Alexander Payne on appealing characters vs. sympathetic characters

May 3rd, 2016 by

In my current Create a Compelling Protagonist 1 week class, the subject came up about writing characters who don’t fit into the conventional role of a sympathetic figure, Willie (Billy Bob Thornton) in Bad Santa for example.

Whenever this subject comes up, I default to an interview I read with Alexander Payne (Election, About Schmidt, Sideways). Here is the salient excerpt:

Appeal comes from truthful and complex characters. I hate when movie people say, “Your lead character has to be sympathetic,” which for them means “likeable”. I don’t give a shit about “liking” a character. I just want to be interested in him or her. You also have to make the distinction between liking the character as a person and liking a character as a character. I mean, I don’t know whether I like Alex in A Clockwork Orange or Michael Corleone in The Godfather as people, but I adore them as characters. Besides, “liking” is so subjective anyway. So many American movies of the eighties and early nineties bent over backwards to make the protagonist “likeable” in a completely fraudulent way, and I detested them.

Consider Miles in Sideways. When we meet him, he’s the epitome of a self-absorbed, alcoholic loser. In an early scene, he literally steals cash from his own mother. And there’s his hostility:

Not likeable, not even much in the way of sympathy – at first. But he’s compelling to watch and as we get to know him on this comic adventure, we can’t help but empathize with him. A struggling writer, his passion about wine, his fears causing him to miss an opening with Maya:

We’ve all struggled. We’ve all got things about which we are passionate. We’ve all missed out on golden opportunities. Even though Miles isn’t likeable, we come to find him appealing over time because, as Payne says, he is a “truthful and complex” character with qualities to which we can relate.

Here is an excerpt of what I posted in the forums in my Create a Compelling Protagonist class:

Almost invariably characters who are inherently unlikable or not sympathetic, if they are a Protagonist, a movie draws us in by going into the character’s inner world to reveal something of their humanity. If we can resonate with them, that creates the basis of a ‘relationship’, particularly if the plot circumstance in which they find themselves is itself interesting.

That said, the path of least resistance in Hollywood has been and always will be to work with sympathetic Protagonists. It’s not a rule, just convention, and one we need to be mindful of as screenwriters.

Finally, of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with sympathetic Protagonists. We just need to be sure to give them depth and complexity to make them worthy of carrying a story for 2 hours.

Sympathetic or not, likeable or not, we should strive to make our characters truthful, complex, and possessing aspects of who they are to which an audience can identify.

Interview: James DiLapo (2012 Black List)

May 3rd, 2016 by

One of the best ways to learn the craft is read what professional screenwriters have to say about it. To that end for the next few weeks, I will be featuring interviews I have conducted with Black List screenwriters.

Today: My May 2013 interview with James DiLapo whose original screenplay “Devils at Play” not only won the young screenwriter a 2012 Nicholl fellowship, it also landed on the 2012 Black List, garnering 28 votes, the 9th highest total of any script on the list this year. In January 2013, Warner Bros. hired DiLapo to write the futuristic re-telling of Homer’s The Odyssey.

Here are links to the six installments of the entire interview:

Part 1: “Emotional authenticity, even with a period piece, is more important than historical authenticity. If you can get the audience to feel as if they are there with the characters in that setting, experiencing the world that they are in- that’s the closest we can come to being there. We can’t recreate a world, but we can recreate the emotions of it.”

Part 2: “I said at the award ceremony that if anyone from Disney wants to bring me in to discuss working on a Star Wars film I will give them one of my kidneys. My manager wants me to negotiate on that, maybe start with a spleen and work my way up, but I disagree. Let’s show them I’m committed, I say.”

Part 3: “I’m a very big advocate of three-act structure. It doesn’t have to be terribly overt in your story, but I think it usually needs to be there, and the more you practice it the more it intuitively and naturally enters into your writing process.”

Part 4: “I think act structure is extremely important. The midpoint is very crucial. It doesn’t have to be as overt as it is in the middle of this script, but there needs to be that transition on an emotional level for the character, from reactive to active.”

Part 5: “My advice to anyone who wants to do this is don’t worry about networking, don’t worry about writing what the industry wants. Write what you want to see and write it as best as you can. If you do that with authenticity, in my experience that helps open opportunities that you would never have seen otherwise.”

Part 6: “I find that the entry point for me typically, is the setting, and the world. Getting a chance to live in that place, and flesh out the characters and story within it, is where I get the most rush.”

James is repped by Verve and Kaplan/Perrone.

Screenplays are stories, not formulas

May 3rd, 2016 by

William Goldman has famously written, “Screenplays are structure.” That is true in a tangible sense because at some point, a script becomes a blueprint for the production of a movie. And in a very real way, everything hangs on the structure of the narrative – how one scene flows to the next, how the beginning is shaped, how the middle is crafted, how the ending plays out, even the designations of scenes – Exterior, Interior, Day, Night – shape the nature of a film coming to life.

So Goldman’s assertion is true.

It is also problematic.

Somewhere along the line, screenplay structure started to become routinized. In part, this is because a certain segment of the screenwriting ‘guru’ caste generated some takes on what that structure is supposed to look like, each with their own system where this key plot point ought to land between these pages and that major plot point needs to hit between those pages, a script needs X amount of acts, sequences, beats, etc.

Over time, structure was reduced to paradigm. Paradigm transmogrified into formula. And that contributed to perhaps the most common complaint among those in the Hollywood movie development arena foraging through mounds of submissions: formulaic scripts.

As screenwriter David Seltzer (The Omen, Punchline) has said, “If you go in with formula, you come out with formula.”

This approach may have worked in the 80s and into the 90s with Hollywood churning out one high concept movie after another, but the inherent problem with a formula is it eventually wears out its welcome. Why? Because if the audience knows a formula well enough, they can anticipate precisely where a movie is heading, and that eviscerates almost any possibility for genuine entertainment.

Little wonder that contemporary audiences, their minds cluttered with tropes, memes and patterns, are looking for something different. By and large happy endings still, but how the story gets from FADE IN to FADE OUT, that needs to be a rocking ride of twists and turns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns.

And right there is the key. Did you catch it? The one word that is a writer’s salvation when it comes to formula.

Story.

A story roils with potential to go anywhere and do anything. Its characters are active sentient beings who live in the moment and can make any of a myriad of choices.

If you create multidimensional characters, conflicted, confused, driven, uncertain, and all the rest, they will resist formula because they are living, dynamic entities who can surprise us.

And when a story plays against type and expectations, that’s when a writer is on the path toward a great screenplay.

Again from David Seltzer: “The whole thrill of being a writer is to do a prototype every time out. And you can do it, something that nobody ever wrote before.”

A prototype every time out. In other words, meet the story on its terms, allow it to breathe, enable it to go where it needs to go, not cram it into some sort of predetermined formula.

I understand this desire to reduce the mysteries of a story to something manageable, a nice little system to speed our way through the writing process, an approach we can duplicate time after time to ensure we churn out scripts in an efficient and timely manner.

But efficiency and timeliness – and most of all formula — do not sell a script. Rather a distinctive concept, compelling characters, and a narrative that moves in unforeseen and unexpected ways, those are key to crafting a marketable script.

So as you wander through the noisy spectrum of people pitching you this or that screenplay paradigm or methodology, be sure to remember this one essential fact:

Screenplays are stories… not formulas.

[Originally posted November 2, 2013]

Classic 30s Movie: “Dracula”

May 3rd, 2016 by

May is Classic 30s Movie month. Today’s guest post comes from Sheila Seclearr.

Movie Title: Dracula

Year: 1931

Writers: Garrett Fort adapted the screenplay from Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderson’s Broadway play, all based on the novel by Bram Stoker

Lead Actors: Bela Lugosi, Helen Chandler, Dwight Frye and David Manners

Director: Tod Browning who made two other vampire movies, London After Midnight (1927) and Mark of the Vampire (1935)

IMDb Plot Summary: The ancient vampire Count Dracula arrives in England and begins to prey upon the virtuous young Mina.

Mine: Count Dracula’s bloodlust lures him across the ocean to the night streets of London, where no woman is safe, but young, aristocratic Mina is captured.

Why I Think This Is A Classic 30s Movie

The opening scenes of this film are the precursor to the modern, high-speed chase. This has a horse-drawn carriage careening down the winding mountain road, supposedly Transylvania’s Carpathians (though it’s never said to be Transylvania.) When one passenger calls out to the driver to slow down, another sets out to explain the evil night and why they must reach town by sundown. The foreboding mood is set. You’re sure the innocent passenger who, ignoring dramatic and urgent warnings, continues on to his midnight encounter at Castle Dracula is doomed, as indeed he is.

Mr. Renfield arrives at the castle to complete a real estate transaction with Count Dracula, played hypnotically by the elegant Bela Lugosi, who also played the part in the hit Broadway play a few years earlier. Lugosi, a Hungarian stage actor with a thick, genuinely creepy accent, is timeless and memorable: “I am…Drac-u-la… I bid you welcome.”

A gruesome ocean crossing follows and I’m not sure how often this had been portrayed in a movie before this. The storm-tossed waves poured over the decks of the ship and the rain came down in what looks, literally, like buckets. Thankfully, the scenes are short, and before you can get too hung up on the flashes of light for lightning, it’s over and the crew’s bodies are strewn all over. Renfield survives, as does his mysterious “luggage,” three coffins. But the news, spread across the screen for all to read, is that only a madman survived the “crew of corpses.”

The gothic set shifts, this time to a London sanitarium, still dark and foggy, where Renfield has been taken. The bat that flies around the night skies is surely Dracula, and his prey is the beautiful, young Mina. Dracula visits the London opera and the symphony, elegantly dressed in cape and top hat of course. Women continue to disappear in the night streets of London. The cinematic mood and threats of death slinks mysteriously through to the end scenes. The only music in the film is at the very end, when Mina and her fiancé ascend the stairs, thinking they are finally safe.

My Favorite Moment In The Movie

The fabulous Bela Legosi wills Van Helsing, Mina’s father, to come to him with a hex-like twist of his outstretched hand. Then Dracula hisses in crouched retreat when Van Helsing slips a crucifix out of his vest pocket.

My Favorite Dialogue In the Movie

From the crazed, bug-eyed Mr. Renfield, describing his devotion to Count Dracula: (whispers)

He came and stood below my window in the moonlight. And he promised me things… A red mist spread over the lawn, coming on like a flame of fire. And then he parted it and I could see that there were thousands of rats, with their eyes blazing red, like his, only smaller. Then he held up his hand and they all stopped… Thousands, millions of them. He said, “All red blood, all these will I give you, if you will obey me.”

Key Things You Should Look For When Watching This Movie

Though it seems at times like a stage play, the Gothic sets are dark and atmospheric, eerie with fog and cobwebs. The director uses tiny shards of light here and there to place hints and emphasis in the gloom. Even though, we’re jaded by modern special effects, imagine which of the creepy creatures were censored in some viewings back in the day. Hint: there’s a combo of spiders and coffins. And Dracula’s three zombie wives float around his Transylvanian castle, another scene cut for some early viewers. Watch for the single scene that shows any blood, so small, it’s ludicrous.

Thanks, Sheila!

To show our gratitude for your guest post, here’s a dash of creative juju for you. Whoosh!

We already have a set of classic 40s movies, 5os movies, 60s Movies, 70s movies, 80s Movies and 90s Movies. This month, we’re working on 30s movies. And thanks to the GITS community, we’ve got at least 22 movies in the works and hopefully!

Those who I put in bold have already sent me their posts. If you haven’t sent yours to me, please do so as soon as you can!!!

All Quiet on the Western Front – Michael Waters
Bride of Frankenstein – Marija Nielsen
Bringing Up Baby – Melinda Mahaffey
Captain Blood – John Arends
City Girl – Adam Westbrook
Dracula – Sheila Seaclearr
Duck Soup – David Joyner
Gone With The Wind – Mark Twain
Gunga Din – Steve Huerta
It Happened One Night – JoniB22
Make Way for Tomorrow – Susan W
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington – Amber Watt
Rebecca – Katha
Snow White and the Seven Dwarves – Will King
Sabotage – Jeff Xilon
Stagecoach – Thenewlight
The 39 Steps – Felicity Flesher
The Adventures of Robin Hood – Clay Mitchell
The Petrified Forest – supergloss
The Women – Liz Clarke
Topper – Wayne Kline

I am still looking for volunteers. If there’s a 30s movie you’d like to write about, please post your suggestion in comments or contact me via email.

Thanks to everyone who steps up for this ongoing project!

For the original post explaining the series, go here.

For all of the 30s movies featured in the series, go here.

Click REPLY and see you in comments about today’s classic 30s movie!

Screenwriting 101: Martin Scorsese

May 3rd, 2016 by

Screenplay

“The films that I constantly revisit have held up for me over the years not because of plot but because of character.”

— Martin Scorsese

Daily Dialogue — May 3, 2016

May 3rd, 2016 by

Mufasa: Scar! Brother, help me!
Scar: Long live the king.

The Lion King (1994), screenplay by Irene Mecchi and Jonathan Robert and Linda Woolverton, story by Brenda Chapman & Burny Mattinson & Barry Johnson & Lorna Cook & Thom Enriquez & Andy Gaskill & Gary Trousdale & Jim Capobianco & Kevin Harkey & Jorgen Klubien & Chris Sanders & Tom Sito & Larry Leker & Joe Ranft & Rick Maki & Ed Gombert & Francis Glebas & Mark Kausler

The Daily Dialogue theme for the week: Brothers.

Trivia: The wildebeest stampede took Disney’s CG department approximately three years to animate. A new computer program had to be written for the CG wildebeest stampede that allowed hundreds of computer generated animals to run but without colliding into each other.

Dialogue On Dialogue: Brother betrays brother. A story as old as Cain and Abel.

Guest Column: “Actually, Feature Film is Devouring TV”

May 2nd, 2016 by

A guest column from screenwriter and TV writer Tom Benedek (Cocoon):

People will say TV is swallowing film. But perhaps it is the reverse. The best TV is becoming more like feature film — evolving into the feature form more and more. With a few differences, of course.

The “one hour” TV shows are not 60 minutes long necessarily. They are more visual, more cinematic, with more evolved design.

If you want your script to move in that direction, let it happen. TV writing can be movie making. The material can dictate the scale, duration, style. It’s not talking heads exclusively.

Hugh Laurie is an amazing nemesis in The Night Manager – miniseries on AMC.
Cast, designed, shot like a motion picture.

The undeniable demand in TV writing – solid character canvas. There must be an interesting set of situations which your characters are inhabiting, struggling with, yearning through. Consider the evolutions of their emotional connections along a time line. Even a spread sheet. One thing about TV, character stories get spread out over time, multiple episodes, seasons, an entire series even. So are a character’s feelings toward another person changing? Do deeds of enterprise impact relationships? In the realm of TV series slow burn dramatics, the audience wants a character to move into a relationship but that person can’t move forward. Until… You’re the writer. You decide.

Have a 1-hour TV pilot concept you want to develop and take to script? Here’s a great opportunity to do that in Tom’s upcoming session of TV Pilot Script Workshop which begins Monday, May 9. Go here for more information.

Interview: Elijah Bynum (2013 Black List)

May 2nd, 2016 by

One of the best ways to learn the craft is read what professional screenwriters have to say about it. To that end for the next few weeks, I will be featuring interviews I have conducted with Black List screenwriters.

Today: My April 2014 interview with Elijah whose screenplays “Mississippi Mud” and “Hot Summer Nights” both made the 2013 Black List. Subsequently Elijah directed “Hot Summer Nights” starring Maika Monroe (It Follows), Timothée Chalamet (Interstellar), and Alex Roe (The 5th Wave).

Here are links to the six installments of the entire interview:

Part 1: “I was born and raised in a little town in a little state 3,000 miles away from Hollywood. I figured I had a better chance of striking oil in my backyard than making a career in entertainment.”

Part 2: “First of all, just naturally the way I approach story, I always have a question I want to explore. I never want to answer the question. I want to raise the question and present both sides of the argument and let the audience drawn their own conclusion.”

Part 3: “I wanted to explore religion and faith and the idea of fate and happenstance. What some call fate others call ‘the way shit is’”.

Part 4: “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.”

Part 5: “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.”

Part 6: “Writers have to be curious by nature. Curious about life, curious about human beings, curious about what makes the world go around. As long as you’re curious, there will always be something to write and you’ll always be raising the right questions.”

Elijah is repped at Verve and Kaplan / Perrone.

Twitter: @BynumElijah.

There is no right way to write

May 2nd, 2016 by

It is perhaps the single most fundamental truth about screenwriting in particular and writing in general that I know…

There is no right way to write.

No single formula.
No one system.
No mystical process that guarantees success.

Think about it: Why should there be?

Stories are organic.
Living, breathing, malleable entities.
They are not widgets.

We work on them tirelessly.
We engage them fully with our minds and hearts.
We write… and rewrite… and rewrite some more…

Yet with all that conscious effort and intentionality, there is always some element of magic to the story-crafting process.
And no one has discovered a way to box up that magic into a universal approach for every writer.

Each of us has to find our own way.

We can – and probably should – seek out as much advice as possible.
Wisdom from our writing peers.
Study, analyze, ingest.

But our paths as writers are individual ones.

Whatever he says about his writing…
Whatever she says about her writing…

That can be informative, instructive, even inspirational.

But that is about their path.

Your path?
The process of being a writer is about carving out your own way.

Yes, it would be easier if there was one right way to write.
But then all our stories would be pretty much the same.
Besides whoever said writing was supposed to be easy?

So learn what you can along the way.
Listen to the Masters, actual writers who have successfully created a sustainable path of their own.
Test out a variety of approaches.
Try tips you pick up here and there.
Always be learning.

However at the end of the day…
It’s about you…
Your Creative Self…
And your Stories.

There is no right way to write…

But there is your way.

[Originally posted November 1, 2013]

Classic 30s Movie: “The Adventures of Robin Hood”

May 2nd, 2016 by

May is Classic 30s Movie month. Today’s guest post comes from Clay Mitchell.

Movie Title: The Adventures of Robin Hood

Year: 1938

Writers: Norman Reilly Raine and Seton I. Miller

Rowland Leigh was brought on to write the screenplay early in the process, but the studio didn’t like the script. Leigh’s script served as the structure for the film. Raine was assigned the script and Miller, who had penned James Cagney films and contemporary dramas, was added to the team. Raine had won an Oscar for his work on The Life of Emile Zola (1937). Miller was also a prolific writer and later shared an Oscar with Sidney Buchman for Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941).

Lead Actors: Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Basil Rathbone, Claude Rains, Patric Knowles, Eugene Pallette and Alan Hale.

James Cagney was slated to star in the title role, but a dispute with the studio had him walking out of his contract. Warners didn’t want to put the film on hold and began to consider a replacement. Flynn had come off of Captain Blood (1935) and The Charge of the Light Brigade(1936) and presented Warners the iconic vision of the character the studio was looking for as Robin Hood. Hale had played Little John in Douglas Fairbanks’ 1922 version of the film, and will play Little John again in Rouges of Sherwood Forest (1950).

Director: Michael Curtiz and William Keighley.

The original director was Keighley, who had directed Flynn and Rains in The Prince and the Pauper (1937) and Warner’s first excursion into three-strip Technicolor God’s Country and the Women (1937). Keighley ran afoul early on in the process with the studio and the writers when he wanted to begin the film with a jousting tournament, but many felt having the biggest scene at the start would unbalance the film. Concerned with the delays (wet fall weather) and early footage, Keighley was replaced by Curtiz, who worked with Flynn in Blood and Brigade.

IMDb Plot Summary: When Prince John and the Norman Lords begin oppressing the Saxon masses in King Richard’s absence, a Saxon lord fights back as the outlaw leader of a rebel guerrilla army.

Why I Think This Is A Classic 30s Movie

It serves as the perfect bridge between the Old World and the New World with a more modern spin to the dialog (thanks perhaps to Miller), and the transition old style of black and white films to color. The Adventures of Robin Hood wasn’t the first Technicolor film, but the first more successful ones at the box office with The Wizard of Oz arriving a year later.

It was a bold risk to make. Douglas Fairbanks had a successful Robin Hood film just 16 years earlier. However, with Flynn’s portrayal and the color, Robin Hood becomes a template for future Robin Hood portrayals on the screen, in comic books, and even cartoons (to me the Bugs Bunny ones involving Robin Hood are among the best.)

At times, I forget that I’m watching something made in 1938.

My Favorite Moment In The Movie

The quips… Mostly contained in the first meeting between Robin, Marian, Prince John and Sir Guy.

Robin Hood: What’s a matter, Gisbourne? Run out of hangings?
Sir Guy: I know a ripe subject for one.

Robin Hood: I hope my lady had a pleasant journey from London?
Marian: What you hope can hardly be important.
Robin Hood: What a pity her manners don’t match her looks, Your Highness.

(a lot of the back and forth between Robin and Marian is similar to Han and Leia… including this exchange:

Robin: Then you do love me, don’t you? Don’t you?
Marian: You know I do.

Prince John: You speak treason.
Robin Hood: Fluently.

My Favorite Dialogue In the Movie

“What do you call a man who takes advantage of a king’s misfortune to seize his power? And now, with the help of this sweet band of cutthroats, you’ll try to grind a ransom for him out of every helpless Saxon. A ransom that’ll be used not to release Richard, but buy your way to the throne.” – Robin Hood

Key Things You Should Look For When Watching This Movie

Sir Guy (played Basil Rathbone) and the Sheriff of Nottingham (Melville Cooper).

In subsequent films, the Sheriff becomes the main antagonist for Robin Hood. Sir Guy was the invention of an operetta in which Warners owned the rights at the time. The original intent was to turn the operetta into the movie (which was never filmed).

• Rathbone was a fencer and it was adopted as the fighting style for the film even though fencing wouldn’t be invented until much later (in regards to when the movie takes place.)

• Marian’s horse later shows up in a western as “Trigger” for Roy Rogers.

Many of the elements we seem to take for granted got their first big push or start with The Adventures of Robin Hood. Robin boldly enters the castle of his nemesis which is similar to James Bond strolling into the midst of Blofeld or some other villain, and fighting his way out to safety.

Even the breaking into the castle to rescue Marian, who is to be executed harkens to the first STAR WARS film.

The colorful costuming is reminiscent of what is later found in comic books and thus translated back to film in modern era films.

Thanks, Clay!

To show our gratitude for your guest post, here’s a dash of creative juju for you. Whoosh!

We already have a set of classic 40s movies, 5os movies, 60s Movies, 70s movies, 80s Movies and 90s Movies. This month, we’re working on 30s movies. And thanks to the GITS community, we’ve got at least 22 movies in the works and hopefully!

Those who I put in bold have already sent me their posts. If you haven’t sent yours to me, please do so as soon as you can!!!

All Quiet on the Western Front – Michael Waters
Bride of Frankenstein – Marija Nielsen
Bringing Up Baby – Melinda Mahaffey
Captain Blood – John Arends
City Girl – Adam Westbrook
Dracula – Sheila Seaclearr
Duck Soup – David Joyner
Gone With The Wind – Mark Twain
Gunga Din – Steve Huerta
It Happened One Night – JoniB22
Make Way for Tomorrow – Susan W
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington – Amber Watt
Rebecca – Katha
Snow White and the Seven Dwarves – Will King
Sabotage – Jeff Xilon
Stagecoach – Thenewlight
The 39 Steps – Felicity Flesher
The Adventures of Robin Hood – Clay Mitchell
The Petrified Forest – supergloss
The Women – Liz Clarke
Topper – Wayne Kline

I am still looking for volunteers. If there’s a 30s movie you’d like to write about, please post your suggestion in comments or contact me via email.

Thanks to everyone who steps up for this ongoing project!

For the original post explaining the series, go here.

For all of the 30s movies featured in the series, go here.

Click REPLY and see you in comments about today’s classic 30s movie!