Wednesday, December 31, 2008

10 Best Written Movies of 2008

This wasn’t a horrible year for film, but it wasn’t particularly stellar, either. Nothing this year approached the delicate perfection of my favorite script last year: Lars and the Real Girl. And when you consider 2007 also had such interesting and unique screenplays as Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Savages, Juno, and Into the Wild; as well as a few excellent genre films like The Bourne Ultimatum and Knocked Up, this looks like a pretty mild year in comparison.

Note that what follows are not necessarily my favorite films of 2008, although there is a lot of overlap. These are the movies I think are best written. Sometimes the final film doesn’t quite live up to the screenplay and sometimes bravura filmmaking can overcome a flawed script. Also keep in mind that although I see a lot of movies I’m not a professional critic so I don’t see every major release. The candidates are obviously limited to what I’ve seen.

1) Slumdog Millionaire (screenplay by Simon Beaufoy) – a fantastic movie that started with a fantastic script. The premise is an unlikely one for a great movie which just shows how amazing the writing really is. Noteworthy particularly for how it incorporates very dark themes and still manages to feel uplifting. It doesn’t shy away from the reality of life on the streets for kids in India but is far more hopeful than disheartening – which gives this script a high degree of difficulty. The framing structure is also handled well which is not nearly as easy as it looks.

2) Iron Man (screenplay by Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby and Art Marcum & Matt Holloway) – big summer popcorn movies must be filled with excitement and spectacle and this script certainly delivered on that count. It also had well drawn characters (even the minor characters) and some of the wittiest dialogue in any movie this year. I had a small quibble with the ending (SPOILER: I felt the final fight should have ended after the “icing problem” line but they dragged it on into a fairly clichéd brawl), but otherwise a really excellent script.

3) Milk (written by Dustin Lance Black) – the true story is inherently dramatic and compelling and the treatment was relatively straightforward so this might seem like a low degree of difficulty. But compressing ten years of someone’s life is never easy and the script deftly integrated Milk’s sometimes messy personal life into the main storyline without getting sidetracked. And sometimes the best writing is just quality, straightforward dramatization.

4) The Dark Knight (story by Christopher Nolan & David S. Goyer, screenplay by Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan) (SPOILER) – I loved this movie but the plot is a bit of a mess. The script loses tension two thirds of the way through when they’ve captured the Joker and we don’t yet know about the kidnapping of Harvey Dent and Rachel. It’s held together by spectacular performances and amazing scenes. But though Heath Ledger gets justifiable credit for his amazing performance, remember that his character and dialogue was written. And this is a superhero movie that’s about big, complex ideas of chaos, law, justice, and human nature and morality. As scattershot as it sometimes is, it’s a tremendously compelling screenplay.

5) Zach and Miri Make a Porno (written by Kevin Smith) – Kevin Smith remains a frustrating director but a fantastic screenwriter. Here he doesn’t shy away from the raunchy humor virtually demanded by his premise, but he manages to still make a sweet romantic comedy because he clearly loves his characters despite their many flaws…and so do we. And there are genuine laugh out loud jokes. Also interesting, this was a movie that feels up-to-the-minute in terms of the characters’ use of culture, technology and language. You really sense that Smith is basing his writing on observations of people in the real world rather than other movies. Surprisingly, given the outrageousness of the story, Zach and Miri may be the most authentic contemporary characters of the year.

6) The Visitor (written by Thomas McCarthy) – I liked this movie and the screenplay is well structured and subtle with rich, real characters and genuine emotion. It also has important stuff to say and some really touching romantic elements. Something left me a little cold though and I can’t quite figure out what it was.

7) Cloverfield (written by Drew Goddard) – Though it drags a bit in the beginning, this is a tight, scary screenplay that milks the central conceit for all it’s worth. The characterizations and dialogue are also quite strong. The shaky camerawork means the movie won’t be everybody’s cup of tea but the script is interesting and well crafted.

8) The Wrestler (written by Robert D. Siegel) – Again Mickey Rourke deserves his kudos, but we must remember this compelling character started in the screenplay. Unfortunately, too much else about the script is cliché. Really, did the love interest have to be a stripper? And the estranged daughter storyline is well trod ground. The movie ends up being very good, though the script benefits a lot from the filmmaking and performances.

9) Forgetting Sarah Marshall (written by Jason Segel) – This may be a sign of what kind of year it’s been when this movie makes my list. Not that it’s bad, it’s just not that spectacular. But it’s tightly plotted, funny, and has enough interesting things in it to rise above the typical romantic comedy.

10) The Reader (screenplay by David Hare) – It takes a while to get to the point and the filmmaking is a little pretentious for my taste (not the screenwriter's fault), but this is a movie about complex, challenging ideas and characters that you don't see on screen very often. A worthy if flawed script.

Near Miss: Changeling (written by J. Michael Straczynski). The story definitely haunted me and the writing is mostly quite good. The big problem for me was the ending. In an attempt to stay true to the chronology, the film gets muddled at the end. I think they would have been better served to reorganize events to end the movie with the trial/council hearing scenes which would have had a better sense of finality while not violating any of the bigger truths of the history.

For whatever it’s worth: Number of my top 10 with one credited screenwriter: 8. Number written by the film’s director: 3 (Dark Knight is co-written by Nolan)

And for Worst Movie of 2008: Jumper
Now, I didn’t see a lot of the allegedly spectacularly bad 2008 movies like 10,000 BC and The Love Guru, but Jumper was definitely a big mess. It’s a solid potential premise but the movie just makes no sense and has a spectacularly anti-climactic ending for a supposed action movie.

And a special award for “Questionable Plot Device in an Otherwise Watchable Movie”: The magic loom in Wanted. A magic loom. Really?

Here's looking forward to 2009!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Screenwriting Book Review

There are several hundred books out there purporting to teach you how to write screenplays, sell screenplays, pitch or in some way improve your skills as a professional screenwriter. I’ve got a few dozen on a shelf in my office. Some are good, a few are REALLY good and many are just taking up space. From time to time I ask the guys at Samuel French (a bookstore catering to entertainment industry types) what the hot screenwriting book is at that moment. I don’t have the time to read them all, but I like to stay abreast of what’s causing buzz.

I’m going to review a few of the classic screenwriting books today. I’ll post more reviews on occasion in the future. (Note: Some of my copies of these may be earlier editions.)

Screenplay” by Syd Field
Syd Field is the guy who pretty much started it all with his analysis of three act structure and this book is the one that kicked off the flood of screenwriting books. He provides a good, clear guide to story structure, but I recommend not getting as rigid with it as he does. I don’t care for his character development approach…I don’t know many real writers who use it. But this would be a good starting point book for most screenwriters and is an industry standard.

The Screenwriters Workbook” by Syd Field
(I’ve lost my copy of this so I’m reviewing from memory…admittedly a sketchy idea.) I actually prefer this one to “Screenplay.” It has a step-by-step process including assignments for the reader. If you do the assignments as you go along, by the end of the book you’ll have a screenplay. Which is pretty cool!

Making a Good Script Great” by Linda Seger
This is the best overall book I know of. It covers all the major theories and topics of screenwriting in a way that fits with how I think most pro screenwriters work. It’s supposedly a rewriting book but it really deals as much with outlining and first draft concepts as rewriting. Because of its comprehensive nature it doesn’t really delve as deeply into some of the areas as might be desirable, but it’s a great first book to read on the topic.

The Writers Journey” by Christopher Vogler
This book was a revelation to me. It’s based on the mythology studies of Joseph Campbell with some Carl Jung thrown in. It’s a completely different approach to structure centered on the hero’s journey. I like it because it builds the story from a character arc standpoint instead of focusing on page numbers. I merge this with three act structure when I work out my scripts. There are other hero’s journey books which include more “stages” of the journey, but I think Vogler selects the right amount to be most useful without turning the script into a paint-by-numbers affair. Also covers archetypal characters which can be useful as you develop your supporting players.

The Tools of Screenwriting” by David Howard and Edward Mabley
Full disclosure: David Howard was a mentor of mine. As the title suggests, this book is a collection of screenwriting ideas. Chapters are titled things like: “Exposition” and “Plausibility.” It doesn’t have as strong an overview of story development as other books, but it deals with lots of important concepts which are frequently overlooked. Plus it has a large collection of analyses of well known films. An excellent book to pick up after you feel you’ve mastered the basics of structure.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

How to Network

Last post I discussed networking mistakes. This time I’m going to take a more positive approach to the subject. Networking is important in the film business. This is an insanely competitive business. There are so many people trying to break in, the “buyers” are always overwhelmed. You need to build advocates for your work to break through the clutter.

The most important thing is to be engaged. If you sit in your apartment pounding out screenplays all day it will be hard to network. You need to be out there meeting people. The best places to network are where industry people congregate. Okay, maybe you can’t wrangle an invite to the Paramount holiday party but there are other things you can do. Go to film festivals. Join groups like Film Independent (in LA, IFP in NY) and Scriptwriters Network. Take classes. Get involved in an equity waiver theater company where you’ll meet aspiring actors and directors. Really, if you love film so much, why wouldn’t you want to do those kinds of things?

(That’s one of the reasons it’s important to live in Los Angeles if you are trying to break into film or TV writing. It’s not impossible to do it elsewhere, but you will run into a lot more people to network with in your daily life if you’re in Los Angeles. Even going to non-industry events in LA can be networking opportunities.)

So now some rules of networking:

First rule of networking: Nobody is doing you a favor. If you are talented and your work is good, you have value in the business relationship. Do not approach networking like a beggar looking for a handout. When a development exec reads a script from an unknown screenwriter he’s hoping it will be great – because his job is to find great scripts! If your work is great then networking is really creating mutually beneficial relationships. Which leads to…

Second rule of networking: It’s an ongoing relationship. When you meet someone the goal should be to build that relationship not to get them to do something for you. When I go into a pitch meeting with a producer who I’m meeting for the first time, my goal is to establish rapport more than to sell a specific idea. Once the relationship is established I can go to that person again and again with ideas. And hopefully they’ll come to me when they have something they need help with.

Third rule of networking: Nobody is unimportant. As I mentioned last time, lateral networking is the most valuable. The producer’s intern will become her assistant and then a development exec and maybe even the head of the company – often in startlingly short time. The mailroom of CAA is filled with Harvard MBAs because it’s the entry point for aspiring agents. The guy delivering your script could be a major player long before your movie ever gets made.

Corollary to rule number three: What you need to be looking for is talent and drive. There are a lot of people in Hollywood going nowhere fast. I believe in being polite and respectful to everyone. But when I meet someone who is talented and driven, no matter what their job is right now, that is a person I make it a point to stay in contact with.

Fourth rule of networking: Quality is the commodity. All the charm in the world will not help if you don’t deliver good work. Make your script great then get everyone you can to read it. If it’s really great then your writing will do your networking for you.

I’m often handed a script and asked if I will give it to my agent. The thing is, I only have so much credibility with my agent. I can really only give him one or two scripts a year before I’m bugging him. His primary job is to sell his current clients after all, and if I’m constantly asking him to read other people’s scripts then that’s time he’s not spending on my career.

And if I give him a script from a prospective client the first thing he’ll ask me is have I read it and is it good. If I say yes and it’s not good, then my recommendation starts to lose value. Believe me, if I read a great script I will be anxious to give it to my agent. It will make me look good and if the writer turns into a client who makes him money the agent will owe me one. So if you’ve networked and built a relationship with me, don’t ask me for a referral, ask me to read your script and let it speak for itself. But it better be one of the best two scripts I read all year!

Now go forth and network!

Sunday, November 30, 2008

How NOT to Network

Last Saturday morning my phone rang. When I answered, a voice asked if I was Doug Eboch. When I said I was, the voice told me his name – we’ll call him Joe – and launched into a rant about how nobody in the film business will help anyone. Several minutes into the call I was still wondering, “who is this guy and how did he get my number?”

Turns out I don’t know Joe. And I never found out how he got my number. Our only apparent connection is he informed me we both lived for a while in the same town (I had to ask him which one). But Joe’s call gives me a good point to launch into a discussion of how not to network. For that’s what Joe was trying to do.

It’s entirely possible that Joe is a nut job. But for the sake of this discussion I’m going to assume he’s talented, hard working and generally socially competent. We’re constantly told in this business that you have to be aggressive and that “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” This can lead otherwise very reasonable people to act like crazed hyenas. I know because I’ve done it.

First of all, I would suggest that cold calling someone you don’t know at home on a Saturday morning is not the best way to make a connection. But let’s say you see an industry figure that you don’t know personally at a party or a coffee shop or a screening and decide to approach them. Rule number one is to be respectful and considerate.

Put yourself in their shoes – if I’m at a party, I’m there to relax and have a good time. If I’m at a screening I’m there to see a movie. If someone comes up to me and within thirty seconds they’re asking me to give them career help I’m going to be thinking, “How can I get away from this person as quickly as possible and never talk to them again?”

But if I meet someone at a party who’s cool and interesting and who maybe turns me on to a great restaurant he just found or movie he just saw, then at the end of the evening I’m likely to exchange cards with that person. That guy just started a relationship which is what networking is really about.

If you’re contacting someone at work then keep in mind that if you’re talking to someone who can help you, they are also by definition a busy person. Keep it succinct and get to the point. It took several minutes to find out what Joe wanted and I had to ask him a couple times before he told me. He wasn’t even an aspiring screenwriter! He was a musician who wanted me to check out some of his work online. (I’m not sure why he thought I could help. Sometimes people who have not had any success in the entertainment business think people who have had success wield a lot more power than they actually do.)

Be prepared with a brief, polite introduction. Tell them quickly who you are. Explain why you’re contacting them in particular – ideally you’ve been referred by a mutual acquaintance, but if it’s just that you admire their work, tell them that. And then explain what you’d like them to do. Don’t ask for a lot! You might get a producer to read a script, but more likely you’ll do best by simply asking for a little advice on the business (and if you do that, make sure you LISTEN to them when they give you the advice!) Joe actually got that right. He only asked that I listen to some of his work online which is a pretty easy thing for someone to do. But he could have told me that in a two minute conversation instead of wasting ten minutes.

Tone counts for a lot. Joe listed a bunch of people he’d approached who hadn’t helped him and asked in a rather challenging way if I’d ever helped someone break into the business. You’re asking for my help…don’t attack me! Keep it positive. Why would I want to help out someone who’s bitter and pessimistic? And if all these other people hadn’t found Joe to be someone worthy of their help, then what does that tell me?

In a similar vein, Joe complained that he didn’t have time to go back to school or do internships – he’d been trying to break in for too long for stuff like that. And he scoffed that some of the people he’d approached, “asked me ridiculous questions like can I score to cues.” Well, that’s not a ridiculous question. That’s what composers in the film business have to be able to do.

More importantly, Joe was unintentionally telling me he’s lazy and unwilling to do what it takes to be successful. He’s looking for a short cut, for something to be handed to him. Why would I help someone like that? Just because he managed to track down my phone number? That doesn’t mean you have to enter a degree program or take every lame non-paying gig you’re offered, but you want people to see you as someone willing to work hard and sacrifice to make it.

There are different kinds of networking. What Joe was trying to do I would call “networking up.” In other words, he’s trying to build a relationship with someone more successful than he is. That is a logical way to go but actually not the most useful kind of networking. Tom Cruise networks with Steven Spielberg, I don’t. I don’t have much to offer Spielberg and real networking is a two way street.

You’ll get most of your breaks by networking laterally. When I was starting out as a writer the people that helped me the most were the interns at production companies and the assistants to agents and producers. Those people are looking to move up and they do that by discovering great material that nobody else knows about. If my work is good then helping me helps them.

Since Joe wants to write music for movies he would be best served by contacting film students or other aspiring filmmakers and offering to score their work for free. If he does a good job his work will get exposed when those films are screened at festivals. Plus, those filmmakers will move into the business and they’ll remember the people who did things for them along the way. But it takes time and you have to be willing to scratch someone else’s back if you want them to scratch yours.

You do need to network to be successful in this business. But you need to be smart about it and you need to have the talent, work ethic and positive attitude to back it up. Most important of all: don’t call me at home.

Friday, November 21, 2008

The Three Act Structure of Star Wars

SPOILERS: Star Wars

I use Star Wars (The first one…you know, episode IV. Written by George Lucas, of course) in my screenwriting class as an illustration of three act structure. It’s good for two reasons: first, pretty much everybody’s seen it and second, the structure is obvious and easy to find. Here’s how it works:

Main Character: Luke Skywalker.

Domino: Princess Leia putting the plans and message in R2D2. This is the act that kicks off all the events to follow. Without it, Luke would go on living unhappily as a farmer on Tatooine. But it is not the catalyst as we haven’t even met our main character yet.

Catalyst: Luke sees the hologram of Leia and decides he must help her. Now our main character has a problem. He doesn’t really know what it is yet, but we do: Darth Vadar does not want the plans in R2D2 to get to the rebels.

Main Conflict: Will Luke Skywalker defeat Darth Vadar? Most action movies have pretty straightforward main conflicts. This one is set up at the catalyst because Luke has decided to take action that will put him in conflict with Darth. They have “mutually exclusive goals.” In other words, conflict results because the protagonist and antagonist can’t both succeed at their goals. This is a useful technique to make sure the conflict in your movie is strong. (You could quite easily tell the whole story as a tragedy from Darth Vadar’s point of view.)

Act One Break: Luke agrees to go to Alderan with Obi Wan to return R2D2 to Leia.

Midpoint: Luke rescues Leia from the prison cell. This is a big up point – he’s reunited Leia with R2D2. Unfortunately there’s still the little matter of being stuck in the bowels of the Death Star.

Act Two Break: Luke and the gang escape the Death Star. This may seem like an up moment – not the typical way the Act Two Break usually works. However this is an example of the kind of movie where the achievement of the initial goal at the end of Act Two leads to an even bigger challenge and problem.

In this case, that bigger challenge is destroying the Death Star before it can destroy the rebel base. Remember how immediately after the escape Leia says it was too easy? Darth Vadar has put a tracker on the Millennium Falcon that allows the Death Star to follow them to the rebels. They're out of the frying pan, into the fire.

Twist: The rebels discover the flaw in the Death Star by analyzing the plans. It gives them one hope to beat Darth Vadar.

Resolution: Luke succeeds in destroying the Death Star and defeating Darth Vadar, thus concluding the Main Conflict. This is followed by a denouement where we get to witness the awards ceremony and celebrate along with our main characters.

There you have it: simple, straightforward and incredibly watchable.

Monday, November 17, 2008

State of the Business Fall 2008

Since I started writing professionally enough to have an attorney, pretty much every time I talked to her she would tell me, "it's a really bad time for screenwriters right now."  After awhile I'd just laugh and ask, "when was it a good time?"  Then I'd go off and continue writing and pitching because, really, what was the alternative?  I wasn't going to get work sitting around NOT writing.

Well, now it really is a bad time for screenwriters.

This is the picture of the State of the Feature Screenwriting Business that I've been able to gather by talking to writers, agents and producers over the last two months or so.  There are a couple of short term forces dragging down the business right now:  

First is concern over whether SAG will strike and when.  I don't think there's much appetite for a strike, but at the same time the studios aren't giving the union a lot of other options.  And a strike right now would seriously devastate the business.

The second is the credit crunch which is making film financing difficult even for big studio films and nearly impossible for independent films.  In addition to a pull back in equity, most films are at least partially financed with borrowed money and there doesn't appear to be much money out there to borrow.

Those issues will likely resolve themselves in the next six months.  In the meantime, everyone is afraid to put anything into motion in such an unpredictable environment.  Most buyers seem to be going into an early holiday hibernation.  They'll poke their heads out January 1st when most new fiscal year budgets start.  If they see their shadows and get scared back underground we could be in for a long, painful winter.

Of more long term concern, studios are cutting back on the number of movies produced.  This is actually overdue.  The glut of films in the market over the last few years was causing mid-level films to cannibalize each other.  The downside, of course, is fewer films means fewer jobs for writers.  And probably less risk taking meaning less interesting material.  And woe to the people trying to break in right now with so many previously working writers hitting the market desperate for a gig.

It's even worse in the indie arena.  A shakeout would also be good for that industry, allowing specialty theaters, audiences and press to focus on fewer films, thus increasing each film's likelihood of finding an audience.  But again, that means fewer people get a chance to make films.

In this regard it's interesting to look over recent indie film history.  A lot has been made about cheap, high quality film technology democratizing the business.  The thought is that an undiscovered, extremely talented aspiring filmmaker from somewhere like the Midwest who previously would have been shut out of the system can now break through.  And that has and will happen.

The trouble is there is no "gatekeeping" now.  A decade and a half ago an indie filmmaker had to convince someone with some money that they and their film were worthy of investment.  At least one and probably several people had to agree that this project was good.  Now all a filmmaker needs is a credit card.  This has allowed too many untalented, inexperienced aspiring filmmakers to flood the market with bad films... meaning those real undiscovered talents have trouble rising above the crap.  Turns out it's just as hard to break in now as it ever was.

I wish I had a happy ending here.  Normally I'm a pretty upbeat guy.  And I do believe that no matter what studios will keep making movies.  And of course someone will get to write them. But man is it bleak out there right now.  Good luck, everyone!

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Why I Fight, er, Write

Recently in the pitching class I teach at Art Center College, I was pontificating about the battle to weasel as much money as possible out of the tight fists of the studios. A student raised her hand and asked me, “Do you have any higher purpose in your writing, any issues that you want to get out to the world, or is it just about making money?” It was a very, very good question.

First of all, let me just say that if your primary interest is making money, there are a heckuva lot of easier ways to go about it than screenwriting. So let me tell you why I write movies.

When I was a kid I remember how I felt when I came out of my favorite movies. I felt energized, alive, and anxious to do…something! At that tender age I couldn’t exactly describe what that feeling was but now I know it to be a lust for life. A sense of Carpe Diem. Those movies made me not just fall in love with movies but fall in love with living. They made me believe the underdog could win and true love was real and justice will triumph if good people persevere.

I was drawn to be a filmmaker to give that experience to other people.

I believe film is an art form but I don’t think of myself as an artist. I’m an entertainer. If I can help create a film that people walk out of at the end having had a thoroughly good time then I think I’ve done something worthwhile. I aspire to quality but I’ll leave it to others to judge the artistic merit of my work.

There are a few issues I feel passionately about and I try to work those into my scripts. I make it a point to write diverse characters, particularly including positive images of gay and disabled people. And I’m careful not to inadvertently promote ideas I don’t actually agree with. But entertainment is always the first priority. And ultimately I think the messages are more powerful if they come in an entertaining package.

Mostly I hope a few people experience that feeling I remember as a kid.

But here’s the other side of the coin. Screenwriting isn’t a hobby for me, it’s my career. And if you’re doing something as a career you better care about how much money you’re making. Furthermore, screenwriting is an entrepreneurial career. When you set out to be a professional screenwriter you’re starting a small business. You have to give some thought and energy to how your business is going to make money. If you don’t want to do that I recommend you stop writing screenplays, get a good, solid day job, and write short stories or maybe a blog as a hobby. You’ll be a lot happier.

If you pursue screenwriting professionally and you aspire to artistry or even just quality entertainment you will struggle with balancing your vision with your need to make money through your entire career. Here’s how I recommend you find the balance:

Work hard to master the business of the business but write only scripts you are passionate about. Ultimately I think that’s how you find your value to the industry anyway. There are hundreds of writers out there that can turn in competent but uninspired screenplays. Why do they need you? Find the stories that excite you and put that excitement into your writing. Find your voice and sell that. Not only will you be happier, I believe you will be more likely to find financial success.

And hopefully you’ll write a film that makes me fall in love with life all over again.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Set Pieces Sell Scripts

(Spoilers: Casablanca, Aliens, The Devil Wears Prada)

Think about the last time you went to a movie you really loved with your friends. When you came out were you talking about how the second act break fell at just the right moment and how neatly the inner and outer conflicts of the main character tied together? Or were you talking about your favorite scenes and quoting the best dialogue? My guess is the latter.

It’s the same for producers and executives. Put yourself in the shoes of a development exec going home with a dozen spec scripts for the weekend. She reads one that is perfectly structured, in a marketable genre, and with a good character arc. She’ll probably jot down some very nice notes about that writer. Next she reads one that has several original, fantastic scenes -- scenes she’s still thinking about on her drive into work. Scenes she can’t wait to tell her coworker about as they get their coffee. Which script do you think she’s going to fight passionately for in the Monday morning development meeting?

I’m not suggesting your script doesn’t need solid structure. But competence with structure is just the buy-in to the poker game of screenwriting. Once you’re at the table, success depends a great deal on your ability to deliver things like memorable and compelling set pieces.

There are several ways to define the term “set piece.” For me the most useful is, “the big, audience pleasing scenes that deliver on the genre elements of the movie.” In a successful comedy they’re the scenes that have you clutching your sides with laughter. In a good action movie they’re the scenes that put you on the edge of your seat holding your breath. In a horror movie they’re the scenes that make you cover your eyes in terror. In a romance they’re the scenes that have you reaching for your loved one’s hand.

Of course, a good comedy will never go too long without a joke and a good horror movie will probably be pretty creepy throughout. But set pieces ratchet up the intensity to give your story memorable peaks that will stick with the audience. It’s a cliché that good movies are like good roller coasters -- they have peaks and valleys, periods of anticipation and moments of adrenaline rush release. Set pieces are the loops and big drops of the roller coaster.

I don’t like hard and fast rules, but here are some guidelines I use for myself: Every movie should have at least five set pieces. More than ten and most likely either the script will be too long, the set pieces will be underdeveloped or the pace will be too unrelenting. One set piece should be near the beginning, one at the climax. If the script goes more than 25 pages without one, that could be trouble. Often set pieces will correspond to major turning points in the film such as act breaks or the inciting incident, but they don’t have to.

You should try for a sense of spectacle with your set pieces. This often means big, showy visuals, but spectacle can also be of the emotional kind. Think about the scene in Casablanca (screenplay by Julius J. Epstein and Philip G. Epstein and Howard Koch) where Ilsa comes to beg Rick to help her husband escape Casablanca. Even though it's only two people in a room it delivers big emotional fireworks. How? By pushing the main characters believably to the extremes of their emotion.

Hopefully, you’ve spent some time thinking about what’s unique and original about your script’s premise. In Aliens (screenplay by James Cameron based on a story by James Cameron, David Giler and Walter Hill), one of the new twists in the premise of the sequal is Ripley taking on Newt in a surrogate mother/daughter relationship. There are plenty of expected action-horror-suspense sequences about Aliens attacking the overmatched human characters, but the premise is more deeply exploited in a set piece in Act III when Ripley has to rescue Newt by facing off against the mother Alien. When it comes time to deliver the spectacle, don't just go for the standard car chase or love scene. Build your set pieces on what's original to your story.

The world of your story is another potential source of fresh set piece ideas. At its core, The Devil Wears Prada (screenplay by Aline Brosh McKenna) is a story about a mean boss but it’s made unique by setting that story in the world of high fashion. We get the obligatory bits about coffee and phone messages, but look at the scene where Miranda Priestly is going over wardrobe for a photo shoot. There are several jokes about how demanding Miranda is and then when Andy laughs at a debate over two nearly identical belts, Miranda delivers a withering monologue breaking down how Andy ended up with the bargain bin sweater she’s wearing. That scene draws its humor completely from the world of the movie which is why it’s so memorable.

Also, be sure to exploit your setting. The same basic set piece from a movie located in New York can be very different than one set in San Antonio, Texas or Venice, Italy. Think about how you might use those three locations to give a unique spin to a big emotional scene about a couple breaking up. (The world of the Deep South was a particularly rich setting for C. Jay Cox and I to mine in the development of Sweet Home Alabama!)

The hard reality of this business is that there are probably a thousand well structured but unsold scripts out there for every movie that gets made. If you want to sell your script, you need to make people passionate about it. Creating set pieces that are funny, scary, exciting, or moving is a great way to inspire that kind of passion.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The Structure of "Cloverfield"

(Spoilers: Cloverfield)

Today I want to analyze the structure of the movie Cloverfield, written by Drew Goddard. I enjoyed the movie a lot, plus it is well structured and a good example of how the three act structure works in a movie where the character fails to achieve his goal. Let’s look at the major structural elements.

Main Character: This movie is also a good example of a viewpoint character that is not the main character. The story is told through “found footage” from a video camera that was carried by Hud. Hud is the character whose eyes we see the story through but he is not the main character. It is Rob’s goal that drives the story forward and it is his decisions that create the turning points. So Rob is our main character.

Catalyst: The catalyst is when the monster attacks the city. This is dramatized when the characters feel something akin to an earthquake and run to the roof. They don’t know what’s happened, but they now have a problem.

The one flaw I see in Cloverfield is the long first sequence. The movie is less than 90 minutes long but it takes over 15 minutes to reach the catalyst. Frankly, the opening gets a little tedious. It’s there to introduce us to the characters and their relationships before we get bogged down in the action, but the characters are not the most interesting bunch in the world until they become victims of the monster attack. Once we get that attack, though, the movie is off and running.

Main Conflict: In the catalyst we set up the main conflict – can the characters escape the monster that’s attacking New York? (Note that at this point all the characters have the same goal, but in subtle ways Rob starts to become the leader.)

Act One Break: Rob receives a cell phone call from Beth telling him she’s trapped in her building. He decides to try to rescue her. The other characters go along. This spins the story in a new direction and creates a second act tension of “Can Rob rescue Beth?”

Midpoint: Marlena dies. Remember, the midpoint is usually similar in tone to the ending and a mirror of the Act Two Break. Marlena’s death is a partial failure. Not all of Rob’s loved ones will make it out of this alive.

Act Two Break: Rob rescues Beth from her building, thus achieving his second act goal. This is a high point which is appropriate since the end of the movie will be failure. The story spins in a new direction: getting out of Manhattan.

Twist: The helicopter crash. Things had been going up from the Act Two Break, but here it all turns bad.

Resolution: Everyone dies.

In a movie where the character achieves his goal, the Midpoint will be a moment of success, the Act Two Break will be his greatest failure, things will spiral downhill until the twist when the character figures out how to win, and the resolution will be success.

In a movie like Cloverfield it is just the opposite. The Midpoint is a moment of failure, the Act Two Break is the character’s greatest success, and things go up until the twist, which leads to the resolution of failure.

Whichever structure you use, you are playing with the audience’s hope and fear. In the first you lead them to fear the worst will happen before rewarding them with a happy ending. In the second you lead them to think things will come out well before pulling the rug out from under them. But neither approach should be linear - thus the mini success or failure of the midpoint.

Of course a character’s failure isn’t necessarily an unhappy ending if we are rooting against an unlikable main character such as in a gangster movie. But Cloverfield does have a true unhappy ending. Conventional Hollywood wisdom says popular movies must end happily but Cloverfield is an example of why this isn’t always the case. It was a successful genre hit and completely satisfying despite the tragic outcome.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Work Habits

I was at a party recently talking to other screenwriters when the subject of work habits came up. Writers - including myself - seem endlessly fascinated with the work habits of other writers, though I can't really figure out why. Successful writers work in enormously varied ways none of which seems to give one an advantage over another.

I know successful writers who:
Write first thing in the morning.
Write late at night.
Write every single day.
Lock themselves in a room for weeks to finish a draft then take a month off from writing.
Turn out five pages in an hour.
Labor all day on a single page.
Write outlines that are longer than their script.
Start with "Fade In" and write with no idea where they'll end up.

Each method seems to work for the writers who use it. So why should we care what other writers do? I guess hearing someone works the same way you do is reassuring. But it can also be unsettling to find a writer you admire has a completely different system.

Anyway, with that in mind, here is my writing process.

First, let me give a little history. When I first graduated from college I had to take a 40+ hour a week "day job" to make ends meet. My writing process was developed somewhat in response to this. I found that it was important I write for at least an hour every day. Writing every day helped me to keep momentum even if I couldn't get very much done on a specific day. If I waited until I had a large block of time to write, most of that time would be eaten up trying to remember where I'd left off the last time I had a huge block of time. Keeping momentum meant I would have ideas throughout the day that I would jot down in a notebook (or often on scraps of paper because I didn't have my notebook with me - I'm kind of forgetful about stuff like that). When I sat down to write I would already have a lot to work with.

Once I started writing full time, I decided I would take the weekends off like a normal person. It often doesn't work out this way in practice, but I don't feel guilty if I don't write on the weekend. I do try to write every week day.

I typically have one major project and a few secondary projects at any one time. I find it difficult to write first draft material on two things at once, but I can combine working on a first draft of one project with rewriting or outlining another. And not all my projects involve writing - I might be editing a short film or directing some sketch comedy.

I've found that I can't sit at my computer and write or rewrite for eight hours straight. I burn out and my writing is no good for several days afterwards. Whatever mental process I developed when I was writing an hour a day is still with me. So I only "write" a couple hours a day. But that doesn't mean I'm lazy the rest of the time. My typical day breaks down like this:

In the morning I'll work on a secondary project for an hour or two and do bureaucratic stuff like returning phone calls or accounting or research or when I'm really desperate, filing. (Some days I'll also write this blog.) Then I'll go to the gym or for a run to get a little break.

After lunch is when I focus on my primary project. I like to have a free and clear afternoon so I don't feel any time pressure, even though I rarely write for more than three hours. After the primary project is done I'll spend the remainder of my day working on a secondary project. If I have a meeting or it's a day I'm teaching I'll adjust my schedule accordingly, prioritizing my primary project into the largest available chunk of time.

I like to outline. Typically I'll have a 12-20 page step outline of my script before I begin my first draft. This takes weeks to develop. I can't imagine starting a script without knowing where I'm trying to go. Plus, having the outline means no writer's block. I always know what I'm supposed to be writing next. I sometimes use notecards and a bulletin board to break a story, but not always. I find it helps most when I'm working on a story with complex interweaving plot lines.

When I actually sit down to write on the first draft of a script, I start my session with a quick polish of the previous days pages. I don't spend a lot of time on that, just enough to smooth the dialogue and get in the groove. I try not to stop for the day immediately after finishing a scene. Instead, I make some notes for the first scene of the next day. This primes my mind to come up with ideas throughout the intervening time that get jotted down in my notebook or on scraps of paper.

I can usually turn out two to five new pages in an hour and do five to ten pages a day. This is possible, I believe, because of the outline. Also, I believe strongly in keeping momentum going on the first draft. Perfection is for the rewriting process.

When I'm rewriting my output is a little harder to quantify. Sometimes I can get through a quarter of the script in one sitting if it doesn't require much work. Sometimes I can spend a couple days fixing one scene. Often I'm jumping around (working on a particular character, for example, or adjusting the placement of exposition). I have done dozens of drafts before calling a script finished, and as few as three. The more I do this, the fewer it seems to take.

I have tried to write late at night and/or with a glass of scotch handy because I like the romance of it. But in both cases I find I get sleepy very quickly. Romance aside, I'm at my best earlier in the day when I'm rested.

That's my process. I don't particularly recommend it for anybody but me. If you find something else works for you, more power to you!

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Analyzing "Speed"

(Spoilers: “Speed”)

One of the things I want to do with this blog is to analyze movies from a writer’s point of view. I want to start with “Speed,” written by Graham Yost, for two reasons: it is a fairly straightforward example of three act structure and it has a rather interesting problem. Let’s start with the basics:

Catalyst: Howard Payne (Dennis Hopper) escapes from Jack (Keanu Reeves) after the elevator sequence.

Act I Break: Jack receives a phone call from Payne informing him that there is a bomb on a bus that will blow up if the bus slows below 50 mph.

Midpoint: Jack gets the bus to the airport where they can circle on the tarmac without worrying about traffic and other obstacles – a high point (though they’ll soon discover the gas tank is leaking adding new tension).

Act II Break: Jack gets everyone off the bus but Annie (Sandra Bullock), with whom Jack has fallen in love, is captured by Payne who straps explosives to her.

Twist: Jack catches up to Payne and Annie on the subway. (Not the greatest twist, but functional for an action movie.)

Resolution: Jack defeats Payne and saves Annie.

Main Conflict: Can Jack defeat Payne? This is asked in the Catalyst and answered in the Resolution, just as it should be.

I have two problems with the movie’s structure. The first is small but significant and comes at the Act II Break. Jack manages to get all the passengers, including Annie, off the bus. Immediately much of the tension dissipates. It is several minutes before Payne captures Annie and ratchets up the suspense again. The movie loses many in the audience during those several minutes.

It would have been better to figure out a way to have Payne capture Annie just before or simultaneously with Jack saving the other bus passengers. Then we would have no time to relax after the second act tension resolves – we’d immediately be caught up in the third act tension. It’s a little difficult to imagine how one would do that. But then, screenwriting is difficult!

But there’s a bigger problem in “Speed” and it isn’t technically an “error” according to three act theory.

The problem is, the second act tension of “can Jack save Annie and the passengers on the bus,” is much more interesting and dramatic than, “can Jack defeat Payne.” Think about it. The bomb on the bus is the selling point of the whole movie. When I watch Speed now, I always want to turn it off after they get off the bus. Who cares about that subway business? The cool part of the movie is over.

So I’d like to propose another structural guideline: make sure your main conflict is the most interesting tension in your movie.

How would I fix “Speed”? I’d make the bomb on the bus the main conflict and hold off on saving the passengers on the bus until the resolution. Then I’d find a way to combine that with capturing Payne. Again, not an easy task, but a better movie I think.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Writer Beware Part II

Last time I started discussing questionable deals writers often get involved with in Hollywood. Please note, I am not an attorney and this should not be considered legal advice. I strongly recommend you consult an experience entertainment attorney to negotiate any contract you are considering entering into.

Here are some of the things writers need to watch out for when considering deals in Hollywood. Your attorney should be able to steer you clear of most of these.

Credits

If the movie is made or distributed by a WGA signatory company, the WGA has sole right to determine writing credits. This means that no producer can guarantee you screenplay by, written by or story by credit unless it is certain the movie will be made and distributed through independent, non-union companies. Many less experienced producers don’t even know this.

Moreover, just because you wrote an original script doesn’t mean that you’ll be eligible to get credit in a WGA arbitration if you didn’t work under a WGA contract. In fact, if your contract isn’t worded properly, you could be EXCLUDED from credit. That’s because your screenplay could be considered “underlying material” instead of a draft of a script. The surest way to combat that is to only work for WGA signatory companies under a union contract. But if you’re just starting out that may not be possible. Make sure your attorney puts language in your contract to make your deal retroactively union should any union writer be hired or should a signatory company get involved.

Credits Part Two

The other place I often see deals go south is when another writer, producer or director says they love your script and want to take it somewhere they know will buy it, but they want to do a little polish themselves first. Beware! I would always recommend against this, but if you really want to accept this sort of deal make sure you spell out everything in writing. Invariably when they finish their draft they’ll become convinced they deserve a bigger share of the money or credit than they thought they did when they started. I’ve even seen a producer claim he deserved writing credit because of the “brilliant notes” he gave. Worst, you could find yourself in an argument over who even owns the script at that point.

How Much Will You Do

Watch out for open ended commitments. Free rewrites is a problem even for established writers. If you don’t spell out how many rewrites you’ll do, you’re begging for someone to abuse you. Also, if you’re optioning your script, make sure the option expires at some reasonable point in the future. The reality is if they can’t do something with your script in three years they probably never will.

Professional Means You Get Paid

I realize you may have to option material for little or no money to get a break. I’ve done it. But be sure if the movie becomes a huge hit you get your share. They may tell you that it’s just going to be a little, independent, low budget film. But what if they turn around and sell the script to Warner Brothers and it becomes next summer’s smash hit starring Will Smith? Will you still be happy with the pittance they’re offering?

The key is often to tie your compensation to the budget of the movie. That allows the producers to pay a reasonable amount if they indeed work low budget, but protects you if the project takes off.

And just so you know, residuals are tied to credit (see above). There have been writers who made less than $50,000 for writing a movie that grossed over $100 million. Don’t be one of them.

Be aware that the producer may moan and cry that they can’t afford what you want. They’ll suggest “just keeping the attorneys out of it for now” so things don’t get bogged down. They’ll tell you your attorney is jeopardizing your deal and thus your entire writing career.

Don’t fall for it.

If they are willing to be fair, these deals do not have to take long to negotiate. Anybody who tries to convince you to ignore your attorney’s advice is your enemy. You will be much happier in the long run if you get the details worked out in advance even if it slows things down a little.

And as I think I’ve mentioned, get an attorney.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Writer Beware Part 1

It’s a sad reality of Hollywood that aspiring writers often seem to find themselves caught up in questionable deals, often with heartbreaking results. Years of time can be wasted on a passion project that is destroyed in the process. So I want to offer some advice on avoiding some pitfalls based on my years navigating this business.

There are two kinds of people you have to watch out for: scam artists and sincere people who are woefully naïve. Strangely it often seems like the latter category is more dangerous.

There’s an old joke in Hollywood that the only requirement to be a producer is the ability to buy business cards. There are thousands of aspiring producers out there operating out of their apartment or a coffee shop, with some borrowed money from mom and dad and a pocket full of credit cards. They may have some small achievements on their resume – an internship with a known producer or a few years as a script reader.

Five years from now most will be living in their parents’ basement and working a menial job to pay off their debts. I’m not knocking them…sadly many aspiring writers will share their fate. It’s the tough reality of the business that there are way more talented and hard working people than there are jobs. And big time producers had to start somewhere, so you ought to give these people some benefit of the doubt. But you do need to protect yourself.

Rule Number One: Get an Entertainment Attorney

If you can’t afford to have an attorney look over a deal, you can’t afford the deal. Entertainment industry contracts are complex and full of land mines designed to rob you of credit, money, time or all of the above. Before you agree to anything, get an attorney. Really, get an attorney. And whatever you do, do NOT negotiate the deal yourself.

Make sure you get an entertainment attorney – someone who has experience with film industry contracts. You may find another kind of attorney willing to look over your deal for a lower rate, but it will take them longer and you probably won’t save the money you thought you would. And they could miss something that will cost you dearly in the long run.

As to cost, entertainment attorneys who work for established writers typically work on a 5% commission. If you’re just starting out and all you have on the table is a one dollar option, the attorney will probably ask you to pay hourly rates – and who can blame them. Top level entertainment attorneys charge well over $500 an hour but you should be able to find someone suitable for $200 an hour or even less.

(Another tip: usually attorneys’ standard contracts specify that they break down work into quarter hour increments. So if he makes a one minute phone call, you pay for fifteen minutes of his time. But many will agree to sixths (10 minute increments) if you ask.)

It may be tough to write a check for $500 for an attorney to negotiate a one dollar option, but consider how much time you spent writing your script. Are you willing to throw all that away to save $499? If you can’t afford the attorney, you can’t afford the deal.

How do you find an attorney? Usually by asking another writer for a recommendation. You can also ask your agent assuming you have an agent. If you don’t know anybody who can refer you, you can try California Lawyers for the Arts. They will provide a referral to someone appropriate.

Rule Number Two: Get it in Writing

Before you do any work, get your agreement in writing. Even if you’re working with a friend. Especially if you’re working with a friend. I’ve seen too many friendships end over differing opinions about what had been agreed to in a business deal.

And don’t be so naïve as to do the work before reaching an agreement. I know of a case where a writer did a rewrite of another writer’s script for a producer and never bothered to even discuss how much they’d get paid. That’s not a recipe for a happy ending.

Also, be careful not to inadvertently agree to something. If someone sends you a letter or email that says you agreed to something you didn’t, and you don’t correct them, you could be in for a court battle. And whenever you send something to someone make a written record of it. Keep copies of cover letters and fax cover sheets and use the “return receipt” function on your email. Create a paper trail.

I keep a writing journal where I write down everything I worked on each day (mostly to guilt myself for not getting more done). I also log every conversation and meeting and what was discussed. That journal has saved me more times than you might imagine.

Next time I’ll tell you some of the things to watch out for when considering a non-union deal.

(Please Note: I am not an attorney and none of this should be considered legal advice. My advice, as I think I’ve made clear, is consult an attorney before agreeing to anything)

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Are Movie Stars Overrated?

In his Tuesday column for the Los Angeles Times, Patrick Goldstein discussed the failure of Russell Crowe and Leonardo DiCaprio to bring an audience to Body of Lies (the generic title might actually have something to do with it). Goldstein then went on to postulate that audiences today are immune to the charms of big movie stars and that stars are no longer worth their astronomical salaries and gross points.

The truth is every study of the issue for quite a while has found that movie stars are overpaid. And anecdotally, nearly every top star in the last few decades has had a major flop at the height of their career. Jack Nicholson followed up his monster star turn as the Joker in 1989’s Batman with the bomb The Two Jakes. Arnold Schwarzenegger followed up Total Recall, Kindergarten Cop and Terminator 2 with the disastrous Last Action Hero. Which didn’t stop his next movie, True Lies, from becoming a hit. After Risky Business, Top Gun and The Color of Money, Tom Cruise did Cocktail. And then of course there’s Russell Crowe who followed up Gladiator and A Beautiful Mind with disappointments Master and Commander and Cinderella Man.

I was once in a meeting where someone mentioned I had done Sweet Home Alabama. A development exec, rather rudely, said, “oh, that movie only made money because of Reese Witherspoon.” I then pointed out that the same summer my movie came out, Reese did The Importance of Being Earnest. And Sweet Home Alabama made more its opening day than the other movie made its entire run. Now I think Reese is a terrific actress and Sweet Home Alabama just wouldn’t be the same without her. But the point is, even though audiences love her, they won’t go see her in just anything.

Lately it’s been trendy to say Will Smith is the only star right now who guarantees a movie’s opening (someone is quoted in Goldstein’s article saying just that). But I think maybe Will Smith opens movies because he’s good at picking movies that open. Whether it’s I Am Legend or Pursuit of Happyness, his movies all have a strong, easy to articulate hook – unlike Body of Lies which is the inspiration for Goldstein’s column. (I think Tom Hanks owes much of his success to a similar talent for picking hit movies.)

So if stars don’t actually get butts in seats, why do studios insist on having them? Because they’re insurance for nervous executives. If a studio head greenlights a movie full of unknowns and it fails, he opens himself to criticism. “Why didn’t you get a star?” If he greenlights a movie with Russell Crowe and it fails, he can shrug and say, “Hey, I made a Russell Crowe movie. Who wouldn’t do that?”

Movie stars are not completely worthless, of course. They do draw attention to a movie and are nice to have for promotion. They do well on talk shows and can get interviews in magazines prior to an opening. And many of them are stars because they're talented, charismatic actors who make the movies they're in better. But anybody could probably rattle off a list of movies that were made with unknowns and did huge boxoffice. Movie stars are not a requirement for box office success.

There’s a lot of buzz now that the era of movie stars is over, that studios are belt tightening and rather than simply take it out on the craft unions, they’re finally going after star salaries. Frankly, I’ll believe it when I see it. Studio heads will still be drawn to the movie star security blanket even if logically they know it’s false security. But maybe there's some hope that the question of "who's going to star" will no longer be the main criteria for making a movie.

Monday, October 13, 2008

There Can Be Only One…Main Character, That Is

(SPOILERS: X-Men, Usual Suspects, Babel, Thelma and Louise)

All structural theories pretty much dictate that there can be only one main character. One character’s goal drives the story forward and provides the structure for your script.

“But wait,” you might be saying, “what about ensemble movies? What about movies with multiple story lines?”

One main character.

Even in a movie about a group, there will be one character whose goal is driving the story forward. And even in a movie with multiple story lines, there will be one character whose story provides structure to the whole affair. Let’s look at some examples.

X-Men: The X-men is a classic ensemble movie. It’s about a group of good mutants led by Professor X battling a group of bad mutants led by Magneto. But there is one character whose goal provides the structure for the story: Wolverine.

The main tension of the story is, “Can Wolverine protect Rogue?” That question is asked when Wolverine encounters Rogue in Canada and they are attacked by Sabertooth who was sent to kidnap Rogue (the Catalyst). The act one break is when Wolverine makes his deal to team up with the X-men to try to discover Magneto’s plans. The midpoint is Wolverine promising to watch out for Rogue if she stays with the X-men. The act two break is when Professor X is incapacitated, eliminating Wolverine's main hope of finding the kidnapped Rogue. And the resolution is when Wolverine (along with the other X-men) rescue Rogue at the Statue of Liberty.

The entire group participates in much of the story, but it is Wolverine who has assumed the roll of mentor to Rogue and it is Wolverine who is most deeply committed to the goal of saving her. That’s what drives the story. If you are going to write an ensemble story, pick one member of the ensemble to be the most committed to the goal and structure your script around that character.

Babel: Babel contains four main story lines – Brad Pitt as an American husband and father in Afghanistan trying to get aid for his wife who has been shot; the kids who pulled the trigger while fooling around with a gun; the nanny in California who takes her charges to Mexico; and the story of the teenage girl in Japan. The four stories are tied together thematically and by a few plot connections, but each is distinct.

Each of those story lines has its own main character. But Brad Pitt’s character is the main character of the entire movie. The movie is structured around his character’s journey. It is his character who has the problem at the catalyst (when his wife gets shot). The main tension is “Can he get help for his wife.” And the movie is dramatically finished when that tension is resolved. When you’re telling a story with multiple story lines, you should pick one to be the primary story that structures the movie. The main character of that story is the main character of the movie. (Note: you could create a viable movie structured around any one of those four storylines. But the filmmakers of Babel picked Pitt’s character.)

Now let’s get more complex!

The Usual Suspects: This is an ensemble film. So who is the main character? At first glance you might think it’s Verbal since he’s narrating the story. But just because a character is the viewpoint character, it does not mean he’s the main character. Verbal is not driving the story. We eventually learn that he is the instigator of the whole thing, but he is not the character with the problem that creates the structure of the film.

Next we might go to Agent Kujan since he’s the one trying to solve the murders. But he isn’t the primary driver of the story, either. The main story is in the flashback. Kujan is simply a framing device.

The actual main character is Dean Keaton. He’s the one who has the problem at the catalyst and he’s the one who provides the main tension.

And that main tension is, “Can Dean Keaton extricate himself from a life of crime?” Interestingly, we know the answer from the beginning of the movie. We see Dean Keaton get shot. Usual Suspects is a mystery and mysteries function differently than most narrative movies. They work more like Soduku puzzles. What we want to know is who killed Dean Keaton, which we eventually come to phrase as who is Keyser Soze. Unraveling the puzzle is what holds our interest. But the emotional and structural driver of the movie is Keaton’s desire to get out of his life of crime.

So, there can only be one main character. Except for the exceptions. You just knew there had to be exceptions, didn’t you? Well, they are extremely rare. In fact, I only know of one. And many people will argue that I’m wrong even about that one. The exception is:

Thelma and Louise: I think Thelma (Geena Davis) and Louise (Susan Sarandon) are two pieces of a single main character. Let’s look at how the movie breaks down structurally:

Catalyst: Thelma gets drunk and draws attention of a rapist.

Act One Break: Louise shoots the rapist and decides to run.

Midpoint: Thelma robs the liquor store, committing their first real crime.

Act Two Break: Louise stays on the phone too long, allowing the FBI to locate them.

Resolution: Thelma says “Let’s go” when they are facing the rim of the Grand Canyon, and Louise hits the gas.

See what happens there? The major beats alternate between the two characters. Louise gets the bigger beats, but then Thelma gets the character arc.

I don’t know if writer Callie Khouri did this consciously or not, but it makes sense if you imagine telling the story with just a single character. You could do it but you’d have a lot of scenes of a woman driving down a road not talking. You’d probably have to resort to voice over which would feel weak and lazy. By splitting the main character in two, the audience is able to enjoy hearing the women discuss their thoughts and feelings about the adventure they’re on. Usually when faced with this problem, writers give the main character a sidekick to talk to. Why Khouri instead chose to split the main character duties between two characters I don’t know, but it worked.

So unlike many writers and academics, I don’t believe that it is impossible to have two main characters. But it is very, very, very, very rare and I really wouldn’t advise trying it.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Sweet Home Alabama and the Love Triangle Problem

(SPOILERS: Sweet Home Alabama, Wedding Crashers)

One of the tools we use as screenwriters is "Hope and Fear." As in, what is the audience hoping will happen? What are they fearing will happen? This is a powerful tool.

One of the common devices in a romantic comedy is a love triangle. Love triangles are an example of "mutually exclusive goals." There is inherent conflict in a love triangle because you have two characters who each one something (the third character) and they can't both have it.

When we combine these two ideas, as we often do in romantic comedies, we run into a problem. Let's assume our love triangle involves Man 1 and Man 2 who are both after Woman. In order to create hope and fear, we have to make the audience hope Woman ends up with Man 1 and fear she'll end up with Man 2. Usually this is done by making Man 2 out to be a real cad.

However, we risk making Woman unsympathetic for not immediately being able to see that Man 2 is a cad. Wedding Crashers had this problem. Owen Wilson's character is after Rachel McAdams, but she has a boyfriend. A boyfriend who's such a jerk we quickly wonder what she could possibly see in him.

Sweet Home Alabama is a love triangle story but we tried to make both guys good guys. The real question is which one is right for Melanie, and the dramatic tension comes from her figuring out who she is at heart. We hope she'll figure it out in time. And fear that she won't.

But it was risky. From time to time, people still tell me Melanie chose the wrong guy. I suspect it's because Andrew would be the right choice for them. I think the movie makes clear Melanie really belongs with Jake. But I suppose I could be wrong.

It was interesting that the audience is so conditioned to the good guy/bad guy approach, they look for it even when it wasn't intended. One of the ways writers deal with the love triangle challenge is to have the bad guy cheating on the woman. We don't blame her because she doesn't know.

When we did the test screening for Sweet Home Alabama, we discovered the audience thought Andrew was sleeping with Melanie's assistant! Nowhere in the movie do we see this, nor do we see him hit on her, sneak off with her, etc. But the audience was trying to figure out "what was wrong with him" and when we didn't give them anything, they imagined something. So the director had to cut out all the scenes with Andrew and the assistant to avoid the confusion.

Ultimately I think the movie is more sophisticated for making the choice internal rather than external. It turns out romantic comedies are harder than they look!

Sunday, October 5, 2008

The Structure of Sweet Home Alabama

(SPOILERS: Sweet Home Alabama)

Okay, time to put my money where my mouth is. I will now analyze the three act structure of Sweet Home Alabama. I will also tell you the big structural flaw I think the movie has and why it seems to survive it.

There is a brief prologue with the young Melanie and Jake on the beach. It serves to set up the “lightning striking twice” theme, establish the romantic tone of the story and give a little foreshadow of the Alabama environment to come.

Domino and Catalyst: A little tricky. Is the catalyst the moment where Andrew proposes to Melanie in Tiffany & Co.? That’s the point where the character has the problem. However the audience does not yet know what the problem is. To solve this, my original draft had Melanie tell her best friend she’s already married immediately after the proposal. Not as dramatic a reveal, I will admit, as the scene where Melanie appears on Jake’s doorstep and demands a divorce. So one might argue that the proposal is the domino and the doorstep scene is the catalyst. I do not agree, however. I think the catalyst is the proposal because we have character and dilemma. It’s risky not letting the audience in on the dilemma, but we did drop lots of hints that something’s amiss even if it’s not clear what that something is for a few more minutes.

The important thing, though, is that in the period between 12 minutes and 15 minutes into the movie, we establish the Main Tension: Will Melanie marry Andrew? We do an unusual thing with the tension. At first, the audience is hoping that the answer to the question will be yes. But as the movie goes along, they discover that she should actually be with Jake instead, so by the end they are rooting for the answer to be “no.”

Act One Break: Act one ends and act two begins when Melanie learns she still has access to the joint checking account with Jake. This gives her the idea to try to get the divorce by becoming the most annoying version of a wife he can imagine. Until now, she was simply making a quick swing down to Alabama to get a paper signed. But that has proven impossible, so she now embarks on a mission to achieve her goal.

Midpoint: Jake and Melanie kiss in the pet cemetery. This is the up moment when Jake and Melanie are closest together, a reflection of the resolution and the opposite of the Act Two Break. We’ve also twisted the tension. From this point forward, it should be clear Melanie belongs with Jake.

Act Two Break: After Andrew breaks up with Melanie over her lies, Act Two ends when he forgives her and the marriage is back on. Melanie now has what she wants – Andrew. But, in one of the common romantic comedy forms, she’s not sure she wants him anymore. She just can’t admit that fact to herself.

Twist: As she walks up the aisle, Melanie learns she forgot to sign the divorce papers herself. This is the wake-up call that makes her realize she’s marrying the wrong guy. It’s the thing she needs to solve her dilemma happily – by calling off the wedding with Andrew and going after Jake.

And the resolution, of course, is that she and Jake get back together.

So where do I think the movie went wrong? Look back at the Act One Break. Melanie sets about trying to get Jake to sign the divorce papers. In my draft, Jake doesn’t actually sign until the end of act two, when Andrew’s come to town and Jake realizes how miserable he’s been making Melanie. But in the finished movie he signs before the midpoint. This causes the story to lose some of its momentum and begin to meander. In fact, if you watch it and work out the timeline, there’s a bit of a logic flaw. Melanie gets what she wants – Jake’s signature on the divorce papers – and then hangs out in Alabama for at least 24 hours for no apparent reason.

So how does the movie survive this? Mainly by introducing several other tensions. By the time Jake signs the divorce papers, the audience is beginning to think maybe Melanie’s making a mistake going for Andrew instead of Jake. That new emotional tension carries us forward. We also have a subplot about Andrew’s mother trying to dig up the truth about Melanie, and then the moment where Andrew comes down to Alabama, discovers Melanie’s lies, and calls off the wedding. These conflicts all have crucial forward motion which pulls the audience along. Plus, there are a few secrets about Melanie’s past which we reveal to keep things interesting. And don’t underestimate how much charming actors can do for a film.

However, I still think the movie would have been better if Jake didn’t sign those papers until the end of Act Two.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

The Elements of Three Act Structure

Today I want to discuss the main elements of three act structure. There are several thousand places you can learn the basics of three act structure so I will try not to simply repeat here what you can easily find elsewhere. A note on naming conventions – there are lots of terms for some of these elements. I think everyone who writes a book creates their own so it seems more original. I will use my favorite terms.

Prologue – a prologue is an opening scene or sequence which serves no significant plot purpose. That does not mean, however, that it serves no purpose at all. Prologues are used to set tone, introduce character and/or pull the audience into the story. They can also introduce elements like the supernatural which will come into play later but must be shown early so the audience isn’t pulled out of the story. Note: if you’re paying attention to expected page count for the acts, the prologue should not be credited against act one. It is a separate entity.

A classic example of a prologue is the great opening sequence of Raiders of the Lost Arc where Indy recovers the idol from the cave. A first time viewer could start the movie with Indy in the classroom and not even realize anything was missing. But imagine how boring it would be to sit through those university scenes if we weren’t shown the excitement and adventure we could expect to come later.

Act One – Act one is usually about the first quarter of the movie. It sets up the story by introducing the character, his dilemma and the stakes.

Domino – This is my one original addition to the three act structure theory! I came up with it because students in my class were sometimes getting confused about the Catalyst. The domino is an event which sets the story in motion but does not rise to the level of catalyst. I call it the domino because it’s like the first domino in a series that falls, knocking down the next one and so on.

Catalyst (also called inciting incident, precipitating incident or point of attack) – This is the moment when the character has their dilemma. It’s the scene where the audience gets a sense of the arc of the story (see main conflict later). Note that neither the character nor the audience needs to fully understand the scope of the dilemma yet; they simply must realize that it exists.

In Star Wars, the catalyst is when Luke sees the hologram of Princess Leia and decides he must help her. Even though Luke doesn’t know how big a problem he has, we the audience know Leia has been captured by Darth Vader and anticipate big trouble. The domino in Star Wars is when Leia puts the plans into R2D2 and sends him off to Tatooine. That sets the story in motion but does not qualify as the catalyst because our hero is still working on the farm, not involved in the story at all yet.

Act One Break (also called first turning point or break into two) – This is the moment when our hero embarks on his journey to solve his dilemma. Between the catalyst and this moment, he may have been trying to find a way to avoid the problem or making preparations for the challenge. This is the place where he actually sets out to solve the problem. In Star Wars, Luke agrees to go with Obi Wan.

Act Two – Act two is roughly the middle half of the movie. It is where writers often have the most difficulty, usually when their obstacles aren’t complex enough to sustain this long act.

Midpoint – Somewhere near the middle of act two there is usually a big event that twists the tension of the movie in some way. We don’t want our story to be too linear. The character needs to have ups as well as downs, to get closer and farther away and closer again to his goal. The midpoint usually introduces some new element or sub-goal to keep things moving. It’s also usually the opposite of the Act Two Break in terms of the character’s success or failure.

Act Two Break (also called second turning point or break into three) – This is often called the character’s lowest moment. I think this is a misnomer, however. Immediately after the break, things usually get worse, not better. Rather, the act two break is the place where things go most wrong for the character, often the point of the character’s biggest failure. The next sequence of the movie shows the aftermath of that failure and leads to the real lowest moment just before the Twist (see below).

Act Three – Usually the last quarter of the movie, though if any act should come in short, it should be Act Three. This is the race to the end. The pace picks up and we really shouldn't be introducing any major new elements or exposition.

Twist – This is a confusing element. I do not mean a twist like in the end of Sixth Sense, though those can be powerful. The twist from a structural standpoint is the moment when the character figures out how to resolve his dilemma (in a movie with a happy ending).

Resolution – Simply, how the character’s dilemma is resolved. Most importantly, this is the end of the tension of your story. From here on out the audience’s involvement will quickly dissipate. You have a little time to wrap things up and supply an emotionally satisfying denouement, but you better be pretty near the end when you resolve the dilemma.

Main Tension – This is the central idea of your story, what drives it forward. I find it best to phrase it as a question. Star Wars: “Will Luke Skywalker save Princess Leia?” Matrix: “Will Neo defeat Agent Smith?” Amelie: “Will Amelie find love before it’s too late?” It should be simple and primal.

The Main Tension is asked at the Catalyst and answered in the Resolution. It’s what defines the story for the audience.

There are other, smaller tensions in the movie. Each subplot has a tension that could be mapped out in its own three act formula, though the beats would fall in different places. Act Two should also have its own tension, and individual sequences and scenes have tensions. Identifying the tensions that are pulling the audience through the film is very useful to the writer.

There are some common ways in which three act structure works. If the story has a happy ending, the midpoint is often an up moment, act two break is a down moment and the ending, naturally, is up. However if the story has an unhappy ending these beats are reversed. Think of the classic American gangster movie showing the rise and fall of a criminal. The midpoint is usually a down moment, but at the end of act two he’s seized control of his criminal empire…before it all collapses in the resolution.

Another common form is where the character gets what they want at the end of act two, but they no longer want it. Or, in trip-with-a-destination movies, the character arrives at the destination but things aren’t what they expect. I’ll give some examples of these forms in future posts.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Loving and Hating Three Act Structure

In the Screenwriting One class I teach at Art Center College, much of the first class session is dedicated to three act structure. One semester one of my students informed me that he didn’t have to learn three act structure because he “preferred European films.” Guess what, kid, European films follow three act structure too.

But I understand his skepticism. If someone told me they had a formula for making a good story (and people actually say that with surprising frequency) I would also be skeptical. But if used properly, three act structure is not a formula at all. It’s a way to understand how stories work.

Let me get even more philosophical for a moment and pose the question: What is a story? I believe a story, by definition requires three things:

1) A character. Even if the character is a frog or a tree, we anthropomorphize them. If you try to write a story without a character, what you have is not a story. A travelogue or non-fiction essay maybe, but not a story.

2) A dilemma. The character must have a problem to solve. If you tell me about someone whose life is great and has no problems, well that’s nice but it’s not a story. I get it. He’s happy. Let’s move on. Whatever it is in humans that makes us want to hear made-up tales, it seems to have to do with the need to explore how people solve problems.

3) A resolution. If the dilemma isn’t resolved, the story doesn’t feel complete. That doesn’t mean the ending has to be happy, or that all the loose ends need to be tied up. But we listen to/watch/read a story to find out what happens. So it’s not a story unless we indeed find out what happens.

If you’ve got those three things you’ve got a story in my book. But I want to point out a couple other elements that you need for a good story: obstacles and stakes.

Obstacles: If your story is about a guy sitting in his living room and his dilemma is that he’s hungry and the resolution is that he goes to the kitchen and makes a sandwich, that’s a story but not a very good one. But if the same guy with the same dilemma is stranded on an island where there’s only one fruit tree and a tiger is sleeping below it, then I’m interested. That’s because you’ve given him obstacles. (Which isn’t to suggest the obstacles have to be physical. You could make a compelling story about a hungry guy in his apartment whose obstacle is he’s on a diet.) Generally, the more challenging the obstacles, the more dramatic the story.

Stakes: What is at stake for the character? What happens if he succeeds or fails? If the character doesn’t really care about the outcome of his dilemma, then why should I? The more he has at stake, the more interesting the story. Now, a lot of people who only partly understand structure make a common mistake (and many of those people work as development executives in Hollywood). They suggest a writer raise the stakes by increasing the size of what’s at stake. Rather than trying to get one million dollars the character should be trying to get 100 million dollars. But that’s the wrong approach.

Imagine a story where a terrorist has planted a bomb in a diner and our character must get across town in time to keep it from going off. “Why don’t you raise the stakes,” our clueless development executive says, “make it a football stadium instead of a diner.” Objectively that would seem to raise the stakes – more lives are in jeopardy. But it’s still a character trying to save the lives of a bunch of people. The number is not all that important to how much we care.

What would raise the stakes is if the character’s wife and child were having lunch in the diner. Stopping a bomb from killing his family is much more dramatic than stopping a bomb from killing a group of strangers in a football stadium (though hopefully we'd root for him to do either). Because the key to raising the dramatic stakes is to increase how much the character cares about the outcome of the situation. Don’t confuse objective stakes with dramatic stakes.

So what does this have to do with three act structure? Three act structure is simply a way to codify what a story is and how it works. In act one we meet a character, introduce a dilemma and establish the stakes. In act two the character tries to resolve the dilemma but has difficulty doing so due to the obstacles. In act three the dilemma is resolved either for or against the character.

That’s it. And that’s why even European films follow three act structure.

Where we get in trouble is when we try to create “rules” for this structure. I once had someone tell me the first act of my screenplay was too long. “What makes you say that,” I asked.

“It ends on page thirty-four,” they said.

Me: “Is it boring, slow, uninteresting?”

Them: “No, it’s actually really exciting. But act one is supposed to end on page twenty-eight.”

Well if it’s really exciting who the hell cares what page it ends on? Structure is supposed to serve story, not the other way around. If it ain’t broke, why are you trying to fix it?

The other problem is there are a bunch of books and one day seminars that purport to teach screenwriting but really teach three act structure. That’s great as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go all the way to good writing. Structure’s only the first piece of good writing. There are now tens of thousands of perfectly structured really bad spec scripts floating around out there. Many of the writers are saying, “I don’t understand why my script didn’t sell. My act breaks all fall on the right pages.”

Audiences go to see movies for a lot of reasons – compelling characters, exciting scenes, witty dialogue, spectacle, humor, reassurance, escapism, profound themes, even on occasion beautiful scenery. But not one person goes to a movie to see act breaks.

That said, once we understand three act structure we can extrapolate some guidelines that will help us write better stories.

Guidelines, not rules.

And that will be a topic for my next post.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

How I Went From Film Student to Produced Screenwriter

Usually the first questions anybody in the film industry gets asked when they’re speaking somewhere is, “How did you break into the business?” So, I figured I would start this blog by answering that question. (The second question is, “How do I get an agent?” I’ll deal with that one at a later date.)

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 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 holding the boom on music videos and public service announcements.

“At least you’re working on film sets,” people would say. I wanted to punch those people in the mouth. Turns out, having any job in film wasn’t enough for me.

I applied to graduate school largely because my father was bugging me to. I applied to USC because there was no application fee for alumni, and I applied in screenwriting because I figured I’d already done production. Right as I was coming off a job and wondering what I was going to do next, I got the acceptance letter.

I really discovered myself in USC’s screenwriting program. Turns out, I really liked writing and I was good at it. 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 home town to convince her estranged white trash husband to give her a divorce so she can marry someone else.

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.

And then I started temping.

The people who had met with me said very flattering things about the script, but none of them wrote a check. So I sat down to write 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.” One of the companies I had met with was on the Disney lot. The person who had read my thesis script was the intern at the time. Now she was head of development. She really liked “Undertow,” but the company didn’t do action movies. However she thought I should have an agent and offered to make calls for me.

Her assistant 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 that assistant became head of development at the production company a short time later…lesson: be nice to the assistants and interns.)

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, 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. Eventually I parted ways with my agent and got a permanent job at Disney Feature Animation. I was still writing scripts at night but with little success.

Then one day my phone rang. It was Stokely. I hadn’t spoken to her in probably two years but it turns out she’d been pushing my 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 piece of furniture for my apartment and went back to the day job.

A couple years passed. Other writers were hired to rewrite. 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.

Then one day they 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 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.

I was an overnight success seven years after graduation.