Reader Question: Do you have any tips for working with feedback?

April 18th, 2014 by

Question from Alejandro:

HI, Scott.

My question is related to feedback, not just studio notes but all kinds of feedback – from other writers, friends. How would you recommend handling feedback? I’ve seen cases where the script gets worse, not better – because they accept every comment. And the opposite – where the writer doesn’t want to make a change that most of the others writers think would benefit the script.

So, any tips for working with feedback you receive? How do you deal with it?

Thanks.

This is a really good question because as you suggest, Alejandro, if a writer follows the advice of someone whose feedback is wrong, that can only hurt the story. On the other hand, what if a writer receives solid suggestions that can improve the story, but the writer refuses to incorporate them, resulting in an inferior script. Different sides of the same coin. Let’s work our way through this.

First and foremost, everything depends upon the quality of the feedback. So if you choos to solicit reactions to a draft, you need to seek out professional quality advice. That does not necessarily mean the reader is a professional writer, however they have to be informed enough about the craft or at the very least Story so their observations come from a high level of understanding. On the other hand, while one could assume that most professional writers have a solid grasp on the craft, there are some who just aren’t all that good at assessing other peoples’ material. But whatever you do, you should focus on sourcing and vetting the people you use to read your material so that you have a high degree of trust and confidence that the feedback you receive represents solid insight and ideas.

Next question: Should you solicit more than one reader’s opinion? In general, I would say yes. However this can become problematic if you receive widely disparate opinions and suggestions from multiple sources. Of course, that could be a critique of the underlying material, how there’s not a underlying coherence to the story which steers readers down one path. But it could also be that each reader has such a distinctive world view, their takes are just bound to be substantially different. Personally I think three readers is the max for any given story. Beyond that, you increase the odds the feedback will be widely divergent in nature.

Another question: Should you seek out opinions from readers who are fans of and/or knowledgeable about the genre in which the story has been written? If you are working on a genre piece — let’s say Action, Horror, Science Fiction — it’s probably wise to get at least some feedback from someone who does traffic in that genre. On the other hand, it’s not a bad idea to get a read from someone who is not a fan of the genre, just to see how the characters and story tracks with a person who represents a wider audience.

Of course, the big unspoken question is this: How to source good, quality readers? One approach is to pay professional readers. Another approach is to find or create a writers group… ultimately this should be your goal, in my opinion. In either case, I recommend The Black Board, the Official Writing Community of the Black List and Go Into The Story. Spend some time there (by the way, it’s entirely free) on the forums, get to know folks, participate in conversations. There are forums where you can actually see the type and quality of analysis going on. For example, the Logline Workshop. Or discussions of current movies. You can also ask advice about professional readers and obtain opinions from the Black Board community to help steer you toward reliable people. But per the point of finding or starting a writers’ group, if you spend enough time being an active, supportive participant, and you find a few writers who impress you in terms of their analytical skill, you can approach them about some sort of reading arrangement: You’ll read their pages if they read yours.

The value of a writers group cannot be overstated. Many of the professional writers I know have some type of group they are connected to, informal or formal. To be a participant with a set of writers whose story analysis judgement you trust can be a huge benefit on current and future projects.

So that’s that on sourcing potential readers. What about if you are a receptive type to a fault, incorporating every suggestion? This can be a major issue because a script should have a story that represents a single voice. If you are attempting to accommodate multiple perspectives, your voice is likely to be obliterated.

What this means is that at some point, you have to trust your gut. And what that means is you have to have done enough work in getting to know the story universe, its characters, and immersed yourself in the narrative so you have a firm grasp on what you want, even if only intuitively. It’s also critical that you remember what it was that attracted you to the story in the first place. Those initial instincts can represent something pure and essential, so having those written out in a script diary or brainstorming list can be a helpful touchstone in assessing feedback that comes your way. But again, ultimately you have to make sure the story has a coherence tied to you fundamental take on the material. Otherwise your voice is likely to be lost.

As far as the writer who is resistant to changing his/her story? Passion for the material is a good thing. Stubbornness oftentimes is not. This is especially true with screenplays which are part of a collaborative process we call filmmaking. You have to be able to step back from your story and look at it with an objective eye, or at least as objective as possible. Remember: The critique is about the story, not you. It’s not a personal thing, although at times it may feel like it. Rather it’s all about the story, trying to make it the best damn thing possible.

Bottom line: Do some thinking about what type of writer you are relative to feedback. If you are resistant to outside opinions and changing your words, you likely need to work on that and become more open-minded. Writing several scripts and having them reviewed by professional script readers will help to disabuse you of your pretensions. If on the other hand you are easily swayed by opinions, make sure you are in touch with the key foundational elements of your story and protect them as fiercely as possible.

And by all means, try to find, join, or create a writers group, making sure the participants have story analytical skills you can trust.

GITS readers, what suggestions do you have? Please click on Reply and head to comments to carry on the conversation.

Interview: Elijah Bynum (2013 Black List) – Part 5

April 18th, 2014 by

The Black List is a pretty exclusive club, especially so for those writers who manage to land two scripts on the List in a single year. That’s what Elijah Bynum did in 2013 when two of his original screenplays — “Mississippi Mud” and “Hot Summer Nights”. I sought out Elijah to see what sort of creative mind could manage that feat. He was kind enough to give me an hour of his time in what turned out to be a great conversation about storytelling and the craft of screenwriting.

Today in Part 5, Elijah reflects on his love/hate relationship with plot and what it was like to learn two of his scripts made the Black List:

Scott:  Of course, working at CAA and reading all the scripts you did, you’re quite aware of these supposed screenwriting rules: “Don’t use voice‑over narration or don’t use flashbacks.” Even period pieces. From a budgetary standpoint, it’s just more expensive.

Yet you embrace all of that. You’ve got fantasy elements. You’ve got voice‑over narration. You’ve got flashbacks. Were you at all concerned about the conventional wisdom that’s out there about these things? Or this was part of your mythic, fantastical vision for the story and you just had to go with it?

Elijah:  I didn’t worry about it too much, just because I had such a clear vision of what the script was going to play like. At the end of the day I was writing the story for myself. I knew it would turn some people off but I didn’t care. If I wanted to make everyone happy I would make ice cream.

I feel like rules are allowed to be broken if they’re broken well.

Scott:  I’d like to talk about both movies, look at them in macro and think about, discuss maybe your creative instincts here because I don’t know if you’re a fan of Coen brothers or not, but to me, Raising Arizona came to mind. Fargo came to mind. At moments, even Blood Simple. Are you a fan of the Coen brothers? Inspiration for you?

Elijah:  They are literally my favorite filmmakers of all time.

Scott:  Were there some touchstones for you thematically or tonally with some of the Coen brothers movies that came to mind? Or were you just sort of generally influenced by them and didn’t have any specific points of reference?

Elijah:  I think I’m generally influenced by them. They have this almost magical way of exploring life in ways that are beautiful and tragic and hilarious and horribly sad and deeply ironic. After all that’s what life is.  A Coen brother movie leaves me with a very particular feeling in my gut. It’s something that I’ve always been inspired by.

“Mississippi Mud,” absolutely. I mean, “Mississippi Mud” is very much, I think, in the tone of Fargo and Blood Simple.

“Hot Summer Nights” less so. Movies that inspired “Hot Summer Nights” were movies such as Stand by Me, American Beauty, Goodfellas. I read the novel “Virgin Suicides” as I was writing it as well.  Just finding those elements and this detached whimsical nostalgic feeling that’s also tragic and funny and sad, and just felt very human and very, very real.

Scott:  Both of your scripts have complex plots with a lot of subplots, twists and turns. Do you like plot?

Elijah:  Yes and no. I have an index card taped to my desk that says, “Don’t be boring.” I have to remind myself of that all the time. Any time I feel the plot dragging and I realize I’m going down the wrong path I look down at my desk and that little index card is staring up at me.

Plot by a long shot is the most difficult, frustrating thing, because you only have, unlike a novel, a set amount of pages to tell your story. If you’re following the conventions of screenwriting, you have act breaks that you need to hit generally within a two or three page window to make your story read smoothly.

Being able to juggle all of these pieces while being able to say what you want to say thematically, while being able to say what you want to say on a character level, and keeping the plot moving forward ‑‑ it can be maddening. Whiskey helps.

But when you really tap into it and find a plot line that’s working, it sets you free, because the writing becomes that much easier. You’re connecting the dots at that point, instead of just swimming into the abyss, hoping you find a post to hang onto. You know exactly where you’re going. It’s just finding those benchmarks that are so difficult.

So I’d say it’s a love/ hate relationship with plot.

Scott:  One last thing I wanted to talk about in sort of macro way. You’ve got, particularly in “Hot Summer Nights,” there’s quite a few sides of dialogue where characters are ruminating about life. In fact, McKayla has one where she says something like, “Sometimes it’s good to be a little bad.” Even she has her own worldview that gets expressed.

But like “Mississippi Mud,” there’s a line toward the end. “Some folks walk in the rain. Others just get wet.”

I’m curious, and now you’ve also talked about how each of your stories have these kind of thematic, almost philosophical questions at the center of them. Where do you think that comes from and why does that interest you in terms of your writing?

Elijah:  I’m not sure that I know where that comes from. My dad is a pretty deep dude. He’s a psychologist and has published several incredibly dense and esoteric non-fiction books on the human subconscious. That could be it.  I don’t know, I have always been pretty cerebral and I’m fortunate to be able to string a few words together so I’m able to explore my questions through my stories. One of my favorite novelists is Cormac McCarthy. I think, as dark as he is, he’s always seeking questions to the way that this universe works and where he belongs in it.

There’s a way to address these questions, without hitting them over the head, by having characters, who are just as confused and lost and ponderous about life as I am. Looking at some of my favorite films and what’s inspired me, there’s always that element in there of “why are we here and what are we doing and where do we fit in?”

I think it’s something that influences me, whether I’m trying to let it or not, it comes out in some way or the other.

Scott:  Let’s talk about landing two scripts on the 2013 Blacklist. How did that go down? How did you find out?

Elijah:   I think a week before someone told me, “Black List is coming out in a week.” And then I tried not to worry about it too much, so I let it out of my mind.

I figured the night before, someone, either Franklin Leonard, or  my manager or agent or someone from the Blacklist to tell me.  Someone would email me and say, “Congratulations! You’re on the Black List. It will be posted tomorrow.”

The way I found out was this very nice television executive who greeted me with a congratulations. I was going into a general meeting, and the executive I was meeting with, as soon as I sat down, she said, “Well, congratulations!” I had no idea what she was talking about. I stared back at her like an idiot, and said “Thank you…?” She was like, “For the Black List.” “Ohhhh.”

Scott:  Did they say, “You’ve got two scripts on there?” Or was it just, “You just made the Black List.”

Elijah:  No, no. She said, “Congratulations on the Black List.” Then she refreshed her computer page. I leaned over and looked at her desk. I saw “Hot Summer Nights” was on there.

And then during the course of hour long meeting I felt my phone buzzing in my pocket. I came out and there was a text from someone who said, “Two on the Black List. Congratulations!” And then there were a few more texts that said that, so then I went on Deadline and looked at it. And saw that “Mississippi Mud” made it as well.

Scott:  What was it like and has it made much of a difference for you making the Black List in terms of general meetings and whatnot?

Elijah:  For six months leading up to the Black List, I was heavily involved in the general meetings. It felt like I was campaigning for a political office.

I think I went on something like a hundred general meetings. Someone told me “well, you’ve already met half the town, now after making the black list you’ll meet the other half”. It’s great—there are so many cool, likeminded people in this industry and I have a ton of water bottles now– but it’s hell on my gas tank.

Aside from the meetings, it really gave me the confidence that what I’m doing is resonating with people. Neither of those scripts were developed with anyone, I wrote them in a vacuum, which can be scary because you’ll stare at a piece of writing and you won’t know if it’s good or not. You have the devil and the angel on each side telling you this is terrible or this is great, and you’ve got to trust your instinct. So it’s very cool to know that people I respect dig my work.

Scott:  What’s the status of the scripts, by the way?

Elijah:  They’re both technically, I guess you would say, “in development.” “Mississippi Mud” is set up at Darko Entertainment with…

Scott:  Richard Kelly.

Elijah:  Yeah, with Richard Kelly’s company, with D. J. Caruso attached to direct.

And “Hot Summer Nights” is kind of in an interesting position right now, but it’s being executive produced by a company called Flashlight Pictures.

Scott:  Let’s get into some craft questions. How do you come up with story ideas?

Elijah:  Like we discussed earlier it comes from a place of some question or theme I want to explore. And then, just by keeping my eyes peeled– listening to music or reading books or articles or documentaries–something will stand out. And it will present itself in such a way that it lends itself to fitting into this theme that I want to write.

I’ve been fortunate enough that I have found those kernels of true life. Even if the script ends up having nothing to do with what that initial inspiration was, there was something there that triggered a creative thought in my mind that I was able to run with.

Scott:  How much time do you spend in prep writing?

Elijah:  The problem with me is when I have an idea and I have a character, I get really excited. At first, I go, “Well, I’m going to do it right this time. I’m going to outline. I’m going to know exactly what’s going to happen on each page. I’m not going down that path that I did on my other script”.

Then I just get too excited and I start writing. A lot of the research I do comes as I’m writing. I’ll get to a place where our characters need to accomplish X. And I won’t know what X looks like, so then I’ll take a few hours or sometimes a few days and I’ll research X.

But it’s a process that I do concurrently with the writing. I don’t front load everything. I think there are two kinds of people who can know their entire story up front—geniuses and hacks—I don’t think I’m either one.  I’m sure there will be a project some point in the future where I really need to delve into the research and the outlining before I even think about writing one word of the script. But so far it hasn’t been that way.

One of my favorite screenwriters to date who I’ve really learned the craft from just from reading his stuff is Eric Warren Singer. A little bird told me that he wrote a script for Sony where he read something like 70 books beforehand. Maybe not cover to cover, but some part of the book and just did three or four months of research before he even started writing the script. I found that to be incredibly awe inspiring, that he went into this world with that much knowledge.

While I might not dive headlong into research I do completely immerse myself in the mood. I don’t know if there is such thing as “method writing” but if there is I think I qualify. During my most recent script—a grim crime thriller– I let my beard grow out and I found myself drinking a lot of whiskey in the dark while listening to Tom Waits. I was in a dark place. During “Hot Summer Nights” I was listening to a lot of 50’s love songs—I even tried to fall in love myself. It didn’t pan out.

Tomorrow in Part 6, Elijah discusses the craft of screenwriting and lays some advice on aspiring writers.

To read Part 1 of the interview, go here.

Part 2, here.

Part 3, here.

Part 4, here.

Elijah is repped at Verve and Kaplan / Perrone.

Twitter: @BynumElijah.

Spec Script Sale: “I’m In Love With The DJ”

April 18th, 2014 by

Sony Pictures acquires comedy spec script “I’m In Love With The DJ” written by Lauryn Kahn. From Deadline:

The new deal is for an R-rated comedy is about a girl whose two best friends tag along on her work trip to Spain that quickly turns into a crazy hunt for a hot DJ through the electronic dance music scene. Kahn is the young writer who, after spending four years as McKay’s assistant and honing her writing skills scripting, performing and directing numerous shorts for the Funny Or Die, sold the script He’s Fuckin’ Perfect to Fox 2000 for $1 million against $1.5 million. That film, now titled The Social Life, moved to Universal with Jake Syzmanski directing Amanda Seyfried and Rebel Wilson, with Gary Sanchez producing.

Kahn (@YouDonKnowMe) is repped by WME.

By my count, this is the 25th spec script sale in 2014.

There were 29 spec script sales year-to-date in 2013.

“Twitter has democratized the process”

April 18th, 2014 by

Did you see this?

How a Middle-aged IT Guy From Peoria Tweeted His Way Into a Writing Job on Late Night With Seth Meyers

Bryan Donaldson lived in central Illinois nearly his entire life. He was born in Michigan but moved to a tiny town north of Peoria when he was just 4 years old. Now 40, he and his wife own a house in East Peoria with a big backyard, where their preschool-age daughter likes to play, and a side deck, where Donaldson likes to grill.

If he sounds like a regular guy with a regular job, he was — at least until a few months ago. He worked in IT for 20 years, the last ten of which he spent at an insurance company in nearby Bloomington. “Just a nine-to-five corporate job,” he says. “I supported their Linux and UNIX systems.” Today, he is guy with a decidedly not-regular job: He is a staff writer on Late Night With Seth Meyers. How does one make the leap from being an aging IT guy in Middle America’s emblematic town to becoming a comedy writer at 30 Rock?

Donaldson’s journey began on Twitter. In October 2011, he started posting a few jokes a day under the handle @TheNardvark. It was just his outlet for HR-unfriendly cracks that he couldn’t make aloud at the insurance company — often deadpans about family, marriage, and aging. “When I pick my daughter up from day care she screams ‘DADDY!’ and runs towards me for a hug and it’s like be cool bitch you look desperate,” he tweeted last May. “My wife and I use the pull-out method of birth control where we pull out our phones and ignore each other every night,” he offered a few months later. “My walk of shame is stumbling back to my desk like a newborn foal after sitting on the toilet so long that my feet fall asleep,” he wrote in January 2013.

Twitter loved him — his follower count quickly grew to five digits (it currently stands at 40,000) and individual tweets regularly racked up huge share numbers. The “DADDY!” tweet, for example, got 1,200 retweets and 2,500 favorites.

One of Donaldson’s longtime followers is Alex Baze, head writer and producer for Late Night With Seth Meyers. Last fall, when Baze began hiring for the writers’ room in anticipation of a February premiere, he had the notion of looking beyond the piles of packets coming from managers and agents and scouting for raw talent on Twitter. “If I go to somebody’s Twitter, I can see what he’s been doing the last two years — you get a much more complete sense of how he writes,” he says. “It’s like you get to flip through somebody’s comedy notebook.”

Seth Meyers felt the same way. “Twitter has democratized the process,” says Meyers. “We used to look at smaller samples, now you can look back and see what a person thought was funny for the past calendar year.”

Twitter has democratized the process. For writers, we would behoove ourselves to see social media as a distribution network. If you create content and you dump it onto any popular platform — Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Vine, whatever — there’s a chance your creative expression may end up in front of a pair of eyeballs which can make a difference in your life.

Now before we go any further, we need to remind ourselves of a few things:

* The odds against financial success in the entertainment industry through any sort of avenues including social media are astronomical. You cannot go into any venture thinking you will succeed because the chances are significantly more likely you will not.

* The only chance you have for possible success is if you (A) have talent, (B) demonstrate that talent on whatever platform you choose, and (C) have that special something that catches people’s attention. Like this young woman from Finland who made a video for YouTube in which she impersonated what foreign languages sound like to her:

This video has been seen over 11 million times and as a result of it and other social media events, she (Sara Maria Forsberg) has managed to parlay the attention into this:

She was interviewed on British BBC radio[10] and Finnish public radio YLE,[11] and Swedish TV[12] in which she confirmed that she was contacted by a The Ellen DeGeneres Show producer.[1] She was a guest on the show on April 7, 2014.[13] She has been given a job within TV commercial production in the USA, worth around $400,000.

This in a little over one month since she uploaded her video.

Again social media = distribution network.

As for Bryan Donaldson, good for him. Here’s hoping he can rise to the occasion, working in a pressurized situation to generate comedy material night after night for a network series, surrounded by talented writers who while on your team are also competition. A TV writers room is a lot different than sitting at home composing humorous tweets.

But more power to him for embracing the Spirit of the Spec and putting content out there to see what happens.

For the rest of Donaldson’s story, go here.

Movie Trailer: “A Night in Old Mexico”

April 18th, 2014 by

Written by William D. Wittliff

Forced to give up his land and his only home, cantankerous Texas rancher Red Bovie isn’t about to go quietly to the dismal trailer park that’s all he can now afford, and instead goes off with his grandson Gally – son of his long-estranged son Jimmy – for one last wild and woolly adventure during a night in Old Mexico.

IMDB

A Story Idea Each Day for a Month – Day 18

April 18th, 2014 by

This is the fifth year in a row I’ve run this series in April.

Today’s story: Mystery deaths… mystery package… mystery sender.

Marge Habib waved to her brother and sister as they rode past early that Saturday morning of Memorial Day weekend in 1976. Her brother’s 16-foot motorboat was hitched to the back of her sister’s Mercury Cougar and they were heading to Plymouth for a day of fishing along with their dates.

“It was a beautiful day,” recalled Marge, who was working at a fruit stand on Route 9 in Westborough when the coast-bound foursome cruised by. “They were tooting and laughing and they were happy.”

That was the last time she ever saw her younger siblings, Danny and Elaine. The next morning, fishermen came upon Danny Kwiatkowski’s tri-hull Arrowglass motorboat floating partially submerged — but otherwise undamaged — about 6 miles off the coast of Marshfield. The people were gone, leaving behind only Elaine’s purse, two pairs of shoes, and some cans of soda.

The Coast Guard concluded that the four were probably dead — victims of the frigid Atlantic – but their families never believed it. They kept looking for the lost boaters, scouring the shoreline and islands of Cape Cod Bay, traveling the country on the advice of psychics, and appealing for help in every imaginable quarter.

But answers seemed lost to the vastness of the ocean and the passage of time — until the arrival last fall of one of the strangest packages ever mailed to The Boston Globe.

The worn-looking cardboard box, postmarked in Medford, contained skeletal remains from two human beings, including what appeared to be a human skull. Each was accompanied by a medical examiner’s note from 1978 indicating that the bones had been evidence in police investigations.

Also in the box was official paperwork suggesting some of the evidence may have been linked to the mysterious loss of Danny and his mates.

And then there was the letter. “This is not a Halloween prank,” read the Oct. 29, 2012, typed appeal, written by someone using the pseudonym “Veritas” — the Latin word for truth — who said he was a doctor.

This is a convoluted story with lots of twists and turns, so I’ve only excerpted the setup. If you’d like to read more, hit the link above. But this is all I need to hook my attention. I see at atmospheric cold open like the first 30 seconds of “True Detective,” episode 1:

Perhaps more of a suggestion of violence, but not entirely clear.

Cut to a family. Mom, Dad, two adolescent children, boy and girl. Quietly eating. But an air of discomfort. The parents, Gabe and Bev McCauley, slowly stop eating. They’ve been avoiding eye contact, but now their gaze lands on each other. And Bev starts to cry, a single tear trickling down her face.

Now the couple stands by a lake. Staring out across the still water as the sun grows low in the horizon. Motionless for several seconds, then they toss something onto the water. Flower petals.

Cut to a different couple in a motel. Older guy, young woman. Having wild sex. Then outside where a private investigator records the illicit affair. Digital recorder. Snaps some photos. The PI dispassionate. It’s just a gig.

Cut to morning. A package sits on a doorstep. O.S., the sound of a motorcycle engine. Revs and the roar fades away.

Later the McCauley family in typical morning chaos, snagging food, grabbing backpacks, preparing for school and work. A disagreement about something, probably a request by teenage son which parents are steadfast in refusing. Son mutters, shoulders open the door, starts outside, and trips, falling down. Looks. There’s the package.

Inside the house, Gabe and Bev unfold paper wrapped around the package. Curious as it has no postage, no return address, not even the McCauley address. Open the package. Inside… a human bone.

Accompanied by a note: “You deserve to know.”

Turns out the day before was the 7th anniversary of the disappearance of the McCauley’s oldest child, a son named Beau, 12 at the time of him going missing. The lake where they tossed the flowers holds some special meaning. We don’t know what.

The police have pretty much forgotten the case. Kids go missing all the time. The McCauley’s have gotten little in the way of the support they think they deserve. That will put them on an intersection point with the private investigator. Once he’s brought into the case to discover what the mysterious package means and where it could lead, that opens up a whole can of worms with one layer of corruption and deceit after another, surprising revelations, unfathomable truths.

But the first questions: Who dropped off the package? What significance is the human bone?

There you go: My eighteenth 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.

Great Character: Sam Shakusky (“Moonrise Kingdom”)

April 18th, 2014 by

This month’s theme: Wes Anderson characters. Today: Sam Shakusky from the delightful 2012 movie Moonrise Kingdom, written by Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola.

Director and screenwriter Wes Anderson has created several cinematic sensations that have featured youthful protagonists seeking out the worldly guidance of older, but not always wiser mentors. A few of these primary characters have been youngsters that have extraordinary focus on their very particular interests, yet the world around them often becomes way too real and closes in on them.

There was 15-year-old Max Fischer in Rushmore, looking to become a high school legend purely by overbooking his extracurricular activities. But the harsh reality of actually having to pass his academic courses threatened to put the kibosh on any such grandiose hopes.

Wes Anderson and co-writer Roman Coppola made the parentless precocious pre-teen Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman) in the 2012 romantic coming-of-age comedy Moonrise Kingdom an extremely mature camp scout seeking a reliable family unit, even if it only has one member.

Moonrise Kingdom from IMDB:

A pair of young lovers flee their New England town, which causes a local search party to fan out and find them.

Sam Shakusky may be only 12 years old, but this little guy has turned his summer camp tour as a Khaki Scout into upgraded outdoor bravado. He is sailing canoes, pitching personal campsites and escaping from his scout troupe to be with the only one who may actually love him, Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward).

Sam is an orphan with repressed emotional wounds that can become easily peeled open with tense temperamental treatment from his peers. Shakusky’s biological family is no longer around, his foster home is closing the doors on him, his fellow campers treat him several levels lower than a contagious disease and his rolodex of friendly contacts would be seemingly vacant if it wasn’t for Suzy. This lack of companionship also draws the socially introverted Suzy, a black sheep of the Bishop family, towards her male counterpart Sam.

Sam’s somber childhood has morphed into his accelerated mastery of survival skills and very adult mannerisms and life lessons.

SAM SHAKUSKY: That sounds like poetry. Poems don’t always have to rhyme, you know. They’re just supposed to be creative.

From his “Daniel Boone” head gear with a tail, to his tobacco pipe sending smoke through his pint-sized lungs, Sam appears ready for a grown man’s world, with or without electricity and appliances in it. But even the great outdoors is always better when you have someone to share it with.

Sam and Suzy’s friendship becomes a mutual romantic necessity, a cosmic connection that warmly inserts the missing words into their incomplete definitions of themselves. Their premeditated exile from their restrictive peer groups and family structures opens up a daring deployment towards their personal oasis – Moonrise Kingdom – where no one can judge or alienate them any longer. They are discovering what unconditional love feels like, with every understandably awkward question and each pubescent French smooch, using the tongue this time around.

SAM SHAKUSKY: It’s possible I may wet the bed by the way. Later, I mean.

Sam’s relationship with Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis), the fictional New England town’s one-man law enforcement department, becomes crucial for Sam and the lonely and unmarried Sharp as well. Even Sam and Suzy’s unofficial-by-law but very official-by-heart “marriage” is a ceremonious salute to their bond and unbridled desire to feel connected to a receptive counterpart. This is Sam actively pursuing a new family for himself – literally.

Arguably the most hyper sad moment occurs when Edward Norton’s character Scout Master Ward breaks the news to Sam about his foster home ousting, and in turn finds out Sam is quitting the Khaki Scouts as well. Sam’s thick skin that has shielded this little big man from weeping over his woes understandably collapses, as does any beating heart human in the audience. Sam Shakusky has no father or mother figures to rely on, only that quietly melancholy red head that totally gets him, but is being yanked away by her concerned parents.

SAM SHAKUSKY: I feel I’m in a real family now. Not like yours, but similar to one.

SUZY: I always wished I was an orphan. Most of my favorite characters are. I think your lives are more special.
SAM SHAKUSKY: I love you, but you don’t know what you’re talking about.

For his radically endearing child/man explorer swagger, his undaunted escape from social isolation into pre-teenage love and his fearless search for a family to call his own – Sam Shakusky is a hilarious, heart-breaking and uniquely GREAT CHARACTER from the Wes Anderson archive.

Granted orphans are choice character types for Protagonists because they immediately do two things: (1) Engender sympathy on the part of the moviegoer. (2) Create an immediate need for a sense of family. The way Anderson and Coppola handle Sam in Moonrise Kingdom manage to work both of these dynamics extremely well, even if in a quirky Anderson-type way.

By the way, this is my favorite movie of 2012.

Thank you, Jason, for this post. Please hit Reply and join us in comments to discuss Moonrise Kingdom with Sam Shakusky.

You may follow Jason on Twitter: @A2Jason.

Daily Dialogue — April 18, 2014

April 18th, 2014 by

“Why shouldn’t I work for the N.S.A.? That’s a tough one, but I’ll take a shot. Say I’m working at N.S.A. Somebody puts a code on my desk, something nobody else can break. Maybe I take a shot at it and maybe I break it. And I’m real happy with myself, ’cause I did my job well. But maybe that code was the location of some rebel army in North Africa or the Middle East. Once they have that location, they bomb the village where the rebels were hiding and fifteen hundred people I never met, never had no problem with, get killed. Now the politicians are sayin’, “Oh, send in the Marines to secure the area” ’cause they don’t give a shit. It won’t be their kid over there, gettin’ shot. Just like it wasn’t them when their number got called, ’cause they were pullin’ a tour in the National Guard. It’ll be some kid from Southie takin’ shrapnel in the ass. And he comes back to find that the plant he used to work at got exported to the country he just got back from. And the guy who put the shrapnel in his ass got his old job, ’cause he’ll work for fifteen cents a day and no bathroom breaks. Meanwhile, he realizes the only reason he was over there in the first place was so we could install a government that would sell us oil at a good price. And, of course, the oil companies used the skirmish over there to scare up domestic oil prices. A cute little ancillary benefit for them, but it ain’t helping my buddy at two-fifty a gallon. And they’re takin’ their sweet time bringin’ the oil back, of course, and maybe even took the liberty of hiring an alcoholic skipper who likes to drink martinis and fuckin’ play slalom with the icebergs, and it ain’t too long ’til he hits one, spills the oil and kills all the sea life in the North Atlantic. So now my buddy’s out of work and he can’t afford to drive, so he’s got to walk to the fuckin’ job interviews, which sucks ’cause the shrapnel in his ass is givin’ him chronic hemorrhoids. And meanwhile he’s starvin’, ’cause every time he tries to get a bite to eat, the only blue plate special they’re servin’ is North Atlantic scrod with Quaker State. So what did I think? I’m holdin’ out for somethin’ better. I figure fuck it, while I’m at it why not just shoot my buddy, take his job, give it to his sworn enemy, hike up gas prices, bomb a village, club a baby seal, hit the hash pipe and join the National Guard? I could be elected president.”

Good Will Hunting (1997), written by Matt Damon, Ben Affleck

The Daily Dialogue theme for the week: Job Interview, suggested by blueneumann. Today’s suggestion by Michael Corcoran.

Trivia: At a WGA seminar in 2003, William Goldman denied the persistent rumor that he was the actual writer of Good Will Hunting: “I would love to say that I wrote it. Here is the truth. In my obit it will say that I wrote it. People don’t want to think those two cute guys wrote it. What happened was, they had the script. It was their script. They gave it to Rob [Reiner] to read, and there was a great deal of stuff in the script dealing with the F.B.I. trying to use Matt Damon for spy work because he was so brilliant in math. Rob said, “Get rid of it.” They then sent them in to see me for a day – I met with them in New York – and all I said to them was, “Rob’s right. Get rid of the F.B.I. stuff. Go with the family, go with Boston, go with all that wonderful stuff.” And they did. I think people refuse to admit it because their careers have been so far from writing, and I think it’s too bad. I’ll tell you who wrote a marvelous script once, Sylvester Stallone. Rocky’s a marvelous script. God, read it, it’s wonderful. It’s just got marvelous stuff. And then he stopped suddenly because it’s easier being a movie star and making all that money than going in your pit and writing a script. But I did not write [Good Will Hunting], alas. I would not have written the “It’s not your fault” scene. I’m going to assume that 148 percent of the people in this room have seen a therapist. I certainly have, for a long time. Hollywood always has this idea that it’s this shrink with only one patient. I mean, that scene with Robin Williams gushing and Matt Damon and they’re hugging, “It’s not your fault, it’s not your fault.” I thought, Oh God, Freud is so agonized over this scene. But Hollywood tends to do that with therapists.” As of 2009, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck have both co-written one other script each, although not with each other; Damon co-wrote Gerry (2002) with Gus Van Sant and Ben’s brother Casey Affleck, and Ben Affleck directed and co-wrote (with his childhood friend Aaron Stockard) the script for Gone Baby Gone (2007). In 2010, Ben Affleck directed The Town (2010), for which he had also co-written the screenplay.

Dialogue On Dialogue: Long monologues are a real challenge. They have to be great to work. This job interview monologue is great.

Everything You Wanted to Know About Specs

April 17th, 2014 by

Been a lot of buzz going around social media about spec scripts recently. Thought it was time to bring back this 20 part series I did some time back. Essential reading for anyone who is writing spec scripts hoping to break into the business.

In Part 1, we look at the genesis of the spec script in Hollywood from 1900-1942.

In Part 2, we cover the emergence of the spec script market from 1942-1990.

In Part 3, we analyze the boom, bust, and back again of 1990-2012.

In Part 4, we survey the buyers, both major studios and financiers.

In Part 5, we examine the screenwriter-rep relationship in terms of developing a spec script.

In Part 6, we explore rolling out a new writer’s spec script.

In Part 7, we delve into the subject of attaching producers.

In Part 8, we consider the value of attaching talent.

In Part 9, we learn about reps wanting to “own all the tickets”.

In Part 10, we dig into how reps generate buzz for a spec script.

In Part 11, we scrutinize the practice of slipping a script to someone.

In Part 12, we acknowledge the role that serendipity can play in the process.

In Part 13, we discuss the strategy of targeting specific buyers.

In Part 14, we drill down into the strategy of going wide.

In Part 15, we indulge in the ultimate fantasy of a bidding war.

In Part 16, we get a first-hand account of a preemptive purchase.

In Part 17, we think about one creative choice to write what they’re buying.

In Part 18, we ponder another choice to sell them your dream.

In Part 19, we reflect on the value of a spec script even if it does not sell.

In Part 20, we muse about what is means to the writer if a spec script does sell.

With everything floating around the web, a reminder: Do not buy into the hype. Understand the odds of you selling a spec script are hard against you. Stay away from charlatans who promise you secret formulas and anything other than hard work as a path to success. Be smart. Learn the craft. Understand the business. And first and foremost, write because you love to write.

Interview: Elijah Bynum (2013 Black List) – Part 4

April 17th, 2014 by

The Black List is a pretty exclusive club, especially so for those writers who manage to land two scripts on the List in a single year. That’s what Elijah Bynum did in 2013 when two of his original screenplays — “Mississippi Mud” and “Hot Summer Nights”. I sought out Elijah to see what sort of creative mind could manage that feat. He was kind enough to give me an hour of his time in what turned out to be a great conversation about storytelling and the craft of screenwriting.

Today in Part 4, Elijah digs into the two lead characters in “Hot Summer Nights” as well as some of the themes at work in the story:

Scott:  Let’s talk about the two main characters in “Hot Summer Nights” — Daniel Middleton and Hunter Strawberry. Both of them have interesting names by the way. These are your iterations of the two kids from college you mentioned? You used them as a touchstone or a starting point.

What was important to you in developing them so that they were similar and yet distinct, because there are some similarities between them, and yet there are some substantial differences?

Elijah:  We might look at a total stranger and figure they are completely different from us and in a lot of ways they are, but there’s something about all of us as human beings that can be universal.

Even though Hunter was the town bad boy and he got all the girls and he drove the cool car and everyone in town knew who he was, there was a loneliness inside him. He felt like an outsider, especially because he was a townie in a resort town in which every summer, people with money flocked in and made him feel inferior.

Every summer he was reminded that he was nothing more than a townie and that he probably would never be anything more than a townie. In that sense he was an outsider.

Daniel’s more obvious in the sense that he’s an old fashioned loner. His father had just passed away. He never really established great friendships or turned into anything that he could identify himself with. Didn’t do particularly well in school. Wasn’t great at sports. He couldn’t look a girl square in the eye without getting dizzy.

And yet, as different as these two kids seem to be on the outside, they shared a very powerful similarity that brought them together. They both wanted to belong. I think that is true about the real life characters I based the story off and it’s something that I wanted to maintain in the fictional versions of them.

Scott:  Speaking of Daniel and that loneliness, there’s voice-over narration early in the script where he says, “I was an only child and was never one to make friends easily. Over the years I had become very good at being alone. Frankly, it was the only thing I was good at.”

As a starting point, that suggests his destiny is to find at least some connection, some community, right?

Elijah:  Yes. Yes. He wanted to belong to something. I think there’s a piece of dialogue in there that said, “We both wanted to belong.” This is the scene when him and Hunter first meet. They both wanted to belong in different senses of the term “belong,” but there was again that very visceral feeling of not being part of the group and feeling inferior to everyone.

Scott:  They share something in that both have lost a parent.

Elijah:  Yeah.

Scott:  And that’s important.

Elijah:  Yeah. I think if I do another pass on the script, it’s something I want to tap into more, because right now, it’s never mentioned. It’s something that someone like yourself who has read probably thousands of scripts and is very attuned to what to look for has picked up on it. I’m not sure everyone will pick up on it.

It’s something that’s floating beneath the surface, but it’s not something I’ve brought out there and really addressed.

Scott:  Yeah, I mean, you can deal with it with Daniel. He does this interesting symbolic act at some point about his father and burning some stuff that gets him into a bit of trouble or at least perceived to be like a cry for help.

That and in fact at a key point, he even thinks ‑‑ it’s in a scene description, I think ‑‑ that he might have seen an image of his father down the road. I think you know what I’m talking about. And so as the father hangs over him like a ghost in the way. He’s in the background, but it’s present.

With regard to Hunter, it’s not as much there. I was wondering, because he’s a very angry guy. He’s like a ticking bomb. How much of that anger do you think is spurred on by him being an outsider and how much of that do you think actually is tied to the fact that he did lose a parent, his mother?

Elijah:  I think it’s both. I think there is that inferiority complex that kind of haunts him. There is the fact that not only did his mother die, but he realizes he wasn’t there for her. Now his sister won’t speak to him, because she has, whether rightfully or not, found someone to place blame on. And he’s become alienated from everyone.

But on top of that, it is the self‑fulfilling prophecy that for as long as he can remember, he’s always been told that he wasn’t going to amount to anything and he’s nothing more than the bad boy. He’s the guy who can sleep with a girl at night and sell the girl’s father weed during the day. Then the next day, when he runs into both of them, they look the other way, like they have no idea who he is.

That’s something that…it affects every moment of his life. At times he gets off on it, like when he drives up to the gas station and he winks at the young mother and shudders and drives away. And at times, it makes him feel really shitty about himself. And what makes him so tragic is that he is aware of who he is and his place in the world and feels like there is no way out.

There’s a scene where him and Daniel are talking. It’s when Daniel asks him to be part of the drug business. And Daniel says something along the lines of, “You know when you’re told that you’re one way long enough you begin to believe it.” I think the screen direction is something along the lines of Hunter not responding, but knowing all too well how that feels.

And Daniel’s been told all his life, directly or indirectly, that he’s nobody. He is average, which is where I got the last name “Middleton.” He’s in the middle. He does not stick out of the crowd. He’s like, “I don’t want to be that way anymore.”

And Hunter, from a very different standpoint, doesn’t want to be what he’s been told anymore. There’s a point in the script where he starts realizing he doesn’t have to live the life he’s always been told that he has to live. Without giving away the ending, the sad part is that he becomes what everyone says he always would become…

Then when you look at McKayla, she is also a victim of this where she is the attractive,  dangerous girl in town that is taken advantage of by these vacationers and then is left after Labor Day, when they go back to their lives. She can see the trajectory of her life as well. Although she doesn’t speak about it, it affects her in the sense that she’s like, “I know how my story ends. I know who I am and I know what’s meant for me.”

It’s the fear of becoming that thing that the world around you tells you that you’ll become. All of our characters fight against that. Some win. Some don’t.

Scott:  There’s a real theme at work of destiny, fate. It’s even up top in the dialogue. Hunter at some point says early on in conversations with Daniel, “Walk on the edge long enough and you’re going to fall. Trick is to enjoy the goddamn view first.” And then he follows it up a little later saying, “Life is like gravity. It doesn’t matter who you are. We’re all going to end up where we’re supposed to, whether we like it or not.”

Could you talk a bit about this idea of destiny in the story, of fate?

Elijah:  Well, one of the opening sentences in the script in a voice‑over is Daniel saying something about “every moment in life is a result of the moment preceding it.” Steve Jobs’ commencement speech at Stanford tapped into this when he said “It’s not until we look backwards that we can connect all the dots.”

Oftentimes in life we find ourselves in a situation where we go, “How the hell did I end up here?” But if you really go back and deconstruct every decision you’ve made leading up to there, it makes perfect sense. The problem is in the moment we’re blind. Although we always think, “Oh, I won’t make this mistake again” but as it says in the script, “Life is always one step ahead”.

I really was interested in the fact that Daniel was, for the first time in his life, living in the moment and letting emotions and instinct lead the day. And from the very beginning, I wanted to tell a story about a person who thought they had everything under control. And of course, life was one step ahead of him and he watched things spin out.

A  movie that I probably watched 100 times when I was writing the script was “Goodfellas.” Structurally, it’s very similar, but it’s the idea of the romanticism of this time and how you can be swept up in it. Before you know it, you look up and you’re facing 50 years in prison and go “How did this happen?” Well, if you look at it, it makes perfect sense how it happened, but on a day to day level, on a granular level, you’re unaware of the path you’re leading yourself down.

Scott:  There’s a moment where Calhoun, the sheriff, he’s sort of a mentor or a wisdom figure. He’s got a side of dialogue where he stops Daniel, then says, “You’re going to have a hard and trying summer. Looks like we all are.” Then he goes on. Just sort of raps about the summer and “the heat will change a man, Mr. Middleton. Make him do things he otherwise would not do. And as he yearns for cooler times, you know what it is that will tear him apart? Denying that which is inevitable.”

It’s almost like Calhoun is a prophet at that point. He’s literally saying look, this is the path you’re going down.

Elijah:  Absolutely. I love stories that do this. They do it in Magnolia. They do it in O Brother, Where Art Thou? Again, this whole story I wanted to feel like there was a small layer of mysticism to it. It was fantastical in a way. And just working with the idea of the fable. Having a prophet that basically verbatim says the theme of the script and tells Daniel this is what your fate will be, it’s something from the onset that I knew I wanted to happen. I didn’t know how it was going to happen, but I knew I wanted to put it in there.

If only I made Calhoun blind. Damn…

Tomorrow in Part 5, Elijah reflects on his love/hate relationship with plot and what it was like to learn two of his scripts made the Black List.

To read Part 1 of the interview, go here.

Part 2, here.

Part 3, here.

Elijah is repped at Verve and Kaplan / Perrone.

Twitter: @BynumElijah.