Monday, February 1, 2016

How I Broke In

Today I thought I would share the story of how I got my start as a professional screenwriter, along with some of the lessons I learned along the way.

When I was a kid I saw Star Wars. I was so blown away by this movie that I read everything I could get my hands on about it – which wasn’t easy back then. This was before DVD commentary tracks and shows like Extra. As my young mind was devouring articles in Time magazine and the like, I kept reading about this guy named George Lucas who had a job called director. Sounds like a fun job, I thought. Maybe that’s what I’ll do when I grow up.

When I was growing up I didn’t know anybody in the movie business. In fact, I was so far removed from Hollywood that when I told friends, family, and guidance counselors that I wanted to be a movie director, they all thought that sounded pretty great. Nobody knew how insanely competitive the field was or how many very talented people utterly failed in the business. I pursued directing the same way a high school student in Juneau, Alaska (where I lived) would pursue engineering. I researched what colleges were the best in the field and sent off my applications. I ended up at George Lucas’s alma mater: The University of Southern California.

As an undergrad I was in the production program. That is essentially a program to teach directing, though most people unofficially emphasized one technical area or another. I emphasized cinematography. When I graduated I worked back-breaking, low paying jobs doing such high tech tasks as coiling cable and hauling gear on music video shoots, or holding the boom on public service announcement shoots.

“At least you’re working on film sets,” people would say. It didn’t make me feel better. Turns out, having any job in film wasn’t enough for me. I had been working on screenplays on those days when I wasn’t working on set (there were a lot of those days), and I’d completed three of them. None were very good, but I enjoyed writing and at least one of my ideas felt like it could maybe be a movie if it was better.

So I decided to go back to USC to study screenwriting in their graduate program. Fortunately, they let me. The program taught me an enormous amount about the craft of screenwriting, and once I’d learned those skills, I discovered I was actually a pretty good writer. For my thesis, I wrote a romantic comedy script called “Melanie’s Getting Married” about a sophisticated woman from New York who must return to her small hometown to convince her estranged white trash husband to give her a divorce so she can marry someone else. It was very loosely based on one of the scripts I’d written before going to school.

Lesson 1:
Learn your craft.

When I graduated, USC sent out a list of all the graduating students’ thesis script log lines to producers and studios around town. From that I got a few dozen calls requesting to read the script. I guess that was a little unusual – the power of a good log line. From there, I met with half a dozen producers who liked the script. Half of those were actually real producers with offices and everything.

Lesson 2: Create a good log line.

One of the companies I met with was MBST. The intern, a woman named Emily, had read my script – because interns are the people who read film student scripts – and recommended it to her boss. The boss liked it and they brought me in for a very nice meeting. “Send us your next script,” they said. Which is pretty much what everyone said.

So I started temping. And at night, I worked on another script, one I’d started in school, an action adventure called “Undertow.” I didn’t know at the time you were supposed to stick with one genre early in your career. (Note: “Undertow” has not been produced yet, though another movie with a similar title has since been released.)

I sent “Undertow” to the people who liked “Melanie.” When I called MBST, I discovered Emily was now head of development. She really liked “Undertow,” but the company didn’t do action movies (thus the advantage of sticking to one genre). However she thought I should have an agent and offered to make some recommendations for me.

Her assistant, Aghi, had a friend who had just been made an agent at a large boutique literary agency. She asked if she could send the script to him. “Of course,” I said. That turned out to be the agent I signed with. (And Aghi became head of development at MBST a short time later.)

Lesson 3: Be nice to the interns and assistants. They control your fate.

The agent sent out “Undertow” and Neal Moritz at Original Films liked it. We let him take it to three studios, all of whom also liked it. But all of them decided it was just too expensive. The project died, but Neal was pleased with the reaction and asked me to come in for a meeting. They asked what else I had and I gave them “Melanie’s Getting Married.” Neal didn’t go for it - not his genre - but a protégé producer named Stokely Chaffin really liked it.

Stokely gave me some feedback on the script and I did a rewrite, but she was not able to get Original to buy it at the time. I went on to other spec scripts and got a permanent job at Disney Feature Animation to pay the bills. I won a screenwriting contest with a science fiction thriller script called “Overload” (also still unproduced) but otherwise wasn’t having much success. Eventually I parted ways with my agent.

Then one day my phone rang. It was Stokely. I hadn’t spoken to her in nearly two years but it turns out she’d been pushing my “Melanie’s Getting Married” script the whole time and finally convinced Original to option it. We did the deal and I took the small option payment and bought a brand new china hutch to replace the cheap shelving that held my liquor supply (hey, I’m a writer). And then I went back to the day job.

A couple years passed. Other writers were hired to rewrite my script. Actors and directors came and went on the project. I would get phone calls from Stokely telling me the good or bad news and learned not to invest too much emotion into any of it. But they kept renewing the option and I kept cashing the checks and buying myself little presents. I also kept writing and got a new agent based on another script, this one a broad comedy (I still hadn’t learned to stick with one genre).

Lesson 4: Always keep writing.

Then one day Disney and Original actually made the movie. Nobody was as surprised as me. It had been re-titled Sweet Home Alabama and starred Reese Witherspoon. It resembled my original script more than I might have guessed after all that time, and I was awarded “Story by” credit after a brutal Writers Guild arbitration process. The movie set a record for biggest September opening ($38 million) and went on to earn over $100 million domestically. I made enough to pay off my student loans and quit my day job.

People called me an overnight success.


Want to learn your craft? Check out my book: The Three Stages of Screenwriting.

Monday, January 25, 2016

LetsSchmooze on #OscarSoWhite

Today I want to share my thoughts on the controversy surrounding the all-white Academy Award acting nominees. (For those expecting my “breaking in” story, I’ll do that next week.)

The Academy has made changes to its rules and policies to try to increase diversity in its membership, which is overwhelmingly white, male, and old. I think this is great. I also think it’s not going to make much difference in future nominations.

Why? Because I don’t think the Academy membership composition is really the reason the acting nominees the last two years have been entirely white. There are plenty of reasons unrelated to race that many of the allegedly “snubbed” actors might not have been nominated this year. Let’s briefly look at them in turn:

Will Smith in “Concussion” – The big problem here is that this movie was released late and didn’t send out screeners widely. I was having dinner with a group of screenwriters a couple days before the nominations and the conversation turned to award season movies, as it tends to do in such groups this time of year. Someone brought up “Concussion” and not one person had seen it (and before you accuse us of bias in our viewing choices, almost everyone had seen “Straight Outta Compton”). There are a lot of movies to see this time of year and many voters are still very busy working professionals. If the studios don’t make it easy to see the movies, they don’t get seen (“Selma” had this problem last year). It’s also worth noting that neither the white writer-director nor any of the white supporting cast nor any of the crew got nominations for "Concussion." And Smith has been nominated twice before, so the Academy is clearly willing to nominate him – when they’ve seen and liked his performance.

“Straight Outta Compton” – This is a different case because it was widely seen and widely liked. And it looks bad that the only nomination was for the screenplay, which was written by white writers (it may be worth noting that nominations are voted on by the individual branches, so the people selecting screenplay nominees are completely different than the people selecting acting nominees). However, this is an ensemble film and it's difficult for ensemble films to get acting awards. “Spotlight” is one of the Best Picture favorites and its only acting nom is for the sole female character – all of its incredibly talented cast of male actors got nothing. The other ensemble Best Picture nominee, “The Big Short,” also only had one acting nomination.

Samuel L. Jackson for “Hateful Eight” – This, too, is an ensemble movie. Yes, Jennifer Jason Leigh was nominated, but she had the only major female role in a large male cast. This looks an awful lot like “Spotlight” – too many good male performances to choose from for the movie’s fans in the Academy. And Jackson has also been nominated before, so it’s hard to make the case he was snubbed because of race.

Idris Elba in “Beasts of No Nation”
– This one’s tricky. On the one hand, it made less than $100,000 at the box office, so it might not have been seen by many voters. (Of course it was also available on Netflix, but Netflix doesn’t release viewing figures, so we don't know how many people saw it there.) On the other hand, Idris Elba got a SAG nomination, so he was hardly under the radar. The subject matter is a hard sell, and there may also have been a resistance to nominate a movie that was widely seen as non-theatrical. It’s worth noting the film was not nominated in any other category either. Let's call this a possible snub.

Michael B. Jordan in “Creed” – This would certainly be a potential snub. The movie was widely seen and liked and Sylvester Stallone got nominated. But the film got few other nominations, suggesting it was considered a good movie, not a great movie.

So maybe a case could be made that if the Academy was more diverse, Michael B. Jordan or Idris Elba might have gotten nominated. I still have my doubts. White actors Robert Redford, Michael Keaton, Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Mark Ruffalo, Liev Schreiber, Bradley Cooper, Johnny Depp, Michael Caine, Michael Shannon, Paul Dano, Kurt Russell, Tim Roth, Jake Gyllenhal, Nick Nolte, and Ryan Gosling all did excellent performances in well regarded movies and were not nominated. Five nominations are not many, so plenty of worthy performances get left out every year. The preferential balloting system also complicates any discussion of who “deserved” to get nominated.

If I’m right that racial bias didn’t play much role in the alleged snubs, it means all of the changes the Academy is making in response to this crisis will do nothing to solve the problem that the nominees do not reflect the diversity of America. But if the problem is not with the Academy voters, where is it?

It’s with the people who greenlight movies.

The Academy can only nominate performances from movies that get made. In my list of white actors who didn’t get nominations, I could have included Emily Blunt, Lily Tomlin, and Helen Mirren, but they aren’t competing for the same awards as the allegedly snubbed actors. There are no actresses of color that people are claiming were snubbed. That’s because there were no major roles in prestige films for actresses of color this year.

There will be more diverse nominees when there is more diversity in casting in prestige movies. The big question is how to achieve that. The solutions are not going to be easy and the changes will not come quickly.

There are many things needed to improve diversity in Hollywood. I teach at a film school where applicants from American students trend overwhelmingly white and male. I suspect this is true at most film schools. Academic institutions need to make an effort not just to bring in diverse students, but to support them with scholarships and job placement. And many colleges, including mine, are doing just that. I also think the industry needs some more diverse role models to inspire minority kids to look to film as a viable dream.

But ultimately the only change that will really transform the business needs to come within the ranks of the executives who choose what films get made. And these executives are overwhelmingly white and male. According to the Bunch Report on Diversity in Hollywood, film CEOs are 94% white (and 100% male). Senior management at studios is 92% white (and 83% male). Unit heads at studios are 96% white (and 61% male). When we talk about movies not reflecting the world around us, we should understand that for these executives, all-white casts DO reflect the world around them!

Of course it’s not as easy as simply plugging minorities into executive jobs. Those jobs are complicated and challenging and rely a lot on talent relationships. The only way to be successful is to work your way up through the ranks, building knowledge, experience, and relationships along the way. So it’s important to have strong programs to recruit diverse talent into entry-level studio positions, but it’s probably going to take years before meaningful change hits the executive levels. Hopefully, though, if current executives are surrounded by more diverse employees, the executives’ world view will expand accordingly.

What’s particularly annoying about all this is that all evidence points to diversity in casting being good for the business. According to the Bunch Report, 51% of frequent moviegoers are minorities. And many of the box office hits from last year – movies like “Straight Outta Compton,” “Furious 7,” and “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” – show that diverse casts won’t hold a good movie back.

But Hollywood is a place ruled by fear. Executive turnover is high and there are many uncontrollable variables to success. Risk taking is not rewarded. So executives rely on “conventional wisdom” that is decades old. Conventional wisdom like: women will go see a movie with a male lead, but men won’t go see a movie with a female lead – a piece of “wisdom” blown out of the water by The Hunger Games movies, yet still clung to by many executives because it’s safer than suggesting a new way of thinking.

What will it take to break executives out of their entrenched misconceptions? That’s a good question. I don’t know if I have a good answer.

I am not an Academy member and don’t vote for the Oscars. I do vote for the WGA Awards and Spirit Awards. Over the holidays, I watched several screeners with my family. My Mom asked me how I judged screenplays. I said I considered many things – my enjoyment of the movie, the craft elements like structure and dialogue, how much the scripting contributed to the movie’s success, and the degree of difficulty the screenwriter faced from the subject matter.

In the future, I think I will also pay more attention to how well the film reflects the reality of the world it portrays. This doesn’t mean I’ll reject a film with all white characters – if you’re doing a story about the 15th century British monarchy, naturally all of the characters will be white. But if I’m watching a movie set in a contemporary American city and all the characters are white men, well, that’s just not good writing.

EDITED: In my initial post I had overlooked Christian Bale's supporting actor nomination from "The Big Short." I corrected that above.


Check out my brand new book: The Three Stages of Screenwriting.

Monday, January 18, 2016

The Three Stages of Screenwriting

Hello, dear LetsSchmooze readers. I alerted you it would be coming a few weeks ago, and now it’s here. My book on screenwriting, The Three Stages of Screenwriting is now available in print (from Amazon) and ebook (from Smashwords). More retailers should be carrying it shortly. I have spent more than two years working on this book, and I’m very proud of it.

If you’d like to read an excerpt of the book, one is available here. If you’d like to find out more about the book, please visit the ScreenMaster Books website.

I divided the book into three parts to reflect the three stages of the screenwriting process (hence the title). The sections cover the following topics:

Stage One – Developing the Story covers choosing a viable feature film idea, developing that idea into the best version, structuring the plot, developing the characters, crafting a step outline, and using various narrative devices.

Stage Two – Writing the First Draft covers scene construction, writing action and description, writing dialogue, the opening of the script, maintaining forward momentum, and using suspense, surprise, mystery.

Stage Three – Rewriting covers techniques for structural revisions, techniques for character revisions, troubleshooting tips for common problems, revising scenes, and polishing.

I hope you’ll consider giving it a look. And if you have any thoughts or questions, feel free to drop me a line here. I’ll likely cover some of them in a “Mailbag” post in a few weeks.

I need to thank several people who gave me feedback and suggestions on The Three Stages of Screenwriting: Cindy Davis, Paul Guay, Ken Aguado, Pavan Ojha, Bill Gladstone, Lisa Kors, Robert Watson, and Kat Smith. They helped me improve it immeasurably.

I also want to say thank you at this point for all of you who have offered kind words, questions, or suggestions about this blog. It’s very gratifying to hear how useful people find it.
I hope you'll forgive me that this week's post is a little short (and self-serving!) I've been rather busy with the book release, as you might imagine. Over the next few weeks, I plan to do two or three posts about how I broke into the industry, how I sold the Sweet Home Alabama spec screenplay, and maybe some of my experiences seeing the film made. I'm also considering doing a series of analyses of the WGA's top 10 screenplay list (two of which – The Godfather and Some Like It Hot I use as examples in the book).


Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Best Written Movies of 2015

It’s time for my list of the twelve best-written movies of last year! Yes, normally I do ten, but I was having a really hard time narrowing down my top twelve, so I decided to just include them all.

Keep in mind, this is a list of the best written movies, not necessarily the best movies or my favorite movies. This year provides a great example of this principle: Mad Max: Fury Road (written by George Miller and Brendan McCarthy and Nico Lathouris), which was one of my top three favorite movies of the year but didn’t make this list.

It’s not that Mad Max: Fury Road wasn’t “written” as some of the press has suggested. It may not have had a traditionally formatted screenplay, but there was a plot, dialogue, and distinct scenes that were written down in some form. And those elements were all competently done. However, they were not the reason the movie was such a wonderful experience. This was not a movie driven by the screenplay.

My other usual disclaimers apply: I see a lot of movies, but I haven’t seen everything. I haven’t yet seen The Revenant or Room, though I very much want to and expect them to be good. And I may in the future discover other movies from 2015 that would bump some of my selections off the list.

Also, some movies age better than others, and because many of these 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 I would probably move Whiplash higher on the list. 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 12 Best Written Movies of 2015:

1. Ex Machina (written by Alex Garland) – This is an amazing achievement. A tense, entertaining and thought provoking thriller with only four characters and a single house as a location. The writing is incredibly smart with great twists. The characters are particularly complex and interesting. This is easily the best-written movie of the year in my opinion.

2. Sicario (written by Taylor Sheridan) – Impressive on several fronts. First, the plot is genuinely unpredictable, creating tremendous tension. The characters are interesting and dimensional. The dialogue crackles with voice and subtext. There’s great scene work and masterful suspense. And it’s all elevated by the thematic depth and complexity of the story.

3. Spotlight (written by Josh Singer & Tom McCarthy) – The movie and the screenplay aren’t flashy, but they’re so absorbing I felt like I didn’t want the film to end. The characters and characterizations are particularly strong. And parts of the story were challenging to dramatize – much of the investigation involved research in books and files. Kudos to the writers for finding ways to keep things tense and compelling.

4. The Hateful Eight (written by Quentin Tarantino) – He may not be to everyone’s taste, but it’s hard to argue that Tarantino isn’t one of the most original writers working today. This film has his usual vivid dialogue and interesting characters, and also avoids some of the traps he tends to fall into by sticking with a fairly straightforward plot. And it feels like a movie event, something you don’t get to see every day, something worth leaving the house to go to the theater.

5. Bridge of Spies (written by Matt Charman and Ethan & Joel Coen) – This is an excellently crafted screenplay. The characters are well drawn; the scenes are interesting; the plot is tense. The writers find great opportunities for humor and thematic pondering without slowing down the action. Plus, the bifurcated nature of the story made this screenplay a challenge – one the writers overcame quite nicely. My only quibble is that it felt just a bit too long.

6. Shaun the Sheep Movie (written by Mark Burton & Richard Starzak from characters created by Nick Park) – This movie is a pure delight. There’s so much warmth and clever humor here, and with very little dialogue. They make it look easy… it’s not.

7. Trainwreck (written by Amy Schumer) – I don’t know if I’ve ever seen someone use the tropes and clichés of a genre so effectively to tell a specific, personal story. It achieves a difficult balance between humor (sometimes to the point of silliness) and grief, loss and love. The characters feel like real people and that makes all the clichés emotionally effective.

8. Star Wars: The Force Awakens (written by Lawrence Kasdan & J.J. Abrams and Michael Arndt based on character created by George Lucas) – This is a tough one for me to rank because Star Wars has such an outsized importance in my life and the franchise carries such enormous baggage for the writers to deal with. I think they did an admirable job capturing the spirit of Star Wars and managed to tell an entertaining story with some new great characters. Yes, it may be a little derivative of earlier Star Wars movies, but that was probably the only way to successfully restart the film series. Could it have been better? Probably. Was it a great time at the theater? Absolutely.

9. Steve Jobs (screenplay by Aaron Sorkin) – I will admit I didn’t expect to like the film. Not only had I heard negative reviews, I had ethical qualms about the liberties taken with the facts of Steve Jobs’ life. But as it turned out, this screenplay is pretty great. Sorkin writes excellent dialogue for smart people, and all of these characters are very smart. He also managed to give all the characters in this screenplay unique voices, something Sorkin is not usually known for. And he does a fantastic job here, as always, finding ways to dramatize internal thought processes and character perspectives. The movie packs surprising tension and a solid emotional punch.

10. The Big Short (screenplay by Charles Randolph and Adam McKay) – I didn’t love this movie quite as much as the critics, but it is a surprisingly entertaining film about a pretty boring (but important) subject. The writers achieved this by creating interesting and unusual characters and with some clever breaking of the fourth wall. An impressive achievement considering the degree of difficulty.

11. The Martian (screenplay by Drew Goddard) – This is an excellent screenplay from challenging material. Not only is much of the story about a single character by himself, the conflict is of a scientific/intellectual nature. Goddard found a way to make this all visual, and also managed to capture much of the humor from the book. My complaints were mostly related to the ending, which strained the hard-won scientific credibility of the rest of the movie.

12. Straight Outta Compton (story by S. Leigh Savidge & Alan Wenkus and Andrea Berloff, screenplay by Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff) – There were probably three movies worth of material in this screenplay, which is an impressive feat but also resulted in a film that felt a little overstuffed and overlong. Still, it was very entertaining with well-drawn characters and an interesting and well-dramatized social commentary aspect. Not your typical music biopic – and that's a good thing.

I also want to give honorable mentions to Spy (written by Paul Feig) and Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (story by Christopher McQuarrie and Drew Pearce, screenplay by Christopher McQuarrie) as two movies that were much better than expected thanks to some excellent scripting. Both were strong candidates for this list.

I also typically pick a movie as worst-written every year. I don't actually mean the worst screenplay, but rather a movie that should have been much better written than it was. This year the (dis)honor goes to San Andreas (story by Andre Fabrizio & Jeremy Passmore, screenplay by Carlton Cuse). The movie is rife with implausible, cardboard characters, ridiculously clichéd dialogue, and wildly unbelievable plotting. There is some enjoyment to be had from the visual effects spectacle and attractive casting, but none of that comes from the screenplay.


It's coming soon... my book on screenwriting, The Three Stages of Screenwriting.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Three Current Trends in Screenwriting

Happy New Year!

The film business is in a period of fast and radical change. I want to kick off 2016 by looking at some trends that have been developing in Hollywood that effect screenwriters.

1. Simultaneous Development. With so much at stake on big franchise movies, recently some studios have begun hiring multiple writers to work on screenplays at the same time. These writers are not working together, they are each writing an individual script. The studio will then decide which it likes best (and probably cannibalize good ideas from the others). It seems to me this is the evolution of the “pitch off” when multiple writers are brought in to pitch their take on a piece of intellectual property, although with simultaneous development, at least every writer gets paid. This has been done on the upcoming Wonder Woman, Aquaman, and the 21 Jump Street spinoff.

2. Shared Universes. It's no secret studios love franchises. Successful franchises like The Fast and the Furious series, Hunger Games series, or Harry Potter series can keep studios financially sound for years. The new trend is franchises built around shared universes – story worlds that can support films about multiple characters and stories, thus creating a "brand" that draws audiences even when the movies are not traditional sequels. Marvel kicked off the trend with their shared universe of superheroes. Star Wars has had a shared universe of ancillary products (books, video games, animated shows, etc.), and Disney is now applying the idea to the Star Wars movies with standalone films like the upcoming Rogue One and Han Solo origin movie. Warner Brothers is trying to turn the world of Harry Potter into a shared universe with Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. And Universal is attempting to create a shared universe around their classic monsters, while Sony is working on a Robin Hood shared universe. It seems this is the future of a lot of screenwriting jobs, so effectively playing in someone else's sandbox will be a useful skill to hone.

3. Feature Writers’ Rooms. This is related to the “shared universe” trend. With studios making multiple movies set in the same world, the feature films occasionally resemble television series – coming this summer, episode twelve of Marvel’s superheroes! And the feature world has started borrowing another television practice: writers’ rooms. Teams of writers have been formed to shepherd the development of stories in the Transformers world, Star Wars world, and the upcoming series of movies featuring Universal’s monsters. The teams develop stories and treatments for various films in the franchise that are then handed off to writers to turn into the individual screenplay.

Savvy writers will be keeping an eye on how these trends develop.

Before I sign off this week, I thought I’d reveal the five most popular LetsSchmooze posts from 2015. They are:

1. Three Traps to Avoid in Love Stories.

2. My Interview with Khalil Sullins.

3. Seven Questions for Better Scenes.

4. How to Know if Your Idea is Marketable.

5. My 10 Best Written Films of 2014 list

And, since that last one is maybe not the most useful, in sixth place was 5 Questions About Your Story to Answer Before You Start Writing - also, I think, one of my best posts.

I'll plan to have my 10 Best Written Films of 2015 list next week!


Check out my new book: The Three Stages of Screenwriting

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Announcing My Upcoming Screenwriting Book

Big announcement, Lets Schmooze readers. I am near publication of a book on screenwriting: Mastering the Three Stages of Screenwriting. It should be available in a few weeks – I will certainly keep you posted. I thought I’d include an excerpt from the Introduction which explains why I wrote the book and what my approach is. Hope you enjoy!


Why another book on screenwriting?

Fair question. There are a lot of them out there. Let me tell you why I went to the trouble of writing this and maybe that will help explain why I think the world needs another screenwriting book.

I became a screenwriter because of Star Wars and Time magazine. After I saw Star Wars as a kid, I became obsessed with it, reading everything I could about the movie. At that time, there wasn’t much information available about how movies were made. No DVD commentaries, movie magazines, or movie websites for a kid to seek out. But my dad’s Time magazine had an article about Star Wars, so I read it. And that’s where I learned about a guy named George Lucas who was a director. “Sounds like a fun job,” I thought. “That’s what I’m going to be when I grow up.”

Not such an easy thing when you go to high school in Juneau, Alaska and don’t know anybody in the film business. I went to the University of Southern California film school because I learned that’s where George Lucas went… and my guidance counselor didn’t even know you could major in film.

I started out focusing mostly on cinematography, and when I graduated I worked small jobs as a production assistant, gaffer, or grip. On the side, I was working on screenplays. I discovered I had more of a passion for the writing part of making movies than anything else. So I went back to grad school, majoring in screenwriting. And over time I discovered writing was the thing people were most willing to pay me to do.

I learned story structure (of the three-act variety) in grad school back at USC. I’ve also read dozens of books on the subject, most of which added to or altered my approach in some ways. More importantly, I’ve written over twenty-five screenplays, some of which were bad, some of which were good, some of which got me an agent or writing work, and in one case (so far) got made into a big hit movie – Sweet Home Alabama. I’ve also written a children’s play that’s been performed thousands of times (Sleepover at the Stable), a video game (Nightmare Cove), and an animated television pilot (The MOFF Shoppe). Each experience helped me hone my approach to screenwriting.

Then, I got hired to teach a screenwriting class at Art Center College of Design. I naturally built my syllabus around what I was initially taught. But I quickly realized some of that stuff I never actually used. Plus, I wanted to include the many other things that I had learned since. So I adjusted the class to reflect my “real world” experience. I also asked other professional screenwriters what they thought about various techniques and adjusted my teaching process further.

Since then I have had the experience of helping hundreds of students hone their own screenplays. I’ve seen the mistakes they commonly make and I continued adjusting my teaching approach to head off those mistakes. I’ve also become a better writer myself in the process.

I was looking for a book to use as a textbook for my class. I found some very good screenwriting books, but nothing that was both comprehensive and deep on all the subjects I covered. Many gave a useful account of structure; far fewer dealt with crafting a powerful scene. Almost none covered techniques for rewriting. And there was a lot of misinformation about character development out there.

So I wrote this book to provide a complete guide to the craft of writing a screenplay the way the professionals do it. I will cover each part of the process in-depth; giving you the theories, techniques, and tools I have found to be the most practical in my own writing career. And I will endeavor to always keep the focus on creating a screenplay that can actually be turned into a movie. Because that’s the goal, isn’t it.

How to Use This Book

The screenwriting process consists of three distinct stages that require different mindsets. As you’ve undoubtedly figured out from my title, I’ve divided the book by those three stages.

The first stage is story development. This is where you figure out what your story is, who the characters are, and what happens. It requires both creativity and an understanding of narrative structure.

The second stage is writing the first draft. This is where you take the solid skeleton you built in the first stage and flesh it out with action, dialogue, spectacle and all the things we love in movies.

The third stage is rewriting. This takes the longest. Your first draft will not be perfect. Likely it will be a raging disaster. That’s okay – that’s what first drafts are for. It is in the rewriting stage that you take that raw material and shape it into something brilliant.

I will discuss the techniques used in each of the stages, including the theory behind them. I think it’s important that you don’t just memorize rules or a list of plot points, but that you understand why we’ve come to codify these techniques the way we have. Every story is different, and if you really understand technique, you will know how to apply it to your unique story in a way that brings out your vision and voice, rather than conforming your ideas to someone else’s form.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Using a Prologue

(Spoilers: Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Matrix, Romancing the Stone)

I define a prologue in a screenplay as an opening sequence that is not critical to the plot. You could cut off the prologue and the story would still make sense. The audience would never know something was missing. The majority of movies don’t have a prologue, but it’s not uncommon either. For example, most James Bond movies open with a prologue.

Just because a prologue can be removed without damaging the audience’s understanding of the story doesn’t mean they serve no purpose. Prologues are useful to:
  • Grab the audience and draw them into the story
  • Establish the tone of the story
  • Introduce fantastical elements
You should consider using a prologue if the opening of your story would fail to do one of these important things. Most movies open by showing the main character in their normal life – the status quo that will be interrupted by the events of the story. The character’s status quo may be interesting enough to draw the audience in, and it may serve to properly establish the tone and world of the story. If so, you don’t need a prologue. In Gravity (written by Alfonso & Jonas Cuaron), for example, the main character of Ryan is an astronaut working on a satellite in space. Her status quo is plenty dramatic and entertaining, so there’s no need to add a sequence before it! However sometimes showing the character in their regular life isn’t going to do the job.

Let’s look at some examples of successful prologues.
Raiders of the Lost Ark (story by George Lucas and Philip Kaufman, screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan) opens with a prologue about Indiana Jones recovering an idol from a trapped jungle cave. This has nothing to do with the plot of recovering the Ark of the Covenant. But if we didn’t have the prologue, we’d open with Indy at his college teacher job. It would be a while before we got to the good, swashbuckling action. The prologue here grabs the audience and establishes the adventurous tone.

Similarly, The Matrix (written by Andy & Lana Wachowski) opens with a cool action prologue of Trinity running from the agents. This not only grabs us with kung fu, sci-fi action to help carry us through the next relatively action-free half hour of the movie, but it lets the audience know that there is something strange about this world. We are open to almost anything in the first minutes of the movie, but as we start to grasp the rules of the story world, anything that breaks those rules feels implausible.

In the prologue in The Matrix, Trinity and the agents have superhuman abilities and somehow Trinity magically escapes the phone booth at the end of the sequence. If we didn’t have this, the first hint that the world is not the one we’re familiar with would come when the agents erase Neo’s mouth. This would probably be too late in the movie, and the audience would find it laughable or confusing. But with the prologue we accept it.

Romancing the Stone (written by Diane Thomas) has a particularly interesting prologue. The setting is the Wild West. A bad guy threatens a woman. A dashing hero swoops in to save her. It’s all very overheated and romantic. And then it is revealed that this is actually a scene from the main character’s novel, taking place in her imagination.

This prologue again serves to draw the audience into the story and establish an adventurous tone. This is important because Joan’s regular life as a hermitic writer living in Manhattan doesn’t suggest the romantic adventure that the movie will ultimately deliver. The prologue does other important things, too, though. It establishes what kind of man Joan likes and how she thinks romance ought to play out. This sets up a nice contrast when Colton appears and proves to be a very different kind of man.

In Raiders of the Lost Ark and Romancing the Stone some people might consider the prologues part of the status quo. After all, Indiana Jones is a swashbuckling archaeologist from the beginning of the movie, and Joan Wilder is already a writer of overheated romantic adventures. I would still consider them prologues because they are like little mini-stories unto themselves. Both movies could start after these prologues and would still make perfect sense – although they wouldn’t be quite as enjoyable.

Prologues exist outside of the typical three-act structure. If you use a prologue, it would not be surprising to find your Catalyst coming a little later in the film. This is okay as long as the prologue is suitably exciting to engage the audience – and if it’s not, then it’s not doing its job as a prologue!


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