Thursday, October 31, 2013

Tension in World War Z and Gravity

(SPOILERS: World War Z, Gravity)

Happy Halloween! (It’s Halloween when I’m writing this… I don’t know when you’re actually reading it, of course.) In honor of the holiday I thought I’d discuss a couple of movies that did a great job of creating tension this year. I’m serious about spoilers in this post, so if you haven’t seen World War Z or Gravity, you might want to wait to read this!

Gravity (written by Alfonso Cuaron & Jonas Cuaron) was one of the best movies of the year. World War Z (screen story by Matthew Michael Carnahan and J. Michael Straczynski, screenplay by Matthew Michael Carnahan and Drew Goddard & Damon Lindelof) was one of the most enjoyable surprises of the year. Though they are vastly different stories, it occurred to me they operated in structurally similar ways.

Both movies take an essentially likeable character and put them in a fight for survival. Both are structured as a succession of suspense sequences. Of the two, Gravity is the superior movie by a long shot, but both effectively use suspense to create a fun ride for the audience.

Let’s start with those likable main characters. In Gravity, Dr. Ryan Stone is established as a talented scientist and doctor, an inherently heroic character. Moreover, she is the rookie astronaut, out of her depth, suffering nausea from the microgravity. She’s a vulnerable underdog, also someone we root for. And given her situation, someone we identify with as non-astronauts (unless of course you happen to be an astronaut.)

Gerry in World War Z is a loving father and husband, and has some mysterious spy/agent background that will cause him to be summoned to assist the war against the zombies. So he’s a hero and a good guy trying to save the world. We can root for that.

In truth, both characters are pretty thinly defined. Ryan is more complex, and is developed more as the story progresses. There is some nice use of specific detail (the story she tells about her daughter’s lost shoe, for example) that implies the bigger life behind this story. Specifics make the character feel real. And considering Gravity plays out in near-real time, it would probably be unbelievable to cram any more character information into it.

It turns out suspense movies like these don’t really need enormously complex characters, they just need likeable, believable characters to put into jeopardy. This is one type of movie that really benefits from movie stars in the lead roles. We like Brad Pitt and Sandra Bullock. We don’t want them to die!

As I said, structurally the movies are a series of suspense sequences. World War Z has the escape-the-city sequence, military-base sequence, Jerusalem sequence, airplane sequence and infested-medical-research-facility sequence. Gravity has the getting-back-to-the-shuttle sequence, getting-to-the-ISS (International Space Station) sequence, getting-to-the-Chinese-station sequence, and reentry sequence.

Each of these sequences is virtually a self-contained miniature suspense movie. The danger with this approach is that the film could become episodic. So how do these filmmakers avoid that danger?

World War Z is structured as a mystery. Gerry is trying to find the cause of the zombie outbreak so they can figure out a way to fight it. Each sequence ends in a clue that gets him closer to the solution while simultaneously leading to the next sequence.

In Gravity, Ryan’s emotional growth helps connect the steps. This is where stronger character work helps. Early on she wants to give up, telling Matt to let her go and save himself. Over the course of the movie she decides to fight for her survival, has that decision tested, and finally commits to living. Each sequence forces her to take more forceful action to avoid death.

Both movies also make use of the ticking clock concept. In World War Z, Gerry’s family has been granted shelter on a battleship only because he’s agreed to take on this mission. As time goes on, the powers-that-be decide they can’t continue sheltering the family. If Gerry doesn’t finish his job soon, his family will be zombie food! (This is also a great illustration of how personal stakes – the family – are more powerful than huge global stakes – zombies might wipe out humanity.)

In Gravity, debris is blowing everything in space apart. The one remaining vehicle capable of reentry isn’t going to be around forever. There is a ninety-minute interval between encounters with the debris field, a ticking clock Ryan tracks on her wristwatch. Moreover, it is made clear that there is a limited supply of oxygen in these various vehicles. Time is running out for Ryan!

Which brings me to the individual sequences. Both movies use a combination of action and suspense techniques. Ticking clocks are again a big part of this. For example, in the getting-back-to-the-shuttle and getting-to-the-ISS sequences in Gravity, the air in Ryan’s space suit is running out. She gives periodic updates to Matt on how low her supply is getting. As she struggles to reach the airlock at the end of these sequences, she’s out of oxygen and we see through camera effects how her vision is narrowing and blurring as she starts to suffocate.

Important to good suspense is the slow build, escalating obstacles, and twists and turns. Look at the military-base sequence in World War Z. Gerry has to get back to his plane, but there are zombies out there, so they have to move quietly. The team sneaks carefully out to the tarmac, the tension building… and then Gerry’s phone rings. Things get worse and worse as characters are killed and Gerry barely makes it into the cockpit.

Or the ISS scene in Gravity. We are relieved when Ryan makes it into the ISS and gets her helmet off just before she passes out. She still has a pretty huge problem to overcome, but for the moment at least, she’s safe. However as she floats through the station, we see a piece of equipment generate a spark. Soon there’s a fire. Ryan grabs a fire extinguisher – but the force of using it in microgravity throws her against a wall, knocking her out.

Obviously, most stories are not constructed from interlocking suspense sequences. And you would certainly be taking the wrong message from this analysis if you think I’m saying you don’t need to develop complex characters! However these two movies provide good examples of how to use suspense to engage and thrill the audience. You can incorporate similar techniques into sequences in your stories, even if they aren’t built this way.

P.S. – there’s an interesting article here about Cuaron’s approach to storytelling in Gravity. Despite the interviewer’s bias against Hollywood suits, it’s clear from Cuaron’s response he does not share that bias. But it does reveal a lot about the potential pitfalls of the Hollywood development process.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Different Pitches for Different Situations

When screenwriters talk about pitching, we usually think of a situation where the writer is pitching an original idea (or an idea based on material the writer has acquired themselves) to a potential buyer, someone who would hire the writer to write the screenplay based on that idea. That type of pitch certainly exists, but there are many other types of pitches and pitching situations. Today I want to cover some of these, and discuss how you might vary your pitch accordingly.

The Full Length Original Pitch

As I said, this is the type of pitch we usually think of. Typically these pitches are twelve to fifteen minutes long, twenty minutes at most. You would describe the story in reasonably thorough detail, including the ending.

The General Meeting Pitch

You do this kind of pitch when you take a general meeting – the type of meeting you get when someone likes your screenplay and wants to meet you. At some point they’ll ask what you’re working on, and you launch into a pitch of about five minutes or so. This is fairly similar to the full-length pitch, except shorter and breezier. You spend less time on story details, focusing on concept and character. The goal is primarily to show them you have good ideas. If you plan to write the script on spec, you want them to ask to receive it when you’re done. You’re also hoping that they’ll like it so much that they consider buying it at the pitch stage. If this is the case, they’ll probably ask you to come back and do the full-length version at a later date, possibly incorporating some of their ideas.

The Pitch Fest Pitch

This is a relatively new type of pitching situation. At a pitch fest you (and hundreds of other writers) meet with a number of representatives of companies that buy screenplays. You usually have five minutes with each to do a pitch. The actual pitch should really be only two minutes to allow questions and a bit of small talk. Your goal is to get them to read a completed screenplay. You are focusing mostly on hook and character, with just a taste of the story. You probably will not want to tell the ending in these scenarios – there needs to be some mystery left for the script! (Although if they ask how it ends you should be prepared to tell them.)

There are other situations where you might do a two-minute pitch. Almost all involve convincing someone to read an existing, completed screenplay. You might do this in a general meeting, if, for example, the person you’re meeting with mentions they are looking for a certain type of script and you happen to have written just such a script. It’s not a bad idea to be ready with two-minute pitches of all your best scripts.

The Thirty-Second Pitch (A.K.A. Elevator Pitch)

This is really a glorified logline, designed to give the concept of your movie idea. It might come into play at a cocktail party or film festival or other networking event when you meet someone who asks what you’re working on. You might use thirty-second pitches to run some ideas by your agent to see which he thinks you should spec. And you could use a thirty-second pitch in many of the same situations you would use a two-minute pitch, if you think thirty seconds is enough to get the idea across. Shorter is usually better in pitching.

When you find yourself in a situation where you want to tell someone your idea but you know they’ll be bored or annoyed if you drone on and on (cocktail party!), then it’s time to bring out the thirty-second pitch. To do this well, of course, you have to have actually prepared it. Every morning I run through thirty-second pitches of my most pressing projects so I’m ready in the event I need them.

Assignment Pitches

All of the above assumes you are pitching an original idea (or an idea based on material you’ve acquired yourself). Of course most screenwriting jobs are assignments where you are hoping to get hired to rewrite a screenplay or adapt underlying material the buyer owns. These pitches are similar to the full original pitch in length, but different in content. You would assume at least some familiarity with the material by the person you’re pitching to. You would also spend more time analyzing what works and what doesn’t in the material, and less time describing the concept (since they already know the concept).

Of course all of these refer to feature film pitches. Television is another animal entirely. If you are pitching an original series, you will design your pitch differently depending on whether it is open or closed ended. Pitching an episode idea for an existing series requires other considerations. If you want to pursue a career in television writing, you need to learn the different types of pitches in that arena. (The pitch documents on talented television writer Javier Grillo-Marxuach’s website is an enormously helpful starting point.)

For more on how to build each different type of pitch, may I humbly recommend the book I penned with producer Ken Aguado, The Hollywood Pitching Bible: A Practical Guide to Pitching Movies and Television.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Timing Matters

One of the many, many little things you ought to know if you want to be a professional screenwriter is the development calendar. You might not expect it, but there are good times and bad times to send out a script.

The calendar is particularly important to television writers. Networks operate on a very specific cycle – they hear pitches for a specific period and then order pilot scripts of the ones they like. When they get those pilot scripts in, they decide which ones to make. When they see the pilots, they decide which ones to order to series. Try to pitch something new when they’re looking at completed pilots and you probably won’t even get in the room.

Cable has more flexibility (and networks have recently been attempting to move toward year-round development), but for practical purposes most channels have to look at a collection of pilots at the same time to pick the ones they want to fund that year. And it’s hard to move off that traditional network cycle because writers become available at certain times of the year. There’s a “staffing season” where writers meet with showrunners and producers to get hired on a show. Once that season ends, a lot of the best writers will be tied up for months.

There’s a pretty good rundown of the TV development season here.

The feature film world is not so strict, since movies are for the most part one-off propositions that can take as long as needed to develop. But there is still a loose calendar that comes into play.

The development business shuts down for the holidays, and doesn’t really get going again until after Sundance in early February. Then people come back to work eager and energized and with brand new budgets (most studios have a calendar year fiscal year, Disney being an exception). There’s usually a flurry of activity from February through April.

As you get into summer, things slow down. People are tiring and budgets are getting lower so execs get pickier. Then, it’s kind of an unwritten rule that August is vacation month. Even if your agent or manager stays in town, they will have trouble reaching people. This idea has now become so accepted that if an agent sends a script out in August the assumption is he/she is dumping it because it’s not very good.

In September people come back from vacation ready to work and there’s a good buying period for a month or two. Things start to shut down the week before Thanksgiving. You don’t want to send anything out Thanksgiving weekend, but you might get a week or two after. Nothing much goes out after mid-December because of the holiday distractions.

So you can see that the hottest time to send material into the marketplace is February/March and September. But you will also have a lot of competition in those periods. Also, there may be reasons to send out things at another specific time. Maybe you want to send out your spring break movie around spring break, for example. Or ride the coattails of a similar movie that was just a huge hit. Bottom line, you and your representatives should be strategizing timing.

This schedule assumes you are sending out material through an agent or manager. If you are looking for an agent or manager, you might consider this schedule as well, but in another way. Representation will be very busy in February/March and in September. August and December will still be filled with distraction. However, the slower summer months might be a good time for them to read scripts and meet with prospective clients.

These things can change over time, as does the type of material that does best in the market (pitch vs. script, for example). That’s why you should be at least skimming the trades. Understanding the rhythms of the business will help you create the most receptive environment for your material.

Friday, October 11, 2013

How to Write a Road Movie

(SPOILERS: Little Miss Sunshine, Elysium, Rain Man, Vacation, Apocalypse Now)

There is a common type of movie known as a “road movie” or “trip-with-a-destination” film where the main character or characters embark on a trip from one place to another, learning life lessons along the way.

They’re not exactly a genre – road movies can be dramas, thrillers, romantic comedies, broad comedies, adventure movies, etc. The varied examples include Little Miss Sunshine; The Hobbit; Cloverfield; O Brother, Where Art Thou?; Apocalypse Now; 2001: A Space Odyssey; The Sure Thing; Elysium; Vacation; Planes, Trains and Automobiles; About SchmidtRain Man; and Midnight Run. So the road movie is more of a structural form than a genre.

There are some common pitfalls involved in writing road movies. The first challenge is that they tend to be episodic. The character is moving from point A to point Z, having little adventures along the way. The trip itself gives us somewhat of a through line, but in many cases that’s not enough to keep an audience engaged.

In good road movies, often it’s the internal story that provides the momentum. Each episode will advance the character’s internal development. For example, the story of Rain Man (story by Barry Morrow, screenplay by Ronald Bass and Barry Morrow) is really the story of the developing relationship between Charlie and Raymond. The adventures along the way are all built to push that relationship forward. Midnight Run (written by George Gallo) and Planes, Trains and Automobiles (written by John Hughes) work the same way.

A ticking clock can help keep the tension up on the journey. For example, in Little Miss Sunshine (written by Michael Arndt) the family has to reach the pageant in California by a specific deadline or Olive will not be allowed to compete. Each setback along the way increases the tension as time grows short. In Elysium (written by Neill Blomkamp), Max has five days before he dies of radiation poisoning. That puts a good ticking clock on his journey to reach Elysium and get a cure.

You’ll also want to use advertising to keep the audience looking forward and to remind them why we’re on the trip in the first place. In Little Miss Sunshine, Olive is often rehearsing her routine with her grandfather. Nobody else is allowed to see it. This gives us something to look forward to: what will Olive’s routine be like?

In Cloverfield (written by Drew Goddard), the journey is to Beth’s apartment to save her. Rob has received a confused phone call where it seemed she has been injured, but the situation is unclear. Like him, we’re anxious to know what he’ll find when he gets there.

Typically the characters embark on their journey at the Catalyst or the Act One Turning Point. In some cases, they’ll arrive at their destination at the Resolution. This seems logical – the story’s about a journey, it should end when they arrive at the destination – but in fact this is often a bad choice. Ending the journey at the resolution only really works if simply getting to the destination solves the character's problem, such as in The Poseidon Adventure (screenplay by Stirling Silliphant and Wendell Mayes). In these cases the obstacles are all designed to impede the character from reaching their destination.

But most road movies are not really about the journey. Once you start analyzing them, you’ll find that most often the characters arrive at the destination at the end of Act Two. The journey is there to force the character to grow and to build anticipation for what will happen at the destination. Then when the characters get where they’re going, either the destination isn’t what they expected, or it is what they expected but the character’s goal has changed. This allows the movie to spin into a new direction in Act Three.

For example, in Little Miss Sunshine the family arrives at their destination – the pageant – at the end of Act Two. But they discover the pageant is filled with creepy girls and their stage parents. Suddenly the family is worried about what kind of world Olive is getting into. They question whether she should compete. This becomes a new tension for Act Three.

In Apocalypse Now (written by John Milius and Francis Ford Coppola), Willard arrives at Kurtz’s compound to discover Kurtz has built a bizarre community of fanatical followers. Willard is taken captive. Act Three is the story of how Willard will resolve the conflict with Kurtz.

In Vacation (screenplay by John Hughes), the Griswold’s finally arrive at their destination, Wally World, at the end of Act Two, only to find it is closed for maintenance. This sets Clark off on a crazed plan to force a security guard to take them on all the rides – the new tension of Act Three.

In Elysium, Max is trying to get to Elysium because they can cure his radiation poisoning. There are plenty of action-packed physical challenges for him to overcome. But as his journey unfolds, Max comes to see the bigger issues and injustices in the world. By the time he arrives at Elysium, he is a different person. He started hoping to save his own life, but now his goal has changed. In the end, he sacrifices himself for the greater good.

In Rain Man, Charlie and Raymond arrive back in Los Angeles where Charlie had planned to use Raymond as leverage to get a portion of his father’s inheritance from the institution Raymond was living at. But since Charlie has learned to love his brother over the course of the movie, when he is offered cash to resolve things, he turns it down. His goal has changed – now he wants what’s best for Raymond.

If you’re writing a road movie, you need to ask yourself what the movie is really about and structure accordingly. Then you need to be sure that you use screenwriting tools to maintain the forward momentum.


If you're in Los Angeles, Ken Aguado and I will be discussing pitching at the Scriptwriters Network on October 19th.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Three Tips for Writing Productivity

People often ask writers about their writing process and habits. I’m always happy to talk about mine, though I believe this is an individual thing and what works for one writer may not work well for another. That said, I have a few tips that I find improve productivity, and I think they’ll work whatever your process.

1. Set aside specific writing time. If you are serious about writing, you ought to set aside a specific time to do it, and protect this time. Eliminate distractions. These days people have become accustomed to being constantly connected, but that doesn’t lend itself to productive writing. When you are writing, don’t answer the phone, don’t look at email or texts, don’t let yourself go on Facebook or Twitter. For the period you determine, you are doing nothing but writing.

For me, the key to making this work is I don’t put pressure on myself to turn out a certain number of pages or scenes or whatever. If I say I’m going to write for two hours, it’s okay if I only write one sentence, as long as I don’t do anything else during those two hours. Even if I don’t feel creative, eventually I’ll get bored staring at that blank page and start to noodle with something, and inevitably I’ll get more work done than I thought I was going to.

Some writers, particularly novelists, prefer to set a page or word count target. This is one of those “whatever works best for you” things. But if you take this approach, you should still block out all other distractions until you hit your goal.

2. Write every day. Or at least six days a week. There is momentum to writing that will carry over day to day, but if you take a couple days off, you’ll lose it. The longer the gap between writing sessions, the more time it will take you to get your imagination back into your story and characters. I find it’s much better to do a short writing session every day (or twice a day) than long writing sessions only on weekends.

You also get an advantage because your brain will work at your story for awhile after a writing session. You’ll find ideas popping into your head while you’re cooking or in the shower. But if you don’t get back to the writing soon, that will fade. Writing every day turns your whole day into a “writing session.”

3. Prepare the next day’s work at end of your writing session. Some proponents of the “setting aside a specific time to write” will advocate stopping mid-sentence when your writing time is up. This goes to the momentum idea. If you stop in the middle of something, you will be primed to jump back in the next day. I don’t take things quite that far. In fact, I prefer to finish any scene I’m working on if at all possible.

However I have found it’s dangerous to finish a scene, save my document, and then walk away. The next day I’m faced with that first page anxiety even if I’m in the middle of my script. It’s much better to spend the last ten minutes or so of your writing session planning out what you’ll do first thing the next day. Brainstorm ideas or bits of dialogue for the scene. You won’t feel any pressure because you don’t have to write it until tomorrow, but when you do sit down tomorrow, you’ll have some rough material to work with. And you’ll also prime your subconscious to come up with ideas between writing sessions.

A bonus technique: Outline. I like to outline my screenplays in great detail. Some writers don’t – including some very successful writers – so obviously this is not the only way to go. But one of the advantages of working from an outline is you always know, at a macro level, what’s going to happen next. You won’t write yourself into a corner and then be stuck for days trying to figure out how to get out. And as a practical matter, if you become a professional screenwriter you will often be forced to break your story for others before you can start your first draft, so you might as well get in the habit.

Another bonus technique: If you need a day job, get one you hate. It will motivate you to write every day so you can quit! Just try to get a job that doesn’t have a lot of overtime.

There is a caveat to all of this. You do not want to put yourself in a mindset where if conditions aren’t perfect, you can’t write. Life is busy, even once you are able to make writing your full time job. You may have to write in a hotel room or the lobby of a building between meetings. When you’re starting out, you may have to write during your lunch hour of your day job.

The most important point is that if you want to be a professional writer you have to commit time to do the job. If you don’t start digging the ditch, the ditch won’t get dug.