Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Announcing My Upcoming Screenwriting Book

Big announcement, Lets Schmooze readers. I am near publication of a book on screenwriting: Mastering the Three Stages of Screenwriting. It should be available in a few weeks – I will certainly keep you posted. I thought I’d include an excerpt from the Introduction which explains why I wrote the book and what my approach is. Hope you enjoy!


Why another book on screenwriting?

Fair question. There are a lot of them out there. Let me tell you why I went to the trouble of writing this and maybe that will help explain why I think the world needs another screenwriting book.

I became a screenwriter because of Star Wars and Time magazine. After I saw Star Wars as a kid, I became obsessed with it, reading everything I could about the movie. At that time, there wasn’t much information available about how movies were made. No DVD commentaries, movie magazines, or movie websites for a kid to seek out. But my dad’s Time magazine had an article about Star Wars, so I read it. And that’s where I learned about a guy named George Lucas who was a director. “Sounds like a fun job,” I thought. “That’s what I’m going to be when I grow up.”

Not such an easy thing when you go to high school in Juneau, Alaska and don’t know anybody in the film business. I went to the University of Southern California film school because I learned that’s where George Lucas went… and my guidance counselor didn’t even know you could major in film.

I started out focusing mostly on cinematography, and when I graduated I worked small jobs as a production assistant, gaffer, or grip. On the side, I was working on screenplays. I discovered I had more of a passion for the writing part of making movies than anything else. So I went back to grad school, majoring in screenwriting. And over time I discovered writing was the thing people were most willing to pay me to do.

I learned story structure (of the three-act variety) in grad school back at USC. I’ve also read dozens of books on the subject, most of which added to or altered my approach in some ways. More importantly, I’ve written over twenty-five screenplays, some of which were bad, some of which were good, some of which got me an agent or writing work, and in one case (so far) got made into a big hit movie – Sweet Home Alabama. I’ve also written a children’s play that’s been performed thousands of times (Sleepover at the Stable), a video game (Nightmare Cove), and an animated television pilot (The MOFF Shoppe). Each experience helped me hone my approach to screenwriting.

Then, I got hired to teach a screenwriting class at Art Center College of Design. I naturally built my syllabus around what I was initially taught. But I quickly realized some of that stuff I never actually used. Plus, I wanted to include the many other things that I had learned since. So I adjusted the class to reflect my “real world” experience. I also asked other professional screenwriters what they thought about various techniques and adjusted my teaching process further.

Since then I have had the experience of helping hundreds of students hone their own screenplays. I’ve seen the mistakes they commonly make and I continued adjusting my teaching approach to head off those mistakes. I’ve also become a better writer myself in the process.

I was looking for a book to use as a textbook for my class. I found some very good screenwriting books, but nothing that was both comprehensive and deep on all the subjects I covered. Many gave a useful account of structure; far fewer dealt with crafting a powerful scene. Almost none covered techniques for rewriting. And there was a lot of misinformation about character development out there.

So I wrote this book to provide a complete guide to the craft of writing a screenplay the way the professionals do it. I will cover each part of the process in-depth; giving you the theories, techniques, and tools I have found to be the most practical in my own writing career. And I will endeavor to always keep the focus on creating a screenplay that can actually be turned into a movie. Because that’s the goal, isn’t it.

How to Use This Book

The screenwriting process consists of three distinct stages that require different mindsets. As you’ve undoubtedly figured out from my title, I’ve divided the book by those three stages.

The first stage is story development. This is where you figure out what your story is, who the characters are, and what happens. It requires both creativity and an understanding of narrative structure.

The second stage is writing the first draft. This is where you take the solid skeleton you built in the first stage and flesh it out with action, dialogue, spectacle and all the things we love in movies.

The third stage is rewriting. This takes the longest. Your first draft will not be perfect. Likely it will be a raging disaster. That’s okay – that’s what first drafts are for. It is in the rewriting stage that you take that raw material and shape it into something brilliant.

I will discuss the techniques used in each of the stages, including the theory behind them. I think it’s important that you don’t just memorize rules or a list of plot points, but that you understand why we’ve come to codify these techniques the way we have. Every story is different, and if you really understand technique, you will know how to apply it to your unique story in a way that brings out your vision and voice, rather than conforming your ideas to someone else’s form.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Using a Prologue

(Spoilers: Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Matrix, Romancing the Stone)

I define a prologue in a screenplay as an opening sequence that is not critical to the plot. You could cut off the prologue and the story would still make sense. The audience would never know something was missing. The majority of movies don’t have a prologue, but it’s not uncommon either. For example, most James Bond movies open with a prologue.

Just because a prologue can be removed without damaging the audience’s understanding of the story doesn’t mean they serve no purpose. Prologues are useful to:
  • Grab the audience and draw them into the story
  • Establish the tone of the story
  • Introduce fantastical elements
You should consider using a prologue if the opening of your story would fail to do one of these important things. Most movies open by showing the main character in their normal life – the status quo that will be interrupted by the events of the story. The character’s status quo may be interesting enough to draw the audience in, and it may serve to properly establish the tone and world of the story. If so, you don’t need a prologue. In Gravity (written by Alfonso & Jonas Cuaron), for example, the main character of Ryan is an astronaut working on a satellite in space. Her status quo is plenty dramatic and entertaining, so there’s no need to add a sequence before it! However sometimes showing the character in their regular life isn’t going to do the job.

Let’s look at some examples of successful prologues.
Raiders of the Lost Ark (story by George Lucas and Philip Kaufman, screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan) opens with a prologue about Indiana Jones recovering an idol from a trapped jungle cave. This has nothing to do with the plot of recovering the Ark of the Covenant. But if we didn’t have the prologue, we’d open with Indy at his college teacher job. It would be a while before we got to the good, swashbuckling action. The prologue here grabs the audience and establishes the adventurous tone.

Similarly, The Matrix (written by Andy & Lana Wachowski) opens with a cool action prologue of Trinity running from the agents. This not only grabs us with kung fu, sci-fi action to help carry us through the next relatively action-free half hour of the movie, but it lets the audience know that there is something strange about this world. We are open to almost anything in the first minutes of the movie, but as we start to grasp the rules of the story world, anything that breaks those rules feels implausible.

In the prologue in The Matrix, Trinity and the agents have superhuman abilities and somehow Trinity magically escapes the phone booth at the end of the sequence. If we didn’t have this, the first hint that the world is not the one we’re familiar with would come when the agents erase Neo’s mouth. This would probably be too late in the movie, and the audience would find it laughable or confusing. But with the prologue we accept it.

Romancing the Stone (written by Diane Thomas) has a particularly interesting prologue. The setting is the Wild West. A bad guy threatens a woman. A dashing hero swoops in to save her. It’s all very overheated and romantic. And then it is revealed that this is actually a scene from the main character’s novel, taking place in her imagination.

This prologue again serves to draw the audience into the story and establish an adventurous tone. This is important because Joan’s regular life as a hermitic writer living in Manhattan doesn’t suggest the romantic adventure that the movie will ultimately deliver. The prologue does other important things, too, though. It establishes what kind of man Joan likes and how she thinks romance ought to play out. This sets up a nice contrast when Colton appears and proves to be a very different kind of man.

In Raiders of the Lost Ark and Romancing the Stone some people might consider the prologues part of the status quo. After all, Indiana Jones is a swashbuckling archaeologist from the beginning of the movie, and Joan Wilder is already a writer of overheated romantic adventures. I would still consider them prologues because they are like little mini-stories unto themselves. Both movies could start after these prologues and would still make perfect sense – although they wouldn’t be quite as enjoyable.

Prologues exist outside of the typical three-act structure. If you use a prologue, it would not be surprising to find your Catalyst coming a little later in the film. This is okay as long as the prologue is suitably exciting to engage the audience – and if it’s not, then it’s not doing its job as a prologue!


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Sunday, December 6, 2015

4 Ways to Use Subplots

(Spoilers: Whiplash, Guardians of the Galaxy, Almost Famous, 40 Year-Old Virgin, Star Wars, Bridge of Spies, Inception)

Most discussion of screenwriting technique focuses on how to create a great A-plot for your story, but great subplots can enhance both the A-plot and the overall movie experience. The important thing is that the subplot serve some purpose to the overall story. Here are four ways to use subplots effectively.

1. A subplot can reveal character.

You can create a subplot that will demonstrate an aspect of the main character that is difficult to bring out in the main plot. For example, in Guardians of the Galaxy, (written by James Gunn and Nicole Perlman) the subplot involving Peter Quill’s mother humanizes him and makes him sympathetic. This helps us root for a character who is a self-absorbed thief when we first meet him.

And in Whiplash (written by Damien Chazelle), Andrew’s romance with Nicole illustrates aspects of his character. For example, we see the destructive nature of his commitment to his musical goals when he breaks up with Nicole simply because he anticipates she may not be supportive sometime in the future. Later, when he calls to try to reconnect, we can see that he has realized he may have had misplaced priorities.

2. A subplot can trigger character arc.

In some stories, the character needs to change in order to achieve their goal. A subplot can provide the impetus for that change. Often that comes in the form of a mentor. In Star Wars (written by George Lucas), Luke’s relationship with Obi Wan Kenobi is the trigger that starts him learning about the Force. It is this growth that ultimately allows him to destroy the Death Star in the end.

Love interests often serve this purpose as well. In Almost Famous (written by Cameron Crowe), William needs to lose his awe of the rock stars in order to become a serious journalist. His relationship with Penny Lane causes him to recognize the negative aspect of the band he worships when he sees how they treat her. This is the impetus for him to write a great article about the band.

3. A subplot can reveal different approaches to the theme.

If your main character is taking one approach to the issue of the film, you can use subplots to demonstrate other approaches. This can deepen the thematic complexity of the story and reveal the pros and cons of the main character’s approach. In Whiplash, Andrew’s father provides an example of a loving, supportive mentor relationship in comparison to the abusive relationship Andrew has with Fletcher. But Andrew’s father also shows what happens when an artist compromises and settles for mediocrity.

The subject matter of The 40 Year-Old Virgin (written by Judd Apatow & Steve Carell) is sex. Andy’s three friends have different approaches to the subject of sex. David is still obsessed with an ex-girlfriend, Cal is only interested in one-night-stands, and Jay is in an apparently happy relationship, but insists on cheating on his girlfriend. Each offers a different perspective on sex and its place in relationships, and each has a character arc that adds complexity to the subject matter of the movie.

4. A subplot can provide stakes for the main character.

If the main character in your story needs personal stakes, then a subplot can provide them. In Bridge of Spies (written by Matt Charman and Ethan & Joel Coen), the main character of James Donovan cares about the outcome of the legal case he’s defending and the subsequent prisoner exchange negotiation because he’s an ethical lawyer. This provides some stakes, but no personal downside to James’ success or failure. However, the subplot with his family gives James something to lose. By following his ethical course, he puts his family in peril, as witnessed by the shots fired through the living room window while his daughter is on the couch.

In Inception (written by Christopher Nolan), the subplot with Cobb’s family performs a similar function, and then twists it. On the surface, Cobb is determined to succeed at the mission of the film because if he does, he is promised the opportunity to reunite with his children. However, we then learn through this subplot that Cobb may actually be trapped in a dream. This provides added stakes – if it is a dream, then Cobb can only be reunited with his children by rejecting it.

Most of these are examples of dramatization, or “show, don’t tell.” Rather than have the character talk about how they feel, their backstory, or the thematic concepts of the story, you can demonstrate those ideas with a subplot. It’s more dramatic, powerful, and realistic.


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"I used to always recommend that new writers read Story as their first and most important introduction to the craft of screenwriting, but from now on, I’m going to recommend The Three Stages of Screenwriting."
-LA Screenwriter Review

Monday, November 30, 2015

More Industry Slang for Screenwriters

A few years ago I did a post on film industry slang that screenwriters should be familiar with. Today I’m going to add a few more words to the list. It’s useful to know these things so you don’t sound like a newbie.

Shared Universe – This is the hot new buzzword in the film business. It means a story world that encompasses multiple movies featuring different characters in interconnected stories. The term was born to describe the “Marvel Universe,” but it also applies to the “Star Wars Universe,” Sony’s upcoming “Robin Hood Universe,” and Universal’s new shared universe built around their classic monsters.

I.P. – Stands for “Intellectual Property” and is generally used colloquially in the film business to refer to underlying copyrighted material like a comic book, novel, play, etc. (In legal discussions it means a collection of rights associated with material that is protected by patent, trademark, and/or copyright.)

Option – Used as a noun to refer to an option-purchase agreement (“I have an option on that script”), or as a verb to refer to making an option-purchase agreement (“I want to option that script”). In an option-purchase agreement, a producer or studio acquires the exclusive right to purchase a script for a specified period of time. They pay a small fee for this right. If they “exercise the option” they pay a pre-determined amount and then own the script. If they “let the option lapse” (by not “exercising the option”) the writer keeps ownership of the script as well as the fee.

– This refers to a situation where a producer or studio brings in multiple writers in separate meetings to pitch their take on an assignment. The producer/studio then selects the pitch they like best.

Beat Sheet – An outline using bullet points or numbered beats to outline the steps of a story.

Marked Script – This is a draft of the script that shows the changes from the previous draft. You generate a “marked script” by turning on Revision Mode in Final Draft before you begin making changes.

Locked Script – Once a script is locked, scenes are numbered and any changes require the adding of “colored pages” to indicate the change. Scene numbers can’t change, so any added scenes will be given a letter (e.g. Scene 2B) and omitted scenes will be designated as such. You create a locked script by selecting “Lock Pages” in Final Draft. (Note: This is why you should not number scenes in your spec scripts – the script is not yet locked, so it appears you do not understand the filmmaking process.)

Selling Script – A spec written for the purpose of selling or as a writing sample. Used to distinguish from a script being prepared for production. Selling scripts differ in that they are written to read well. Attention is given to making the wording of action and description compelling, and format rules may be fudged to ease the reading process. Scripts heading to production must adhere to much stricter format and style rules.

Pre-vis – Short for pre-visualization. These are videos created using rough CG animation to visualize how a scene will be shot.

Pitch-vis – Some directors have begun making pre-vis videos of sample scenes for pitches to show how they would approach a project. Writers are not expected to do this.

Notes – Feedback from producers, executives, the director or stars to guide the writer on the next rewrite.

Page One Rewrite – Refers to a major overhaul of a script. In theory, the writer would throw away the entire previous draft and start over from page one. Often, though, the term is used to simply mean the rewrite will require substantial changes.

Polish – A small revision to tweak scenes and dialogue, not requiring major structural changes. Although in practice writers will often be asked to make a few big changes as part of a “polish.”

Water Bottle Tour – When you do a series of general meetings at various producer/studio offices. So-called because you will be given a bottle of water at each meeting. Since you will probably not finish the bottle in the meeting, you soon have a collection of water bottles in your car.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Fixing Logic Holes in Your Screenplay

(Spoilers: Some Like It Hot, Little Miss Sunshine, The Godfather, Back to the Future)

Discovering a logic hole in a finished draft of your screenplay is upsetting. A great story with great characters can be completely undone by a big enough flaw in logic. At the very least, you risk taking the reader/audience out of the story. There are a variety of ways logic problems can seep into your screenplay, and a variety of ways to fix them (thankfully). But it can be challenging. Pull carelessly at the threads of logic and the whole story starts to unravel!

The first approach is preventative. If you create a solid outline for your screenplay, you can catch and fix logic flaws before you commit to a complete draft. Many of the techniques I’ll discuss below will be as useful for fixing logic problems in an outline as they will in a screenplay. The difference is that it’s easier to make big changes at the outline phase. Sometimes, though, a logic problem will slip past you. You may not recognize it until you give the script to a friend for feedback. Other times a structural change in a rewrite can introduce a logic flaw that must be dealt with.

Continuity errors are one type of logic flaw. They can be big or small. A small continuity error would be something like having a character draw a gun two scenes after we saw them throw their gun into the ocean. Sometimes you can just fix those by removing the later reference, but if it’s important that they draw the gun in the later scene, then you may have to add a scene where they somehow retrieve the gun from the ocean or acquire another gun. With a little brainstorming, it shouldn’t be hard to come up with a solution to smaller continuity issues.

Bigger continuity errors might be something like a character appearing in a scene after they’ve been killed. These usually arise when you restructure and move scenes around. You will likely have to restructure some more, or make bigger changes. Consider giving actions to different characters or changing the scene location. Maybe you can move a plot point or piece of exposition from one scene to another. The biggest challenge is usually letting go of how you previously imagined it. Try brainstorming five other ways the broken story beat could occur – even if your five ideas are ridiculous, you will start to open your mind to other approaches.

Character goal can be a powerful tool for solving logic problems. If you need something to happen in your story, but there is no reason that it would, look for a character who could make it happen and then give them a reason to act accordingly.

In Some Like It Hot (story by R. Thoeren and M. Logan, screenplay by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond), there is a funny subplot where Jerry, disguised as a woman, agrees to go on a date with a millionaire named Osgood. But why would he do this? The answer is that Joe is pretending to be a millionaire to woo Sugar and convinces Jerry to accept the date so Joe can sneak on board Osgood’s yacht and act like he owns it. There are many ways Joe could have seduced Sugar, but the yacht scheme gives Jerry a reason to do something “illogical.” He wants to help his friend.

Another common type of logic problem is when there’s an obvious, easier solution to the character’s problem and they don’t take it. In essence, they aren’t acting in their best interest. You can fix this by giving the character a reason not to resort to that other solution.

In Little Miss Sunshine (written by Michael Arndt), the family runs through all alternative possibilities for getting Olive to the pageant other than having everyone pile in a van. In quick succession they eliminate each one. They don’t have money to fly, Sheryll can’t drive a stick, Frank’s suicidal and not to be left alone, etc. In The Godfather (screenplay by Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola), Michael’s the least likely candidate to kill Sollozzo. But he’s also the only person Sollozzo is willing to meet with in person, so any other choice is no longer an option.

Planting is also a powerful way to solve logic problems. First, come up with an explanation for the logic hole. Even if that explanation sounds implausible, you can often sell it by effective planting the idea in an earlier scene. In Some Like It Hot, Joe’s plan to use Osgood’s yacht may seem overly complicated. So the writers establish in an earlier scene that Sugar’s vision of the ideal man includes someone who owns a yacht. Now the whole scheme makes perfect sense.

This is also an effective way to give a character a prop or piece of information they may need to close a logic hole. In Back to the Future (written by Robert Zemeckis & Bob Gale), it may be hard to believe that Marty would remember the exact date and time lightning struck the clock tower. So in an early scene, the writers have a woman hand Marty a flier for a fundraiser on the anniversary of that lightning strike. And then Marty’s girlfriend writes a number on the back of the flyer. Later in the movie, when Marty needs the information about the lightning strike for the story to make sense, voila – there it is in his pocket.

When faced with a logic hole you can either find a way to eliminate it or create a reason why it is actually not a hole. To do this, character motivation and planting will be your most effective tools.


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Monday, November 16, 2015

When to Define the Rules… And When Not to.

(Spoilers: The Star Wars movies, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, Gravity, Alien, The Village)

One of the projects I’m currently working on is a script for a graphic novel. The story involves a demon with supernatural powers. I recently showed the script to my writers group for a second round of feedback. Since the last draft, I had added a prologue that, among other things, attempted to define the demon’s powers and how they worked. I got feedback that the mythology was confusing and too complex. Ironically, I didn’t get that feedback on the first draft, which had the same mythology but didn’t try to explain it. So what had I done wrong?

It’s generally accepted that you have to explain the rules of your world and any supernatural or sci-fi elements in your story. If you have a superhero movie, for example, we want to know what the superhero’s powers are. The audience needs to understand what he can and can’t do. If we don’t know that, it’s hard to understand the drama. We don’t know when the hero’s in danger. If he pulls out a brand new power to save himself from a perilous situation, it’s unsatisfying. It feels like cheating.

That theory would suggest I was right to try to explain how my demon’s powers work. But I missed two crucial nuances to the principle.

First, when we say we need to know the rules, we mean that we need to know what is and isn’t possible. That doesn’t mean we need a complicated explanation for how the magical thing works.

I made a “Star Wars” mistake. In the original Star Wars trilogy (episodes IV, V, and VI), the force was a mystical power. We got some sense of what one could do with it – the Jedi and Sith basically had telekinetic and telepathic abilities. Nobody really questioned the logic of it. But when Lucas started his new trilogy with The Phantom Menace, there was exposition that tried to explain how the force worked. It was a confusing bit of mumbo-jumbo involving tiny microbes called midi-chlorians. And the more the movie explained the force, the more confusing and unbelievable it became.

Compare that to E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (written by Melissa Mathison). In the movie, E.T. has three alien powers: he has a psychic link with Elliott, he can heal with a touch of his finger, and he has a small amount of telekinesis. All of these powers are established in the first act. This satisfies the principle of “defining the rules.” Since we see E.T. levitate the fruit in Act I, for example, we don’t question his ability to levitate the bicycles in Act III.

What we don't need to know is how E.T.’s alien physiology allows him to do these things. The explanation is simply: he’s an alien.

There’s another screenwriting principle that will help explain the second mistake I made. The principle is: coincidence that works against the main character is okay; coincidence that helps the main character is forbidden.

The theory behind this is similar to why you should explain the rules of fantastical elements. We want the hero to earn their victory, so if they’re saved by a random event, it’s unsatisfying. It seems like cheating. (Deux ex Machina endings are a specific type of a coincidence that saves the hero, and we’ve known they were unsatisfying since Aristotle.)

But also because we want the hero to earn their victory, a random event that works against them is okay, because it makes that victory more difficult. In Gravity (written by Alfonso & Jonas Cuaron) almost everything that happens to thwart Ryan’s survival is coincidence, from the shuttle being destroyed to landing in a lake instead of dry ground at the end. And it certainly doesn’t feel like cheating!

Supernatural or sci-fi powers are not coincidences, but I’ve realized the same concept applies. We need to know about E.T.’s ability to levitate early on because it will be used later to save the heroes. But consider a different kind of alien movie: Alien (story by Dan OBannon and Ronald Shusett, screenplay by Dan O’Bannon).

In Alien, the alien’s powers are revealed slowly. That’s part of the fun – watching how the characters react to each new terrible surprise. When the heroes try to cut the face-hugger off of Kane, it’s a shock to them and us that the alien has acid for blood. And then the chest-bursting scene is shocking because we didn’t know an embryo was implanted in Kane. Next, the characters try to catch the little alien with small nets, only to discover it has grown to a huge size. The movie wouldn’t be nearly so entertaining if we were shown all those alien powers up front.

The difference is that in Alien, the alien is the villain. Each new reveal of the alien’s powers puts the heroes in a worse situation. Like coincidence, it doesn’t feel like a cheat because it’s making the characters’ problems greater and therefore their ultimate victory greater.

And I do think it matters that in Alien, once the creature’s power is revealed, some science-y sounding explanation is offered – the blood is a “molecular acid” for example. When people go to a movie, they make a subconscious agreement to suspend disbelief. But that suspension comes with an expectation of internal consistency. So you can introduce unusual stuff early (like in E.T.) and the audience will just accept it, but if you introduce new stuff after Act I, you need to offer some justification.

And you can’t stray too far from what you’ve set up. In Alien, we learn early in the movie that this is a world where aliens exist. When the crew of the Nostromo receives the mysterious signal, they discuss whether it could be of "alien origin." And once we know that there actually is an alien, we imagine it probably has some unusual physiology, even if we don’t know what that physiology is. Compare that to The Village (written by M. Night Shyamalan) where the twist threw people out of the story because it was so radically different from the world that had been set up.

So I’ve learned my lesson. I’m going back to revise my graphic novel script. I won’t try to explain the demon’s powers up front, but I’ll be sure they are of an internally consistent nature. And I’ll make sure any reveals work against my heroes. Hopefully my next draft will pass muster with my writers group!


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Wednesday, November 11, 2015

5 Ways to Build a Personal Connection in a Pitch

You need a good story when you pitch, of course. But you are selling more than a story. You are also selling yourself as a writer, and particularly why you are the best writer to execute this specific idea. Whether it’s an original idea or an assignment, you need to show that you have a unique insight into the story and a passion for the project.

In The Hollywood Pitching Bible, which I co-wrote with producer Ken Aguado, we advocate starting your pitch with a “Personal Connection.” The personal connection serves multiple purposes, but the main one is to explain why you are the best writer to write this story. There are many ways to build a personal connection. Here are five of the most common and most effective.

1. Describe how you came up with this story.
If this is an original story, you can start your pitch by explaining how you came up with the idea. If done properly, the inspiration for the story can reveal your connection to it and passion for it. Explain what interest led you to the idea. You might say something like, “I’ve always been a huge fan of train travel. I’ve crisscrossed the country by train and have a massive model train set-up in my basement. It occurred to me that a train would be a good setting for a romantic comedy.”

You can use a variation to this approach when pitching an assignment or when pitching a story based on some type of underlying intellectual property that you didn’t actually create. For these types of pitches, talk about what in the material particularly appeals to you. This will reveal your point of view on the story - a point of view that should carry through into your pitch.

2. Tell a personal story.
There’s no better way to establish why the story you’re pitching is personal to you than telling an autobiographical story that relates to the material. This will show why you have a valuable perspective on the story or unique expertise that will help you tell it better. This is easiest to do, of course, if the story you’re pitching is actually based on your personal experience. But even if it isn’t, you might be able to identify a personal experience that relates to the idea. Just be sure the connection is clear!

There are a few dangers to this approach. If you don’t really have a relevant autobiographical story, it can feel like you are reaching to make a connection. You also want to avoid sharing something that is so personal it might make the listener uncomfortable. And be sure your own experience isn’t more interesting than the story you’re pitching! But if you can find something appropriate about your life that is relevant to the story, this is often the most effective way to build a personal connection.

3. Reveal your insight
You might not have a relevant personal experience, but you may have a unique insight into the material. That insight will demonstrate why your approach to the arena of the story is fresh and interesting. An example of this kind of approach might begin something like, “I’m a big fan of NASA and the history of space travel. Everyone knows the story of the astronauts who went to the moon. But I’ve always thought the men who designed the lander were the real heroes of that mission.”

This is an excellent technique to use when you are dealing with a true story or underlying intellectual property. Anybody could do a new version of King Arthur, for example. What special perspective on the classic story are you offering?

4. Describe the cultural relevance.
One use of the personal connection is to justify why this story deserves to be a movie. If you can connect the story to current cultural events or trends, you will explain why an audience might be interested in it. In a way, this is similar to #3 except you are showing insight into the culture, and then connecting that insight to the story. You might say something like, “When I was growing up, my friends and I used to go off into the woods by ourselves for hours. These days, parents keep a constant eye on their kids. I thought it would be interesting to see how today’s kids would fare in a Tom Sawyer type story.”

This is often the best approach when you are doing a historical story because it may not be readily apparent why a modern audience will care about past events. If your story is about the third crusade, why will people today be interested in it? The same principal often applies to fantasy or science fiction. Just remember that it takes a long time to make a movie and only slightly less time to launch a television program. Be careful you’re not tying your story to a passing fad.

5. Establish the emotional core.
The personal connection is a good place to establish the emotional power of your story. It is often difficult to fully convey the emotion while walking the listener through the plot (though you should certainly try!) In the personal connection, you can talk about how powerful first love is before launching into your story about high school romance, for example. This can be a good approach when dealing with genres like mysteries or action where the emotional component may be overshadowed by plot or spectacle.

You’ll notice that many of these techniques can be combined. Often combining approaches is a good way to build a unique personal connection to your story. And each personal connection requires a unique approach, something specific to the story and specific to you. That’s why it’s personal!


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Friday, November 6, 2015

Three Ways to Create Great Character Introductions

(SPOILERS: Silence of the Lambs, The Godfather, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Whiplash, Notorious, The Breakfast Club - though I'm mostly talking about early scenes in these films so they're not big spoilers.)

The way you introduce a character is extremely important in a screenplay. How we meet a character will be the fist thing that shapes our perceptions of them. It will color how we feel about them. It also alerts the audience as to who they should be paying attention to. Here are three techniques for bringing your major characters into your story.

1. Dramatize the character’s most critical quality.

There’s a reason why Indiana Jones is introduced as the swashbuckling adventurer before we see him as the slightly bewildered college professor in Raiders of the Lost Ark (story by George Lucas and Philip Kaufman, screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan). The filmmakers want us to see Indy as heroic, resourceful, and clever. And think about how Marion is introduced in that same movie – the lone American in a bar in Tibet engaged in a drinking game with a very large man. A game she wins. We immediately learn that she is feisty and tough, perhaps an equal match for our hero.

When deciding how to introduce a character, ask yourself what their most critical quality is for your story. In Whiplash (written by Damien Chazelle), we meet Andrew practicing drums alone at night, an entrance that highlights his goal in the movie, his dedication, and his solitary nature. Then Fletcher comes in and torments poor Andrew – a preview of their relationship throughout the movie. Chazelle could have chosen any number of ways to introduce Andrew – in class, at the movies, with his father. But this introduction establishes the most important aspect of his character within this story.

You can also consider the theme of the movie. In The Breakfast Club (written by John Hughes) each character is introduced as they arrive at school for detention. Each character introduction highlights their relationship with their parents: Claire is spoiled by her father, Brian is pressured to do well academically, Andrew’s father cares primarily about his athletic success and expects him to be macho, Allison’s parents drop her off and drive away without talking to her, and Bender arrives on his own – no parent in sight. Parental relationships are a major theme of the movie and that theme is set up by these respective introductions. (For more on The Breakfast Club, see this post.)

2. Advertise Your Character

Advertising your character before they appear will build anticipation in the audience and help define the character’s nature. A great example of this is the introduction of Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs (screenplay by Ted Tally). In the ten minutes or so leading up to his entrance, all we hear is how dangerous Lecter is and the safety procedures that must be used in dealing with him. That’s matched by the visuals as we see Clarice led ever deeper in the psychiatric prison until she’s brought to a dungeon like hallway. When Lecter is finally revealed, standing primly in a neat cell, and greets her politely, we’re already terrified of him. His good manners come off as creepy!

The movie Notorious (written by Ben Hecht) introduces Alicia coming out of her father’s trial. But before she appears, the reporters in the hall talk about her. Then someone shouts “here she comes” just before she steps through the doorway. Her importance is emphasized by the reporters surrounding her, taking pictures and asking questions, and the cops keeping an eye on her from the corner – even though she doesn’t say a word.

3. Give Them a Dramatic Entrance

Like Alicia stepping through the courtroom door, you can give your character a dramatic physical entrance to show us how important they are. Whiplash gives Fletcher an entrance by having Andrew reacts to someone off screen. We cut to a figure standing in the shadows. He then steps forward into the light. It’s a simple but effective way to focus attention on the character.

The Godfather (screenplay by Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola) gives Don Corleone an entrance with a surprisingly common technique: not showing the character's face until deep into their introduction scene, building curiosity in the audience. The first scene of the movie opens on a minor character, apparently talking to the camera and making a speech about America. But we come to realize he’s talking to an unseen individual whom he’s appealing to for justice – justice he couldn’t get from the cops. The first thing we actually see of Don Corleone is his hand gesturing. And that gesture causes a shot of booze to appear out of nowhere for the on-camera character. The unseen Don seems to have almost God-like powers. This all serves to advertise the character. And then after we’ve become intrigued by this obviously important person, the camera finally cuts around to show us his face.

Raiders of the Lost Ark introduces Indiana Jones in a similar fashion. We only see the mysterious man-in-the-hat from the back as he leads his small band through the jungle. It’s not until one of his men draws a gun and prepares to shoot him that Indy’s whip cracks out, disarming the man, and Indy turns, steps into a beam of sunlight and reveals his face.

The characters are the audiences’ way into the story. We don’t care what happens if we don’t care about the characters. Use these techniques to start that relationship between audience and character from the character’s first appearance on screen.


A note to my readers: I have typically been posting on this blog on Thursdays or Fridays. But because of recent schedule changes in my life, it will be easier for me to post on Mondays for the foreseeable future. I will start this transition by posting on Wednesday next week (11/11) and then Monday of the following week (11/16).


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Friday, October 30, 2015

3 Tips for Writing Horror

In honor of Halloween, here are three tips to writing effective horror screenplays!

(Spoilers: Alien, The Sixth Sense, Nightmare on Elm Street, Saw, The Others)

1. Make us care. This is one many bad horror movies fail to do. The more we care about the characters in jeopardy, the more we will fear something bad happening to them. The characters need to feel like real people. To achieve that, give each character specific details and personality traits. Avoid clichéd stereotypes. Make them complex, with strengths and flaws, hopes and fears.

In Alien (story by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett, screenplay by Dan O’Bannon), we get to see the crew interact with each other before the horror starts. We learn about their interpersonal dynamics – how the two engine mechanics feel underappreciated by the officers, for example. The initial dinner scene shows the group talking about getting home, complaining about the food, and sharing in-jokes. As a result, they feel like real people once the alien starts picking them off.

In The Others (written by Alejandro Amenabar) we meet Grace as she is showing new servants around. We see that she’s strict and cold – brushing off sympathy for her recently deceased husband. She is no-nonsense, not believing in the supernatural. And she has two children with a rare disease, a sensitivity to light. Though she is brusque, she clearly loves her children. These details make her unique and real. When strange things start happening, we identify with her desperation to protect her children.

2. Establish the Supernatural Early. You can divide horror films into two camps: those that contain supernatural elements and those that don’t. Psycho killer stories like Saw (story by James Wan and Leigh Whannell, written by Leigh Whannell) or Last House on the Left (written by Wes Craven) don’t have supernatural elements. If you’re writing something like that, you can skip this tip. Movies like The Sixth Sense (written by M. Night Shyamalan), Nightmare on Elm Street (written by Wes Craven), and The Others do.

In these latter types of films, you should set up the supernatural elements early in the film. The audience is willing to suspend their disbelief when they watch a movie, but they demand internal consistency. So they look to understand the rules of the story world early on. Once they think then know what the world is, they usually won’t tolerate major variations. You don’t have to explain everything right off the bat, but you need to at least keep the possibilities open.

In The Others, nothing clearly supernatural happens until well into the film, but ghosts are mentioned frequently from the opening scenes, usually so that Grace can tell someone they shouldn't believe in such nonsense. But odd things do happen and other characters, such as Nicholas, believe ghosts are around. Similarly, in The Sixth Sense, Cole doesn’t say he sees dead people until halfway through the film, but there is a scene early on where something weird happens in the kitchen – all the cupboards and drawers are mysteriously opened while Cole’s mother is out of the room. The audience learns that something strange is afoot in this world. We don’t know that it’s ghosts yet, but we remain open to the possibility.

It’s usually a good idea to establish the rules that govern your supernatural elements clearly. If you’re doing a vampire story, we need to know if your vampires are afraid of crosses and can turn into bats or not. The rules may not be laid out right up front – some stories like Nightmare on Elm Street or Paranormal Activity (written by Oren Peli) are about the characters figuring out the rules. But if the writer is just introducing new rules as they’re needed for the story, it will feel like cheating to the audience. In Nightmare on Elm Street, the characters have to uncover Freddy Krueger’s history and figure out the rules of his powers. Only then can Nancy use those rules to attempt to defeat him in the end.

3. Build suspense. Suspense is the key to a good scare. Even a jump-scare – the kind of surprise that causes the audience to jump in their seat – works better if it is embedded within suspense. The key to building suspense is to establish the danger and then draw out the scene to build tension. You have to slow the pace to allow the suspense to build. You can then ratchet up the tension by introducing increasing obstacles to avoiding the impending danger. Often using a ticking clock – an approaching deadline – will help suspense stories and scenes.

In Act III of Nightmare on Elm Street, Nancy has a deadline. She has to trap Freddy before her alarm goes off to bring him into the real world where he can be killed. This ticking clock creates suspense as she searches for him in the dream world. Then once she brings him back, things don’t go as planned, again increasing tension. She’s unable to get her father’s attention, and then later Freddy escapes her attempts to burn him.

Saw is often remembered for its gore, but it was actually a movie built around suspense. In the main story line, two people are chained in a room. Each has a saw that isn’t strong enough to cut the chains, and there’s a body with a gun just out of reach. One man is told if he doesn’t kill the other by 6 pm, then his family will die. Tension ratchets up as the deadline approaches. Will one of them saw off their own extremity to escape the chains and get to the gun? Will they be able to find another way out? The emotional impact of the movie is built on the suspense, not the gory conclusion.

So when writing a horror movie, create characters we care about, set up the rules of the world, and then amp up the suspense.


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Friday, October 23, 2015

Three Screenwriting Lessons from Back to the Future

(Spoilers: Back to the Future)

Earlier this week was “Back to the Future Day.” October 21st was Marty’s temporal destination in Back to the Future Part II (story and characters by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale, screenplay by Bob Gale). In honor of the day, I re-watched the first Back to the Future (written by Robert Zemeckis & Bob Gale). It has a fantastic screenplay, demonstrating many of the techniques I’ve talked about in this blog. Here are three in particular that stand out.

The Ticking Clock

A ticking clock is a screenwriting technique where we apply a time limit to a story goal. This allows us to increase the tension in the movie. Back to the Future uses the lightning strike on the clock tower to create a deadline: it’s the only source of power big enough to power the time machine, and it will hit at a precise time. If Marty and Doc Brown can’t harness the electricity of the lightning at just that moment, Marty will be stuck forever in 1955.

This puts pressure on Doc Brown to construct the method of channeling the electricity into the DeLorean within that time frame, and pressure on Marty to get his parents together in the same time frame. Once that deadline is established, the filmmakers can up the tension by creating obstacles to the characters’ success. These obstacles range from big (Lorraine falling for Marty) to small (the DeLorean’s faulty starter, the tree branch falling on the wire).

The photograph of Marty and his siblings is related to the ticking clock idea. It’s a “measuring device” to evaluate Marty’s success or failure in restoring his parents’ romance. As a clock, it doesn’t actually make a lot of sense – how long does it take changes in the past to affect the future? The question is kind of nonsensical. But the movie clearly establishes the rules of the photograph, and we buy it because we’ve bought into the whole time travel premise. So, when a rival cuts in on the big dance between George and Lorraine, tension rises because we see Marty slowly vanishing in the photograph (and on stage).

(For more on using Ticking Clocks, see: Increase Tension in Your Screenplay with a Ticking Clock)

 Plants and Payoffs

I could probably fill several blog posts just listing the plants and payoffs in Back to the Future. Part of the fun of the movie is connecting things from 1955 to things in 1985. So we get some delight from finding out that Uncle Joey, who we know is in prison in 1985, enjoys his prison-like playpen as a baby in 1955. Or that the principal was already losing his hair thirty years before Marty’s run-ins with him.

But there are other plants and payoffs that demonstrate the more important reasons for the technique. One use of planting is to set up story logic. For example, just before he’s going to use the DeLorean for the first time, Doc Brown mentions he almost forgot the spare plutonium and comments how he could have been stranded. Then the Libyans arrive and shoot Doc, and Marty’s forced to flee in the DeLorean without the spare plutonium. The payoff comes when he realizes he is stranded – just like Doc suggested. Because of the plant, we don’t question why there is no spare plutonium in the vehicle, and it sets up the whole ticking clock mentioned above.

Also important to the ticking clock is the flyer Marty brings back with him. Marty and his girlfriend are handed the flyer by a woman raising money to save the clock tower. It has the important date and time of the lightning strike on it. This pays off when Marty shows the flyer to Doc and realizes they can use the lightning strike to power the time machine.

Other examples of using plant and payoff for story logic include the story Lorraine tells in 1985 about how she and George met and fell in love. This provides the information Marty (and the audience) need to understand how Marty fractured his parents’ relationship and what he must do to restore it.

Back to the Future also uses planting and payoff to cleverly reveal character and show character change. For example, in 1985, Lorraine insists she was a good girl who wouldn’t be caught dead chasing after a boy. So it comes as a revealing surprise when she pursues Marty very aggressively, and when she hints in the car at the dance that she’s messed around with a lot of boys before him.

This also helps show the changes that have happened when Marty finally gets back to 1985. Biff is a prime example. In the opening, we see Biff in 1985 forcing George to do his reports for work. When Marty runs into Biff and George in 1955, Biff is forcing George to do his homework. When Marty returns again to 1985, Biff is now waxing George’s car. This new interplay dramatizes how the future has been changed.

(For more on Planting and Payoff see: Using Planting and Payoff)

Scenes of Preparation

Scenes of preparation set up the big set pieces of a film. One common use of a scene of preparation is to lay out the characters’ plans so the audience can tell when they go wrong. For example, in Back to the Future, Marty has a scene with George where he explains his plan for how George will win Lorraine’s heart. Marty will get handsy with Lorraine in the car outside the dance, and George will sweep in and pretend to save her. Then when we get to the scene in the car, we understand why Marty is trying to put the moves on his mother and what it means that George isn’t the one to actually intervene. Without the scene of preparation, the writers would have to resort to awkward dialogue to get that information out.

This scene of preparation serves another purpose: It shows us how nervous George is about the plan. Scenes of preparation allow characters to reveal their feelings in a way they likely couldn’t in the plot point scene. And understanding George’s fear of even faking a fight sets up the significance of when George actually stands up to Biff later.

(For more on Scenes of Preparation, see Scenes of Preparation and Aftermath)

Bonus Technique: Escalating Obstacles

While I’m talking about the scene in the car, look at how nicely the writers escalate the obstacles. We know the plan: Marty pretends to force himself on Lorraine, then George pretends to save her. But things immediately go awry when Lorraine is more randy than Marty. How can George save her if she doesn’t want to be saved? The obstacles then escalate further when Biff intervenes before George arrives. Now the danger’s even greater – Marty’s been hauled away by Biff’s henchmen, the chances of George and Lorraine getting together seem remote, and Lorraine is in serious danger of sexual assault.

There’s a reason Back to the Future has stood the test of time to the point where thirty years later people have created a “holiday” around it. A big part of that reason is the tight, expertly crafted screenplay.


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Friday, October 16, 2015

5 Tips for Organizing Your Rewrite

Approaching a rewrite can be daunting. Sometimes you have a ton of notes ranging from big structural changes to small line fixes, from character adjustments to plants and logic tweaks. You may have to move scenes around, write new scenes, or go through line-by-line to adjust a character’s dialogue.

There is no real universal method of organizing your rewrite. I’ve developed some procedures over the years that work well for me. Maybe you’ll find some of my ideas helpful for your rewrites.

1. Back to Treatment. I will often write a one-page treatment of the story as it will unfold in the new draft. If I’m making structural changes, this will help me to see how the story plays in broad strokes. If I’m keeping the major beats mostly the same, it will help me identify what the core of the story is, so I know what to protect as I cut and trim.

2. Divide the rewrites into stages. It’s usually better to fix the big problems first before delving into the small problems. Why noodle a line of dialogue in a scene you’ll ultimately cut? If I have a wide variety of notes, I’ll divide them into passes. Each pass creates a new draft of the script (I’m a bit obsessive about saving every iteration of my scripts in case I later want to go back to something I cut), but I won’t show the script to anyone until I’ve gone through all the passes. I would typically divide up the passes in this order:
  • First Pass: Structural and plot changes, cutting and adding scenes, and cutting, combining, or adding characters.
  • Second Pass: Major character changes (may be subdivided into multiple passes, handling a single character each time, if more than one character needs work).
  • Third Pass: Scene fixes and dialogue revisions.
3. Create an outline for your rewrite. Just like I create an outline for my first draft, I often create a new outline for each major rewrite. I start by listing every scene in the current draft (often by editing my original outline to match the draft). I’ll add descriptions of any new scenes I have to write with big “NEW SCENE” labels before them. Then, I’ll list the changes under each scene that I plan to make to that scene. I can then use this as a checklist to make sure I’ve addressed all of the notes.

4. Track your structure. I will identify the major structural beats of the story in the outline – where’s the Catalyst? The Midpoint? The Act II Turning Point? That will help me make sure I’m executing each beat effectively when I reach that point in the rewrite. Sometimes I’ll also make a note under each scene as to the purpose of the scene in the plot.

5. Track the character beats. I will also identify the beats of the character arc(s), and of the changing relationships between characters, and note the scenes where these changes are dramatized. I will often color-code these in Word. For example, I might use red for a romance. The beats might be things like, “They meet,” “She reveals her big secret,” and “She feels betrayed and leaves.” Then I can make sure as I’m rewriting that I maintain the integrity of the emotional storylines. If I cut a scene that contains an important beat, I’ll know I have to replace it somewhere else. And I can see where I’m skipping or under-dramatizing emotional beats.

Here's an excerpt of an actual rewrite outline I did for a romantic comedy script. It starts with the paragraph from my original outline, followed by my notes for the rewrite:


We meet KELSEY STONE, a war photographer, having an Egyptian street delicacy in a market. She has a friendly repartee with OMAR, the proprietor – she’s a regular. MARK BURTON, an A.P. BBC journalist, joins her. They banter and flirt, revealing Kelsey as a live-for-the-moment person, and Mark happy to participate in that lifestyle. Mark is trying to get Kelsey to come back to the hotel with him, but she makes him work for it. Mark: “Come on, nothing’s happening here.” Omar is protective of Kelsey, which also frustrates Mark’s attempts. However, when Omar suggests Kelsey ought to get married (and says, “What would your parents think of you running around over here?”), Kelsey suddenly agrees to leave with Mark. On their way out, Kelsey gives money to a poor woman – which draws a reprimand from Mark: “You can’t save these people that way; you’re here to document what’s going on.”

Purpose: Introduce Kelsey and her attitude about life, tone

-Make opening more exciting - actual danger, a serious protest.

-Plant Kelsey's skills that will pay off in wedding scenes.

-Make Mark British. Make him a BBC reporter.

-Kelsey is more anti-marriage. Mark suggests Omar set Kelsey up.

The rewrite outline then becomes a roadmap for the rewrite. You can go scene by scene, making the necessary changes, without having to worry about keeping the big picture in your head or worrying you’ll forget something.


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Friday, October 9, 2015

Looking at Summer 2015 Box Office

I know it’s more than a month past summer, but this feels like a good time to look back at the summer movie box office with a little perspective and see what lessons we can take away. This was one of the more successful summers for Hollywood in a while, up significantly from summer 2014 (which, admittedly, was one of the worst in a while, making the comparison easier.)

The Hollywood Reporter, in their summer movie debrief, ran an interesting article on how inaccurate tracking was this year. Tracking is the surveying studios do to determine what they think a movie will gross opening weekend. Many seem to believe the culprit in the failure of recent tracking is social media. Word of mouth travels faster now. Audiences sniff out the bombs by the end of opening day, making pre-release polling less reliable. Rotten Tomatoes was also cited as affecting consumer decisions, reversing the conventional wisdom of the last decade that reviews don’t matter.

The obvious conclusion that the Hollywood Reporter (and the industry at large) seems unwilling to explicitly draw is that quality matters now more than it ever has. Make a movie that audiences and critics like – Trainwreck (85% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes), Straight Outta Compton (90 percent fresh), Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (93 percent fresh) – and you will over-perform tracking. Make one they don’t – Terminator: Genisys (26 percent fresh) or Vacation (27 percent fresh) – and you will under-perform. No amount of advertising can save you – Vacation had the biggest TV ad spend of any movie this summer.

Of course quality is subjective. We’re not talking highbrow artistry here. In fact, “specialty films” did not perform particularly well this summer – for the first time since 2008, none broke $20 million, according to Hollywood Reporter. We’re talking about entertaining, crowd-pleasing movies that are intelligent enough that critics don’t pan them.

Perhaps this is good news for screenwriters. Perhaps there will be a new emphasis on good writing over “pre-sold properties,” since awareness no longer means as much to box office success as a good experience. Hopefully, but I wouldn’t count on it – quality is a squishy concept. It’s much easier to point to how many issues a certain comic book sold, or how popular a TV show was in the eighties. Studio executives like to have facts and figures to back up their decisions.

Successes and failures can spawn trends, so for screenwriters it’s a good idea to examine what kinds of movies are succeeding and failing in order to plan what kind of material you might want to spec. Looking at the winners and losers of summer, a few things stand out to me:

Women once again flexed their power, with three female-driven movies placing in the top dozen domestic grossers: Pitch Perfect 2, Spy, and Trainwreck. Despite the shameful statistics on female employment, the industry does seem to be responding to this trend (as evidenced by each of these movies getting made). It takes a few years to develop, produce, and release movies, so I would expect the female-driven movie trend to continue to grow.

Original stories made some noise. San Andreas, Spy, Inside Out, and Trainwreck all did well – that’s one third of the top 12! (You could argue Straight Outta Compton is an original too – some people consider movies based on true events to be original stories.)

Sequels and movies based on underlying properties were a mixed bag. Four of the top five domestic grossers were sequels: Jurassic World, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Minions, and Mission Impossible – Rogue Nation. On the other hand, three of the five biggest flops, according to the Hollywood Reporter, were based on “proven IP”: Tomorrowland, Fantastic Four, and The Man From Uncle – losing a combined $290 million dollars. (You could also argue Pixels, which lost about $75 million was based on underlying material – a viral video). Furthermore, sequels Terminator: Genisys, Ted 2, and Magic Mike XXL were all disappointments, though Terminator made up a lot of ground internationally.

In fact, Terminator: Genisys provides an interesting case study. It was poorly received and bombed in the U.S., but did great business overseas. Perhaps quality is not quite as important overseas as it is in the U.S. Not all countries are as wired into social media as we are. The downside for studios is that they take home a significantly smaller portion of the box office from overseas. Despite its strong international grosses, the planned sequels to Terminator are currently in doubt.

From a genre standpoint, the top 20 is really pretty diverse, considering we’re talking about blockbusters. There are plenty of science fiction and super hero movies, of course. You have a couple animated family films, as well as the live-action family adventure Tomorrowland. There are a couple of horror films sneaking in at the bottom of the list. There are, by my count, eight comedies (including the animated films). And there is a music biopic (Straight Outta Compton), a disaster film (San Andreas) and Magic Mike XXL, which I’m not sure how to classify.

The feature screenwriting biz has been tough lately with the emphasis on major franchises. But this summer suggests there may be hope to get original stories through the system.


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Friday, October 2, 2015

Revealing Character in The Breakfast Club

(Spoilers: The Breakfast Club)

I happened to watch the fantastic 80’s high school movie The Breakfast Club (written by John Hughes) this week, and I was struck by how effectively the film illustrates character through dramatization. Of course, this is a very dialogue driven film where a lot of the characters’ thoughts, beliefs, and back-stories are delivered in conversation. But that conversation always grows out of conflict. There are also several great moments where character is revealed with effective dramatic shorthand. I want to examine two of those types of scenes.

The first place I want to look at is the opening, where we see the five characters arrive at school on Saturday morning for detention. Character introductions are always very important. As the saying goes, you only get one chance to make a first impression, so most of the time you want to establish the primary attribute of the character when they enter the movie. The Breakfast Club uses the arrivals to quickly and efficiently define each of its five major characters. Let’s look at each entrance in turn:

First to arrive is Claire, being driven to school in her father’s luxury car. She expresses disbelief that he can’t get her out of detention. And he apologizes and offers to make it up to her! Immediately we see that Claire comes from a wealthy family where she is spoiled.

Next to arrive is Brian, in a station wagon. His mother berates him for getting detention and insist he find a way to use the time to study, even though that’s against the rules. Also, Brian’s little sister is in the car. We see that Brian comes from a “normal” middle class family with a lot of pressure to do well in school.

Next, Andrew is dropped off by his father (in an SUV). Andrew’s father chews him out – not for the prank that got him in trouble, but for potentially jeopardizing his chance at a sports scholarship. We know right off the bat that Andrew is a jock and that he’s facing pressure to be good at sports (and traditionally masculine) by his father.

Alison arrives next. She gets out from the back seat of a car, and when she moves to talk to whoever’s in front (presumably a parent), the car drives away. There is a communication problem in her home.

Bender arrives last, walking up to the school alone.

These introductions tell us two things about each character: First, we see the “stereotype” that the character occupies. Second, we learn something about their relationship with their parents (Bender being the only one not brought by his parents tells us volumes – without a line of dialogue). Stereotypes and parental relationships are two of the biggest themes in the movie. It's no accident that those are the things Hughes focuses on when introducing his characters.

(These introductions remind me of the very efficient way Little Miss Sunshine (written by Michael Arndt) introduces each of its characters in quick bits of dramatization.)

The Breakfast Club does a similar thing in the lunch scene. What each character brings for lunch tells us a lot about them:

Claire brings sushi. This is an exotic and sophisticated lunch for suburban Chicago in the 80’s (some of the characters don’t even know what sushi is – and likely much of the audience at the time wouldn't know either). In addition to reinforcing Claire’s wealth, it shows that she's cultured and sophisticated. That adds a nice dimension to the "rich girl" stereotype.

Andrew has a huge lunch. It becomes a joke as he takes sandwich after sandwich out of his bag. This is, of course, because he’s an athlete and therefore burns a lot of calories. It emphasizes how much of his life centers on his athletic endeavors.

Alison tears her lunch apart and remakes it into a strange sandwich of corn chips and pixie sticks, reinforcing that she is someone who marches to the beat of her own drum. It also suggests her creativity.

Brian has soup, juice, and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with the crusts cut off. This is the stereotypical suburban lunch – a fact Bender makes fun of. And it tells us that Brian’s household is normal and his parents take care of him. Which makes his later revelation of why he’s in detention – for bringing a gun to school – all the more powerful.

Bender doesn't have a lunch at all, once again emphasizing that he does not have a good home life.

On the surface, giving the characters distinct lunches may not seem particularly revolutionary. But I’ve read many scripts that miss this kind of opportunity to show character. Many writers would simply give each character a brown bag with a sandwich and an apple in it - they're high school students and that's what high school students eat, right? John Hughes carefully figured out not just what kind of lunch each character would eat, but what kind of lunch would give the audience important information about their lives. The characters do comment on some of this (Bender making fun of Brian’s normal lunch for example), but the revelations are mostly dramatized rather than expositional.

When working on your scripts, look for places like these where you can dramatize your characters' lives and personalities. Then you won’t need to resort to clunky, expository dialogue.


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Friday, September 25, 2015

The Trouble with Transitory Actions

(Spoilers: Nightcrawler, Interstellar, The Sixth Sense)

One of the challenges for less experienced writers is knowing whether an idea is going to generate enough story for a feature film. Something that sounds dramatic as a logline may not turn out to have the heft to sustain two hours of story. The problem is magnified in television where a series premise must sustain hour after hour of story.

Experienced writers, producers and development folk know one warning sign is when the logline is built around a “transitory action.”  A transitory action is one that only takes a second or two of screen time. It may suggest a larger story, but the nature of the ongoing action is unclear. Common transitory actions are things like deciding, realizing, discovering, choosing, admitting and learning.

So, for example, Nightcrawler (written by Dan Gilroy) could be described as: “A driven loner decides to become a crime photographer.” But that doesn’t really capture the action of the story. The character's decision only takes a second. The story is about his efforts to start a freelance crime photography business. In this case, the transitory action doesn’t allow for much conflict – the decision isn’t hard, it’s the execution of his plan. Often a logline with a transitory action will prompt a response of, “Okay, but then what happens?”

In other cases the transitory action seems dramatic because it contains high stakes, but it doesn’t imply any real plot. So Interstellar (written by Jonathan Nolan & Christopher Nolan) could be described as: “An astronaut must choose between his daughter and saving the planet.” That choice is significant, certainly, but what will it look like on film? Will we see the astronaut making pro and con lists? And of course the story of Interstellar isn’t really about Cooper making that choice, it's about what happens after he chooses.

Nightcrawler and Interstellar are existing movies which makes it easy to see how the transitory actions don’t capture the nature of the stories. Let’s take a look at a hypothetical story idea (which I’ve loosely lifted from King Lear):

When the owner of a large company dies, his youngest son must choose between his older brother and sister as they go to war for control of the company.

There is potential for a lot of conflict in the premise, but the choice that is the focus of the logline is a transitory action. Imagine trying to write the story of the youngest son making the choice. You could end up with scene after scene of the two other siblings trying to convince the main character to support them. It would probably get old fast, and the main character would be passive.

There are many ways to make this idea active. Here are a few:

When the owner of a large company dies, his youngest son must keep the company together as his older brother and sister go to war for control of the business.

When the owner of a large company dies, his youngest son struggles to make peace between his older brother and sister as they go to war for control of the company.

When the owner of a large company dies, his youngest son manipulates his older brother and sister into a war against each other in order to seize the company for himself.

When the owner of a large company dies, his youngest son suspects his father was murdered, and hunts for the truth as his older brother and sister go to war for control of the company.

Each of these are obviously very different – and that should be a clue as to why it’s important to avoid transitory actions. The choice or discovery or decision is usually the thing that sets the story in motion, not the story itself. In other cases, the choice or discovery or decision is a twist late in the film. In The Sixth Sense (written by M. Night Shyamalan), Malcolm discovers he's a ghost in the twist at the end, but that's not the action that drives the story. A logline for The Sixth Sense would focus on Malcolm's attempts to help Cole, not the surprise discovery.

As I said, television shows have even bigger requirements for ongoing action. In a close-ended (sometimes called procedural) show, you need an engine that will provide a new action for each episode, an action that will fill that episode. So in House, the doctors would need to investigate the life of a patient to find the source of a mysterious illness. Open-ended (sometimes called serialized) shows need even bigger actions, actions that will take dozens or even hundreds of hours. It takes the characters in Lost a long time to find a way off the island!

Creating a logline is an important way to test whether your ideas are viable. Make sure that the action of the logline is enough to sustain your story.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Ken Aguado's Principles of Hollywood Development

For this week’s Let’s Schmooze blog post, I am running (with permission) an excerpt from an essay by producer Ken Aguado, my co-author on The Hollywood Pitching Bible. The essay is entitled “Principles of Hollywood Development” and covers a lot of territory, including the various flavors of development, how development goes wrong, and how to navigate the politics of development. It includes advice for all parties to the development process – writers, producers, executives, etc. I’m going to excerpt Ken’s section on how to take notes. But first, let me give you his definition of development:

“Development is the process by which film and television scripts are acquired or created, and then improved… Development doesn’t happen unless there is a minimum of two parties involved — one of which is typically a non-writer. If there’s just a writer involved, we call that 'writing.' Development starts when other people get involved in the process.”

Now here are Ken’s thoughts on getting notes:


Here are some tips if you are getting notes:

Be gracious. You may or may not love the notes to get, but there’s a good chance someone spent a lot of time and effort reading your project and drafting them. Thank them for their work and for trying to help you out with the project. Also, it is likely the person giving you notes is a fan of yours, and we can all use more of those, right?

Don’t respond right away. There’s always a good chance there will be something in the notes that pisses you off. My advice: take a beat, sleep on it, and respond the following day. As I will discuss below, sometimes the notes are not as bad as they seem.

Get clarity. If you disagree with a note, don’t get in a fight. It almost never helps and it can sometimes get you fired or marginalized. Instead, I recommend you ask the person who gave you the note to kindly explain further. Do this verbally. Many times you will find they are not as committed as they seem or they might even back down entirely. Also, the brevity of notes can lead to misunderstandings. It’s not as bad as texting, but at least there are no stupid emojis.

Handling major conflicts. This is one of the tougher things to navigate. It will often happen that member of the development team vigorously disagree about notes. The conflicts can range from slightly annoying to near apocalyptic. The situation can be made worse by the parties trying to manipulate each other. For example, I have seen grown writers have near-nervous breakdowns when a powerful producer tries to get them to make the producer’s script changes that everyone knows the studio will hate. The number of possible scenarios here makes it hard to give specific advice, but very often the solution to the problem is less about the notes themselves and more about resolving personality conflicts, as in my example. My advice? Sometimes you have to stand up to a bully.

Sometimes the notes are better than they seem.

In most development situations you will get notes or give notes along the way. Sometimes both. If you’re on the receiving end, sometimes it can be overwhelming if you get 10 pages of notes for something you thought was already perfect. Don’t freak out. Sometimes notes are better than they seem. First of all, not all notes are weighted equally, meaning that while some notes can be significant, many others might just be someone floating an idea that popped into their melon at 2am, and even they don’t care about it. Second, I’ve seen many situations where tough notes are given (by a producer or network exec, for example) only to have them change their mind or even forget their own notes at some later time. Thank God for showbiz, or there’d be a lot of people with ADHD who couldn’t get a job.

Lastly, and most annoying, I have seen people give notes delivered with absolutist comments like “the script doesn’t work,” or “the script is a mess,” only to soon discover that their proposed solution to fixing the “mess” is changing all of three lines of dialog, etc. Ugh. My only explanation is that some people are prone to hyperbole or use the development process to bolster their own self-worth. Maybe both. Sometimes various development partners just want to give a project their own personal “spritz.” It’s annoying for sure, but if the solution is changing three lines, my advice is to make the changes and leave the psychoanalysis to a trained professional. One extra related piece of advice: if you get a note you don’t like but if saying “yes” to the note will cost you nothing, don’t fight it. Say “yes” and move on. In fact, this strategy has broader implications for survival in Hollywood, and life in general.

Sometimes the notes are worse than they seem.

So some notes are better than they seem, but sometimes they are worse. Hollywood is a place that can kill you with kindness, and sometimes your development partners will be disinclined to give you direct and honest feedback if they think that their honesty will crush your spirits or be counterproductive in some other way. Put yourselves in their shoes. Sometimes a script is delivered that is so bad, that the only possible honest response would be to prostrate oneself and mourn the trees that died to print it. Now this example rarely occurs, but there are many situations where there is serious work that needs to be done on a project and someone has to figure out a way to deliver this bad news. When it’s time to write up notes, the people writing the notes will sometimes sugarcoat it or speak euphemistically — anything to avoid telling the reader the truth — that they have just wasted months of their life going in the wrong direction. And it’s not just producers or executives doing the sugarcoating. Sometimes it’s the writer. In The Hollywood Pitching Bible, Doug Eboch and I discuss the strategies that writers should adopt when they meet to pitch an assignment. In this situation, it’s the writer giving the notes. Our advice is never trash the source material, no matter how bad it might be. For example, it would be a mistake to open with “wow, the script really sucks. You must have been rocking the ganja when you bought it.” Rather, it would be much better to accentuate the positive and explain that, while the script as some issues, you will help bring the project’s “aspirations” (a euphemism) into the foreground, etc. As you can see “worse than it seems” goes both ways. The only problem with the way Hollywood sugarcoats notes is that you sometimes have to learn how to read between the lines. If you are inexperienced or susceptible to praise and adulation, this might be tough for you. The best strategy is to first want the truth, and then ask a lot of questions. You will eventually get to the bottom of it.


Thanks, Ken for your insight! If you’d like to read the entire essay, Ken posted it on Medium.

And if you want to learn to pitch like a pro, check out The Hollywood Pitching Bible.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Beginning and Ending Your Scenes

(SPOILERS: The Godfather)

When discussing screenwriting techniques we often discuss the structure of the entire story. We also spend a lot of time analyzing how to make an individual scene dramatic. But we pay much less attention to the way one scene flows into another.

There’s a classic rule of fiction writing – enter the scene as late as you can and leave as early as you can. This applies doubly to the highly efficient practice of screenwriting. In the first draft, it’s natural to start the scene when a character enters a room and end when they leave. But this is usually not necessary. Try to begin your scenes at the start of the dramatic action and end them when that action concludes. Don’t waste time showing greetings and goodbyes if they aren’t crucial to the story.

Similarly, once the dramatic action of the scene is accomplished, it’s time to cut out. We usually don’t need to see everyone say goodbye and head for the door. If your ending can provide some kind of a cliffhanger, it will serve your overall screenplay well. By this I mean something happens at the end of the scene that introduces a question for the audience, something that makes them go, “Uh oh, how is that going to come out?”

Often good scenes end with what is known as a “button.” This is a final moment or bit of dialogue to tie up the scene. Often in comedies it’s one last joke. You may already have a natural button in your scene – you just haven’t cut the scene off where you should.

Another thing to consider: where are your characters coming from at the beginning of the scene? What happened just before we cut in? If you start mid-action, what happened before? If they are going to enter, are they rushing from somewhere else? We don’t want the characters to feel like they were standing just off stage waiting for the scene to start. Also consider where the characters are going to after the scene. What are they planning or fearing?

Scene transitions – the way one scene joins to another – are also important to consider. When we’re reading a screenplay, one scene looks pretty much like another – black words on a white page. But on film that connection is going to play differently.

Unless you’re going for some kind of effect such as claustrophobia, it’s usually a good idea to vary up your interior and exterior and night and day scenes. Cutting from exterior daytime to interior nighttime helps the audience process the transition quickly. If you cut from a daylight scene at a park, for example, to a daylight scene at a reservoir, visually it may look like cutting from trees and grass to trees and grass. The audience may not realize at first that it’s a new scene, necessitating time consuming establishing or traveling shots. Plus, visual variety is usually desirable in film.

An easy way to check for this is to look at your slug lines as a list. Most screenwriting software make that easy. If you see too many interior scenes together, or too many night scenes together, ask yourself if that’s for effect or just coincidence? Could you reorder scenes? Maybe set a dialogue scene outside? Believe me, directors think of these kinds of things.

Beyond just interior vs. exterior and night vs. day is the content of your setting. It’s usually stronger to cut from a small, dingy apartment to a big, elegant ballroom than from one average apartment to another. Look at the settings in your slug line list – can you make each more distinctive?

The opening twenty minutes of The Godfather (screenplay by Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola) are all set at Connie’s wedding. But the scenes cut between dark, small rooms inside the Don’s house and loud, bright scenes outside, creating not just visual and audio variety, but a sense that the activities in the house are “behind the scenes.” Since those activities consist of Mafia business and Sonny’s infidelities, that’s a good metaphor.

The Godfather establishes sequences almost like chapters with its use of setting. Whenever we move from one city to another – New York to Chicago or Vegas – there is a fade out and then a montage of the new location. Also, there is contrast between the daytime California sequence, the night time sequence leading up to the Don’s assassination, the sunny exteriors of Michael’s Sicily stay, and so on. This helps separate each section.

You may also want to consider the beginning and ending images of each scene. You can add meaning by juxtaposing two images without really having to justify the connection logically, since they are in two different scenes. For example, you could cut from a close-up of a mobster who has just ratted on the mob to a dead bird that some children are poking with a stick in order to create a visual metaphor. The Godfather cuts from Michael’s wedding night with Apollonia to Kay coming to the Don’s house in New York looking for him, reminding us that Michael is betraying Kay.

Creating interesting juxtapositions from scene to scene can add depth to your story and will show your mastery of the film form.


Learn to pitch like a pro with The Hollywood Pitching Bible: A Practical Guide to Pitching Movies and Television by Ken Aguado and Douglas Eboch. Available in print, ebook or audiobook formats

Friday, September 4, 2015

Interview with Khalil Sullins - Writer/Director of Listening

This week I interview writer/director Khalil Sullins, whose new movie Listening is opening on Sept. 11th in a variety of locations, including the Pasadena Playhouse 7 and the Arena Theater in Hollywood. Listening is a psychological thriller about penniless grad students who invent mind-reading technology that destroys their lives. David, Ryan, and Jordan hope the telepathy invention will solve all their problems, but the bleeding-edge technology opens a Pandora’s box of new dangers, as the team discovers that when they open their minds, there is nowhere to hide their thoughts. Secrets and betrayals surface, and the technology is stolen by a covert government agency with a hidden agenda. With no one left to trust, David is forced against his friends in a life-or-death battle over not only the privacy of the human mind, but the future of free will itself.

Q: This was your first feature. How did you pick this idea?

When I was in film school, I felt like most of the short films I was seeing looked great, but were failing on the script level, so I decided to spend most of my time writing. I wrote seven or eight feature scripts in school and the few years after I graduated before I felt like I had one worth investing three to five years of my life into with Listening. This approach made sense to me, and it’s only now on the festival circuit that I’ve learned it is a bit unique. I didn’t shoot any short films or commercials or anything like that. I just wrote and wrote and wrote.

The initial seed of an idea for Listening was: “What if someone invented telepathy?” I really wanted to get into what the actual implications of that would be on a personal level, on a family and friends level, and then a societal and global level. Our relationship with communication technology is constantly evolving, and that’s always interested me. Also, I liked the idea of using telepathy as a way to explore the dynamic between thought and action. We don’t do or say everything we think. We have a filter in our brain, and that’s a good thing. But, in a world where telepathy exists, you get people’s unfiltered thoughts, which isn’t too different from what the world of social media can feel like today, for better or worse. Technology tends to amplify whatever is there already, so we might need to be more mindful of the thoughts we cultivate on a sort of meta level. The great thing about sci-fi is that you can explore some possibly esoteric concepts, but in a fun entertaining way.

Q: Tell us about your writing process. How long did the script take? How many drafts?

Before I start writing a script, I’ll spend a couple weeks or more just writing as many ideas as I can come up with. After I have about fifty to a hundred movie concepts, the best ones start to surface. I love coming up with ideas, and that part of the process. Sometimes your first “great idea for a movie” is your best one, but often it’s not. That idea-generating creativity is like a muscle that you can exercise and make stronger with practice. But making a movie, or writing a script, isn’t about having just one great idea. It’s about having thousands and thousands of ideas. Every day of plotting, outlining, writing, and re-writing, you’re basically throwing as many cool ideas into a script as you can, and then that continues into production, and so on.

When you direct/produce, you can’t always be writing, but when I’m writing a new script, I write every day. I try to set up routine hours. The first step I take is usually a brain storming period. I just let myself go, typing out whatever ideas, themes, characters, scenes, concepts I can come up with in a sort of stream of consciousness style. I don’t delete anything, I just keep typing. Say something is bad, then I type that’s bad, and why, and keep going.

Then, I outline a story, set up act breaks and such, and slowly flesh it out more and more. I simultaneously build character biographies, and decide what the greatest arc for each character can be. I don’t want the characters you meet at the beginning of the story to be the same ones you see at the end. The plot I usually let grow from a theme I want to explore. I try to choose something that I don’t fully understand. I’ve found scripts that I have started with a crystal clear idea or statement I want to make about the world, those are the ones that I never finish. I think I have to feel like I’m biting off more than I can chew in order to keep myself interested over the three to nine months it usually takes to write a script. I want the writing process to be an exploration. I don’t want to bang people over the head with a theme. I want to learn something myself.

With Listening, I also spent a couple months doing nothing but research before I started writing. I wanted the telepathy technology to be as believable as possible, so I dove into all the current research I could find online, then tried to figure out what the next theoretical step or big breakthrough could be to get us to mind-reading. I ended up combining what I read about brain computer interfaces with what I was reading was possible with nanotechnology. Now, five years later, a lot of the stuff I “invented” for the script has actually been invented in the real world too. It’s a bit crazy.

By the time I get to actually typing out a script, I have every scene of the movie on a note card and pinned up to a bulletin board next to my computer. This allows me to focus mostly on dialogue while I’m actually writing the screenplay. Dialogue is so important, and I find it’s fun to be able to just let loose and let the characters speak without having to think about what scene is coming next or what the next act break is going to be. Thorough outlining allows me to have fun with dialogue.

I wrote around ten drafts of Listening, but that’s a bit arbitrary. When I’m re-writing, I’m just constantly trying to improve the script. At some point I decide to save a PDF or print it out to get some feedback from others. But re-writing can often be a continually evolving process more than a clear cut draft four, five, or six…

Q: This was an independent film with a low budget. How did budget considerations affect the writing process?

Originally, I was writing Listening with the idea that I’d try to sell it. I didn’t think anyone was going to buy a hundred-million-dollar movie from a first-time screenwriter, so I decided to write a sci-fi script that didn’t need many visual effects. I sent out the script, and was overwhelmed with the response. Eighty or ninety companies, agents, and producers asked to read it after I sent out query letters. That turned into a few meetings, but the producers I met didn’t quite have the same vision as I did. They either didn’t get the “hard sci-fi” tone, or wanted it to be “younger and sexier,” which basically meant adding more sex scenes. No one was offering money for a re-write or anything like that, so, after much consideration, I decided to make it myself. That was a feasible option because it wasn’t conceived as a big-budget script, but it’s also why it doesn’t play like a lot of micro-budget indie films with just a couple of locations and a small cast. We had a big cast, and over thirty-five locations in LA, Washington DC, and Cambodia.

Q: You both wrote and directed. What did you learn about writing from the process of directing?

One of the big things I learned was the difference between a good read and a good film. I was surprised by how much dialogue we sort of needed on the page to understand the story, but that became superfluous when we made the film. It can be bad writing to describe looks and feelings, but you get a good actor, suddenly you don’t need five lines of dialogue because we get it all from a look in their eyes. This also applied to the technology you see in Listening. Once you actually physically see the props and what they’re doing, you don’t need a lot of the dialogue that explains it.

I learned so much about writing in the editing room with the great Howard Heard. One big lesson was about sequencing. One of your biggest tools in film is the cut between scenes. Every time you cut from one scene to another, the audience infers what happened between those two scenes. You can use a good cut to make the storytelling much more efficient. Maybe the best example, and probably the most famous cut of all time, is in Kubrick’s 2001, when he cuts from the the ape’s bone tossed in the air (man’s first tool) to a ship floating in outer space. On the other hand, if the scene sequencing doesn’t have a logical flow, that can pull the audience out of the movie for a bit.

Another related lesson was the difference between mystery and confusion. I think this is one of the biggest stumbling blocks for new filmmakers, and I stumbled on it big time. Originally in the script, the scenes in the jungle and temple in Cambodia were scattered throughout the film. I thought the audience would be captured by these foreign exotic scenes, and wonder how these scenes will fit into the rest of the story, and that the suspense/mystery would build in a good way. Instead, the reaction after cutting away from our main story for the fifth or sixth time was just more and more confusion. If you have a good story, let the audience in on what it is. Withholding story logic isn’t mystery.

Q: How much did the story change from the script in production? How about post-production?

There was a big change during casting. Ryan was originally “Raj.” I didn’t want a white-washed cast, but we just couldn’t find the right Indian actor. Eventually we just opened it up to all races, found Artie Ahr, who is great, and then I re-wrote the part a little for him. In production it didn’t change that much. There were just a couple re-writes to accommodate locations.

There were, however, some significant changes in post production. We did a few living-room screenings with trusted filmmaker friends, and their input helped a lot. The film has an A-story in David and Ryan’s relationship as their telepathy technology evolves. There are B and C stories with their friend Jordan, and David’s wife and daughter. But, in the script there were also D, E, and F stories. I think I was scared that this might be the only film I’d ever make, so I wanted to get every idea I possibly could into it. Also, I wanted every character to have a lot of depth. But, once we got into the editing room, we found that we really need to keep the pace up and every time we would cut away from the A story, the tension dropped dramatically. For instance, there was a complicated dynamic between Jordan and Melanie that is hinted at, but is largely gone from the final cut. There was also a bit more to Ryan and Jordan’s love story, and Ryan with his grandma, that unfortunately just killed the forward momentum of the story.

The ending also changed, again because I was trying to turn a C or D subplot into the A storyline somehow. The script had some scattered narration, and at the end of the film we revealed David in prison, telling this whole story to his teenage daughter ten years later. The audience sees he was really doing everything for her. It was a nice scene, and explained a couple loose ends. But really, once that A storyline between David and Ryan ends, so does the film. It’s a much better, punch-in-the-gut style ending.

Q: What was the most difficult part of making this film?

Personally, my biggest challenge was staying alive at one point. For logistical scheduling purposes, we shot the Cambodia scenes five months after the main shoot. When I got back, I got deathly ill. I lost 25 pounds and was basically bed-ridden for six weeks. I had all the symptoms of dengue fever, but it was more likely malaria. The doctors never quite figured it out. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise though, because our plan had been to rush the film to completion in order to make the Sundance deadline, but instead we spent more time editing, and film really evolved during that time.

Q: Looking back, what do you wish you’d known before you started this project?

I’m really grateful for all the great teachers and the education I got at Art Center. I was really in my element making this film right until the point of completion. It was everything that came after that point that we sort of had to teach ourselves. It’s during the year of work after you finish the film that it is easy to make mistakes. Probably the biggest misstep we took was submitting to most of the major film festivals with a rough cut, without any music or VFX. I’d generally wait for the film to be totally finished before presenting it to anyone in the future. We also probably started on social media too early. Most of the public doesn’t understand how long it takes to make and distribute a film. Once they hear about it, they want to watch it, not wait three more years. Thankfully, neither of those proved to be fatal mistakes, but there are just so many bad decisions you can make after you finish the film that film schools don’t really prepare you for, because the business side really doesn’t have much to do with filmmaking. The first thing we did after finishing the film was to ask the advice of everyone we knew who had sold films in the past, which was really invaluable.

Check out Listening in theaters and on-demand on Sept. 11th.


Learn to pitch like a pro with The Hollywood Pitching Bible: A Practical Guide to Pitching Movies and Television by Ken Aguado and Douglas Eboch. Available in print, ebook or audiobook formats.