Thursday, March 14, 2013

Mailbag #2

Welcome to another edition of the Let’s Schmooze mailbag where I answer reader questions on screenwriting.

From Marc Wobschall: Are dates on computer files sufficient for copyright purposes? I read that mailing yourself a hard copy may not be enough.

First, the disclaimer. I am not a lawyer. Do not rely on me for legal advice!

I don’t recommend mailing yourself a hard copy of a script or relying on computer files for copyright protection. In theory, both can serve to establish a date that something was created and so might be useful if you were sued or wanted to sue someone else, but how much value that would be in a trial is debatable. (It would be some.) I do recommend keeping dated records of everybody you send material to. I also keep a writing journal where I note what I worked on each day, which has been incredibly valuable to me in some legal and pseudo-legal situations.

Note that technically your work is copyrighted the moment you put it down in “fixed form” such as in writing or in a Final Draft file, however proving when that happened can be an issue. Also note that not everything is copyrightable. Titles, for example (although other laws such as trademark can apply). Basic ideas. Anything delivered verbally. Facts – you can’t copyright a recipe, for example, only the way in which you write it. Also, you cannot copyright something based on intellectual property you don’t own.

The best protection is to register your work with the U.S. copyright office. The current cost is $35. In addition to an iron clad dating of when the work was created, this step offers additional benefits such as being able to recover legal fees and extra damages in a lawsuit.

The WGA offers a registry service that also basically serves as a date stamp. It’s cheaper ($20, $10 if you’re a member), but only lasts five years and doesn’t convey the same legal protection as registering the copyright with the government. However it can be useful because you can register things you couldn’t copyright. For example, if you pitch your take on adapting a novel, you can write up your pitch and register that, even though you couldn’t copyright it since you don’t own the novel. This would establish what your unique ideas were (it is illegal for producers to steal your original, unique ideas as long as you’ve written them down.)

In general it is a bad idea to sue someone for copyright infringement in Hollywood unless it is egregious and you have absolutely iron clad evidence – and even then it’s not a great idea. Copyright infringement suits are incredibly, incredibly hard to win. And if people suspect you’re litigious they will be very reluctant to read your work. Hollywood is a small town - people talk. An ill-conceived lawsuit can end your career.

From H.E. Ellis: I decided to try my hand at screenwriting by attempting to adapt my own novel. This is much harder than I had initially anticipated because I wrote my protagonist to express a great deal of interior monologue. 

So I guess my question is, how does a writer express a character's inner thoughts without bogging down the story in excess exposition or resorting to some hokey "narrator" device?

Why don’t you give me a hard one! (That's sarcasm.)

This is one of the fundamental challenges of screenwriting, and one of the reasons adaptations aren’t necessarily easier than writing original stories. Mostly in screenwriting we don’t express the characters' inner thoughts directly. Instead, we find ways to dramatize what’s going on in their head. We set up situations that require them to act in ways that show what they’re thinking. Forcing them to make choices is often a good way to reveal their thought process. This is why we often say movie characters need to be active. We reveal character primarily through behavior.

There are a couple of techniques to reveal inner thoughts more directly. One, as you mention, is voiceover. It can be effective (see Goodfellas – screenplay by Nicholas Pileggi & Martin Scorsese) but it is also often used badly. (See this post and this post for more on voiceover.) Another is to give the character a confidante, one person they trust and with whom they can share their feelings (see the cop John McClane talks to via walkie-talkie in Die Hard - screenplay by Jeb Stuart and Steven E. de Souza - or any best friend in any romantic comedy). Again, this can be risky – you don’t want to fill up your script with scenes of a character talking about how they feel.

It’s hard to advise you on your specific situation without knowing the novel, but often when doing adaptations the screenwriter has to make significant changes to force the character into more active situations. Sometimes, unfortunately, this necessitates major plot reconstruction.

Got a question on screenwriting? Let me know and I'll try to address it in the next Mailbag.

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