So-Called Screenwriting ‘Rules’ (15 part series)

March 31st, 2015 by

Since the Bitter Script Reader blogged about it today – “We’re SERIOUSLY still fighting about this “Screenwriting Rules” s***?!?!?!” — I figured it would be a good time to re-post the 15 part series I did back in March 2014.

A comprehensive series on the most significant of the supposed screenwriting ‘rules,’ hopefully to put things into proper perspective: Tools, not rules. Focus on your creativity, not picayune format and style issues. Write a great script. That should be your focus.

Part 1: The Organic Nature of the Screenplay

Part 2: The Emergence of the Selling Script

Part 3: The Evolution of Screenplay Format and Style

Part 4: There are no screenwriting ‘rules’

Part 5: There are expectations

Part 6: We See / We Hear

Part 7: Unfilmables

Part 8: Action Paragraphs – 3 Lines Max

Part 9: CUT TO (Transitions)

Part 10: Parentheticals

Part 11: Flashbacks

Part 12: Voice-Over Narration

Part 13: Sympathetic Protagonist

Part 14: Protagonist and Shifting Goals

Part 15: Certain Events by Certain Pages

The entire 15 part series

These issues rear their ugly heads from time to time. Whoever is promulgating this stuff as “you must do this” or “you can’t do that” in terms of – frankly – the mostly piddlyshit aspects of screenwriting format and style, please stop! You deflect attention from where it should be, that is crafting a compelling story and writing a great script. All of these items listed above are secondary… no, let me restate that… tertiary in importance to the success of a script. My series is an attempt to go through every single so-called ‘rule,’ put them into perspective and hopefully get our collective heads straight.

Please Stop

“Please, for the love of a furry God… STOP!!!”

Stop with this nonsense. Focus on story concept! Focus on characters! Focus on plotting! Focus on themes! Focus on dialogue! Focus on entertainment! But do not get hung up in any discussions longer than a nano-second on any sidebar formatting or style issue.

We all have better things to do!

Interview (Part 2): Destin Daniel Cretton

March 31st, 2015 by

This week, we are reading and analyzing the script Short Term 12, so I thought it would be a good idea to reprise my October 2013 interview writer-director Destin Daniel Cretton.

One of my favorite movies of 2013 is Short Term 12, so I was understandably excited when its talented writer-director Destin Daniel Cretton agreed to an interview. Our hour-long conversation did not disappoint.

Destin’s script “Short Term 12″ won a 2010 Nicholl Screenwriting Fellowship. He used that to write the script for the 2012 movie I Am Not A Hipster which Destin also directed.

Today in Part 2, Destin delves deeper into Short Term 12:

Scott:  There are three staff members key to the narrative. There’s Grace (Brie Larson), the protagonist, who’s deeply committed to her work and the well‑being of those around her. There’s Mason (John Gallagher Jr.), who’s Grace’s boyfriend, also committed to the job, but he seems to have a little more fun in life, and I suppose has less quote‑unquote “demons” than Grace does about her past. And then there’s Nate (Rami Malek), a newcomer to the facility, who provides an outsider‑coming‑in‑to‑this‑new‑world perspective.

Having worked in a foster care facility yourself, which of these three characters is most closely aligned to your own actual experiences there?

Destin:  Well, in certain ways they all do. If I were to just break it down, the main character is very similar to who I was when I first started working there.

The first month I was extremely awkward, always terrified of both saying something wrong, doing something that might mess up a teenager more than he was, also just afraid of getting hit, because some of these teenagers were pretty big. But also underneath it all trying really hard, and sometimes trying too hard to do a good job.

I totally relate to that character, and I also completely relate to Grace and all of the things that she’s dealing with and her questions that she…her questions and her fears of becoming a parent and her fears of having that kind of responsibility with another human being and wondering if she might do something or mess up that human as much as these other kids that she’s working with and as much as she was messed up by somebody else.

All of those fears were things that bubbled up inside me while I was working there. That’s hard not to think about things like that. And the Mason character, honestly, is…when I look at the Mason character he just embodies in many ways the type of person that I wish I was more like.

Scott:  Let’s talk about Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), an adolescent who’s introduced as a newcomer to the facility. One of the issues is she cuts herself and later we discover that’s something Grace has a history with. They also share a connection due to their respective relationships with their fathers who are both abusive. Is it fair to say that Jayden represents to Grace maybe on a subconscious level a younger version of herself?

Destin:  Yes, whether you think of it literally or not, but that’s definitely…on an emotional level that’s how the actors are playing it. That’s what our conversations were like.

Scott:  In some ways that’s a bridge, isn’t it, for Grace, because she discovers she’s pregnant, and so she’s trying to deal with that, and in dealing with Jayden there seems like there might be some kind of psychological connection.

Destin:  Yes, completely. There is a definite emotional connection between the two, because at different moments they both know exactly how the other person feels, and so there are certain moments they bounce back and force between being the one who is vulnerable and being the one who is feeling empathy for the other person.

They both have their own moments of that with each other. Yes, they see themselves when they look into each other, and they feel like if the other person makes it, they can, too.

Scott: I’m curious then, how conscious were you of that dynamic when you were writing the part? Was it like a thing where you said, “Well, I feel like I need to have a character like Jayden in order for Grace to experience this kind of a projection of herself,” or was it more of an organic thing? It just arose unconsciously during the creative process.

Destin:  It was much more organic than something that I contrived as a tool. A lot of those dots began to connect toward the end of the writing process once I had all these ingredients laid out. Some of these emotional connections just naturally came out further on as the characters had developed and as that relationship between the two of them developed in the writing process.

Here is a trailer for the 2013 movie:

Tomorrow in Part 3, Destin discusses the unique way he handled important exposition with two key characters in Short Term 12.

For Part 1, go here.

The official movie site is here.

Go here to rent or buy Short Term 12.

Destin is repped by WME.

You can follows Destin on Twitter: @destindaniel.

Movies You Made: Finale

March 31st, 2015 by

We had so many entrants in this year’s Movies You Made series, I’m using this last day of March to feature several of them.

Operation: Get Rid of Pinky – Chet Johnson (co-writer, co-producer)

The Late, Late News – Chris Hadley (writer, co-producer)

Brothers – Hank Thompson (writer, director)

Below the Belt: Episode 1 – Jared M. Gordon (co-writer, director)

Absent – Al Fernández (co-creator)

Thanks to all the filmmakers involved in the 2015 installment of the Movies You Made series. We’ll see you next year for the next round. Until then, keep being creative… and making stuff happen!

Movie Trailer: “Masterminds”

March 31st, 2015 by

Screenplay by Chris Bowman, Jody Hill, Danny McBride, Hubbel Palmer, Emily Spivey

A night guard at an armored car company in the Southern U.S. organizes one of the biggest bank heists in American history.


Release Date: 7 August 2015 (USA)

Script Analysis: “Short Term 12” – Part 2: Major Plot Points

March 31st, 2015 by

Reading scripts. Absolutely critical to learn the craft of screenwriting. The focus of this weekly series is a deep structural and thematic analysis of each script we read. Our daily schedule:

Monday: Scene-By-Scene Breakdown
Tuesday: Major Plot Points
Wednesday: Sequences
Thursday: Psychological Journey
Friday: Takeaways

Today: Major Plot Points.

In every scene, something happens. A plot point is a scene or group of scenes in which something major happens, an event that impacts the narrative causing it to turn in a new direction.

A relevant anecdote. Years ago, I was on the phone with a writer discussing a script project. My son Will, who was about four years old at the time, must have been listening to me talking about “plot points” during the conversation because after I hung up, he asked, “Daddy, what’s a plop point?”

That’s in effect what a plot point is. It’s an event that ‘plops’ into the narrative and changes its course. So when you think Plot Point, think Plop Point!

The value of this exercise:

* To identify the backbone of the story structure.

* To examine each major plot point and see how it is effective as an individual event.

* To analyze the major plot points in aggregate to determine why they work together as the central plot.

This week: Short Term 12. You may download the script — free and legal — here: Short Term 12.

Written by Destin Daniel Cretton

IMDb plot summary: A 20-something supervising staff member of a residential treatment facility navigates the troubled waters of that world alongside her co-worker and longtime boyfriend.

Writing Exercise: Go through the scene-by-scene breakdown of Short Term 12 and identify the major plot points. Post your thoughts in comments and we’ll see if we can come up with a consensus.

Tomorrow we consider the script’s structure in terms of its sequences.

If you’d like a PDF of the Short Term 12 script scene-by-scene breakdown, go here.

Major kudos to Carolina Groppa for doing this week’s breakdown.

Tomorrow: We focus on the sequences in the script.

This series started here and we have 26 volunteers to do scene-by-scene breakdowns of contemporary movie scripts. The scripts we have already analyzed are in italics.

American Hustle: Jon Raymond
Argo: Nora Barry
Barney’s Version: John M
Belle: DaniM
Beginners: Ali
Boyhood: Jacob Jensen
Enough Said: Ali
Flight: 14Shari
Frankenwenie: Will King
Frozen: Christina Sekeris
Gone Girl: NateKohler1
Gravity: Matt Duriez
Hanna: John Arends
Lincoln: pgronk
Looper: erikledrew
Moonrise Kingdom: Daniel Bigler
Mud: Alejandro
Paranorman: OhScotty
Prisoners: Melinda Mahaffey Icden
Short Term 12: Carolina Groppa
The Artist: Traci Nell Peterson
The Grand Budapest Hotel: Rob Hoskins
The Social Network: N D
The Way Way Back: Ricky
Wadjda: iamdaniel
Whiplash: Steven Broughton

If you’d like to participate and do a scene-by-scene breakdown yourself, please indicate which script in comments or email me. We are using scripts available on our site here. Note some of the 2014 scripts are now available there including Belle, Birdman, Boyhood, Calvary, Get On Up, Gone Girl, How To Train Your Dragon 2, Kill The Messenger, Locke, St. Vincent, The Boxtrolls, The Fault In Our Stars, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Theory of Everything, and Wild.

For new volunteers and those who have already volunteered, but not sent me a breakdown yet, please do so as soon as possible. Thanks!

Circling back to where we started, reading scripts is hugely important. Analyzing them even more so. If you want to work in Hollywood as a writer, you need to develop your critical analytical skills. This is one way to do that.

So seize this opportunity and join in the conversation!

I hope to see you in comments about this week’s script: Short Term 12.

Screenwriting 101: Justin Zackham

March 31st, 2015 by

“For me, screenwriting is all about setting characters in motion and as a writer just chasing them. They should tell you what they’ll do in any scene you put them in.”

— Justin Zackham

Daily Dialogue — March 31, 2015

March 31st, 2015 by

Ambassador Swanbeck: On behalf of the United States of America, the signing of this treaty will usher in an era of unprecedented prosperity and cooperation between our two great nations.
Omura: On behalf of the Emperor, we are pleased to have successfully concluded this…

Messenger enters with urgent message.

Omura: …negotiation.
Emperor Meiji: [to messenger in Japanese] He is here?
Omura: [in Japanese] Highness, if we could just conclude the matter at hand…
Algren: This is Katsumoto’s sword. He would have wanted you to have it, that the strength of the Samurai be with you always.
Omura: [in Japanese] Enlightened One, we all weep for Katsumoto but…
Algren: He hoped with his last breath that you would remember his ancestors who held this sword and what they died for.
Emperor Meiji: You were with him? At the end?
Algren: Hai.
Omura: Emperor, this man fought against you.
Algren: Your Highness, if you believe me to be your enemy, command me and I will gladly take my life.
Emperor Meiji: I have dreamed of a unified Japan, of a country strong and independent and modern and now we have railroads and cannon, Western clothing. But we cannot forget who we are or where we come from. Ambassador Swanbeck, I have concluded that your treaty is NOT in the best interests of my people.
Ambassador Swanbeck: Sir, if I may…
Emperor Meiji: So sorry, but you may not.
Ambassador Swanbeck: This is an OUTRAGE.
Omura: [in Japanese] Enlightened One, we should discuss this…
Emperor Meiji: [in Japanese] Omura, you have done quite enough.
Omura: [in Japanese] Everything I have done, I have done for my country.
Emperor Meiji: [in Japanese] Then you will not mind when I seize your family’s assets and present them as my gift to the people.
Omura: [in Japanese] You disgrace me.
Emperor Meiji: [in Japanese] If your shame is too unbearable… [holds out Katsumoto’s sword] I offer you this sword.
Emperor Meiji: [to Algren] Tell me how he died.
Algren: I will tell you how he lived.

The Last Samurai (2003), screenplay by John Logan and Edward Zwick & Marshall Herskovitz, story by John Logan

The Daily Dialogue theme for the week: Foreigner. Today’s suggestion by James Schramm.

Trivia: This film was inspired by a project developed by writer / director Vincent Ward. Ward became executive producer on the film, working in development on it for nearly four years. After approaching several directors (among them Francis Ford Coppola, Peter Weir), he interested Edward Zwick. The film went ahead with Zwick as director and was shot in Ward’s native New Zealand.

Dialogue On Dialogue: Commentary by James: “Very powerful scene that has a foreigner showing an Emperor the ‘strength’ of the Samurai.”

If you have a suggestion for this week’s theme, please post in comments.

How to Generate and Critique Story Ideas (10 Part Series)

March 30th, 2015 by

How important are story ideas, the central concept upon which a script is based? Consider these quotes from professional screenwriters:

“Most aspiring screenwriters simply don’t spend enough time choosing their concept. It’s by far the most common mistake I see in spec scripts. The writer has lost the race right from the gate. Months — sometimes years — are lost trying to elevate a film idea that by its nature probably had no hope of ever becoming a movie.”

— Terry Rossio (Aladdin, The Mask of Zorro, Shrek, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl)

Ideas cost NOTHING and require ZERO risk. And yet, oddly, the LEAST amount of time’s usually spent in the idea stage before a small fortune is dumped on a whimsy that’s still half-baked… Ideas cost nothing yet have the potential to yield inexplicably long careers and happy lives.”

— Kevin Smith (Clerks, Mallrats, Chasing Amy, Dogma, Zak and Miri Make a Porno)

“The idea is still king. Spend 90% of your time working on the idea.”

— Tony Gilroy (The Bourne Identity, Michael Clayton)

There’s no right way to come up with story ideas, just like there’s no right way to write. However for the last two weeks, I featured a series of posts with a number of tips on how to generate and assess story ideas. Here are those links:

Part 1: What If…

Part 2: Halliwell’s Film Guide

Part 3: Images

Part 4: Titles

Part 5: Gender-Bending

Part 6: Genre-Bending

Part 7: Think International

Part 8: Franchise

Part 9: Test Your Concept

Part 10: Challenge Yourself

My advice? Bookmark this page. Go through those posts. And get yourself into the habit of looking for and generating a story idea each day. That’s right. Every single day. Because as Nobel Prize-winning scientist Linus Pauling said: “The best way to have a good idea is to have lots of ideas.”

Starting Wednesday, I put my proverbial money where my virtual mouth is for that’s when the 2015 iteration of A Story Idea Each Day for a Month begins. Join me as every day during April, I post a story idea I’ve surfaced via a news source during the previous 12 months. We will kick around a variety of ways to approach the development of each idea. And here’s the kicker: Any of the ideas is yours to use.

The story idea. Critically important to the success of any spec script.

Interview (Part 1): Destin Daniel Cretton

March 30th, 2015 by

This week, we are reading and analyzing the script Short Term 12, so I thought it would be a good idea to reprise my October 2013 interview writer-director Destin Daniel Cretton.

One of my favorite movies of 2013 is Short Term 12, so I was understandably excited when its talented writer-director Destin Daniel Cretton agreed to an interview. Our hour-long conversation did not disappoint.

Destin’s script “Short Term 12″ won a 2010 Nicholl Screenwriting Fellowship. He used that to write the script for the 2012 movie I Am Not A Hipster which Destin also directed.

Today in Part 1, Destin shares how he got interested in filmmaking and the inspiration for Short Term 12:

Scott: I have your IMDB Pro credits and all the way down at the bottom, I see this short film in 2002 you did called Longbranch: A Suburban Parable. When did you catch the bug about film making?

Destin:   I guess it depends on when you consider it a bug. I don’t know because I was one of six kids growing up on Maui in Hawaii. The first time I caught the bug was when my grandma loaned us her VHS camcorder when I was about ten. That was when we first started, my family and I, my brothers and sisters, we got addicted just making silly movies as kids and things when we were young.

I didn’t ever think that, “Oh, I want to be a film maker when I grow up.” But I did know that I loved it. I was always the guy who was, for summer camp, doing those videos. I’ve always loved the process of doing it.

But that film Longbranch was that the first actual film that I ever made that I submitted to festivals and things. I had a bet with a friend of mine, Lowell Frank, and shot it in around 2001.

It went to festivals including Tribeca. We got to travel around with it a little bit and just  watching something on the screen you slaved away at, seeing people react to it and hearing them talk about it afterwards, I got hooked after that.

It wasn’t so much, I want to do this for living. It was more of, I want to figure out a way to continue to do this the rest of my life, even if I have years of not really doing it.

Scott:  After college, you got a master’s at San Diego State in film?

Destin:  Yeah. After I graduated from college, I worked at a group home for at‑risk teenagers for two years, very similar to Short Term 12. While there, I made Long Branch. I also got into San Diego State University. So I left to go to film school.

Scott:  Short Term 12 won the 2013 South by Southwest audience award. Here’s a plot summary from IMDB. “Twenty‑something supervising staff member of a foster care facility navigates the troubled waters of that world alongside her coworker, a longtime boyfriend.” It was inspired by that job you had at that group home after you graduated from college. As a storyteller, what were some of the narrative elements you looked at or thought about from those experiences where you said, “This would make a good movie.”

Destin:  The first thing I saw that was instantly inspiring, I was looking back through my journals during the time I was working there when I was trying to do my thesis project at San Diego State University. There was one story I had written down that was an experience I had with a young boy who, it was his birthday and his dad didn’t show up.

He was acting like he didn’t care and he held it in as long as he could, and then he disappeared down the hall, we heard his door slam. I was the closest one to him emotionally, so I was the one who was trying to push the door open. And he was holding it and then let it fly open and I fell in and then he took out his anger on my face and just started wailing on me. So we had to restrain him.

We fast‑forward about an hour later. The adrenaline had passed and this same young man was able to open up and have a very intimate conversation with me about all the stuff that he was dealing with that day.

Looking at that journal entry, it kind of encapsulated the complexities of that environment and also summed up just the general feel of what it felt like to go through the ups and downs of the emotions of that place.

Scott:  That scene is actually in the movie. It happens to Grace and Jaden.

Destin:  Yeah. That was one of the few scenes that was in the original short film, which we shot in 2008. Also a version of it carried into the feature.

Here is the trailer for the original 2008 short film:

Tomorrow in Part 2 of the interview, Destin delves deeper into Short Term 12.

The official movie site is here.

Go here to rent or buy Short Term 12.

Destin is repped by WME.

You can follows Destin on Twitter: @destindaniel.

“News Companies See Movies as Opportunity for Growth”

March 30th, 2015 by

As much chatter as there is going around about the supposed decline of movies as a viable narrative form in today’s binge-watching-short-attention-span culture, there’s this:

In a surprising turn, some of the most aggressive contemporary purveyors of information, journalistic and otherwise, are seeking future growth from what has not seemed novel since Edison’s day: the feature-length motion picture.

In the last several years, BuzzFeed Media, Vice Media, CNN, Condé Nast and Newsweek have all built units or alliances aimed in part at creating long-form narrative or documentary films that will be seen in theaters. They will use time-tested promotional apparatus — including festivals, awards and brightly lit marquees — to draw viewers, many of whom will ultimately see the movies online or on television.

Distributors of short form news stories are creating divisions focusing on long-form feature films, both scripted and documentary. Why?

While they vary, the operations are all planted in the notion that classic movie formats have immense power to open cultural conversations, and to hold viewers who might otherwise be lost to a competitor with the next bold headline, or two-minute video.

If the goal still exists to create content that draws eyeballs that stick around for longer than it takes to click a mouse, movies can be a sound solution, landing a person’s attention for 90-120 minutes. This from Ze Frank, president of BuzzFeed Motion Pictures:

Why bother?

Because, Mr. Frank said, long-form visual storytelling seems the best way to deal with life’s deeper themes: “sex, love, war, jealousy and betrayal,” for instance.

“The Russian novel was the standard for a while,” he said. “Right now, I really feel it’s the feature.”

Cycles. The entertainment business is always about cycles. Something’s hot. Then it’s not. Then it’s hot again. That’s just one reason why I’m absolutely certain that while we may be in the middle of the so-called Second Golden Age of TV, there will be a renaissance on the movie side of things.

Who knows? Maybe it’s emerging right now.

For the rest of the NYT article, go here.