2003, after thumbing through the selections, there was no question that I would purchase the script for Ocean’s Eleven.  I wanted to see how the story weaved together in print.

That is without a doubt when my love affair with scripts began! I loved the format, the focus on dialogue, the scene intros – everything.  Over the next few years that followed, I purchased a half dozen more from that same shop. I found others in book format and many in digital format. In a future post I’ll detail those that I’ve really read and analyzed, as well as what motivated to write one on my own.

– April