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.