Tuesday, January 10, 2017

The 10 Best Written Movies of 2016

It’s time for my annual list of the ten best-written movies of the last year! Keep in mind, this is a list of the best written movies, not necessarily the best movies or my favorite movies.

My usual disclaimers apply: I see a lot of movies, but I haven’t seen everything. For example, I haven’t yet seen Moana or Jackie, though I’m anxious to correct those oversights. I may in the future discover other movies from 2016 that would bump some of my selections off the list. Last year, Room probably would have made the list if I’d seen it earlier.

Also, some movies age better than others, and because many of the films on my list are awards season movies, I’ve seen most of them pretty recently. My opinions could cool over time. Looking back at last year’s list, all the movies hold up pretty well, though the order would change – Sicario would be lower and The Martian higher today, for example. And though I’m happy to hear your opinions in the comments, this is my list. If you don’t like it, you’re welcome to make your own!

So without further ado, here is my list of the 10 Best Written Movies of 2016:

1. Arrival (screenplay by Eric Heisserer) – This was a smart, absorbing, and emotional screenplay with a high degree of difficulty. Heisserer did a great job making linguistic analysis edge-of-your-seat tense. Less heralded, he played with audience expectations to deliver some clever twists that gave the story wrenching thematic depth. Both entertaining and thought provoking, this was a movie unlike anything I've seen before. (Full disclosure: I know Eric socially.)

2. Deadpool (written by Rhett Reese & Paul Wernick) – This screenplay deserves a lot of credit simply for bringing a fresh spin to the saturated superhero market. But on top of that, it is witty and clever, and delivers raunchy humor that is smart rather than degrading. The action and suspense are also good, and the characters are more complex than in most movies of this genre.

3. 10 Cloverfield Lane (story by Josh Campbell & Matthew Stuecken, screenplay by Josh Campbell & Matthew Stuecken and Damien Chazelle) – This is an intense suspense thriller with great characters, tight plotting, and well-designed set pieces. It builds its twists and turns well to keep the audience on the edge of their seat. Plus, it felt fresh and original for the genre.

4. Hidden Figures (screenplay by Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi) – The story is fairly straightforward – you know what you’re going to get going in. But it stays engaging by putting three well-drawn characters at the center of things – characters not just defined by their race or their job. Those characters each have distinct voices and enough personal stakes to engage the viewer emotionally. This carries us through the predictability and makes this the best feel good movie of the year.

5. Manchester by the Sea (written by Kenneth Lonergan) – This was a hard movie to watch at times, but it is undeniably well crafted and affecting. It has incredibly complex and believable characters and a good sense of place. The dialogue is naturalistic and distinctive for each character. The flashback scenes are well placed to unveil the story without seeming manipulative. And though it is extremely sad, it has enough hope, humor, and human connection to keep from drowning in its subject matter.

6. Hell or High Water (written by Taylor Sheridan) – This is another well-crafted screenplay with distinctive characters and a strong sense of place, plus it had a lot on its mind thematically, yet is never heavy-handed.

7. Moonlight (story by Tarell McCraney, screenplay by Barry Jenkins) – And yet another screenplay that takes us into a very specific world through well defined characters. This one has the added benefit of a fresh point of view. There are strong tensions within the scenes, but the story meanders at times and I did think it was a touch predictable. But there are characters here that defy expectations in glorious ways.

8. La La Land (written by Damien Chazelle) – This is the second-best feel good movie of the year. As a movie, it would be ranked higher on this list, but many of its better qualities (charming performances, wondrous visuals) do not come from the writing. It’s a bit uneven – it drags in the second half of act two, and it could use more original songs considering it’s a musical – but it gains points for reinventing a classic genre in a fresh way.

9. Captain America: Civil War (screenplay by Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely) – It’s easy to write off these big popcorn movies, but they are not easy to execute well, and this one was especially difficult given the huge number of characters that needed to be serviced. The movie is tight and enjoyable (with enough momentum to paper over a few logic holes) and each character is given a distinctive personality and voice. As a result, this is hands-down the best tentpole movie of the year (I’m not counting Deadpool as it was more of a lower budget B-movie than a tentpole).

10. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (story by John Knoll and Gary Whitta, screenplay by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy) – Again, these movies are more difficult to pull off than they appear (witness Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones). This one was a lot of fun with well-drawn characters and some unexpectedly deep thematic elements. It gave good fan service without becoming weighted down with the franchise mythology. It did drag a bit at points, but overall this was an excellent script.

Looking at my list as a whole, this was a year with a lot of competent screenwriting but only Arrival, Deadpool, and La La Land felt necessary and memorable. The other films on my list are all well written, with a mix of intensely personal stories and well-executed entertainment. That actually made it rather hard to order them, so after one and two, I would almost call it an eight-way tie.

I also typically pick a “worst written” movie of the year – though I actually mean a movie that had no business being as badly written as it was. I’m less inclined to do that these days, but for tradition’s sake I’ll call out Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (written by Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer). The movie was just a mess, with vague characterization, confusing motivation, wild coincidences, and plot holes you could drive a batmobile through. And I realize I’m hardly the first to point any of this out.

And now I’m off to the theater to see what 2017 has to offer!


Get The Three Stages of Screenwriting

"I used to always recommend that new writers read Story as their first and most important introduction to the craft of screenwriting, but from now on, I’m going to recommend The Three Stages of Screenwriting."
-LA Screenwriter Review


 The Hollywood Pitching Bible

“ ‘Bible’ is the right word. This is the Truth about pitching. Just do what it says.”
- Gary Goldman (Writer/Producer, "Total Recall," "Minority Report," "Big Trouble in Little China")

Sunday, November 13, 2016

"Arrival" Screenwriter Eric Heisserer on Creating Character

Five years ago I interviewed several screenwriters about their process of developing characters. One of those writers was Eric Heisserer, who at the time had written mostly horror movies such as the Nightmare on Elm Street reboot. Since then, he has done several more movies, including writing and directing the wonderful independent film Hours starring Paul Walker. But this year has been a banner year for Eric. He adapted the movie Lights Out from a viral video. It grossed over $67 million worldwide on a budget of about $5 million. And he adapted a short story into this weekend's critical and commercial success, Arrival. I saw Arrival last night, and it's fantastic.

So, in light of that, I thought I would re-publish my interview with Eric. He's obviously got something figured out!


Q. What is required for a compelling character?

They have to want something, and it's a want that drives them through every scene. This want can change over the course of the narrative, particularly if the character realizes that they have a need greater than their want. Next, that character needs adversity as powerful as their want. If you have a character get what they want with no resistance, we aren't really compelled to follow the story. Conflict is the breeding ground for compelling character. After that, it's a matter of window dressing. While it may not be absolutely required, something I find that really helps cement the character is a trait or two that feels grounded and realistic, something plucked from someone you know. Anchor the character in reality, even if it's just in a behavior or mannerism you've seen in your spouse, your friend, your coworker, etc.

Q. What is your approach to building a character?

My approach is sloppy and unstructured. Generally speaking, there are two approaches to story. Some begin with the question, "What if..." and others start with, "There's a guy (or gal) who..." Basically one is concept-centric and the other is character-centric. I used to be focused on concept, and would work outside-in toward character, populating my concept with people who could exploit it. What I've discovered after many years of bad writing and trial-and-error is that the two need to be married. So now I begin my story with, "What if there's a guy who..."

My litmus test when I'm first writing for a character is: I picture myself in a meeting with an actor. The actor is asking me questions about the character. I am putting lines in this person's mouth, and it has to come from an authentic place. If the actor is asking me about motivation or objectives, then my character is undercooked. I haven't yet made it compelling. So, back to the drawing board.

Q. How much back story do you create for your main character before you start writing?

I don't do much back story work, save for that which grows naturally out of the want/need I give the character. If a character wants to be a pilot, for example, then I can choose whether that want comes from a lust for life, or from fear. Perhaps my character has had dreams of flying among the clouds, or of breaking free from the world at ground level. Or maybe this is an escape from a terrible domestic life. Or the character is haunted by a parent's wish/warning. The want will dictate the backstory, in terms of what is pertinent to the narrative I'm trying to tell.

Q. What is the most important thing(s) you need to know about your character before you start writing?

I must know what they want to accomplish. What is the result they want by the end of the story? My characters need to tell me how they want the story to end, and there has to be at least two completely different endings in those answers, or else I don't have any conflict.

Q. Do you base your characters on people you know or imagine stars in the part as you write?

I have to base my characters on behaviors, speech styles, and mannerisms I've observed in real people, or else they won't feel real themselves. But I tend to avoid basing a character on an actual person, because reality can get in the way of my story (unless of course the point of the story is biographical in nature). I have begun to place actors in my roles, because it's great shorthand for talking with studio execs later, and sometimes it can help me find dialogue when I get stuck.

Thanks again, Eric! And for my readers, go see Arrival. It's worth it! 


Get The Three Stages of Screenwriting

"I used to always recommend that new writers read Story as their first and most important introduction to the craft of screenwriting, but from now on, I’m going to recommend The Three Stages of Screenwriting."
-LA Screenwriter Review

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Sequelitis and the Cultural Irrelevancy of Feature Films

It seems like everyone in the movie business is talking about this year’s “sequelitis.” The term refers to the poor showing of sequels this year – the general assumption being that the audience is sick and tired of them.

How bad is it, exactly? This chart shows all the sequels among the top 100 movies released in 2016 as of September 6th. Exactly one quarter of the top 100 movies this year were sequels (that’s 25 for those bad at math). I’ve calculated the domestic box office performance of the 2016 sequels relative to the domestic box office performance of the prior movie in their series using data from boxofficemojo.com.

(Click on the image to enlarge.)

A few things immediately jump out. First, only four of the 25 sequels released this year outperformed their predecessor. Even worse, twice as many (eight) had greater than 50% drops from their predecessor. It would seem any studio at this point that green lights a sequel not based on Star Wars or a Marvel or DC superhero is insane (or Sweet Home Alabama… everybody would love a sequel to that, I’m sure).

Now there are a few caveats to this chart. Some of these sequels are still in theaters, though all have likely made the bulk of their revenue. I also have not adjusted for inflation – otherwise Independence Day Resurgence, My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2, Barbershop: The Next Cut and Zoolander 2 would look a lot worse! Probably most important, box office is not the same as profitability. So Barbarshop: The Next Cut, 10 Cloverfield Lane, and The Conjuring 2, for example, may still be quite profitable since their budgets were low. On the other hand, Batman v. Superman is a disappointment relative to budget despite improving over Man of Steel, and big-budget movies like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows and Alice Through the Looking Glass are going to rack up even bigger losses than this table suggests.

By the way, if you’re wondering where Jungle Book, Ghostbusters, Pete’s Dragon and Ben Hur are, those were reboots, not sequels (though it’s worth noting that other than Jungle Book all the reboots failed this year as well.)

So what does all this mean? Obviously it means that the audience is sick of sequels. But I think it’s indicative of a bigger problem for the film industry – that of cultural relevance. It used to be that the biggest new pop culture franchises mostly launched with original feature films. The1970s saw franchises like Alien, Star Wars, and Rocky launch with original feature films. The 1980s launched the Terminator, Indiana Jones, Die Hard, Ghostbusters, and Lethal Weapon franchises via feature films. And in the 1990s the movie business gave us the Jurassic Park, Austin Powers, and Matrix franchises. But since The Fast and the Furious fifteen years ago, what major franchises have started with an original feature film? A few low budget horror franchises, but not much else.

It’s not that there weren’t sequels in earlier decades, but they weren’t such a large part of the market. Three decades ago, in 1986, only ten of the top 100 movies were sequels. That means this year there have been two-and-a-half times as many sequels in the market as thirty years ago… and this year isn’t finished yet.

In previous decades, people talked excitedly about what they saw at the movies. They bought toys and comic books and video games based on original movie stories. But television has usurped that conversation. What movie today inspires the kind of widespread enthusiasm that Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead inspire?

Actually, there is one I can think of: Deadpool. And I consider Deadpool to be the exception that proves the rule: a movie that bucked trends to be fresh and different while still appealing to a wide audience. And it was a movie that the studio made reluctantly, insisting on a lower budget than many of those “sure thing” sequels that bombed.

In the seventies, eighties, and nineties the movies had a fairly captive audience. Back then, summer television was filled with reruns. Cable had virtually no original scripted programming. There was no Internet streaming. There was VHS in the eighties and DVD in the nineties, but they mostly gave us access to feature films. In the summer, anyway, if you wanted to see something cool you pretty much had to go to the theater.

That’s not the world we live in anymore. We don’t ever really need to go to the movies to see great, original filmed entertainment. In fact our DVRs are full of stuff we don’t have time to watch. And yet the movie business has responded by becoming less original and adventurous. The studios are not pursuing bold pop cultural statements, they are running to the “tried and true,” which are often also the “tired and dull.”

And if they keep going down this path, pretty soon I’m guessing most people will start to wonder: who needs to go to the movies anyway? Maybe most people already have reached this conclusion – as evidenced by 2016’s sequelitis.


 The Hollywood Pitching Bible

“ ‘Bible’ is the right word. This is the Truth about pitching. Just do what it says.”
- Gary Goldman (Writer/Producer, "Total Recall," "Minority Report," "Big Trouble in Little China")

Monday, June 20, 2016

The Last (Regular) LetsSchmooze Blog Post

I started this blog in 2008 – that’s almost eight full years of weekly blog posts (with an occasional week off). This week, I’m bringing that streak to an end. It’s been fun and satisfying and occasionally wearying. Lately I’ve struggled to come up with new topics that are interesting and helpful. So I’ve decided to quit while I’m ahead (hopefully I’m not too late!).

The blog will remain online for the foreseeable future, so you can read older posts if you missed some. And I may still post here from time to time when I have something to say that doesn’t seem to fit anywhere else (I suspect I will continue to post my annual “Ten Best Written Screenplay” lists, for example). But I am letting go of the obligation to post something new every week. If you want to be notified when I do post, you can subscribe by email or follow me on Twitter (@dougeboch).

I thank those of you who read the blog loyally, and I’m especially grateful those who commented on posts, debated my ideas, or sent me notes of appreciation. It’s great to know that this effort was not in vain!

If you’d like more of my thoughts on screenwriting or the screenwriting business, may I humbly suggest my two books:

The Three Stages of Screenwriting

"I used to always recommend that new writers read Story as their first and most important introduction to the craft of screenwriting, but from now on, I’m going to recommend The Three Stages of Screenwriting."
-LA Screenwriter Review  
 The Hollywood Pitching Bible

“ ‘Bible’ is the right word. This is the Truth about pitching. Just do what it says.”
- Gary Goldman (Writer/Producer, "Total Recall," "Minority Report," "Big Trouble in Little China")

Sunday, June 12, 2016

"The 100" Controversy

(Spoilers: The 100, Person of Interest)

Today I am wading into the controversy about the death of a major lesbian character on The 100. If you’re aware of the controversy, you’ll know I’m pretty late to the discussion – but you’ll understand why I’m bringing it up now in a bit. Also, full disclosure: I am friends with the writer of the episode in question, Javier Grillo-Marxuach (though we haven’t discussed the episode or the controversy).

If you are unfamiliar with what I’m talking about, the CW show The 100 featured a lesbian relationship between its main character and another character. When the main character’s girlfriend was killed off in the middle of the season, there was an outcry from the LGBT community. The primary reason for the anger appears to be that there are so few LGBT characters on television, though there was also anger at the way in which the character was killed off (in a non-heroic manner immediately after the consummation of the relationship) and in the showrunner's cavalier handling of the uproar afterwards.

On the other side of the argument, it’s important to remember that this is a show where many characters – including heroic and well-loved characters – have died. And the actress who played the character, Alycia Debnam Carey, had taken a major role on Fear the Walking Dead, so likely the character was removed partly because the actress wasn’t going to be able to star in two shows at the same time for very long.

There is certainly good reason to complain about the lack of heroic LGBT characters on television, and about how many of them end up dying. There should be more heroic, happy LGBT characters on television who survive all the way through their series. My fear is that this goal could be jeopardized by the backlash against The 100. Here’s how:

I read an interview with some of the writers of Person of Interest a few weeks ago. The interviewer asked them about the lesbian couple on that show and whether the controversy from The 100 might cause them to avoid killing either of those characters. The writers sidestepped, but the question is a bit disturbing. It happens that the characters on Person of Interest weren’t originally intended to be lesbians. But the actresses had great chemistry so the writers decided to give them a romantic relationship. The trouble is, we’re talking about another show where main characters have died. If making those two characters lesbian takes otherwise valid plot options away from the writers, the writers might not make that choice in the future.

I’m writing this post precisely because I just encountered that in something I’m outlining. I have a married couple in my story. Initially I conceived of them as a heterosexual couple. But it occurred to me that my story could use more diversity. I looked to see which character or characters I could make gay, and I thought it would be cool to turn this couple into a lesbian couple.

The only problem is, one of them is going to die in the story. This isn’t because they’re lesbians – that plot decision was made while they were still a man and a woman. But now I’m wondering whether I should make them a lesbian couple instead. Will people attack me when one of the characters dies as they have The 100?

So The 100 controversy is discouraging me from putting LGBT characters in my story. And that’s not a good thing.

I also recently read a roundtable in the Hollywood Reporter that included Lee Daniels, who said that it offends him when White writers write Black characters. I certainly don’t want to speak for him, but in context I think what he really meant was it offends him when primarily Black cast shows have primarily White writing staffs. And I agree that’s pretty offensive.

But the way he said it – that it offends him when White writers write Black characters – feels like a warning to White writers not to write Black characters. And that would mean less diversity in casts, a bad thing. I sympathize with the frustrations of communities that have been traditionally underrepresented, but it’s important to couch those frustrations carefully. You don't want to turn characters from that group into a "third rail" that discourages showing them on screen.

As I said, there was more to The 100 controversy than just the death of a lesbian character. It could and should have been handled better. Let’s just make sure that we affirm efforts toward diversity and that when someone missteps we couch our criticism in a way that’s productive rather than destructive.

By the way, I’ve decided to leave the characters in my story lesbians.

Monday, June 6, 2016

What’s it Really Like to Be a Screenwriter?

Tens of millions of people dream of being professional screenwriters. Hundreds of thousands each year go so far as to actually write a screenplay or teleplay. But most have a very idealized idea of what it means to be a film or television writer. In this post I will attempt to give you an honest description of the life of a screenwriter.

Screenwriting is hard work.

Yes, being a professional screenwriter means you sometimes get to go to premieres and swanky industry parties and hang with movie stars. You get swag and invitations to free screenings. But most of the job is sitting by yourself writing. Often on deadline. You don’t get to write only when inspiration strikes you. Feature writers have to spend hours every day writing (though you can work in your pajamas if you like). If you work in television, you will go to the office every day and work long hours (pajamas are frowned upon in most television writers' rooms).

And, you have to do the business part of the business. You will have to go to a lot of meetings and pitch yourself and your projects. You will have to deal with things like complex taxes, health insurance, and contracts. You have to keep up on the trades and you have to network. This is true even once you’re successful – in fact, the more successful you are, the more time you’ll spend on business.

And this is a high stakes industry. Film and television is unbelievably expensive to produce. Most people in Hollywood genuinely want to make quality product, but the producers’ and executives’ main responsibility is to make product that turns a profit. People are not there to coddle your ego or help you achieve your artistic dreams. You have to have a thick skin, because if they don’t like something you’ve written, they will let you know. There’s too much at stake to worry about your feelings.

Screenwriting is entrepreneurial.

Many people think it would be great to work for themselves, but I find few people really have the temperament for an entrepreneurial lifestyle. Most film and television writers I know live in nice houses and drive decent, late model cars. A few have mansions and expensive sports cars. Many send their kids to private schools. When you work in Hollywood, you tend to get paid very well.

But you will be constantly scrambling to find work. There are far more talented, hard working writers than there are jobs. For feature writers, the typical contract period for a draft is twelve weeks. These days, most contracts only guarantee one draft. So you will generally be in need of a new job at least once a year. Often you will have to do many pitch meetings over months to get a paying job. Even screenwriters with long lists of credits find themselves without income for extended periods. It’s stressful. You can write on spec, but the spec market has always been a long-odds game, never more so than in the last few years.

If you get a job on a television show, you can probably assume you’ll be working for four months or so… as long as the show doesn’t get cancelled (and of course most shows get cancelled their first season). You will spend that four months trying to make yourself valuable so you get brought back for the next set of episodes. When you are fired or your show is cancelled, you will enter the high-stress competition known as staffing season. It’s like musical chairs where the majority of people don’t get a chair. It used to be not getting a chair meant a full year of unemployment. These days with cable and online networks doing year-round development, there are more opportunities outside of staffing season.

Bottom line, you have to have a high tolerance for risk and manage your personal finances well.

You will not have creative control.

It can be enormously satisfying to work in a creative industry. But do not imagine that you are going to write whatever you want and it will be shot exactly the way you say. In the feature world, executives, producers, directors, and stars get to give you notes on your script. If you are unable or unwilling to execute those notes, they fire you and find a writer who will. They may do that even if you do successfully execute their notes.

Writers have more power in television, but not all writers. All writers who are not the showrunner are there to serve the showrunner’s vision. The showrunner has final creative authority on everything. Except, of course, the showrunner also has to answer to studio and network executives. Showrunners have a lot of power, but not absolute power.

One advantage in television is that if you are on a writing staff and you write something, it will almost certainly be shot and put on the air within a few months. In features, even if you sell a script or are hired to write or rewrite something, the odds are that you will still never see it on screen. I don’t have a reliable source, but I’ve heard the statistic that only about one in ten projects at studios actually get produced.

I’m just going to do independent films.

Great! Make sure you have a job to support yourself. It is nearly impossible to make a living writing independent films. They generally pay little or nothing up front. You will usually make decent money if the film is distributed and is at least moderately successful, but fewer than 1% of independent films achieve this, and it will probably take 5-10 years from when you finish the script.

There are bigger budget independent films that do pay screenwriters decently, but these gigs are pretty much like studio gigs in that producers, executives, and directors will require you to conform the screenplay to their taste and needs. The advantage is that everybody is generally working toward higher artistic goals than the studios. But they still need to make a profit if they are to stay in business.

If you write independent films you should be aware that most independent film writers earn their living rewriting studio films (and often not taking screen credit to protect their artistic brand).

It’s not so bad.

If you do have the right temperament, being a film or television writer can be a great job. What is the right temperament? You have to be dedicated, hard working, and talented. You have to have a certain level of business savvy and salesmanship. You have to be collaborative, willing to compromise the right way to move a project forward.

If you’re not discouraged by what I’ve said, you may have the temperament to be a professional film or television writer. I wish you luck. With the right attitude, it is a great joy having something you contributed to viewed by millions of people. If things go well, you sometimes even get to see your vision achieved in a way that makes you extremely proud. And there are those premieres and parties and free movies to enjoy along the way.


Get The Three Stages of Screenwriting

"I used to always recommend that new writers read Story as their first and most important introduction to the craft of screenwriting, but from now on, I’m going to recommend The Three Stages of Screenwriting."
-LA Screenwriter Review

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Interview with Sean Nalaboff

Sean Nalaboff wrote and directed the recent movie Hard Sell starring Skyler Gisondo (Vacation), Kristin Chenoweth (Pushing Daisies, Glee), and Katrina Bowden (30 Rock, Tucker & Dale vs. Evil). The story centers on Hardy Buchanan (Gisondo), a senior at an elite private school who struggles to support his unstable mom (Chenoweth). Desperate to make some quick cash, he enlists the help of Bo (Bowden), a beautiful runaway, and together they devise a plan of profiting off of the wayward teens at Hardy’s school. When the students learn that Bo has more to offer than what meets the eye, the unlikely duo’s new business takes a unique turn, tossing them headfirst into the lifestyles of the rich and dysfunctional.

Sean was a student of mine at ArtCenter College of Design (in fact, he worked on the Hard Sell screenplay in my class), so I convinced him to do an interview for LetsSchmooze.

Q: The film has an impressively authentic sense of character and place. Where did the idea for the film come from?

I was attending Art Center College of Design about 3,000 miles away from where I called home (Long Island, NY) and I was homesick. I kept thinking about that environment and the colorful characters I grew up with. I thought it was fertile ground for a cool story. And so I started writing about a private school student on scholarship who very much feels like a square peg in a round hole, which was similar to my experience in private school. I was dealing with these morbid themes of isolation and despair with a sense of humor. I thought of the uniformity of the suburbs and prep schools and the resulting identity crisis that spawned from that. All the ideas for plot generated from there.

Q: How did you do your character development?

I would doodle in class having conversations with these characters. In particular, everyday I found myself excited to be in conversation with my protagonist, seventeen-year old Hardy Buchanan. It was all dialogue. Monologues about life, religion, love… I’d wax poetic about a ton of unrelated topics (nothing that really ever made the movie), but I became to understand Hardy’s point of view. I did that for everyone. It started with Hardy and then I’d add one more character to the conversation, then one more, then another, until finally I started to understand everyone’s POV.

Q: Did the characters change once the actors got involved?

The actors were really willing to listen. That was one of the things I was most surprised by being that I was a first time feature film director. I remember Kristin Chenoweth calling me into her dressing room on the first day and asking me to tell her what I wanted. She was so receptive to my vision for this. Little ideas were introduced by my conversations with the actors, you know, like “I think this character should smoke cigarettes,” or maybe they’d want to riff with some improv. Katrina Bowden wrote up a whole background story for Bo that contained VERY specific information about her upbringing that she used for her performance. I thought it was great. I became fast friends with Skyler Gisondo, the actor who plays Hardy, and we had the opportunity to really dive deep into the character and story. The actors brought something to the table that was never on the page, BREATH. Their cadence, their timing, the delivery, it was all so much fun to see it come to life through their unique voices.

Q: What is your writing process like? For example, how much time did you spend outlining? How many drafts did you do?

Man, I’m so impatient. I’ll have an inspiration for a broad idea of a story and I get really excited about it. I try to outline, but I get so eager to jump into writing dialogue. I develop the characters' voices for months writing scenes (that won’t even end up in the final draft) where they’re having a conversation with another character. I just like deciphering these characters motivations and how they represent themselves to the world before thinking about plot points. I re-write and re-write and re-write for years (everyday) until I have a draft that I feel comfortable producing (or at least that’s been the process for the first two films). It’s probably a ridiculous waste of time to not be outlining, but I go where the inspiration is. I really enjoy writing and I don’t want to screw that up for myself by considering it to be work.

Q: Once the script was done, what did you do? This is your first feature – how did you get it financed? How did you get the cast?

This is an incredibly abbreviated response to that question… I knew the script was ready to be made. The script was awesome. Truly proud of it. I figured if I could cast the three leads then I could simultaneously attract money to the project. I researched indie films with NY casting directors that put together casts that I liked and eventually found Bass Casting. While they put out offers for cast, I teamed up with one of my best friends from home who became my business partner, Jared Greenman. Greenman was in sales at a tech startup and wanted to sink his teeth into something more creative. We started lining up contacts to approach for financing. The game plan was to have it all independently financed through angel investors outside of Hollywood. So Greenman, myself, and my other friend from LA, Jimmy Seargeant, partnered up as co-producers on a quest to get this movie made. Meanwhile, The script was getting a great response from agents. Katrina Bowden signed on for the part of Bo. Then, I received a message from Kristin Chenoweth’s manager asking what I thought of Chenoweth for the mom? I had been hired to shoot a behind-the-scenes video of one of Chenoweth’s concert tours a few months prior and it turned out Chenoweth was a fan. I didn’t know at the time, but Chenoweth told her manager if I was ever doing something independently then she’d love to be a part of it. Once we had that, the pieces began to fall into place (sort of).

Q: You directed the film. Did you learn anything about writing from the directing experience?

I learned a tremendous amount about writing from directing and editing. I didn’t edit the movie, but I certainly sat through all the sessions and realized what made the cutting room floor (I recommend all writers sit with editors). Getting back to the question, you realize what moves the story forward in directing that you might overlook during writing. There’s a certain flow/momentum in a script that’s hard to pinpoint until you’re directing scenes. Some stuff just flatlines and you realize it’s because of the shitty writing (my script wasn’t perfect). Sometimes it’ll take an actor to tell you, “I can’t tap into this scene for some reason.” What’s not working here? It’s generally because there’s no POV and maybe it’s exposition heavy or something like that. If there isn’t a motivation to get from point A to point B in every scene then you have to figure something out quick on your feet while directing. We’d have what I called “Writer’s Meetings” on set where the actors and I would sit down and see what worked and what didn’t in the scene we were tackling that day. Kind of like small daily table reads. Some words felt weird coming out of some actors mouths, so I obliged them and let them change it to something more comfortable for them. Directing is one big collaboration and writing for me is an isolated thing.

Q: What’s next for you?

I’m in pre-production on my next film, Kingfish, which we aim to shoot in September. I’m also writing a book about my experience producing my first feature film while it’s still fresh in my heart and head.

Q: Any advice for aspiring screenwriters?

Write what inspires you.

Thanks, Sean. You can watch Hard Sell on VOD and iTunes. Visit the Hard Sell website.


Get The Three Stages of Screenwriting

"I used to always recommend that new writers read Story as their first and most important introduction to the craft of screenwriting, but from now on, I’m going to recommend The Three Stages of Screenwriting."
-LA Screenwriter Review