“Ex Machina” and The Hero’s Journey

June 29th, 2016 by

In my current Core I: Plot class, Lecture 2 is a dive into The Hero’s Journey as articulated by Joseph Campbell. I asked writers in the course to name some movies they felt best represented this narrative archetype and Ex Machina came up. Great example of the key elements of The Hero’s Journey — Separation / Initiation / Return (with a twist), Call to Adventure, Transformation, etc. As I was reflecting on it, I had a thought and this is what I wrote:

All three such interesting movies, but let me focus on Ex Machina to make a point: If you think about the three main characters – Caleb, Nathan, Ava – in a way, each of them goes on a Hero’s Journey:

* Caleb: As Protagonist, he clearly goes on one as he departs his Ordinary World and travels into an Extraordinary World in Nathan’s compound and in his relationship with Ava, falling in love with her representing a massive emotional shift from where he began his journey. As such, his Hero’s Journey takes place in the present.

* Nathan: He has already gone on a Hero’s Journey in separating himself from the normal world and secluding himself in a new world, one of his own creation populated by human robots. What happens to him at the conclusion of Act Three is the terminal point of his own journey, thus we can think about his as happening pretty much in the past.

* Ava: She doesn’t separate from the Ordinary World – Nathan’s compound – until the very end, so the Denouement represents her entrance into a New World. Therefore we can look at her Hero’s Journey as happening largely in the future.

A point this drives home: All characters are the protagonists in their own story. They have that agency about their actions. We, as writers, can learn about our characters to greater depth if we take time to look at the story universe through their eyes as a protagonist, even if they don’t have that narrative function. We can understand their world view and way of being much better by walking a metaphorical mile in each of their shoes.

Caleb, Ava, Nathan, Ex Machina (2015)

The last point — working with all of the characters as if they were the protagonist in their own story — is solid advice, but this other idea is really interesting, in effect extending the concept of each character as protagonist, then looking at their timeline relative to The Hero’s Journey. Could they be at the end of it? In the middle of it? Or at the beginning? Might the story’s conclusion actually be the start of a character’s own distinctive Hero’s Journey after The End?

Hm…

Screenwriters Roundtable (Part 2): Jessica Bendinger, Lindsay Devlin, Stephany Folsom, Liz W. Garcia, Julia Hart, and Lisa Joy

June 29th, 2016 by

A special treat this week and next as I will be posting excerpts from an extensive screenwriter’s roundtable I did in December 2015 with a group of talented Hollywood screenwriters: Jessica Bendinger, Lindsay Devlin, Stephany Folsom, Liz W. Garcia, Julia Hart, and Lisa Joy.

Here is Part 2:

Scott:  Sticking with HBO, Lisa, why don’t we jump to you? You’ve got Westworld. Isn’t that debuting in 2017 on HBO?

Lisa:  Yeah. Really looking forward to it.

Scott:  I know you can’t talk a lot about it, but you were a staff writer on Pushing Daisies, which was on a broadcast network, and you were with the USA series Burn Notice. Now you’re show‑running Westworld. What’s that like?

Lisa:  The show’s really ambitious and working on it has been fulfilling, challenging, and deeply rewarding. I’m lucky enough to be working with an incredibly talented cast and a fantastic crew – and I’m co-showrunning with my husband, Jonathan Nolan. So it’s been a labor of love to work on it.

We got to explore basically every idea that we’d been kicking around both separately and together for several years in terms of the story. There’s artificial intelligence, there’s exploring tropes of the Old West in a new way. It’s just a fantastic opportunity, so it’s been fun and exhausting at the same time. As I said, someone please take me to a movie.

Scott:  How old is your daughter?

Lisa:  Two.

Julia:  We should definitely talk, because I have a 19‑month‑old and my husband and I work together, so maybe we can leave the babies with the husbands and go see a movie.

[laughter]

Scott:  While we’re talking about TV, Liz, you’ve had extensive background in TV. Wonderful, Cold Case, and Memphis Beat, which you co‑created, but you’re currently working on a movie, as I understand it. Sisterhood Everlasting, which is the third in that series of Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants?

Liz:  Yes.

Scott:  What’s going on with that?

Liz:  I just thought I was finished with it, and I’m not, apparently.

[laughter]

Liz:  It has been a really positive experience which I find that these studio feature assignments usually are not. They’re something that I do to make money, and because I feel compelled to operate in that world for some reason. Usually there comes a point where I flame out and I can’t deal with the notes anymore and I have no idea what we’re writing.

But with Sisterhood Everlasting, it was brought to me like, “You wouldn’t want to do this, would you?” I was like, “Yes, actually, I’m going to stop pretending I want to do highfalutin’ stuff and I’m going to admit what I really want to do, which is just write about women.” I just want to write about women wherever I get the opportunity, and so I took the job and really enjoyed it.

They were very patient, because I was pregnant with my second kid when I got hired, and was slow because I had a little baby. It was a really rewarding experience, and now what’s interesting about this is that the first two films were made by a studio and distributed by a studio, but this film is being pieced together.

It’s an indie film. I’m doing a number of drafts, the actresses are very involved, and then Ken Kwapis is directing it, and the producers are going to take it around town to find someone who will finance.

Scott:  Liz, good luck on that. Lindsay, you had the horror thriller Devil’s Due, which came out in 2014, and several things in development including, Sleeping Beauty.

Lindsay:  Yeah, my movie came out two years ago, it was a thriller about pregnancy, and ironically I found out I was pregnant as it premiered. My last name being Devlin, we had the little pun of Devil’s Due and Devlin’s due.

I had written a pilot for ABC, and an adaptation of a YA novel for Fox 2000, and all of that got turned in when I was close to giving birth. I thought, “Great, I’ve turned in my projects. I take some time as a mom and then get back to writing in a few months,” not realizing how all‑consuming mothering would be. I was able to work on a few pitch and spec ideas but honestly, that first year was just about survival as a new parent, and making time to be creative became a new challenge.

I don’t know about you ladies, but I’m best under deadline. It’s harder to start something from nothing, especially after some time away. But I’ve got renewed energy and determination, and will just need to find that balance that so many working parents struggle with.

Julia:  Can we please start a baby mama screenwriter support group?

Lindsay:  Yes.

Julia:   I am so amazed that there are so many of us. As you said, finding the balance is difficult sometimes. There’s something about needing to be creative vs. being a nurturer that butts up against itself at times.

Liz:  It is a vital conversation to be had, because it’s something I know that when I didn’t have kids, I was looking around like, “Where are the women who have the career that I want, who also have kids? I wish I knew more about that, because I’m so scared I don’t know what I’m getting into, and I don’t know if it’s going to be OK.”

You just hear, “Oh, it’s impossible to have a personal life in this business.” A, that’s not true, but B, that’s a little bit of a male luxury to say that. “Oh, I just don’t take my personal life as seriously as my professional life.” If you want to have kids, you have to.

Each day this week, I’m going to highlight one of the writers. Today: Lindsay Devlin. After heading up the Creative Group while working at CAA, Lindsay spent time as a production executive with Wolfgang Petersen, then Jordan Kerner’s company. Branching off into her own as a producer, Lindsay eventually started writing and her first feature length movie Devil’s Due came out in 2014. She is also involved with other movie projects including Sleeping Beauty and Reboot, and a TV project “Beta”. And in a deal which just closed, Lindsay is working on a feature adaptation at a major studio.

Lindsay Devlin

Please take time to leave a reply with your observations and follow-up questions, and while you’re there thank these writers for taking time out of their busy schedules to do this roundtable for GITS readers and the wider online screenwriting community.

On Twitter:

Jessica Bendinger: @JBendinger

Lindsay Devlin: @DevlinLindsay

Stephany Folsom: @StephanyFolsom

Liz W. Garcia: @lizwgarcia

Julia Hart: @juliahartowitz

Lisa Joy: @lisajoynolan

For Part 1 of the series, go here.

Tomorrow: Part 3 of this exclusive screenwriter’s roundtable.

Thanks for everything, Dr. Linda Venis!

June 29th, 2016 by

Today Dr. Linda Venis  is officially retiring from her position as Director of the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program, a role she has handled with great vision, passion, and grace for 30 years. I’ve had the great pleasure to know Linda since 2001. That was the year I responded to an ad in the WGA journal ‘Written By’ and found myself in Linda’s Westwood office to explore the possibility of teaching through the Writers’ Program. Prompted by persistent feedback from people with whom I had interfaced at panels, conferences, and other occasional public appearances — Scott, you really should think about teaching, too — I had a wide-ranging conversation with Linda at our first meeting, and we both agreed I should give it a try.

Little did I know that meeting with Linda would change my life.

While continuing to write and work as an executive producer at Trailblazer Studios, I took up teaching through the Writers’ Program as a part-time gig. I taught multiple online classes there from 2002-2010 before I launched Screenwriting Master Class. Through all that time, Linda was a consistent inspiration. Her commitment to writers of all stripes — screenwriters, TV writers, novelists, playwrights, poets, nonfiction — and her support and appreciation for writing instructors was consistent and strong. Indeed one could say that Linda’s efforts at the helm of the program has touched the lives of tens of thousands of writers, many of whom have gone on to achieve success in their respective fields.

On Monday, Linda posted her farewell column at the Writers’ Program website. Here is an excerpt:

My Final Bow

My lifelong love affair with UCLA enters a new phase on June 29, 2016 when I transition from employee to retiree.   From the moment I stepped foot onto the campus as an undergraduate, I discovered an Aladdin’s cave of glittering knowledge: pearls (and diamonds and emeralds!) of wisdom that taught me how to think and give expression to what I felt.  I had experienced the transformative power of education, and I never looked back.

I was a fulltime lecturer in the UCLA Department of English in 1985 when the position of Head of the Writers’ Program opened up.   In my letter of application I wrote, “I am genuinely eager to make the transition from a teacher who administrates to an administrator who also teaches.”

Reflecting on these words thirty years later, it’s clear to me that I knew a few things back then:  that I loved teaching, writers, literature, high art and popular culture, and running things.

However, I could not have imagined how these interests and whatever skills I possessed would grow and find expression here. Second only to my family, nothing has given my life more shape and meaning than working at UCLA Extension in the Arts and the Writers’ Program.

Dr. Linda Venis

Congratulations, Linda, for a brilliant career. And speaking personally, my sincerest thanks for the support you have given me over the years as I explored my passion for screenwriting and teaching. I, along with thousands of people who have intersected with you over the years, look forward to seeing what opportunities lay ahead for you.

Any of you who may have taken courses in the Writers’ Program and would like to share your thoughts and best wishes to Linda, please head to comments. I will pass along the link to her.

2016 Scene-Writing Challenge: Day 21

June 29th, 2016 by

For the fourth straight year, June is Scene-Writing Month here at Go Into The Story. Every Monday-Friday at noon Eastern / 9AM Pacific, I will upload a post with a scene-writing prompt. Each day, write a scene per those guidelines. Upload your scene here in the comments section of the original post. That way you can critique others’ pages and receive feedback on your scene as well.

Why scene-writing? If the average scene is 1 1/2 to 2 pages long and a script is 100-120 pages, then a screenwriter writes between 50-80 scenes per screenplay. Thus in a very real way, screenwriting is scene-writing. The better we get at writing scenes, it stands to reason the better we get as a screenwriter.

To provide extra motivation for this series — to get people to WRITE PAGES — I am giving away some of my Core classes to Scene-Writing Challenge participants. That’s right: For free!

Everything you need to know about screenwriting theory in this unique curriculum based on eight principles: Plot, Concept, Character, Style, Dialogue, Scene, Theme, Time.

CORE I: PLOT – A one-week class which begins with the principle Plot = Structure and explores the inner workings of the Screenplay Universe: Plotline and Themeline. Start date: June 27.

CORE II: CONCEPT – A one-week class which begins with the principle Concept = Hook and examines multiple strategies to generate, develop and assess story ideas. Start date: July 11.

CORE III: CHARACTER – A one-week class which begins with the principle Character = Function and delves into archetypes: Protagonist, Nemesis, Attractor, Mentor, and Trickster. Start date: August 8.

CORE IV: STYLE – A one-week class which begins with the principle Style = Voice and surfaces keys to developing a distinctive writer’s personality on the page. Start date: August 22.

CORE V: DIALOGUE – A one-week class which begins with the principle Dialogue = Purpose and probes a variety of ways to write effective, entertaining dialogue. Start date: September 19.

CORE VI: SCENE – A one-week class which begins with the principle Scene = Point and provides six essential questions to ask when crafting and writing any scene. Start date: October 3.

CORE VII: THEME – A one-week class which begins with the principle Theme = Meaning and gives writers a concrete take on theme which can elevate the depth of any story. Start date: November 14.

CORE VIII: TIME – A one-week class which begins with the principle Time = Present and studies Present, Present-Past, Present-Future and time management in writing. Start date: December 12.

Each is a 1-week online class featuring 6 lectures written by me, lots of screenwriting insider tips, logline workshops, optional writing exercises, 24/7 message board conversations, teleconferences with course participants and myself to discuss anything related to the craft of scriptwriting.

A popular option is the Core Package which gives you access to the content in all eight Craft classes which you can go through on your own time and at your own pace, plus automatic enrollment in each 1-week online course — all for nearly 50% the price of each individual class. If you sign up now, you can have immediate access to all of the Core content.

In June, to qualify to take one of my Craft classes for free, write and submit ten [10] Scene-Writing Challenge posts, then provide feedback on ten [10] posts from other writers. The former to get you writing, the latter to work your critical-analytical skills.

A chance to take any of my eight Core classes, interface with me online along with the usual stellar group of writers who take Screenwriting Master Class courses, while using writing exercises and feedback to upgrade your skill at writing and analyzing scenes?

ISN’T THAT AN AWESOME IDEA?!!!

That’s what I’m prepared to do to encourage you to write pages.

A couple of logistical notes:

* Limit your scenes to 2 pages. First, most scenes are 2 pages or less in length. Second, out of fairness to everyone participating in the public scene-writing workshop, let’s not abuse anyone’s patience or time with really long scenes.

* Don’t be concerned about proper script format when you copy/paste your scene, rather the content and execution are the important thing. So as a default mode, do this: (1) Don’t worry about right-hand margins on scene description or dialogue, just keep typing until it manually shifts each line. (2) Don’t worry about character name position, rather do this:

SCARLETT: Rhett, Rhett... Rhett, if you go, where shall I go? What shall I do?

RHETT: Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn.

Today’s prompt: Strangers biding their time in a hospital emergency waiting room.

Hospital Waiting Room

Imagine a scenario in which fate brings together two, three, or more characters. One’s spouse had a heart attack. Another character’s sibling a victim of a shooting. Someone brought in a person who had a drug overdose. Opportunity for great drama and a powerful scene.

If you are interested in qualifying for 1 free Core class with me, please note in each post you submit the number of scenes you have written. If today is your first effort, note that it is Scene 1. The next one, Scene 2. And so forth.

Also when you provide feedback on someone’s scene, please note in each reply the number of comments you have uploaded. So if today is your first response, Feedback 1. The next one, Feedback 2.

You are on an honor system, as I don’t have time to check every post, so do the right thing!

Remember: In order to qualify for one of my free Core classes, you need to submit ten [10] Scene-Writing Challenge posts, then provide feedback on ten [10] posts from other writers. One post and one feedback per scene prompt.

FEEDBACK TIP: No matter the genre of the scene, why not bring an element of humor to the moment. A few laughs arising from characters having to deal / interact with a dead body.

Want to join in? Here are the previous challenge prompts:

Day 1 challenge: A scene set in an inhospitable environment, e.g., outer space, underwater, desert.

Day 2 challenge: A scene involving a secret.

Day 3 challenge: Two people talk while dancing.

Day 4 challenge: The audience knows something the characters don’t.

Day 5 challenge: Miscommunication.

Day 6 challenge: A character reviews a series of voice mails, each with worse news.

Day 7 challenge: An intervention.

Day 8 challenge: A scene with a man holding a gun.

Day 9 challenge: Introduce a character with a memorable impression.

Day 10 challenge: A conversation with someone who’s locked him/herself in the bathroom.

Day 11 challenge: One character has to break bad news to the other.

Day 12 challenge: A scene where the entire conversation takes place off-screen.

Day 13 challenge: Settling an argument by playing Rock, Paper, Scissors.

Day 14 challenge: A pet uses voice-over narration to comment on a family fight.

Day 15 challenge: Leaving a voice mail.

Day 16 challenge: Smack talk at a sporting event.

Day 17 challenge: A character has a ‘conversation’ with him/herself in the mirror. 

Day 18 challenge: A scene inspired by this photograph.

Day 19 challenge: Interruption.

Day 20 challenge: A scene involving a dead body.

You can check out the fruits of our collective labor from the last three years:

Scene-Writing Exercises (2013)
Scene-Writing Exercises (2014)
Scene-Writing Exercises [2015]

Finally if you have what you think is a good suggestion for a scene-writing prompt, please post that as well.

It’s the 2016 Scene-Writing Challenge! Give a jolt to your creative and writing muscles… and win 1  free online class with yours truly.

NOTE: When you can verify the 10 scenes you’ve written and the 10 scenes on which you provided feedback, email me and let me know which of the eight Core classes you’d like to take. That’s all you need to do!

IMPORTANT NOTE: This is the last week of the challenge. All scenes need to be submitted by Midnight (PDT), Thursday, June 30 to be considered for a free Core class with me.

Onward!

Great Scene: “Thelma & Louise”

June 29th, 2016 by

A great ending to a movie is (in my view) the only ending it should have. Oh, a movie could have multiple endings, but a well-constructed plot should lead to the story’s only real ending. And when that ending is both logical and shocking, then you have the makings of a great scene — like the climax of Thelma & Louise (1991), written by Callie Khouri.

Think about it: What other ending could T&L have? They turn themselves in? That would have been a false choice, going against everything these two women had been doing and saying for the bulk of the movie. Clearly the idea of turning themselves in is sparking through their minds as they look at “each other really hard,” but both of them know they can’t turn back now. They’ve gone too far and learned too much, about each other, themselves, and life.

The movie’s ending was a critical component, too, in the movie’s box office success because everybody talked about it when it was released.

Here’s the scripted version of the ending to Thelma & Louise:

             
            INT.  CAR - DAY

            Louise and Thelma are looking at each other.

                                  POLICE (O.S.)
                           (over loudspeaker)
                      Turn off the engine and place your
                      hands in the air!

            EXT.  DESERT - DAY

            Hal is about to crawl out of his skin.  He can't believe
            this thing is getting out of control.  He jumps in front of
            Max.

                                  HAL
                      Max!  Let me talk to 'em!  I can't
                      believe this!  You've gotta do
                      something here!

            Max goes around Hal and continues walking.  Hal jumps in
            front of Max again and blocks his way.

                                  HAL
                      I'm sorry to bother you, I know you're
                      real busy right now, but how many
                      times, Max?  How many times has that
                      woman gotta be fucked over?  You
                      could lift one finger and save her
                      ass and you won't even do that?

                                  MAX
                           (grabbing Hal)
                      Get a hold of yourself!  You are way
                      out of your jurisdiction, now come
                      on!  Calm down!  Don't make me sorry
                      I let you come!

            Max lets go of Hal's lapels.

                                  HAL
                           (under his breath)
                      Shit!  I can't fucking believe this!

            Hal walks along with a look of total disbelief on his face.
            He's shaking his head.  Slowly he breaks into a trot and
            starts heading toward the front line.

                                  MAX
                           (shouting)
                      Hey.  Hey!

            Hal is running now and clears the front row of cars.

            There is a lot of confusion among the officers on the front
            row.  Some shout, some lower their guns to look.

                                  ARIZONA COP #1
                      What in the hell?!

                                  ARIZONA #2
                           (lowering his rifle)
                      The son of a bitch is in my way!

            INT.  CAR - DAY

            They are still looking at each other really hard.

                                  THELMA
                      You're a good friend.

                                  LOUISE
                      You, too, sweetie, the best.

            SHOOT WITH OR WITHOUT.

            MUSIC:  B.B. King song entitled "Better Not Look Down" begins.
            It is very upbeat.

                                  LOUISE
                      Are you sure?

            Thelma nods.

                                  THELMA
                      Hit it.

            Louise puts the car in gear and FLOORS it.

                                                                 CUT TO:

            EXT.  DESERT - DAY

            Hal's eyes widen for a moment at what he sees, and then a
            sense of calm overtakes him and he mouths the word "alright."

                                  B.B. KING SONG (V.O.)
                      I've been around, I've seem some
                      things, People movin' faster than
                      the speed of sound, faster than a
                      speedin' bullet.  People livin' like
                      Superman, all day and all night.  I
                      won't say if it's wrong or I won't
                      say if it's right.  I'm pretty fast
                      myself.  But I do have some advice
                      to pass along, right here in the
                      words to this song...

            EXT.  DESERT - DAY

            The cops all lower their weapons as looks of shock and
            disbelief cover their faces.  A cloud of dust blows THROUGH
            THE FRAME as the speeding car sails over the edge of the
            cliff.

                                  B.B. KING SONG (V.O.)
                      Better not look down, if you wanna
                      keep on flyin'.  Put the hammer down,
                      keep it full speed ahead.  Better
                      not look back or you might just wind
                      up cryin'.  You can keep it movin'
                      if you don't look down...

                                                                FADE OUT

                                      THE END

And here’s the movie version. Sans B.B. King and with slightly different dialogue between Thelma and Louise:

Great scene. Great ending.

[Originally posted April 24, 2009]

Daily Dialogue — June 29, 2016

June 29th, 2016 by

“This is your neighbor speaking. I’m sure I speak for all of us when I say that something must be done about your garbage cans in the alley, here. It is definitely second-rate garbage! Now, by next week, I want to see a better class of garbage. More empty champagne bottles and caviar cans. I’m sure you’re all behind me on this, so let’s snap it up and get on the ball!”

A Thousand Clowns (1965), screenplay by Herb Gardner, based on his original play

The Daily Dialogue for the week: Rant. Today’s suggestion by Will King.

Trivia: The original Broadway production of “A Thousand Clowns” by Herb Gardner opened at the Eugene O’Neill Theater in New York on April 5, 1962, ran for 428 performances and was nominated for the 1963 Tony Award for Best Play. Jason Robards, Gene Saks, William Daniels and Barry Gordon recreated their stage roles in the filmed production. Gordon was nominated for the 1963 Tony Award for Best Featured Actor in a Play. Sandy Dennis who did not recreate her stage role, won the 1963 Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Play.

Dialogue On Dialogue: Commentary by Will: “Murray Burns, a former comedy writer for a children’s TV show, finds modern society the biggest joke of all, and feels little reticence about displaying his distaste for it.”

Reader Questions: Format and Style

June 28th, 2016 by

During the 8+ years of this blog’s existence, I’ve answered nearly 300 questions from readers about the craft of screenwriting. Here are my responses and subsequent comments on the subject of format and style.

Are there any script rules that really shouldn’t be broken?

Bolded sluglines: Yes or no?

Do I HAVE to use INT/EXT – LOCATION – DAY/NIGHT in scene headings?

How consistent should the tone in scene description be?

How do I know if it’s too much or too little scene description?

How do you handle one character with different names?

How much do I need to focus on “stylized writing”?

How to handle capitalization in scene description?

How to handle characters speaking in a foreign language?

How to handle dialogue happening under voice-over?

How to handle insert shots?

How to handle passage of time in a script?

How to handle POV shots?

How to handle scene in blackness?

How to handle songs in a screenplay?

How to indicate a jump cut?

How to misdirect a reader in scene description?

How to write “unwriteable moments of a film” in a screenplay?

If I’m writing and shooting my own movies, are there style and format issues I should be aware of when writing my script?

Is an 80-page spec script too short?

Is it okay for there to be more action lines in an action script?

Is it okay / advisable to put a logline on the script’s title page?

Is it okay to include an image in a spec script?

Is it necessary to have scene description before dialogue in a scene?

Is there a danger of having an Act One that is too short?

Should I use “is” construction verbs or not?

Sluglines and character intros?

Use or don’t use title cards?

What about a credit sequence at the beginning of a spec script?

What about a credit sequence in a spec script?

What about a flashback as a ‘flashpresent’?

What about a revelation flashback?

What about breaking screenwriting style / format rules?

What about capitalizing sounds in spec scripts?

What about “establishing shots” and “establishing scenes”?

What about screenplay page count?

What about showing a character’s emotions in action description?

What about submitting a 187-page script?

What about using (CONT’D) in separated dialogue?

What about using a flashback / flash-forward as a prologue?

What does a secondary slugline/shot look like?

What guidelines are there for using scene headings / primary slug lines?

What information should I include on my script title page?

What is the absolute limit on script page count?

What is the difference between a montage and a series of shots?

What to do with a 70 page screenplay?

What’s the best way to master writing a particular type of dialogue?

What’s the structural difference between a play, a screenplay, and a teleplay?

When writing do you paint a visual picture through your action lines?

If you have a format and style question, or any other question related to screenwriting, please post in comments. I’m happy to give you my two cents worth.

For the Reader Question archives, go here.

Screenwriters Roundtable (Part 1): Jessica Bendinger, Lindsay Devlin, Stephany Folsom, Liz W. Garcia, Julia Hart, and Lisa Joy

June 28th, 2016 by

A special treat this week and next as I will be posting excerpts from an extensive screenwriter’s roundtable I did in December 2015 with a group of talented Hollywood screenwriters: Jessica Bendinger, Lindsay Devlin, Stephany Folsom, Liz W. Garcia, Julia Hart, and Lisa Joy.

Here is Part 1:

Scott:  Welcome all. I’d like to start with something easy. 2015 was another good year for some quality movies. Actually it seems like we’ve had a good run of it since 2012. Maybe to start off, are there one or two movies you saw last year that really stood out for you?

Liz:  Mad Max really moved me and I found it extremely exciting both as a feminist parable and piece of filmmaking. What an incredible accomplishment. I cannot imagine how George Miller pulled that off…but I was really encouraged by it and very moved by it.

Scott:  His wife, an editor who had never done an action movie, edited it.

Liz:  I thought it was flawless.

Stephany:  I would second the Mad Max. I was blown away by that film. It was the first movie, in a long time, where I left the theater talking about everything that I loved about it instead of what upset me about it. It was such a fantastic visual, visceral experience and Charlize Theron was amazing in it. It was a blast.

Julia:  I agree on the Mad Max front, especially as a new mom, seeing that gorgeous, fully pregnant woman being a total badass was so inspiring. Also, 45 Years has really stuck with me. The performances and the writing were pretty extraordinary.

Scott:  That’s the one with Charlotte Rampling?

Julia:  Yeah. It’s this filmmaker Andrew Haigh. He made a movie a couple years ago, called Weekend that’s also really special. He’s definitely a really exciting filmmaker.

Jessica:  I loved Diary of a Teenage Girl.

Stephany:  That was great, too.

Jessica:  It’s extraordinary they made it for half a million dollars. The emotional nuance they use to investigate this really complicated age in a young woman’s life and the circumstances is crazy. She did an amazing job.  I also loved to Me and Earl and the Dying Girl and Brooklyn.

I thought Brooklyn was just this delicate, lovely movie. The tonal tightrope it walks is genius: it has to slog through all our cynicism and a sea of jaded, sophisticated audiences. The job it has to grab you is monumental. It does so with such confidence and assurance. I felt like I went through some kind of unjading and anti‑cynicism douche.

[laughter]

Scott:  That’s great. They should’ve gotten you for one of the blurbs.

Jessica:  I’m in the Academy, so I’ve probably just tilted my hand with my votes, but yeah.

Lindsay: I really enjoyed Ex Machina. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. It was an extraordinary, cerebral experience. I went to Norway this year, so I connected to that landscape as well. I also really loved Spotlight.

Julia:  Oh yes, Spotlight. So good.

Lindsay: Yeah, the performances and the direction were restrained in such a lovely way. The subject matter is so powerful that I think it could go to such crazy melodrama, and it didn’t. It really just let it be powerful on its own.

I know two of the producers, two women who killed themselves the last ten years on this project. It’s really wonderful to see they’re getting so many accolades for this movie.

Scott:  How about you, Lisa?

Lisa:  I’m sitting here racking my brains about what movies I’ve seen this year. Because unfortunately, I haven’t seen a lot of them because between having a two‑year‑old and the show (Westworld), I feel like I never get out of the house. So please, one of you ladies, take me out of the house.

[laughter]

Lisa:  I’ve seen three movies this year and I enjoyed them all. I saw Mad Max, and like you ladies, I loved it. I adored Star Wars. J.J. [Abrams] gave that incredible franchise a wonderful jolt of energy and heart, not to mention some fantastic new characters. The Martian, I saw and I loved. I thought it was funny and inspiring and hilarious and great.

Jessica:  Yeah, Drew Goddard who wrote The Martian really killed it. I’m a huge fan of Cabin in the Woods, which is – if any of you haven’t seen it –  it’s an absolute joy and pleasure to see a great writer taking an AK‑47 to a genre. He does that with The Martian, too. It’s really kind of miraculous…he’s very facile. It’s great, right?

Scott:  And he made science sexy.

Stephany: Totally.

Scott:  Hopefully, the whole generation of young kids out there would see that movie and go, “Hey, science is cool. I’m going to go do that.”

Why don’t we segue into some projects you are all developing and working on, and hopefully they’ll be hitting screens, big and small in 2016 and beyond. Jessica, why don’t we start with you. I was in L.A. in November and you told me about this musical you’ve written called “Psyched”. What’s the back story on that and where does it stand?

Jessica:  I’ve been working on it for five years, and it’s a passion project. It’s a comedy about mental health. It’s a comedic musical of all things. I don’t even know how to describe it, I guess Breakfast Club meets Orange is the New Black. You’re going into the worlds of these six characters.

You get into their problems through song. I’ve been unhappy with the way mental health gets treated, and I want to wrap the medicine in some candy and have a destigmatizing look at this stuff.  It’s not the end of the world.

There’s so much heaviness around mental health.  I thought it would be a fun challenge to bring some levity to the table in moving the conversation forward. So I’ve been working on that and we’re casting right now and trying to raise the money to make it.

Julia:  That’s so cool.

Scott:  Excellent. Jumping to Stephany here. Just recently got into the trades that you’re doing ‑‑ it’s the third in the Thor series. Is that right?

Stephany:  Yeah, it is. Marvel has just been my complete world and life and I have been sleeping there. [laughs] It’s just been 24/7 writing of Thor 3. I can’t talk too much about it though, because working for Marvel, they’re like the NSA of movies.

I’ve been working a lot with the director too, Taika Waititi. He worked on Flight of the Conchords.

Scott:  Flight of the Conchords? Really?

Stephany:  Yeah, and he did What We Do in the Shadows, which is a great little Indie film if you guys haven’t seen it.

Scott:  That’s great. Good luck on that. Julia, you’ve followed up their movie The Keeping Room, which was based on your 2012 Black List script, with a project you wrote and directed called Miss Stevens. Wasn’t that based on, and in some ways inspired by, your years as a teacher?

Julia:  It was. Inspired by is a better way to put it than based on.

Scott:  Inspired by.

Julia:  Fine line.

Scott:  How was that experience?

Julia:  I was on the set every day for The Keeping Room and it made me really want to direct the next one myself. And I’m glad I did, it was an incredible experience.

I had a 10‑month‑old at the time and missing him was the hardest part of making the movie. Otherwise it was smooth and fun and inspiring.

[Note: Miss Stevens premiered at the SXSW Festival to strong acclaim and is being released in September by The Orchard.]

Scott:  Congratulations. Working with a 10‑month‑old or working with an actor, which is more difficult?

Julia:   Actors.

[laughter]

Julia: No, actually, that was just for the laugh. The truth is that I love working with actors. I found that to actually be one of the easiest parts of directing.

Scott:  You’ve also got “Madam X”?

Julia:  Yeah, I’m writing a miniseries for HBO. It’s based on this absolutely incredible book called “My Notorious Life” by Kate Manning, and it’s based on ‑‑ or I should say, inspired by ‑‑ a real life midwife and abortion doctor who was living in New York and practicing in New York in the late 19th Century. That’s with Anna Paquin and Jack Black, and I’m super excited about it.

I’ve been balancing, doing post production, being a mom, and writing that. It’s been an interesting year.

Each day this week, I’m going to highlight one of the writers. Today: Jessica Bendinger. Jessica is known for her work on Bring It On (2000), First Daughter (2004) and Stick It (2006). You may watch a Writers Guild Foundation Q&A with Jessica here, here, here, and here.

Jessica Bendinger

Please take time to leave a reply with your observations and follow-up questions, and while you’re there thank these writers for taking time out of their busy schedules to do this roundtable for GITS readers and the wider online screenwriting community.

On Twitter:

Jessica Bendinger: @JBendinger

Lindsay Devlin: @DevlinLindsay

Stephany Folsom: @StephanyFolsom

Liz W. Garcia: @lizwgarcia

Julia Hart: @juliahartowitz

Lisa Joy: @lisajoynolan

Tomorrow: Part 2 of this exclusive screenwriter’s roundtable.

Thinking like Hitchcock

June 28th, 2016 by

Recently I posted something about how as a writer, we can wear a ‘director hat’, bringing that sensibility to bear on scenes we craft. Here is an excerpt from a 1964 interview with Alfred Hitchcock in which he discusses three approaches to film editing with visual references to the movie Psycho:

The three approaches:

* Assembly: Using the example of the shower scene in Psycho, Hitchcock refers to the “78 pieces of film in about 45 seconds,” creating a kind of visual montage.

* Orchestration: Referring to the second murder in Psycho in which the detective climbs the stairs only to meet his death, Hitchcock talks about the use of foreknowledge — “the audience was already aware there’s a monster around, so they were apprehensive for him, but they didn’t know when it would happen” — and varying shot “sizes” — medium, long, close-up — to create shock. He compares it to an orchestra with the buildup is “tremolo” and the close-up is “brass instruments” to drive home the impact of the attack.

* Pure Cinematics: Hitchcock uses an example of three shots: Close-up of a man looking at something off-screen / A mother playing with a baby / Close-up of the man smiling. Impression: A kindly old man. Now remove the middle scene and replace it with an image of a woman in a bikini. Same man looking. Same man smiling. But “what is he now? He’s a dirty old man.”

Takeaway: While stylistically it’s no longer common for a screenwriter to specify actual camera shots in scene description, we can infer them in our writing. Here is actual scene description from the Psycho script (screenplay by Joseph Stefano, novel by Robert Bloch), adapted to reflect contemporary screenwriting style:

BATHROOM

Mary drops her robe, steps into the tub, and turns on the shower.

The bathroom door, not entirely closed.

Mary washes and soaps herself.

The bathroom door slowly pushed open, the noise of the shower
drowning out any sound.

The shadow of a woman falls across the shower curtain.

Suddenly a hand reaches up, grasps the curtain, rips it aside.

Mary turns, a look of pure horror erupts in her face.

The flint of a knife blade.

It slashes downward, again and again.

Mary screams, arms flailing to protect herself.

Silence.

The woman hurries out of the bathroom.

A dreadful thump as Mary's body falls in the tub.

You could take an even more minimalistic approach:

BATHROOM

Mary in the shower.

Door pushed open.

A woman's shadow on the shower curtain.

A hand with a knife.

Mary turns. Screams.

Slashing. Flailing. Blood. Silence.

The woman vanishes.

Mary slumps to the floor. Dead.

The choice of how you approach the scene description depends on several factors most notably your choice of narrative voice, how you’ve been handling the script style in relation to the genre of the story throughout the screenplay. But the overall point stands: We can infer camera shots through individual lines and paragraphs without using directing jargon or camera lingo. As such, we can give expression to our inner Hitchcock!

2016 Scene-Writing Challenge: Day 20

June 28th, 2016 by

For the fourth straight year, June is Scene-Writing Month here at Go Into The Story. Every Monday-Friday at noon Eastern / 9AM Pacific, I will upload a post with a scene-writing prompt. Each day, write a scene per those guidelines. Upload your scene here in the comments section of the original post. That way you can critique others’ pages and receive feedback on your scene as well.

Why scene-writing? If the average scene is 1 1/2 to 2 pages long and a script is 100-120 pages, then a screenwriter writes between 50-80 scenes per screenplay. Thus in a very real way, screenwriting is scene-writing. The better we get at writing scenes, it stands to reason the better we get as a screenwriter.

To provide extra motivation for this series — to get people to WRITE PAGES — I am giving away some of my Core classes to Scene-Writing Challenge participants. That’s right: For free!

Everything you need to know about screenwriting theory in this unique curriculum based on eight principles: Plot, Concept, Character, Style, Dialogue, Scene, Theme, Time.

CORE I: PLOT – A one-week class which begins with the principle Plot = Structure and explores the inner workings of the Screenplay Universe: Plotline and Themeline. Start date: June 27.

CORE II: CONCEPT – A one-week class which begins with the principle Concept = Hook and examines multiple strategies to generate, develop and assess story ideas. Start date: July 11.

CORE III: CHARACTER – A one-week class which begins with the principle Character = Function and delves into archetypes: Protagonist, Nemesis, Attractor, Mentor, and Trickster. Start date: August 8.

CORE IV: STYLE – A one-week class which begins with the principle Style = Voice and surfaces keys to developing a distinctive writer’s personality on the page. Start date: August 22.

CORE V: DIALOGUE – A one-week class which begins with the principle Dialogue = Purpose and probes a variety of ways to write effective, entertaining dialogue. Start date: September 19.

CORE VI: SCENE – A one-week class which begins with the principle Scene = Point and provides six essential questions to ask when crafting and writing any scene. Start date: October 3.

CORE VII: THEME – A one-week class which begins with the principle Theme = Meaning and gives writers a concrete take on theme which can elevate the depth of any story. Start date: November 14.

CORE VIII: TIME – A one-week class which begins with the principle Time = Present and studies Present, Present-Past, Present-Future and time management in writing. Start date: December 12.

Each is a 1-week online class featuring 6 lectures written by me, lots of screenwriting insider tips, logline workshops, optional writing exercises, 24/7 message board conversations, teleconferences with course participants and myself to discuss anything related to the craft of scriptwriting.

A popular option is the Core Package which gives you access to the content in all eight Craft classes which you can go through on your own time and at your own pace, plus automatic enrollment in each 1-week online course — all for nearly 50% the price of each individual class. If you sign up now, you can have immediate access to all of the Core content.

In June, to qualify to take one of my Craft classes for free, write and submit ten [10] Scene-Writing Challenge posts, then provide feedback on ten [10] posts from other writers. The former to get you writing, the latter to work your critical-analytical skills.

A chance to take any of my eight Core classes, interface with me online along with the usual stellar group of writers who take Screenwriting Master Class courses, while using writing exercises and feedback to upgrade your skill at writing and analyzing scenes?

ISN’T THAT AN AWESOME IDEA?!!!

That’s what I’m prepared to do to encourage you to write pages.

A couple of logistical notes:

* Limit your scenes to 2 pages. First, most scenes are 2 pages or less in length. Second, out of fairness to everyone participating in the public scene-writing workshop, let’s not abuse anyone’s patience or time with really long scenes.

* Don’t be concerned about proper script format when you copy/paste your scene, rather the content and execution are the important thing. So as a default mode, do this: (1) Don’t worry about right-hand margins on scene description or dialogue, just keep typing until it manually shifts each line. (2) Don’t worry about character name position, rather do this:

SCARLETT: Rhett, Rhett... Rhett, if you go, where shall I go? What shall I do?

RHETT: Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn.

Today’s prompt: A scene involving a dead body.

The photo above is from the movie Swiss Army Man starring Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe. IMDb plot summary: A hopeless man stranded in the wilderness befriends a dead body and together they go on a surreal journey to get home.

You read that right. An entire movie based on Daniel Radcliffe playing a corpse. Here’s the trailer:

And here’s the thing: The movie is finding an audience in part because critic and audience response has been pretty strong.

So in the spirit of Swiss Army Man, your scene-writing prompt today involves a corpse. It can be a funeral. An autopsy. A surprise discovery. A murder. A sudden death. Use your imagination and come up with an entertaining scene.

If you are interested in qualifying for 1 free Core class with me, please note in each post you submit the number of scenes you have written. If today is your first effort, note that it is Scene 1. The next one, Scene 2. And so forth.

Also when you provide feedback on someone’s scene, please note in each reply the number of comments you have uploaded. So if today is your first response, Feedback 1. The next one, Feedback 2.

You are on an honor system, as I don’t have time to check every post, so do the right thing!

Remember: In order to qualify for one of my free Core classes, you need to submit ten [10] Scene-Writing Challenge posts, then provide feedback on ten [10] posts from other writers. One post and one feedback per scene prompt.

FEEDBACK TIP: No matter the genre of the scene, why not bring an element of humor to the moment. A few laughs arising from characters having to deal / interact with a dead body.

Want to join in? Here are the previous challenge prompts:

Day 1 challenge: A scene set in an inhospitable environment, e.g., outer space, underwater, desert.

Day 2 challenge: A scene involving a secret.

Day 3 challenge: Two people talk while dancing.

Day 4 challenge: The audience knows something the characters don’t.

Day 5 challenge: Miscommunication.

Day 6 challenge: A character reviews a series of voice mails, each with worse news.

Day 7 challenge: An intervention.

Day 8 challenge: A scene with a man holding a gun.

Day 9 challenge: Introduce a character with a memorable impression.

Day 10 challenge: A conversation with someone who’s locked him/herself in the bathroom.

Day 11 challenge: One character has to break bad news to the other.

Day 12 challenge: A scene where the entire conversation takes place off-screen.

Day 13 challenge: Settling an argument by playing Rock, Paper, Scissors.

Day 14 challenge: A pet uses voice-over narration to comment on a family fight.

Day 15 challenge: Leaving a voice mail.

Day 16 challenge: Smack talk at a sporting event.

Day 17 challenge: A character has a ‘conversation’ with him/herself in the mirror. 

Day 18 challenge: A scene inspired by this photograph.

Day 19 challenge: Interruption.

You can check out the fruits of our collective labor from the last three years:

Scene-Writing Exercises (2013)
Scene-Writing Exercises (2014)
Scene-Writing Exercises [2015]

Finally if you have what you think is a good suggestion for a scene-writing prompt, please post that as well.

It’s the 2016 Scene-Writing Challenge! Give a jolt to your creative and writing muscles… and win 1  free online class with yours truly.

NOTE: When you can verify the 10 scenes you’ve written and the 10 scenes on which you provided feedback, email me and let me know which of the eight Core classes you’d like to take. That’s all you need to do!

IMPORTANT NOTE: This is the last week of the challenge. All scenes need to be submitted by Midnight (PDT), Thursday, June 30 to be considered for a free Core class with me.

Onward!