Friday, June 27, 2014

Six Qualities of Great Main Characters

A great main character is one of the most important components of great storytelling. If the audience doesn’t care about the main character, they won’t care about the outcome of the story. From a more “business” standpoint, great main characters draw stars and directors to your screenplay.

Today I want to look at six common elements of great main characters – three that relate to who the character is, and three more that are a little more subtle, but help explain why the first three are so important.

To illustrate my list, I’ll use three engaging but very different main characters from three very different types of movies: Indiana Jones from Raiders of the Lost Ark (story by George Lucas and Philip Kaufman, screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan), Amelie from the French movie Amelie (scenario by Guillaume Laurant and Jean-Peirre Jeunet, dialogue by Guillaume Laurant) and Theodore from Her (written by Spike Jonze)

1. Great characters are really good at something.
Even if the character is a “loser,” they will still be really good at one thing. We like people who are talented, intelligent, resourceful, and/or heroic. Indiana Jones is fantastic at using a bullwhip, and incredibly resourceful at getting out of sticky situations. Theodore is one of the most romantic people in the world – so romantic he makes a living writing love letters for other people. Amelie is very clever – look at the complicated pranks she plays on the mean grocer and on her father, and the complex trail of clues she leaves for the man she’s attracted to. She also discovers she's quite good at helping other people, and makes that her mission in life.

2. Great characters are flawed. Despite being good at something, they also have at least one weakness, which makes them relatable and gives them room to grow. Indiana Jones is afraid of snakes, and though he's tough, he's usually not the strongest guy in a fight. Amelie is shy and emotionally guarded, terribly afraid of having her heart broken. Theodore is having difficulty getting over his failed marriage.

3. Great characters want something badly within the story. Indiana Jones wants the ark. Amelie wants to find love before it's too late. Theodore wants Samantha. These wants are what drives the story forward, what ties the character to the plot.

Now the three more subtle traits:

4. Great characters are specific. The more specific a character, the more believable they are, and the more believable they are, the more we can relate to them. Indiana Jones is an archeologist who uses a bullwhip – not a common action hero type, but a unique and memorable hero. Amelie’s life is initially drawn by the movie's narrator through specific, minute details. Throughout the movie great care is taken to tell us exactly where thing are located, how long actions take, and how people are connected, among many other details. Theodore is similarly delineated through a specific, unique job and details about his lifestyle and relationships.

5. Great characters are complicated. This is why it’s important that they are both really good at something and flawed. Often complication comes from the contrast between their strengths, flaws and wants. Amelie wants love but is afraid of having her heart broken. Her flaw is her biggest obstacle to getting what she wants. Theodore loves Samantha, but also questions whether the relationship is genuine. He worries that he may be motivated to love an operating system because of his previous failure to stay married to a human woman. Indiana Jones wants the Ark but wrestles with his motivations and the value of what he does – is preserving history more important than saving Marion's life?

6. Great characters are active. We don’t want characters who simply experience events, we want characters who take action, driving the story. This is why it’s important the character wants something badly. This will motivate them to act – the way Indiana Jones is spurred to keep going despite multiple setbacks, because he really wants that Ark! Or the way Amelie finally overcomes her fears, or the way Theodore fights for his relationship with Samantha. This action can be reactive – the character may be minding their own business when something happens to them. But the character must then respond to that event actively.

If your main character is talented, flawed, motivated, specific, complicated and active, you have a good shot at a great main character.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Wisdom from LAFF and DIFF

Over the last couple weeks I have attended two different film festivals – DIFF LA, an Art Center College student run festival for film students from around the world, and the LA Film Festival run by Film Independent. (Full disclosure: I am one of the faculty advisers for DIFF!) There were great speakers at both festivals, a few great films, a few not-so-great films, and some good networking opportunities. Here are some highlights you might find interesting:


Greg Silverman, President of Creative Development and Worldwide Production at Warner Brothers, gave the keynote at DIFF. He started his talk by asking, rhetorically, why a bunch of young, independent minded film students should listen to a “suit” like him. He said he saw his job as striving “to connect great artists to audiences through the right source material."

He elaborated that what he looks for in a filmmaker is a unique, original voice. His goal is to match the right voices to the right stories. And he’s looking for these voices everywhere, which is how Monsters lead to Godzilla, Swingers lead to Edge of Tomorrow and Zack Snyder’s Jeep commercials lead to 300.

(Here's a Hollywood Reporter article about this keynote)

Later, Tarsem, director of such films as Mirror, Mirror, Immortals, and The Fall, continued the theme of finding one’s voice and creating work that reflects that – in a hilariously honest and profanity-laced talk. His biggest piece of advice to students was to, “Put together a portfolio that reflects who you are. And it may turn out you’re shit, but then you’ll know.”

Tarsem also suggested the people who succeed are the ones who know they can’t do it all and find other talented people to collaborate with. (Tarsem attended Art Center around the same time as Michael Bay and Zack Snyder, and mentioned those two had this collaborative quality.)

Tarsem won my additional respect and admiration by taking a large group of students out to the lawn after his talk and sitting with them for over two hours discussing filmmaking and answering questions.

Los Angeles Film Festival

I love LAFF, particularly the Coffee Talks and the FIND party. This year I attended the Directors’ Coffee Talk featuring Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine, Ruby Sparks), Kimberly Peirce (Boys Don't Cry, Carrie) and Debra Granik (Stray Dog, Winter's Bone).

One of the first topics was what draws the directors to material. Kimberly Pierce stated that she has to fall in love with the main character. The other panelists all pretty much agreed that an interesting, fully developed main character is the key draw for them to make a film. Jonathan Dayton also said that “Making a film is like getting a tattoo – it’ll be there forever so you better make sure you really like it.”

They talked a lot about craft – about sound design, score, mixing, how they find indelible images, working with actors – far too much for me to recount, unfortunately.

Kimberly Pierce made a great point for writers. She said there are scenes you like and scenes you need. And she advised writers and directors to get real about what they really need in a film. She described too often getting to editing and finally accepting she had to cut a scene she liked that wasn’t necessary. And then she was angry that she spent the time and money to shoot that scene. Jonathan Dayton suggested that’s why big studio popcorn movies (which he likes) are often so bloated – they’d be better if they cut 45 minutes out, but that 45 minutes cost $50 million to make so everyone is too attached to it.

When an audience member talked about how his father only likes mainstream films and asked how the panelists deal with relationships like that, Debra Granik gave her Trojan horse theory: you make mainstream films but slip in interesting characters and observations about the human condition. She went through a thought exercise of doing a romantic comedy but with two well-developed, realistic characters you wouldn’t expect to fall in love. This led to the panelists agreeing that every film has to be entertaining – even indie films.

The question that stumped the panel for several seconds was asked by a young actress (young meaning maybe 12 years old): What does success mean to you? The consensus that finally emerged was you have to love the process, not be results oriented. The result is too much out of your control.

I would summarize the underlying message of all the talks at both festivals as being two fold: First, it’s necessary to find your voice and to stay true to it. But it’s also necessary to collaborate and to be flexible with how you insert your voice into your work.

Film festivals are great not just for hearing talented people talk about their craft, or for seeing interesting movies (tip: Of Men and Horses was great), they are also a fabulous opportunity to network. Between chatting with people sitting next to me at the talks or screenings, and two parties – the WGA/SAG Indie party and the Film Independent members party – I met several writers, directors and producers, and a couple of film financiers. After a lengthy chat, one producer even asked me to send him a script.

Now, a few of observations about networking at a film festival or really anywhere:

First, the hard sell just turns people off. When you sit down next to someone at a festival, the wrong approach is to try to find out what they can do for you, then pitch them a project. The right approach is to talk about what films they’ve seen at the festival and what they thought of them. (Though be careful - at one of the parties someone was slamming a film only to realize one of the actors from that film was five feet away. Awkward!) At some point you’ll both probably talk about what you do. Invariably, upon finding that I’m a writer, producers or directors will ask what I'm working on. But it should be casual and friendly. And you should treat everyone exactly the same, no matter what their position. After all, making a friend is as valuable as making an industry contact – maybe more valuable!

Second, don’t make it about you. Try to find a way to help them, even if it’s just recommending a film you really like. I was able to recommend a writer’s group to a screenwriter I met, and after talking about the challenge of writing treatments with a director, she asked if I had any good samples I could send her – I did.

Third, networking laterally is the most valuable. Tarsem made that point when he talked about how important the connections he made at Art Center were to his early career. The big film financier I met ultimately may not do anything for me, but perhaps the fellow screenwriter will introduce me to a producer who will buy one of my scripts.

So when networking, look for like-minded people and, to paraphrase Kennedy, ask not what they can do for you, but what you can do for them.

If you’ve never been to a film festival, I highly recommend giving it a try. If you love film it’s hard for it not to be a great experience. These festivals also show why it’s so helpful for aspiring screenwriters to live in Los Angeles – a festival like DIFF would not get speakers like Greg Silverman or Tarsem if it were in the Midwest. There are small festivals at least once a month in LA that manage to draw real industry people.

Also, I recommend checking out Film Independent as an organization. In addition to LAFF they do the Spirit Awards, a film series at LACMA, and have tons of filmmaker resources.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Establishing the Rules

The audience will believe anything you tell them.

At least, they’ll believe anything you tell them about the world of your story. Do people in this world break into song and dance numbers with total strangers? Are there vampires and werewolves? Do people have spaceships with artificial gravity that travel faster than the speed of light? Are there mutants who put on costumes and fight crime? Dragons and elves and magic rings?

The audience will accept all of that and just about anything else you tell them – as long as you establish these elements early. This is known as suspension of disbelief. The audience agrees to accept the fictions you present them in return for a good story. So at the beginning of your movie the audience is trying to figure out what the world of the story is and how it works.

But the audience won’t stay open to anything forever. At some point they want to feel like they understand the rules of the world. Usually that seems to happen about ten or fifteen minutes into the movie. After that, it’s very difficult to introduce new elements that are not recognizable parts of the real world that we know.

Imagine if in the middle of Die Hard (screenplay by Jeb Stuart and Steven E. de Souza) John McLane cast a magic spell. Ridiculous, right? But we have no problem with Harry Potter using magic. It would be weird, however, if a spaceship full of aliens landed on Hogwarts campus. But in Star Wars (written by George Lucas) a spaceship full of aliens doesn’t seem the list bit strange.

Why? Because in Harry Potter we’re told right up front that this is a world with magic, just as in Star Wars we learn aliens are commonplace in the first few minutes of the movie. If at the beginning of Die Hard it were established that this is a world where wizards exist (a la Harry Potter) and John McLane was one of them, we wouldn’t blink when he cast a spell (and it would be a very different movie!)

So it’s important that, if you’re introducing any element that isn’t a familiar part of the world we know, you establish that element early. You also need to clearly define the rules of that element – and then abide by those rules. If you’re using vampires, are your vampires repelled by crosses? Do they need to be invited in before they can enter a house? How do they work, exactly?

The audience has to understand what the characters can and  cannot do, otherwise there’s no way to judge how much jeopardy they’re in. The audience also has to understand what is and isn’t possible in this world. In a world where anything can happen, nothing matters.

You need to be careful to avoid the sense that you’re “cheating.” If in act three your hero suddenly reveals a super power we never knew he had to escape a situation, the audience will feel like the writer couldn’t figure out any other solution. Audiences are savvy. They expect writers to play by the rules of the world they set out.

Sometimes, however, it’s necessary to hold off giving all the details of your fantastical element. But you still have to let the audience know something fantastical is coming and set up a reasonable arena for that element.

This is one of the reasons The Matrix (written by Andy & Lana Wachowski) opens with the prologue of Trinity encountering Agent Smith. Neo – and the audience – isn’t going to learn that what we perceive as reality is actually a computer simulation until over thirty minutes into the movie. If we were given no hint of this possibility, then it could seem silly when it is finally revealed.

The Trinity prologue tells the audience something is strange about this world. We don’t know what, but we are implicitly promised an eventual explanation. As long as that explanation eventually comes – and makes sense – we’re willing to go with the strangeness for a while.

Similarly, in The Sixth Sense (written by M. Night Shyamalan), Cole doesn’t say “I see dead people” until almost halfway through the movie. But there are hints that something supernatural is going on. There’s an important scene very early in the movie where Cole’s mother, in one continuous shot, leaves the kitchen, gets something from the laundry room, and returns to the kitchen to see all the cabinet doors and drawers opened. She asks Cole if he was looking for something, but we know he could never have done that himself in the few seconds she was out of the room. Something strange is going on – and ghosts are a reasonable explanation.

Sometimes you need to be concerned about rules even when you’re doing a realistically grounded story. This happens when you are dealing with an aspect of the world that is not completely familiar. Let’s say you’re writing about virologists fighting a global pandemic. You will probably need to explain to the audience how viruses work and what the virologists can and can’t do to fight them.

That’s because the rules aren’t about getting the audience to believe the impossible, they’re about setting out the context of the story. It doesn’t matter whether something can happen in the real world, it matters whether the audience knows it’s possible in your story world.

Though the audience will believe anything, it’s best to keep the rules as simple as possible. The more complex your fantastical element, the more you risk confusion in the audience. It’s one of the reasons filmmakers so often fall back on common mythical creatures like vampires and zombies. Even though many stories contain slight variations on the rules of those creatures, we all understand the basic concepts. It’s then easier to explain your version of the creature to the audience.

Audiences aren’t the only ones who care about the rules. Hollywood producers and development execs are obsessed with them. If you aren’t 100% clear about how your fantastical elements work, expect a lot of questions and consternation.

This can be particularly challenging when you’re pitching. You usually have to set aside a little time after you’ve given your log line to explain the rules of your world. And here’s where simplicity is again your friend. The rules are boring – they keep you from the story. If you keep the rules simple, they won’t get in the way of the good stuff.

Of course all of this requires that you know the rules of your world. If they are vague in your head they will be vague to the audience. Be specific and clear. And then let the story take over.


Note: In the comments section of my last post, How to Pitch at a Pitch Fest, Signe Olnyk clarified some ways in which The Great American PitchFest is different than previous pitchfests I’ve been involved with. If you’re planning to attend that event, it’s worth reading. Most of my advice still applies – you should be doing a short teaser pitch for an existing screenplay, and you should endeavor to create a professional impression.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

How to Pitch at a Pitch Fest

There are many different pitching situations, and though the content of most pitches is similar, it’s important to tailor your strategy to the context in which you will be pitching. On June 21st I will be doing a talk at the Great American Pitch Fest with Ken Aguado, my co-writer on The Hollywood Pitching Bible, about the art of the two-minute pitch. So today I want to discuss good strategy for pitching at a pitch fest.

There are several pitch fests out there, all of which follow roughly the same format. You go into a series of short meetings – 5 minutes is typical – usually with representatives of 3-5 companies in each meeting. Often the companies will be grouped by genre interest and you will be assigned meetings by the genre of your project. You get to pitch an idea, exchange information if anybody’s interested, and then move on. It’s a volume game on both sides – they’re hoping to find a couple of potential projects among the dozens they’ll hear about, and you’re hoping to generate interest from a handful of companies among the dozens you’ll pitch to.

The first thing to be aware of is that the people sitting across the table from you will not be empowered to buy anything. The decision makers at the company aren’t going to spend their weekend listening to unknown writers pitch – that’s a job for a low-level development person. And unless you are an established screenwriter, nobody is going to hire you just off your pitch anyway.

So your goal at these events is typically to convince the listeners to read one of your existing spec screenplays. If they like it, then they can bump it up the ladder to their boss. This means your pitch is designed more as a tease for the screenplay rather than a complete recitation of your story. You need the concept, a compelling character (or two or three) and a suggestion of how the story develops. You do not want to be trying to cram every plot beat into these pitches! But you should be prepared to answer any questions about the plot.

The other thing to pay attention to is the brief length of the meeting. This means your pitch must be short, short, short! In fact, if the meeting is five or ten minutes, the pitch shouldn’t exceed 2 minutes. You want some time for small talk and to answer questions, should they have any. Two minutes is ample time for them to decide if they want to read your spec, assuming you pitch it clearly.

The small talk/introduction part of the meeting is actually pretty important. It’s your chance to make an impression on them. They want to see if you’re an interesting person… and if you’re insane. In other words, they want to know if you are someone they’d like to work with.

If you’re insane, this blog post probably isn’t going to help you much. Assuming you're sane, though, I would advise you to prepare for your small talk as much as you do the pitch. You only get a couple minutes, don’t talk about the weather. Tell them something that interests and intrigues them and justifies why you might be a good writer with a good script.

If you have some experience or training that gives you credibility (for example, a film school degree or experience as a journalist) then you should mention it when you introduce yourself.

If there’s something about your life or your background that’s interesting – maybe you have a fascinating job or grew up somewhere unusual – that might be good small talk. Ideally what you say is also relevant to your pitch! So if your script is set on a boat and you are an avid sailor, your sailing hobby would be good to talk about.

By the way, if you’re pitching a comedy it won’t hurt if you’re funny. You might have a joke or two prepared – ones that you’ve tried out on your friends to be sure they’re as funny as you think they are.

It hopefully goes without saying that you should have good hygiene. I would also recommend dressing nicely, though not in a suit. Writers don’t typically wear suits to meetings. But you don’t want to wear cut-off jeans and a ragged T-shirt either. Your time is limited, everything about you should be designed to give a good, professional impression.

Some people bring visual aids, props, or elaborate Power Point presentations to these things. When the visual aids are gimmicky, they can hurt you much more than help you. If a visual aid really makes it easier to explain your story, then consider it. But flashy images or presentations will not determine if someone wants to read your script. The strongest selling tools you have are a good idea and compelling character(s). Make those things the focus.

You will want to have business cards – I suggest printing your title and logline on the back so people will remember why they wanted your card. More likely interested execs and producers will give you their card, or even just tell you to contact them and leave it to you to track down a phone number or email. Bring a notebook and jot down information about any interested parties after the meeting. By the following day you will barely remember who was who amongst the sea of pitches. Follow up within two weeks to arrange to send the script to anybody who requested it.

Regardless of how it goes, be polite and grateful. Smile. Stay upbeat. Thank the listeners at the end of the meeting. It’s a long, long day for them, too.