January has turned out to be a reliable month for Hollywood with regard to one genre in particular: Horror. This year was no different when Twentieth Century Fox released Devil’s Due, a movie that thus far has brought in over four times its production budget in box office revenues.
The movie’s success is one reason I was excited to interview its screenwriter Lindsay Devlin. Another reason is her extensive background working in Hollywood on the story development side of things.
Lindsay and I had a terrific conversation, and I’m pleased to share her many insights into the craft of screenwriting and the movie business, along with her creative process with the film Devil’s Due.
Today in Part 3, Lindsay talks about the challenge every screenwriter faces: How to wrangle Act Two, the middle of the story and the rationale behind the found footage aspect of Devil’s Due:
Scott: That’s so interesting what you were just saying, because you’ve got this great set‑up, which is due to this mysterious set of circumstances on the honeymoon. Samantha comes back and discovers she’s pregnant, which is shocking to her because she wasn’t expecting it, being on the pill. Then, almost immediately thereafter, there’s some clues for moviegoers where, well, this is may not be your normal pregnancy.
You’ve got that going on. Then you’ve got the ending, which inevitably is something to do with the delivery. Then there’s this whole middle part, which is always the challenge.
Hearing you talk there, it sounds like a part of how you structured that was thinking through that psychological dynamic of how each of them, and then the couple together, was starting to understand, or trying to cope with, what was going on as she’s getting more and more pregnant.
Lindsay: Yeah. Like I said, he switches from worried, to slightly paranoid, to full‑blown wanting to stop whatever is going on. For her, she instinctively, as a mother and as a woman, knows a little bit sooner that there’s something really wrong. The wedge that starts to happen between them is something that really fascinated me, too.
It’s heartbreaking, because you see how much they love each other from the beginning, but this other, this truly third party has taken over. It’s the elephant in the room, and she is trying so hard to understand it. At the same time, as you see throughout the middle part of the movie, she’s actually not fully conscious of some of the things she’s doing. Whether it’s eating the raw meat, or killing people. That’s not her in her conscious state, so there’s something terrifying in the fact that she’s lost control to that degree. Allison had a challenging role because she has to go through such physical turmoil and raw emotional states, and she did it with incredible grace.
Zach is just trying to be reassuring, but of course beneath that is like, “Oh, fuck. Something’s really wrong with my wife.” I thought their performances were wonderful and everything I hoped for when I was writing it.
Allison Miller, Zach Gilford
Scott: That middle part again, what struck me about it is you took all those conventions about having a baby — fixing up the baby’s room and buying baby stuff and going to the OBGYN and baby showers — and explored them in the context of a horror thriller movie.
How much of that were you just going down the laundry list of, “OK, what are things that happen when you get pregnant in terms of preparing for the baby,” and used those and then spun them with this conceit that there’s something wrong with this pregnancy?
Lindsay: A hundred percent. That’s actually how I ended up approaching it before I even went to draft, was writing up a list of all those ubiquitous pregnancy things. All kinds of stuff that every expectant parent does.
It was a lot of fun to take especially things that should be joyful, like registering or the baby shower, and turning it into something terrifying. Yeah, it was actually one of the most fun things to do, is take all the joyous things and basically twist them into something a little bit perverse.
Because, I think, underneath it all there is, even in the joyous moments of pregnancy, there’s still the anxiety of, “Can we do this? How are we going to do this? How are we going to afford this? How are we going to survive this?” We tried to keep it always grounded in real life anxiety. But, knowing obviously that there’s a Satanic principle to this movie, we had license to go a little crazy, which was fun.
Scott: You mentioned earlier, you’re really more of a fan of psychological thrillers and supernatural dramas as opposed to horror. I would think that one of those challenges you would face particularly in the middle of the story is, “How do I build the tension? How do I sustain that?”
As a writer, how conscious were you of that, what horror fans might be anticipating and their need to have something go “whammo” every five or ten minutes, versus your own instincts where you’re drawn more towards psychological thriller?
Lindsay: I think it’s a balance. I definitely credit the directors for helping push me, because I developed several drafts with them. I certainly would say they helped push me maybe a little bit past my comfort zone. They would know, of course, visually what would work better than I would.
But ultimately, just like I would say about Paranormal Activity, I still think it is more psychological. You don’t have a ton of body count, a ton of blood. It truly still lives and breathes in this couple and in the tension and in the atmosphere. I’m sure people call Rosemary’s Baby a horror movie as well, but that movie is actually very slowly paced, very psychological.
I think it gets clumped into horror because the name Devil’s Due and because there’s a Satanic principle to it, but I still would stand by the fact that I think it’s largely a psychological thriller with horror elements to it.
Scott: It certainly builds toward a big, compelling ending. I’d like to discuss the whole found footage angle. First of all, did you always know you were going to write the story using video from available sources to tell it, and if so, what appealed to you about that?
Lindsay: Yeah. Actually, after I first had that dream and started playing with the notion of it. I did feel that it should be found footage, because I felt it was most authentic to the way couples are documenting their pregnancies and I felt like it had that modern twist.
Also, to be honest, I was conscious of the fact that no matter how we approached the story, there would be the inevitable comparisons to “Rosemary’s Baby”, and if it was just done as a straight narrative it would feel, obviously, more similar to that.
I felt this was a fresher, more modern, more youthful take on a pregnancy. I felt like it was very true to the way I had seen my friends document everything from ultrasounds to baby showers to the birth. I thought it lent itself to found footage.
Scott: I’ve got a chicken and egg question here for you. You said earlier that very early on in terms of Samantha’s character, you had this idea that she didn’t have a family, she bounced around from foster family to foster family. That became the basis of this idea of them filming what they call a family history.
As I was reading the script, I was thinking, that’s really smart to give her that background, because that creates the internal logic you need for these found footage things, which is like, “Why are they taking all this video?”
I’m wondering which came first. Was it that you knew all along Samantha was going to have a background where she didn’t have the personal history that then set into motion this video thing? Or did you say, “I need to have a justification for why they’re doing this videotaping,” and go back and give that personal history to her?
Lindsay: It’s actually kind of a hybrid of the two. Because my instinct was to do it found footage, I think that I felt like documenting a pregnancy was a strong enough reason anyway. But I did feel like it would be better if there were a truly emotional component to why there might be this amount of coverage.
I also really felt like I wanted her to have a very specific and possibly surprising take on motherhood, not your normal, very eager-to-have-a-baby woman. I thought it was more interesting, and would be a psychological progression for she went into it not very excited ‑‑ grew excited ‑‑ and then it all turned on her. I was truly searching for a good character dynamic for the two of them, and I felt like this was a little bit unexpected, and I like that.
Tomorrow in Part 4, Lindsay wraps up some thoughts on found footage and lets us in on some other projects on her slate including a personal one that is likely to be her most important production.
For Part 1 of the interview, go here.
Part 2, here.
Lindsay is repped by UTA and Mosaic.
I recently received an email from filmmakers Christian H. Clark & Angela Trevino:
We weren’t sure if you were still taking “Movies You Made” submissions, but just in case you are, here’s our latest short, Travellers, which we made for the Cornetto Cupidity series of shorts about young love.
Travellers is the love story of Marco and Claire who meet on a train in Southern Italy while travelling in very different directions. Will Marco see past his parents’ wishes and follow his heart?
It was shot on location in Polignano A Mare, Italy, one hour south of Bari, in Fall 2013.
Here are the key credits:
Written & Directed by Christian H. Clark & Angela Trevino
Produced by Luca Legnani
Shot by Mike Gioulakis
Production Design by Gaia Moltedo
Starring Vincent Mazzarella, Lily Travers, & Christian Vit
Original Music by Claudio Olachea
Tracks from Daughter & Youth Lagoon
Italian Casting by Ornella Morsilli
UK Casting by Briony Barnett
Produced by City Limit Films (LA & Austin)
Production Services by 9.99 Films (Milan & Rome)
Here is the 7-minute movie Travellers:
I asked Christian and Angela what was it about this particular story that inspired them to make the movie. Here is their response:
There’s something so magical about falling in love for the first time, let alone in a foreign country. What drew us to write this script was the idea of capturing that magic, that feeling of being understood for the first time, even if it was by someone from another culture. We also wanted to focus on a character literally at a crossroads, which is often when we end up meeting those rare individuals who end up changing the trajectory of our lives.
You may learn more about City Limit Films, the production company founded by Christian and Angela here.
As readers may know, I’m not a big listicle guy… except for Saturday Hot Links which is where I tend aggregate the countless types of these items which skitter my way over the course of a week via the web. However I found this particular list to have some potential value for those of us who write comedy: 10 Ways to Make People Laugh.
Hey, what’re you laughing at? Psychologists debate whether humor arises simply from absurdity and incongruity, from a need to relieve tension, or from a desire to feel superior. Academics have identified 41 humor techniques, 10 of which are listed below. See which psychological motives you think are at play in the following examples.
Taking things over the top can make for hilarious absurdity. In “A Night at the Opera,” Groucho Marx’s stateroom was crowded. How crowded? Take a look.
Speeding up or slowing down speech or actions can make them “funny strange” and “funny ha-ha.” Gilbert and Sullivan’s patter songs, like “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General” from The Pirates of Penzance, set the bar for speed talking. When it comes to slow delivery, pauses are key. Listen to the notoriously stingy Jack Benny’s pause in “Your Money or Your Life.”
In Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein, when the horses rear up and whinny the first time the forbidding Frau Blucher (Cloris Leachman) gives her name, it’s ominous. Afterward, however, every time her name is mentioned, no matter how casually, the horses never miss their cue. Repetition makes what was once frightening ludicrous.
The other 7:
How could a writer use this list? A couple of ways:
* If the humor in a scene feels flat, look at what you have at work there and see what type it is. Is that the best type for that scene? What if you think more visually and use slapstick? Or have a character get so wound up they blurt out a malapropism. It’s a way to take humor that isn’t working and trying other approaches to make for better comedy.
* When prepping a scene, the list can serve as a reminder about the variety of ways you can go about injecting humor into the moment. This can be corrective in nature. For example, what if you keep going to the well using exaggeration to generate laughs? Mix it up by brainstorming some misdirection or a misunderstanding.
* Even at the conceptual level, you can use this list to help spin story ideas. Impersonation leads to misunderstanding? That’s as old as Cyrano de Bergerac and we’ve seen it in movies such as Tootsie and Dave. Repetition leads to exaggeration? How about Groundhog Day?
I’m sure for most who traffic in comedy, it’s an instinctual thing. If it’s working for you, don’t over-think it, just keep doing what you’re doing. However perhaps a bit of reflection and thought about your approach to comedy can broaden your horizons and up your game.
By the way, I did a bit of research and believe I’ve found the academic article featuring the “41 humor techniques” noted in the article above. Go here to see a preview and there is a link where you can download the PDF for $39. But digging deeper, I found this link which, if you’re interested, you may find helpful…
For the MentalFloss article cited above, go here.
Written by Adam J. Braff, Zach Braff
‘Wish I Was Here’ is the story of Aidan Bloom, a struggling actor, father and husband, who at 35 is still trying to find his identity; a purpose for his life. He winds up trying to home school his two children when his father can no longer afford to pay for private education and the only available public school is on its last legs. Through teaching them about life his way, Aidan gradually discovers some of the parts of himself he couldn’t find.
Release Date: 25 July 2014 (USA)
This is the fifth year in a row I’ve run this series in April.
This is love. An Ohio man remembered he might have a copy of the first Spider-Man comic ever in a box in his attic, found it, and sold it to help pay for his daughter’s wedding.
“I gave my daughter a promissory note for the money with a picture of the Spider-Man comic, which we can use to pay for a big part of the catering for her reception,” Richard Schaen, 69, told the Cleveland Plain-Dealer.
Schaen had bought the comic in 1963 at a Columbus drugstore for 12 cents. He had continued collecting comics up until adulthood when the birth of his daughter Jane (who is getting married) forced him to stop his comic book hobby.
“Comics had gone up to 75 cents by then and I was spending $40 a month,” he told the Plain-Dealer. “Also, it took two evenings a week to read the new comics and with a new baby in the house, I found myself stretched.”
Schaen however, kept his comics in the home. “I put them away for a rainy day,” he said. The Spider-Man comic was not in perfect condition, but was in good enough shape to contribute $7,000 towards the cost of the wedding.
I’m not going to do any heavy lifting on this one because there are so many obvious ways you can exploit this conceit, everything from losing the comic, the comic getting stolen, guys sells beloved comic, then the couple gets into a huge argument and the wedding is off, and on and on.
Folks, this one is all yours to brainstorm.
There you go: My twenty third story idea for the month. And it’s yours. Free!
What would you do with it?
Each day this month, I invite you to join me in comments to do some brainstorming. Gender bend, genre bend, what if. Take each day’s story idea and see what it can become when we play around with it. These are all valuable skills for a writer to develop.
See you in comments (hit Reply to join the conversation). And come back tomorrow for another Story Idea Each Day For A Month.
Short Term 12 was just about my favorite movie last year. Written and directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, and produced with a reported budget of just $400K, it is an utterly compelling drama with incredible performances all down the line, led by a phenomenal turn by Brie Larson as the story’s Protagonist Grace.
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.
In this scene, Grace deals with Jayden, a troubled youth in the facility, just after a disturbing altercation.
INT. JAYDEN'S ROOM -- MOMENTS LATER Jayden opens her sketchbook to the back page, where there is a homemade pocket taped to the inside cover. She pulls out a folded piece of paper and opens it carefully. Grace watches her, patiently. She flips back through her notebook to a page that is covered with cool illustrations of underwater scenes and creatures, particularly sharks and octopi. JAYDEN It's a kids' story, so there aren't any big words. GRACE Okay. Jayden begins. As she reads, she points to the illustration that she wants Grace to look at. She points to a small sketch of a cute little octopus. JAYDEN Once upon a time, somewhere miles and miles beneath the surface of the ocean, there lived a young octopus named Nina. She points to various drawings of the octopus making funny artwork out of shells and sand. JAYDEN (CONT’D) Nina spent most of her time alone, making strange creations out of rocks and shells. And she was very happy. (beat) But then, on Monday, the Shark showed up. She points to a drawing of a Shark swimming up to Nina. JAYDEN (CONT’D) "What's your name?" said the shark. "Nina," she replied. "Do you want to be my friend?" He asked. "Okay, what do I have to do?" Said Nina. "Not much," said the Shark, "Just let me eat one of your arms." Grace watches Jayden read. JAYDEN (CONT’D) Nina had never had a friend before, so she wondered if this was what you had to do to get one. She looked down at her eight arms, and decided it wouldn't be so bad to give up one. So she donated an arm to her wonderful new friend. Jayden points to a morbid drawing of the shark eating one of Nina's arms. JAYDEN (CONT’D) Every day that week, Nina and the Shark would play together. They explored caves, built castles of sand, and swam really really fast. And every night, the Shark would be hungry, and Nina would give him another one of her arms to eat. Jayden points at various illustrations of the octopus and the shark playing together, and the shark eating her arms. JAYDEN (CONT’D) On Sunday, after playing all day, the Shark told Nina that he was very hungry. "I don't understand," she said. "I've already given you six of my arms, and now you want one more?" The shark looked at her with a friendly smile and said, "I don't want one. This time I want them all." "But why?" Nina asked. And the shark replied, "Because that's what friends are for." Jayden points to another drawing of the shark, alone. JAYDEN (CONT’D) When the shark finished his meal that night, he felt very sad and lonely. He missed having someone to explore caves, build castles and swim really really fast with. He missed Nina very much. So, he swam away to find another friend. Jayden folds up the piece of paper and grips it in her hand. She stares down at her drawings, waiting. Grace watches her for a moment before speaking. GRACE Jayden, did your dad ever hurt you? Jayden doesn't respond at first. But then shrugs without looking up. Grace watches her. GRACE (CONT’D) Does he still hurt you? Jayden doesn't respond. She hides her face with her hand. Grace sits with her for a moment before putting her arm on her back. She sees tears plopping down onto the drawings of the octopus and the shark. The two sit side by side.
Here is the scene from the movie:
There’s the old saying about movies, “Show it, don’t say it,” but here is a scene where telling a story instead of showing it really works. I asked Destin about this in an interview I did with him last year:
Scott: There’s another instance which you use a similar device to convey exposition when Jaden shows a story she wrote to Grace about an octopus who develops a relationship with a shark. Do you remember what inspired you to write that story?
Destin: I don’t, really. It was just another one of those scenes that I struggled with for so long. I knew that this character did communicate through art. A lot of her drawings and things was one of her outlets. That story was one of those moments where it just feels like it came from somewhere else. I took a walk around the block at the coffee shop where I was writing and I was stressing out about it and trying to figure out how to get this character to talk that didn’t want to talk.
That story actually brought me to tears. I had fallen in love with that Jaden character so much.
Compare the script to the film version. The dialogue is quite close, but there are subtle directing choices Cretton made that take what’s on the page and make it even more powerful on screen.
If you haven’t seen Short Term 12, do yourself a huge favor: Watch it. I believe it’s streaming on Netflix now. There is literally not one person I know in the business who has seen this movie and not loved it.
For my interview with Cretton, go here.
And check it! Discovered this 30-minute roundtable with Cretton and key actors from the movie:
If you need one last piece of enticement to watch Short Term 12, two words: Jennifer Lawrence. Last October, it was announced Cretton is set to direct the project “Glass Castle” to which everybody’s favorite young actress is attached to star.
Again: Watch Short Term 12!
One of the single best things you can do to learn the craft of screenwriting is to read the script while watching the movie. After all a screenplay is a blueprint to make a movie and it’s that magic of what happens between printed page and final print that can inform how you approach writing scenes. That is the purpose of Script to Screen, a weekly series on GITS where we analyze a memorable movie scene and the script pages that inspired it.
CAROLYN: You know, you could have some really fun backyard get-togethers out here.
WOMAN #1: The ad said this pool was “lagoon-like.” There’s nothing “lagoon-like” about it. Except for maybe the bugs.
WOMAN #2: There’s not even any plants out here.
CAROLYN: (re: shrub) What do you call this? Is this not a plant? If you have a problem with the plants, I can always call my landscape architect. Solved.
WOMAN #2: I mean, I think “lagoon,” I think waterfall, I think tropical. This is a cement hole.
CAROLYN: I have some tiki torches in the garage.
– American Beauty (1999), written by Alan Ball
The Daily Dialogue theme for the week: Sales Pitch. Today’s suggestion by Illimani.
Trivia: The shot where Annette Bening screams after her failure to sell the house was done in one take.
Dialogue On Dialogue: Commentary provided by Illimani: “The way how Carolyn tries to lure her customers with cheap lies about the house is a reflection of her incapacity to perceive how her own life is a hoax.”
Could use some suggestions for this week: Sales Pitch!
Last week, Film School Rejects ran a piece honoring the 25th anniversary of the Cameron Crowe movie Say Anything called “Are ‘Say Anything’ Lovebirds Lloyd Dobler and Diane Court Still Together?”
Sometime during the spring of my freshman year at college, a friend of mine decided to break out a big romantic gesture for his girlfriend of just a few weeks – they weren’t celebrating anything special, no anniversary or holiday to peg it to, he just wanted to do something – and he decided to recreate the infamous boombox scene from Say Anything. It went over like gangbusters. He drove his truck to the back of her dorm, stood in the bed of it, and blasted Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” for everyone to hear. I’m certain that was part of the charm – his girlfriend heard it, the rest of her dorm heard it, people walking to class heard it. (She was, to put it delicately, a bit of a show-off.)
Most importantly, everyone seemed to get it. Cameron Crowe’s film was nearly fifteen years old when this particularly over-the-top expression of love occurred, and although I’d never dare to compare the epic love story that was Lloyd Dobler (John Cusack) and Diane Court (Ione Skye) with a pair of dumb college kids eager to make their affections public in a world pre-Facebook, they did have something in common – neither couple is still together.
It is also a love story with a traditionally happy ending that is still worth wondering about. Say Anything ends with Lloyd and Diane heading off to London so that Diane can embark on her snazzy (and long-looming) fellowship. The duo have already been through quite a bit – a stop-and-start romance, bad advice from friends, a break-up complete with a pen consolation prize, Ice Man Power Lloyd, more bad advice from friends, and her father’s incarceration for bilking the IRS – and exiting America for a new adventure certainly sounds like a nice way to start over.
But nobody thinks it will work. No, really. Diane even says to Lloyd, “Nobody thinks it will work, do they?” to which Lloyd responds with the most perfect line: “No. You just described every great success story.”
If you’ve seen the movie, you can’t have forgotten its last image:
Waiting for the smoking sign to light up, but the subtext of them peering upward is clear: What is their future? An homage to this ending shot:
Benjamin and Elaine in The Graduate staring into their uncertain future. Which brings to mind this final image:
Ryan Bingham in Up in the Air peering up at an airport sign, dozens of flight departures, but again the subtext is about this main character gazing into his uncertain future.
Did Lloyd and Diane stay together? Benjamin and Elaine? Did Ryan ever come down to earth or stay floating above this thing we know as Life?
All good questions that presume an even more important question: Do your characters exist beyond FADE OUT?
We all know about backstory, the set of key events in a character’s past that directly influences who they are and what they will do, essentially their life before FADE IN. But if our characters exist in their story universe — 24/7/365 — isn’t it also true they would have a life after we type THE END?
It’s something to think about as you develop a story: Where will your characters be in 5 years, 10 years, 20 years, and beyond.
To spur your thinking, let me ask this: If there is one movie you could find out what happened to the characters after FADE OUT, what would it be?
As for me, it would be Little Miss Sunshine, the 2006 movie written by Michael Arndt. There is the delightful, spontaneous celebration of the Hoover family in support of Olive at the Little Miss Sunshine pageant:
But after the dust settles, what do we know?
We know Dwayne is not going to become an airplane pilot.
We know Frank is not going to get back his teaching job or young lover.
We know Richard is not going to get his self-help book published.
We know Olive did not win the Little Miss Sunshine trophy.
We know Grandpa is dead.
And we know the family is in desperate financial straits.
What we don’t know is what will happen to them.
They have come together as a family on stage and it’s truly a wondrous moment. But then they pile back into the VW, smash through the parking lot gate, pull out onto the highway and head east toward their home in New Mexico. And there’s that fantastic master shot of the VW driving off down the road, accompanied by the final song on the soundtrack, the instrumental version of How It Ends and… the annoying, irregular bleat of the car’s horn, which I have always taken to mean this: “Hoovers, you just had a positive experience. But your life lies ahead of you. You are still going to have to deal with your shit. And there’s a lot of shit for you to deal with. This horn is a friendly reminder of your destiny… after FADE OUT.”
I hope the Hoovers are well. And if I ever get the opportunity to meet Michael Arndt, that’s the first question I would ask him: How are the Hoovers? My guess is those characters still exist for him.
How about you? Do your characters have lives beyond FADE OUT?
For the rest of the Film School Rejects article, go here.
Longtime blog readers who follow the Sunday roundup Screenwriting News may have noticed something intriguing about last week’s deals: Three writers, who I have interviewed, made headlines:
Daniel Kunka sells action drama spec script “Yellowstone Falls” to QED for a reported six figures against near seven-figures.
Seth Lochhead adapting comic series “Who is Jake Ellis?” for 20th Century Fox and Chernin Entertainment.
John Swetnam writing and directing found footage dance drama “Breaking Through” for Get Lifted Film Company.
That means Hollywood is buying what they’re writing. So it would probably behoove you to learn more about their respective approaches to the creative and writing process which you can do by reading my interviews with them:
Daniel Kunka (June 2013)
Seth Locchead (October 2013)
John Swetnam (March 2011)
Congratulations to Daniel, Seth and John. Continued best of luck!