Friday, February 9, 2018

What Is a Screenwriter’s Voice and How Do You Find Yours?

(SPOILERS: Get Out, The Big Sick)

If you ask producers and development executives what they’re looking for in new writers, among the top answers will be, “Someone with a distinctive voice.” But what do they really mean by the term “voice”?

A writer’s voice is a combination of style, thematic content, and point of view. It is part of a writer’s brand, which also includes things like the genre and format they are known for. For some writers, the style part of their voice is readily apparent. You can tell the difference between scripts by Quentin Tarantino, Nancy Myers, Shane Black, Aaron Sorkin, Woody Allen, and Judd Apatow by such stylistic elements as the way they use dialogue, humor, and visual spectacle.

But not all screenwriters have such distinctive styles. Writers like Stephen Gagan, J.J. Abrams, Cameron Crowe, Jordan Peele, Lawrence Kasdan, and Aline Brosh McKenna have a more craft-oriented style, but their films are still distinctive based on the kinds of subjects they write about. Their voice is defined by the thematic and story elements that recur in their work.

The one thing that makes all of these people in-demand writers in Hollywood is that they have something to say. They have a voice that is unlike any other writer.

This is what the industry is looking for in new writers. They have plenty of accomplished craftspeople they can hire – people with experience, people they can trust to do a good job. If they are going to hire an untested newcomer, that person needs to be able to bring a perspective nobody else can. And that’s why your work needs to have a voice.

So how do you find and develop your voice as a writer?

The first thing is to ask, what kind of stories do you really want to tell? The things you are passionate about come from who you are. This can be as deep as Aaron Sorkin’s repeated exploration of the ethics (or lack thereof) in powerful, hyper-intelligent men; or as surface as Quentin Tarantino’s obvious passion for pulp, pop culture, and poetic dialogue. It’s not even necessary that you are conscious of these passions, as long as you are telling a story that you love. When you write from the heart, you can’t help but reveal your perspective on the world.

Sometimes following your passion can be tough, though, because new writers are constantly told to be “commercial.” And that’s good advice. But if you simply mimic the latest hits, how will your voice come through?

Screenwriter Paul Guay (Liar, Liar) has a Venn diagram he uses to select material. The three circles of the diagram are:

What do you love?

What are you good at?

What can you sell?

Paul’s ultimate point is that you should only write things that fall in the intersection of those three circles. The first two circles will be a big part of what makes up your voice. The goal is to find the part of your voice that is also commercial.

The good news is that with a gazillion cable channels and streaming services, you can find a buyer for almost anything these days. However, you can’t make a big budget feature film out of almost anything. If you find that your voice is leading you to more niche material, you will have to figure out what outlet might program to that niche and be aware of the budget realities of servicing that niche.

The second thing to do in order to develop your voice is to examine what is unique about your life experience. What do you know about that most writers don’t? Do you come from a cultural background seldom represented on screen? Have you held a job in an interesting industry? What was your family life like? Have you had unusual relationships? What is the most exciting thing that’s happened to you? The scariest? The saddest? Bring these experiences to your work.

The Big Sick was one of the most successful and well-reviewed movies of the year. It is in many ways a fairly commercial, high-concept romantic comedy: a commitment-phobic man realizes he’s in love with the woman he’s dating when an illness puts her in a coma. But it is based on screenwriters Emily V. Gordon & Kumail Nanjiani’s actual relationship. Beyond just getting a story idea from real life, Nanjiani’s experiences as an Indian-American from a traditional family adds a subplot that doesn’t feel like it could come from any other writer.

Your work doesn’t have to be autobiographical to reflect your life experience. I don’t imagine Jordan Peele was ever kidnapped and hypnotized as part of a plot to have his brain replaced like in his movie Get Out. But you can feel his experiences as a Black man living in white society informing every scene.

You can also see reflections of George Lucas’ life growing up as a drag racer in Modesto dreaming of a bigger life in the character of Luke Skywalker in Star Wars. This indicates one of the best ways to let your voice come through: put your feelings and experiences into your characters.

Of course it’s easier to incorporate your life experience into your work when you actually have some life experience. When it comes to art, you have to have something to say before you can have a voice.

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Friday, January 19, 2018

What I Learned About Writing Romantic Subplots from “I, Tonya” and “Downsizing”

(Spoilers: I, Tonya; Downsizing; Pretty Woman; Wedding Crashers)

Last week I watched I, Tonya (written by Steven Rogers) and Downsizing (written by Alexander Payne & Jim Taylor) back to back. Seeing the two movies that way illuminated something for me about writing romantic subplots.

I have long advocated that, in order to create successful love stories on film, the writer should identify the way each character makes the other better. For example, in Pretty Woman (written by J.F. Lawton), Vivian teaches Edward the value of emotional commitment, while Edward shows Vivian that she deserves more than she is accepting. This is so that the audience has reason to root for the two characters to be together.

But at first glance, I, Tonya and Downsizing appear to demonstrate the opposite. In I, Tonya, Tonya and Jeff are not good for each other at all. Yet I never once doubted their attraction or why they were in a relationship. On the other hand, I can easily see how Ngoc and Paul make each other better in Downsizing, yet, for me, the biggest weakness in a promising movie was that I was completely unconvinced that these two characters were in love. Since their love was critical to the last half of the movie, the movie failed.

Thinking more about this, however, I don’t think these movies contradict my initial technique at all. Rather, they demonstrate that simply showing how the characters improve each other isn’t enough on its own.

In I, Tonya, in fact, we are not rooting for Tonya and Jeff to be together. We actually desperately wish they would realize how mutually destructive the relationship is. This is not normally the goal of a movie romance. It’s really my technique turned on its head. Since the writer wants us rooting against the romance, he shows how the characters make each other worse.

But we also see how physically attractive they are to each other, and how Jeff offers a teenage Tonya the kind of appreciation she isn’t getting anywhere else in her life, and how Tonya offers Jeff a brush with the kind of greatness he can’t find anywhere else. We know why the characters want to be together, even if we can see that the relationship is bad.

The flaw in Downsizing is that the characters show no romantic or erotic chemistry. Sure, they improve each other as people, and improve each other’s lives, but what creates the romantic attraction? Their relationship is based too much on mutual improvement. It needs some joy, some sexy interplay, some emotional connection. It needs a little of what Tonya feels when Jeff tells her she’s pretty while working on his car. The first hint of this kind of sexual tension doesn’t come in Downsizing until Paul is rubbing lotion into Ngoc’s knee – right before they have sex. It’s too sudden, and it’s not big enough to convince us of their attraction.

So, yes, if you want us to root for two characters to be together, we need to see why they are better together than apart. But we also need to see that they are attracted to each other in a romantic and sexual way. Crucially, both things need to be dramatized. You need to create incidents that show us how the characters are better together and show us that they are attracted to each other.

And if you don’t want us to root for a relationship, show us why the characters are bad for each other. But we still need to believe they are attracted to each other or we won’t understand why they are in the relationship in the first place. When characters are in obviously destructive relationships, they can seem stupid, which reduces are sympathy for them. For example, in Wedding Crashers (written by Steve Faber & Bob Fisher), Sack is such a jerk that the wonderful Claire seems less sympathetic for being with him.

In I, Tonya, neither Tonya nor Jeff are portrayed as geniuses, to be sure. But they are both set up as sympathetic – Tonya is continually berated by an overbearing mother, and Jeff’s plans were derailed by family responsibility. We see how each satisfies a longing in the other. Though we can see the relationship is destructive, we sympathize with the characters’ reasons for being in it.

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Tuesday, January 9, 2018

The Ten Best-Written Movies of 2017

It’s time for my list of the ten best-written movies of last year! Keep in mind, this is a list of the best written movies, not necessarily the best movies or my favorite movies. The best example of this distinction this year is The Shape of Water – it has a lot that I liked in performance, production design, and tone, but the screenplay was the weakest component, so it doesn't make the list.

My usual disclaimers apply: I see a lot of movies, but I haven’t seen everything. This year I haven’t yet seen Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri; Call Me by Your Name; Molly’s Game; or Coco – all of which look to have the potential to bump something off this list.

Also, some movies age better than others, and because most of these are awards season movies, I’ve seen many of them pretty recently. My opinions could cool over time – though looking back at last year’s list, everything holds up pretty well. And though I’m happy to hear your opinions in the comments, this is my list. If you don’t like it, you’re welcome to make your own!

Looking at 2017 as a whole is encouraging. There are a lot of really great movies on the list. I could shuffle the order of the top four at random and be perfectly happy with the results. I’m also encouraged at how many of these are original stories, and how many have performed well at the box office. So without further ado, here is my list of the best-written movies of 2017:

1. Get Out (written by Jordan Peele) – If you want to deliver a message, wrap it in entertainment. Get Out is billed as a horror movie (though it’s more accurately a suspense thriller) and it delivers the genre goods. But it also delivers thought-provoking perspective on modern race relations that goes a lot deeper than the typical, “racism is bad,” message. On top of that, it has a clockwork plot and provides a master class in using planting and payoff to build twists and tension.

2. I, Tonya (written by Steven Rogers) – Some of the press materials suggested this movie was an attempt to correct the historical record. It’s not really. It’s about class and celebrity, and what happens when the American dream runs into the American mythmaking machine. But more than that, it’s wildly entertaining, salacious and funnier than I expected, populated with crazy, complex, flawed characters that you both love and hate – sometimes within the same scene.

3. The Big Sick (written by Emily V. Gordon & Kumail Nanjiani) – Like Get Out, The Big Sick used a traditional genre structure (this time romantic comedy) to explore deeper themes. It delivered in both regards: the characters are warm and funny, the romance tugs at the heart, and the culture clashes are thought provoking. Particularly noteworthy are the excellent minor characters – Emily’s parents, Kamail’s family, and the poor women with whom Kamail’s mother tries to arrange a marriage. Each is dimensional and real with legitimate personal reasons for their point of view.

4. Lady Bird (written by Greta Gerwig) – This was a hilarious crowd-pleaser of a coming-of-age story. While it doesn’t exactly break new ground, the specificity and complexity of the characters really illuminated the challenges of mother-daughter relationships. (And what a great character was Lady Bird’s mother!) It feels entirely real and entirely entertaining at the same time.

EDITED TO ADD: I totally forgot about The Post! Definitely a top-10 screenplay, so I'm adding it here at 4.5. I won't cut anything out... so this is now the 11 best movies of 2017.

4.5 The Post (written by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer) - Combines an important story about the press's role in democracy with an important story about a woman finding her voice in a man's world. Tense and thrilling, Ben Bagdikian's subplot carries the audience through some of the slower parts of the main plot.

5. Logan (story by James Mangold, screenplay by Scott Frank & James Mangold and Michael Green) – This is an excellent character-driven action script with deep (and dark) themes for a superhero movie. You really feel for these characters, the set pieces are fresh and compelling, and the structure is tight as a drum.

6. The Disaster Artist (screenplay by Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber) – Some of the humor may be a little “inside baseball,” but this is a wonderful, nutty, hilarious screenplay with a lot of heart – based on a wonderful, nutty, hilarious true story.

7. Battle of the Sexes (written by Simon Beaufoy) – By digging deep into the complicated characters and relating their personal struggles to the social context of the time, Beaufoy achieves a powerful, complex, emotionally moving story with what could have been a simplistic, straightforward morality fable.

8. Wonder Woman (screenplay by Allan Heinberg, story by Zack Snyder & Allan Heinberg and Jason Fuchs) – As the last few years have amply demonstrated, it is not so easy to craft a fun, adventurous superhero movie. Despite an overly long ending and some muddy thematic elements, Wonder Woman delivers a good time with humor and heart – and strikes a blow for the viability of female-lead action movies.

9. Blade Runner 2049 (story by Hampton Fancher, screenplay by Hampton Fancher and Michael Green) – Though it wasn’t commercially successful, this is a worthy sequel to the original that captures much of the same thematic and emotional complexity and elaborates on it in new and interesting ways.

10. Good Time (written by Ronald Bronstein & Josh Safdie) – This script is tragic and thrilling and funny, and manages to be both over-the-top and grounded in gritty reality. We buy every bad choice the characters make even while cringing at their foolishness.

Close on the heels of these ten are Detroit, Baby Driver, and Dunkirk, all very good screenplays that might have made the list in other years.

In the past, I’ve picked a “worst written” movie of the year. Though there were lots of candidates for that slot this year, I’m giving up the tradition. I’d rather celebrate the successes, and the failures have mostly had enough scorn piled on them.

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