Thursday, February 21, 2013

You Are the Product

A friend once told me a story about a pitch meeting he and his writing partner did. At the end of the pitch, the producer asked if they could send over a one-page summary of the story. It’s not uncommon to be asked for such a thing. There are only a handful of people in Hollywood who can buy a pitch without consulting with someone else. A summary provides a document they can show these other people.

When the writers told their manager about this, the manager advised them not to do it. His reason: “You are the product.”

This struck me as important for a couple of reasons. First, the primary implication of the manager’s statement is that the product being sold in a pitch is not an idea, it’s a writer (or in this case writers). Thus if someone else at the company needs to evaluate the product they should meet with the writers, not read a summary of the idea.

I agree with this (see my post on the value of an idea)… to an extent. Obviously there are many cases where a producer has bought one pitch from a writer after rejecting several other pitches from the same writer. Maybe the better way to look at it is that the primary product is the writer and the secondary product is the idea.

In the bigger career picture this is an important thing to understand. If you want to be a professional screenwriter you must learn your craft and how to function within the industry. This might seem obvious, but too often people spend all their energy trying to come up with the perfect high-concept idea without bothering to learn how to write well. (Which, again, doesn’t let you off the hook for coming up with good ideas.) If the product is you, you need to be a product worth buying.

The other important implication is that this manager does not think providing a written summary is smart business. This is an old debate in the screenwriting community. On the one hand, a summary can help the executive sell the idea to their supervisors and company. It can help them remember details of the pitch. And it protects the writer’s version of the story, hopefully preventing the executive from mangling the idea. Some writers even provide a summary at the end of the pitch without being asked – these are called “leave behinds.”

On the other hand, the executive you pitched to might have a better understanding of how to present your idea in a way that will appeal to their boss or partners. More importantly, a summary gives an executive something to reject. You’d much rather get in the room with the person doing the deciding, and that’s more likely if you haven’t given them a convenient piece of paper to judge. It is more difficult to portray your passion and enthusiasm for a project on the page than it is in person, and enthusiasm is contagious. And even if they don’t like the idea, if they like you it could lead to other work – after all, you are the product.

The decision often hinges on the situation. I once did a pitch for an assignment for foreign producers who did not speak English well. Prior to the pitch, I told them I would provide them with a written version afterward, just in case they had trouble following. The irony was they hired me in the room and I never had to give them the written version, but it was a situation where I felt the benefits of doing a summary outweighed the negatives.

If you do decide to do a summary, remember that it is a sales tool, not a writing tool. If you’ve been following this blog, you know that I believe plot is the enemy of pitching. In a pitch you need to focus on hook and character. The same philosophy holds for this piece of paper.

Since your summary will be one page (and it should only be one page!) you will not be able to capture the entire scope of the plot. Moreover, you don’t want to play tricks like reducing font or margins. The page should be inviting to read. It should get the reader excited about the idea and – most importantly – excited to meet the writers in person! This is the time to be as charming, witty and evocative in your writing as you are able.

Remember, the product is you.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Mailbag # 1

From time to time people ask question via email or in the comments section of this blog. Sometimes those questions warrant a full post, sometimes the answers are shorter. I’ve decided to do a “mailbag” post from time to time to answer some of the shorter questions. I’m going to kick it off with a question I received from Joel Meyers:

Q: Was just wondering if you were interested in commenting on the trick of how often and how to repeat key information, mainly object plants and key names (Kaiser Soze! Kaiser Soze! etc.) in scripts.

Repetition can help something stick in the audience’s mind – like the Kaiser Soze example from The Usual Suspects (written by Christopher McQuarrie), or like how people keep talking about and asking about Rick in the opening of Casablanca (screenplay by Julius J. Epstein & Philip G. Epstein and Howard Koch). How often you need to do this is difficult to answer out of context. How long does the audience need to remember the piece of information? If it’s going to come back at the end of the scene, one repetition is probably enough. But if you are going to plant the object in Act One and not pay it off until Act Two, you may need to hit it harder. Also, how distinctive is it? Kaiser Soze is a pretty memorable name. John Anderson won't stick as well.

More than repetition, I think the key factor is the way the name/object/information is presented. If you want something to stick in the reader’s mind, you need to draw their attention to it. This means not burying it in a long descriptive paragraph or list of names. Create a little scenario that highlights the name/object/information.

For example, in Jaws (screenplay by Peter Benchley and Carl Gottlieb) it’s critical for the ending that the audience know there are SCUBA tanks tied on the boat and that if a SCUBA tank is punctured it could explode. So there’s a little beat in an early scene where Brody pulls a rope that causes the tanks to roll on the deck. The other guys then yell at him about how dangerous they are. We are reminded about the tanks later when Hooper goes for a dive, but it’s not the repetition that sticks with us as much as the earlier attention drawn to them.

In my screenwriting class I recently showed the scene from Aliens (story by James Cameron and David Giler & Walter Hill, screenplay by James Cameraon) where Ripley gets into the loader to prove to the soldiers she knows how to use it. This establishes the presence of the loaders for when she climbs in one to fight the queen alien at the end.

I think the key to making this work is to create a reason for attention being drawn to the planted object so it doesn’t seem forced. In Aliens Ripley is trying to impress the soldiers. In Jaws we’re seeing how uncomfortable and inexperienced Brody is on a boat. Attention is drawn to the objects, but in a way that has importance within the current scene. Thus the audience isn’t alerted to the fact these objects will come into play later.

For more on establishing character names, see this post.

My second question comes out of the pitching class I teach:

Should you tell the ending to your pitch?

My co-teacher, producer Ken Aguado, commented on how often he’s heard the advice not to give away the ending of your story in a pitch – he’s even heard it from professional teachers. He said it amazes him because of how wrong the advice is.

So the short answer is yes, you must tell the ending. But there’s an exception that I’ll get to in a moment.

In most pitches you are trying to convince someone to pay you to write a screenplay. You are asking them to part with a fairly large amount of money based on the tale you’re spinning. They are not going to do that if you don’t tell them how it will end. It doesn’t matter how intriguing your set up. If you want them to pay, tell them the WHOLE story.

But there is an exception: when you are trying to convince someone to read a script you’ve already written. Traditionally, though, when you were in this type of situation your pitch would have been pretty short and casual. You’re in a meeting with a producer who already likes your writing and is curious what other scripts you have. You’re just giving them the basic concept to see if it’s something they’re interested in.

But over the last decade we’ve also seen the rise of "pitch fest" events where completely unknown writers get five minutes to pitch to lower level development people. In these cases you are competing against dozens of other writers and you have to give a long enough pitch to stand out and establish your storytelling ability… but you may want to leave off the ending so there’s something more to be discovered in the script.

I think this is the source of the advice not to reveal your ending, but that can screw up writers who don’t understand that this is not the way you pitch in a meeting.

Have a question you want me to answer? Post it in the comments section or send me an email.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Cutting and Combining Characters

One of the problems that effects many screenplays is too many characters. Even in stories with a strong main character there can be a small army of minor characters cluttering up the action. Good writers will make an attempt to cut and combine characters whenever possible.

Why is having a lot of characters bad? Well, for one thing it can be hard for the audience to keep track of who is who. Also, when you have a lot of minor characters it gets difficult to fully develop any of them. You have a lot of one-dimensional pawns running around instead of living, breathing people that you can use to expand the ideas and themes of your story.

This isn’t to say fewer is always better. Would The Usual Suspects (written by Christopher McQuarrie) have been better with a gang of three criminals instead of five? Most certainly not. But I thought Contagion (written by Scott Z. Burns) and Love Actually (written by Richard Curtis) suffered from too many characters. You didn’t have any time to get to know or care about many of the characters.

I am not immune to this. In the draft of Sweet Home Alabama that I originally sold, the character of Andrew (played by Patrick Dempsey) had two parents – a politician father and an overprotective mother. Those parents were combined into a single character – his mother (played by Candice Bergen) in the movie. I don’t miss the character of the father at all, and the result is a stronger, more dimensional supporting character that was juicier and attracted a star.

Most of the time you don’t want more than one character performing the same plot/story function. You probably don’t need two mentors advising your hero, or two friends to serve as sounding boards – though if each of those friends also serves another purpose that could justify their presence. Redundant characters can usually be combined into a single person.

Ideally each significant character will represent some alternate viewpoint on the theme. In Up In the Air (screenplay by Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner) Ryan has two sisters – one who demonstrates the upside of marriage and one the downside. Natalie shows an idealized vision of love and Alex a more cynical version. There are no duplicate points of view, no third sister who also has a failing marriage.

True stories can present a particular challenge because it can be hard to let go of someone who was really involved. But many historical movies combine multiple people who each performed one small role in an event into a single person who is more involved throughout the story. Also, they often cut out people who were present but not actively involved. Sometimes five children become three, for example. It makes for a better movie and as long as it doesn’t radically misrepresent events, few people will mind.

I always take a look at my list of significant minor characters in the outline phase and consider whether any can be cut or combined. This exercise can produce surprising benefits. In my latest script, for example, I needed the main character’s best friend to have a troubled marriage and I needed the main character to have a business rival. The best friend’s husband was active mostly in the first half of the story, the rival in the second half. Then I asked myself, what if I combined them?

It was hard to get my head around it at first, but once I did the resulting character became exponentially richer and more complex. Plus, suddenly there was a whole other layer of subtext to the scenes – the best friend’s loyalty. If her husband is also her friend’s business rival, then she’s caught between two loyalties. Combining those two characters added unexpected dimension to a third.

And that’s a good thing because after doing some research I realized there are other people that would have to be involved in the main character’s business. Suddenly I have several new characters I have to work into my outline. I’m going to look at where I can combine those roles with existing characters, and where I can’t, I’ll look for how I can have those characters offer a distinct point of view on some element of the story.

That’s another good thing to think about – if a character simply has to be present in the movie for logic or plot mechanics, give them an individual take on a thematic element of the story. You might have them represent a potential future for the character if they make a certain choice, for example.

I mentioned I go through this analysis in the outline phase. There is a good chance you'll have to go through it again in the rewrite phase. Things change as you write and you may end up with redundant characters despite your best efforts. It's always wise to consider whether every character is really pulling their weight when you rewrite.

The goal here is not to write screenplays with as few characters as possible. The goal is to make sure that every character performs a vital role in the story. You have such limited time in a movie that you don’t want to waste any of it.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Creating Distinct Characters

Blog reader Joe Sola recently asked me via email if I would discuss differentiating characters. I’ve talked a lot about developing the individual character and about giving each character a distinctive voice. But much of voice comes out of deeper aspects of character, and I haven’t talked much about creating characters that will play off of each other in interesting and dramatic ways. Most movies, of course, rely on multiple characters interacting with each other to create drama. And if you’re writing an ensemble or team movie, that’s going to be all the more critical.

The first thing to point out is that the same techniques I use to develop my main character will be used for all the other major characters. Chief among these is identifying what they want within the context of the story. What goal is driving them? What is at stake for them in the outcome of the story? For some I will also identify an underlying psychological need – giving them their own internal journal or character arc.

Often the above decisions are derived from and/or create much of the conflict in the film. If there’s a villain character or a rival character, for example, their goal should be in opposition to our hero’s goal. That becomes one of the major obstacles to our hero’s success.

I will also write at least a few lines on each of the three dimensions – physiological, psychological and sociological – for every significant character. And here’s the first place where significant characterization differences between them will likely appear. The older, wealthy industrialist should act and speak differently from the young, idealistic artist.

If you find you have several characters who are too similar, which is a common problem since the world of your story will likely contain similar people, this is a good starting place to find distinctions.

Let’s say you’re writing a story about a group of coal miners. There will be obvious similarities – it may not be plausible to have the coal miner with a PhD from a wealthy family. But too often our first instinct is to have every miner conform to some stereotype in our head – they’re all in their twenties, big and brawny, uneducated, lusty beer drinkers.

But do they have to be? In real life some miners are young while others are older. Some are married, some single, some divorced. Many are probably big and brawny but I bet there are a few short guys and skinny guys working in mines as well. That might affect how they interact with their fellow miners. It’s likely few miners will be highly educated but that doesn’t mean their intellectual level is the same. One might be a real moron, another smart (but unschooled), a third with average I.Q. but going to night school to try to improve himself. Maybe one of the miners is a sex-crazed alcoholic while another is a teetotaler Christian fundamentalist. Maybe one is gay.

In your outlining phase take some time to consider the range possible in the various physiological, psychological and sociological elements of your characters. Are you using the whole range? Pushing a character farther or in an unexpected direction can open up all kinds of depth in your story.

Let’s look at an example: the three brothers in The Godfather (screenplay by Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola). There are necessarily a lot of sociological similarities, so the characters are primarily differentiated in the psychological range. Sonny is a hothead, Michael is thoughtful and confident, and Freddy is nervous and avoids conflict. Michael is further differentiated in that he’s the only brother who fought in the war, where he was a hero, and that he wants to get out of the family business. These simple distinctions have huge effects on the characters’ behavior – and their ultimate fate.

The more specific you are here the better. Specificity makes the characters feel like real people. Think about your friends or your coworkers. How do you differentiate them? It’s the specific details of their characters, isn’t it? Creating clearly distinct characters makes them more believable which in turn makes the audience care about them.

But in fiction we want to do more than just capture reality, we want to bring a point of view to the proceedings. Our stories are organized around a theme or subject or idea. You can improve both your characters and your story’s thematic depth if you differentiate the characters by giving each a different attitude or point of view on the subject matter.

Look at the different attitudes of the three main characters in Ghost Busters (written by Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis): Egon is intellectual, pursuing the ghosts out of a purely academic interest. Ray exhibits a childlike excitement about the prospect of ghosts. And Venkman is the sarcastic skeptic who initially doesn’t really care about the paranormal at all; he just wants to meet coeds. These different attitudes toward ghosts make the characters distinct within the subject/world of the story.

Little Miss Sunshine (written by Michael Arndt) provides an even better example. There are a lot of characters to develop. Thematically, the story is about winning and losing. And each character approaches success and failure in a distinctive way that affects their behavior and voice.

The father, Richard, believes there are winners and losers and that anyone can be a winner with the right plan. Olive approaches her desire to be a beauty queen with innocence and optimism and almost no self-doubt. Her brother is pursuing his goal with a methodical and single-minded purpose. Grandpa has rejected traditional definitions of success and is focused on enjoying his remaining years. Mom is just trying to keep her head above water and wishes Richard would be more help. And the uncle is suicidal, having given up all hope of achieving his goals.

I hope that’s helpful, and I’d like to thank Joe for the question. If you have a topic you’d like me to discuss, feel free to send an email or make a comment. I make no promises – I’m not a jukebox – but I am always looking for ideas for posts.