Writing and the Creative Life: Boundaries of Space, Boundaries of Time

April 17th, 2014 by

We all know John Cleese from his work with Monty Python’s Flying Circus and Fawlty Towers, but he has also emerged as something of an authority on creativity. Here is an excerpt from a presentation he gave in Belgium some years ago:

Here is a transcript of the main part of his talk:

People often say, Where do you get your ideas from? And I say I get them from a Mr. Ken Levingshore who lives in Swinden, he sends them to me every Monday morning on a postcard. I once asked Ken where he gets his ideas from, and he gets them from a lady called Mildred Spong who lives on the Isle of Wight. He once asked Mildred where she gets her ideas from and she refused to say. So the point is, we don’t know. This is terribly important. We don’t know where we get our ideas from. What we do know is we do not get them from our laptops.

In fact, we get our ideas from what I’m going to call for the moment, our unconscious, the part of our mind that goes on working, for example, when we’re asleep.

What I’m saying is, if you get into the right mood, then your mode of thinking will become much more creative. If you’re racing around all day, ticking things off on lists, checking your watch, making phone calls, and generally keeping all the balls in the air, you are not going to have any creative ideas.

So now I want to run over how in this very frenzied world we all live in, how you may create a mood that will enable you to be more creative. Basically the way I put it is you need to create a tortoise enclosure. So that your little tortoise mind, a little nervous creature, can look around, and say, Yes, it’s safe to come out.

To do this, you have to create a kind of oasis in your life. In the middle of the stressed, Oh, I’ve forgotten to do this, I’ve got to do that, I have to be there by eleven… in the middle of all that, you have to create an oasis. A tortoise enclosure where your tortoise mind can come out to play.

There’s two things you have to do. You have to create boundaries of space, and you have to create boundaries of time. It’s as simple as that.

Boundaries of space so you can avoid interruptions which is disastrous to the creative process… then you have to give yourself a starting time and a finish time. Because when you do that, you have created an oasis which is separate from ordinary life, and then and only then can you play.

Truth in these words, yes? And so simple… in theory! Boundaries of space. Boundaries of time. But there’s this damn thing called life which keeps getting in the way. So two words to help underscore the main point Cleese makes.

Intentionality: In order to create boundaries of space and time, we have to be intentional. We must confront the energy of life coming at us, thrust up our hands, dig in our heels, and yell, “STOP! For the next x amount of minutes, I am going to be over here. Respect my boundaries, respect my time, respect my needs because I intend to use this chunk of my day to be creative.” Be intentional.

Sacred: I like the idea of an oasis, but what caught my attention is the idea of “separate from ordinary life.” When I heard that, I was suddenly jolted back to my days at Yale Divinity School and in particular a course I took called Christianity and the Arts. In that class, we studied all sorts of religious iconography as well as remarkable worship environments like this one:

That is the interior of the Chartres Cathedral, the epitome of what we may call a sacred space. Throughout history, members of religions from all around the world have built edifices such as this as a way of creating a place into which they can go to separate themselves from the ordinary world and allow their spiritual nature to emerge.

What if in the face of our hectic lives, we claimed our creative time to be our own ‘sacred space’? In doing so, we separate ourselves from the clutter and noise of the ordinary world, and embrace the quietude and solitude of the extraordinary world… where our creativity can come out to play.

Writing and the Creative Life is a weekly series in which we explore creativity from the practical to the psychological, the latest in brain science to a spiritual take on the subject. Hopefully the more we understand about our creative self, the better we will become as writers. If you have any good reading material in this vein, please post in comments. If you have a particular observation you think readers will benefit from and you would like to explore in a guest post, email me.

Daily Dialogue — April 17, 2014

April 17th, 2014 by

Miranda Priestly: So you don’t read Runway.
Andy Sachs: No.
Miranda Priestly: And until today you had never heard of me.
Andy Sachs: No.
Miranda Priestly: You have no sense of fashion…
Andy Sachs: I think that depends on…
Miranda Priestly: No, no, that wasn’t a question.

The Devil Wears Prada (2006), screenplay by Aline Brosh McKenna, novel by Lauren Weisberger

The Daily Dialogue theme for the week: Job Interview, suggested by blueneumann. Today’s suggestion by @lisap1999.

Trivia: On the first day of filming, Meryl Streep told Anne Hathaway “I think you’re perfect for the role. I’m so happy we’re going to be working together.” Then she paused and followed it up with “That’s the last nice thing I’ll say to you.” And it was.

Dialogue On Dialogue: The introduction to Miranda is so great, building up her character to almost mythic proportions, which lays the groundwork for the job ‘interview’… interrogation is more like it!

Create a Compelling Protagonist

April 16th, 2014 by

In almost every movie, the most critical character is the Protagonist.

* Typically the story is told through their perspective.
* Their goal usually dictates the end point of the plot.
* All the other primary characters are somehow linked to the Protagonist.
* Normally they go through the most significant metamorphosis.
* And the Protagonist acts as the main conduit into the story for a script reader and moviegoer.

So guess what? You need to create a Protagonist that grabs a reader’s attention and keeps it for 100 pages.

How to do that?

That’s what we will be exploring in my upcoming 1-week online class “Create a Compelling Protagonist”.

Go beyond writing a ‘sympathetic’ Protagonist. Dig deeper than giving your Protagonist a ‘flaw.’ That is surface level writing. In this class, you will learn an approach that will help you immerse yourself into this key character, and craft a Protagonist worth writing… and reading.

This class not only explores proven ways to help you create a compelling character, it also lays out an approach you can use as the groundwork for developing the rest of your story.

Seven lectures, forum feedback, insider tips, 90-minute teleconference, and the opportunity to workshop your story’s Protagonist [or Protagonists].

Plus if you’re a fan of the movies Bridesmaids, The Social Network and Up, we’ll be using those as our study scripts. They offer a diverse set of Protagonists and yet the approach we will study next week shows how a writer can craft such compelling and different lead characters.

It all starts Monday, April 28. You can learn more and sign up here.

Here are some observations from writers who have taken the class with me:

“One week of Creating a Compelling Protagonist challenged me in ways I couldn’t challenge myself. If you want to develop your ideas, this is a rare opportunity at great value. Thank you, Scott!” – Brianna Garber

“I’ve taken a ton of classes, both inside and outside film school, and this was one of the best. The material provided a ton of inventive ways to approach the development of a solid, three-dimensional protagonist, and helped me dig deeper into the character’s internal world — forcing me to reject easy solutions, the first ideas that came to mind.” – Jason Young

“A class that is perfect for anyone looking to learn the primary character archetypes, their psychology, and how they relate to the protagonist. The lectures provide thorough examples of these character archetypes in modern and classic movies, and the online forums were a hotspot to ask questions about the material or anything related to screenwriting. Scott’s style of teaching is highly accessible to anyone, as he creates an environment of easy, open discussion on the subject of character and welcomes any other questions you may have along the way.” – Kristen Vincent, sold spec script “Fetch” in 2013.

This 1-week Craft course is coupled with another class: Write A Worthy Nemesis. That begins Monday, May 12. For information on that session, go here.

This is the only time I will be offering these Craft classes in 2014, so take this opportunity and sign up now!

Interview: Elijah Bynum (2013 Black List) – Part 3

April 16th, 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 3, Elijah discusses how he managed to write dialogue set in the South when he has rarely visited the region and why he set the story for “Hot Summer Nights” in 1991:

Scott:  You ratchet up everything in “Mississippi Mud” significantly by introducing the proverbial briefcase full of cash. Was that in your first draft or did that emerge later?

Elijah:  That was in my first draft. Again, talking about what will take human beings to dark places and we all know that money, not to quote the cliché, but is the root of all evil. Sadly enough, it’s one of those things that will make human beings do ugly things they never thought they were capable of.

Scott:  There’s a religious overtone to the story. I’m curious, did you grow up in a religious family? If so, did that effect your writing here?

Elijah:  I didn’t but I’ve always been curious about other people’s interpretations of the world. If you take two people—one religious and one not—and present them with the same exact situation they may see it in two very different ways. So, once I knew I wanted to explore that philosophical question I would need characters on both sides of the argument. I wanted to explore religion and faith and the idea of fate and happenstance. What some call fate others call “the way shit is”.  Naturally, I wanted it to be set, and I’m glad you picked up on it, in this part of the world where religion seems to be the guiding force for most of its citizens.

I wanted to be careful for it not to come across as preachy or didactic. But I did feel it was important that we were steeped in this very rich religious atmosphere and have characters on both sides of the spectrum trying to make sense of it all.  At one point the cop, Sawyer, says of a shotgun that miraculously backfired “the papers called it an act of God. I call it good luck, or bad luck depending on the party concerned.”

Scott:  You say you grew up in Massachusetts. Unless you spent a lot of time in the South, I’m assuming you had to do a fair amount of research. The dialogue in the script is remarkable. I’ve lived in the South and it certainly felt real. How much research did you do about the South, the subculture, and particularly the language.

Elijah:  It’s interesting. You look at people like Woody Allen or Lena Dunham and notice they write about people who are like themselves or, more or less, they write about themselves and they do it ‑‑ very, very well. I tried that at first and I found that I wasn’t very good at it.  I found that when I write I don’t like to write about what I already know I like to write about areas of curiosity. The unknown. I’ve found that I’m much better at writing about people and places that are not like me versus the old adage, write what you know.

To answer your question, no, I haven’t spent much time in the South but I’ve met plenty of southern people and I’ve read southern literature—Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor and Cormac McCarthy and  I’ve seen southern people on television and movies and I think I’ve just always had an ear for how people speak. My mother used to tell me that even from a young age I was able to pick up people’s mannerisms and idiosyncrasies very well.

There were a few occasions where I looked up some Southern dialogue just to make sure what I was saying was true to this region because it would be very ignorant and Yankee of me to be assume everyone in the South spoke exactly the same.

People in North Carolina speak a little differently than people in northern Florida who speak differently than Mississippi and west Texas. They all have different or phrases or colloquiums they would use. I did some research and I listened to some audio recordings of some of these people speaking just to further the ear for the dialogue.

Scott:  It’s a terrific script. Before we move into “Hot Summer Nights” I have to ask, are you familiar with the book “Confederacy of the Dunces” by John Kennedy Toole?

Elijah:  Yes. I’m familiar with it. I’m ashamed to say I have not read it, yet.

Scott:  I want to nominate you to adapt that into a screenplay. It’s been around for 20 some odd years. A bunch of writers attached to it. It just seems like it would be right up your alley, because it’s a very ‑‑ it’s the same sort of structure, different kind of story. It’s a comedy. Really one of the best comic novels I ever read.

You should go to your reps and say, “Hey, what’s the deal with “Confederacy of Dunces,” because if you could nail it, I just think it would be great. Such a great book.

Elijah:  Well, that’s awesome. I’m glad you have the faith in me. I’ll let my reps know that Scott Myers thinks I should adapt it.

Scott:  Let’s move into “Hot Summer Nights.” The plot summary from the Black List.

“A teenager’s life spirals out of control when he befriends the town’s rebel, falls in love, and gets entangled selling drugs one summer in Cape Cod.”

I’ve got two pieces here that we know from your background. One you just said. There’s a theme, this burning desire to fit in. That was part of the inspiration for the story, but also Cape Cod. If you grew up in Massachusetts, I’m pretty sure you’re at least familiar with that area.

What other story elements and dynamics were at work that percolated into the genesis of this story?

Elijah:  Well, it is based on two kids that I knew in college who were clearly up to no good. What really was interesting about them was how different they were as individuals. There was the more quiet, reserved, unassuming kid and then there was his counterpart, who was louder and cockier and more flamboyant in that sense. They were an unlikely pair.

They started selling weed small time around the dorms and then around campus. Then it blew up and it got way too big. They got in over their heads. It didn’t end well. I mean, they’re both still alive. I think. At some point they both dropped out of school and one fled across the country and the other one disappeared.

What really was interesting to me was the rise and fall of their drug empire, if you will, alongside the rise and fall of their friendship. I thought there was something so tragic and romantic about it.

When I sat down to write it at first it was very straightforward. It was almost documentarian in its view. It was set in contemporary times on this big college campus. It was spread across three years.

For some reason, it wasn’t clicking. It just didn’t feel good. I was trying to convince myself that it was working which is never a wise move.

I sat back and thought, ” What’s not working about this?” It was then that I realized I didn’t care about what was happening. It didn’t make me feel anything. I decided to condense the amount of time the story took place over, taking it from the course of three years and making it take place over three months. All the emotions were just burning a little hotter and everything was hitting a little harder.

Then I wanted to age them down. Instead of watching college students do this, we are watching 16 and 17‑year‑olds. Again, a time in life when emotions burn a little hotter and hit a little harder. Then I moved the story off a college campus, put  it in a small beach town and set it during a brutal heat wave.

I’ve always been intrigued by the idea of the small town fable and playing with those classic tropes. The James Dean rebel who smoked cigarettes and had sex before anyone else did and the girl that was so impossibly beautiful that she could break your heart just by walking into the room.  Just the iconic figures that these small towns seem to have.

The story took on this life that it hadn’t had before. Then of course, I introduced the love story, because we’ve all been blindly and foolishly in love before. I thought this story was just asking for that.

I used the theme of wanting to fit in and of course, like any coming of age story, finding yourself and the idea of a self‑fulfilling prophecy. I took those three main things and built around them.

Then the idea we were talking about in “Mississippi Mud” of fate and chance and happenstance. That idea is always working on some level in every one of my scripts. I can’t seem to get away from it.

Scott:  Why set it in 1991?

Elijah:  That was more of a stylistic choice. I wanted this thing to play like a memory. The great thing about memory is that it is unreliable. There are things that we remember,  for better or for worse, that have been embellished in our minds eye.  This allowed me to play with some elements of magical realism.

For instance, there’s a scene in the script, it’s the first time boy kisses girl and fireworks go off.

Scott:  Right.

Elijah:  And then the narrator comes clean and admits, “OK. Well, there weren’t any fireworks.” It’s the idea of playing with this unreliable narrator who’s looking at this very powerful and transformative summer through this lens of nostalgic fog. I figured if it were a contemporary story you wouldn’t have the same nostalgic feeling that you would if this took place in a time and place that can never be again.

Looking back everyone always feels like, “Oh, times were simpler back then,” you know? I really wanted to tap into that.

Then I started thinking what this time period could be. Quite frankly I thought, “Well, the early ’90s is by all intents and purposes retro at this point. It’s over 20 years ago. It hasn’t been tapped into yet as a bygone era”. I knew a major part of the story would include a hurricane and as I was doing research I found that a huge hurricane slammed the coast of Cape Cod in August, 1991. I kind of clapped my hands together. There we go! That’s my time period.

Tomorrow 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.

To read Part 1 of the interview, go here.

Part 2, here.

Elijah is repped at Verve and Kaplan / Perrone.

Twitter: @BynumElijah.

Movies You Made: “Resignation”

April 16th, 2014 by

Last month, I ran a series called Movies You Made, comprised of 31 original films submitted to me by a diverse group of filmmakers from all over the world. You can find links to all of the movies and trailers by going here.

A few filmmakers subsequently contacted me, therefore every so often I will feature another Movie You Made.

Today: Resignation.

Production notes from co-writer-director Joshua Caldwell:

With Resignation I wanted to explore the character of a superhero in a way that I hadn’t seen before – at least in the movies. I wanted to go far beyond the origin story and put a new twist on it: a story not of discovery but of re-discovery.

Having turned his back on his crime fighting past, something for which he’s lost so much, our hero has been wandering the earth, working as a combat photojournalist, and taking pictures of the worst humanity has to offer, when he’s confronted by a crisis

On it’s surface, the film is about the ethics of journalism — the balance between reporting on the story and being a part of it. Inspired by the world of Witness (the HBO documentary series about combat photojournalists), we wanted to ground our film in that dilemma – save the life or take the shot?

However, on a much deeper level, the conversation is about playing god. A superhero, with super powers, is in a god-like position, able to save those who might have otherwise perished. Wanted or not, that responsibility has been thrust on him.

Our character is one who has been weighed down by such a responsibility and consequently, turned in his cape. He wants to be human, to live amongst us. In doing so, must contend with the fact that he possesses the ability to correct a situation and yet chooses to do nothing.

In this way, Resignation presents a complex, multi-layered, yet digestible portrait of a superhero struggling with the reality of our modern world.

Victor Brown, Charlie Hopkins

Director: Joshua Caldwell
Writers (s): Thomas Lemmer, Alex LeMay, Joshua Caldwell
Produced by: Alex LeMay, Thomas Lemmer, Joshua Caldwell
Executive Producers: John Benis, Josh Lamb, Alex LeMay
Director of Photography: Paul Niccolls
Costume Designer: Amanda Riley
Production Designer: Matthew Trotter
Music by: Kevin Riepl
Editors: Thomas Lemmer, Evan Alexander
VFX Supervisor: Josh Sedillo

Here is the 8 minute movie Resignation:

For what Joshua calls a “full immersive experience,” go here.

Go here to read a first-hand Dispatch From The Front Line by Joshua from back in 2011.

Movie Trailer: “X-Men: Days of Future Past”

April 16th, 2014 by

Screenplay by Simon Kinberg, story by Jane Goldman & Simon Kinberg & Matthew Vaughn

The X-Men send Wolverine to the past in a desperate effort to change history and prevent an event that results in doom for both humans and mutants.


Release Date: 23 May 2014 (USA)

A Story Idea Each Day for a Month — Day 16

April 16th, 2014 by

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

Today: What is it like to be the lone survivor of a catastrophe?

I’m sure most of you remember the horrible tragedy of the Yarnell Hill fire which overran and killed 19 Arizona firefighters on June 30, 2013. Those firefighters were part of a proud group of men and women known as the Arizona Hotshots. Turns out, one of that group survived: Only Surviving Arizona Hotshot Firefighter Was The Team’s Lookout.

PRESCOTT, Ariz. (AP) — The lone survivor on an elite Arizona firefighting crew was serving as a lookout and relaying key information to his colleagues when a raging wildfire trapped and killed them, officials said Tuesday.

Brendan McDonough, 21, was in his third season with the 20-member, Prescott-based Granite Mountain Hotshots.

He was assigned to be a “heads-up on the hillside” for the team on that fateful afternoon two days ago, said Wade Ward, a Prescott Fire Department spokesman who relayed McDonough’s story at an afternoon news conference.

Ward said McDonough “did exactly what he was supposed to” when conditions changed as his team fought the mountain blaze near the town of Yarnell, about 80 miles northwest of Phoenix.

He notified the other Hotshots that the weather was changing rapidly and told them the fire had switched direction because of the wind. He also told them he was leaving the area and to contact him on the radio if they needed anything, Ward said.

Here is a short documentary about the event including comments from McDonough:

What caught my attention about this story was the survivor. I imagined myself in a similar circumstance where I had somehow managed to live while my peers had perished. How would I make sense of that? How could I make sense of that? How would it affect my life? How would it affect the local community? There would be everything in my life. Then everything in my life after the tragedy. I can see how it might give a person a bifurcated sense of self, who I am now compared to who I was back then.

Then there’s this: survivor’s guilt. One definition I found: “A mental condition that occurs when a person perceives themselves to have done wrong by surviving a traumatic event when others did not.”

Even if logic dictates I may have done everything right, my feelings tell me I have done something wrong.

In The Shawshank Redemption, Andy meets with Red one last time before he decides to act on his long-planned escape. During that conversation, Andy says this:

		My wife used to say I'm a hard man 
		to know. Like a closed book. 
		Complained about it all the time. 
		She was beautiful. I loved her. But 
		I guess I couldn't show it enough. 
		I killed her, Red. 

	Andy finally glances to Red, seeking a reaction. Silence. 

		I didn't pull the trigger. But I 
		drove her away. That's why she 
		died. Because of me, the way I am.

This moment is very much like confession in the Catholic church, Andy finally admitting a truth with which he’s lived for years: He feels guilty about the death of his wife and his own survival.

In The Silence of the Lambs, when Lecter compels Clarice finally to share her deepest secrets to him — again much like a confessional with Lecter serving as the priest — she talks about witnessing the spring slaughter of the lambs on her uncle’s farm and how she reacted:

                         I took one lamb. And I ran away, as 
                         fast as I could...

               IN FLASHBACK

               a vast Montana plain, and crossing this, a tiny figure - the 
               little Clarice, holding a lamb in her arms.

                                     DR. LECTER (V.O.)
                         Where were you going?

                                     CLARICE (V.O.)
                         I don't know. I had no food or water. 
                         It was very cold. I thought - if I 
                         can even save just one... but he got 
                         so heavy. So heavy...

               The tiny figure stops, and after a few moments sinks to the 
               ground, hunched over in despair.

Of course, the lamb represents her father, thus we see that she suffers from survivor guilt: If only she could have done something to save her father’s life. It’s totally illogical, of course, Clarice was only eleven years old when he died as he attempted to stop a robbery. But sometimes guilt does not dwell in the realm of logic, it resides somewhere deeper in our psyche. Lecter recognizes this. He asks Clarice, “What happened to your lamb?” Her response: “They killed him.” On some level, we can take this to mean her father, which is why Lecter says the following to sum up Clarice’s confession:

                                     DR. LECTER
                         You think if you can save poor 
                         Catherine, you could make them stop,
                         don't you? You think if Catherine
                         lives, you won't wake up in the dark
                         ever again to that awful screaming 
                         of the lambs.

Here is that amazing scene:

We are talking two profoundly great movies: The Shawshank Redemption and The Silence of the Lambs, and both Protagonists suffer from survivor’s guilt.

Thus where this process leads me is to start with the idea of a survivor. Someone who does not feel right or good about that fact.

What could that situation be? What could that tragedy have been? What event can the universe bring his/her way to jolt them out of their state of Disunity and compel them into a journey where they have to confront their deepest fears, likely tied to their guilt, and see where that takes them? If it’s an uplifting story, perhaps like Andy and Clarice, they do something redemptive. If it’s a tragedy heaped on a tragedy, we are looking at the study of a character’s dissolution and disintegration. Or perhaps a salvific tragedy where the character dies in order to save someone else.

I just know this: This is a complex psychological arena, one from which a compelling Protagonist can emerge.

There you go: My sixteenth 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.

Script To Screen: “Milk”

April 16th, 2014 by

One of the most memorable scenes in the powerful 2008 movie Milk, written by Dustin Lance Black.

Plot Summary: The story of Harvey Milk, and his struggles as an American gay activist who fought for gay rights and became California’s first openly gay elected official.

Setting: Dan White has asked to meet in private with Harvey Milk.

Harvey walks in first. Dan stays between Harvey and the door. 
Dan closes it. Harvey smiles, sensing something is off.

Dan draws his revolver. Harvey raises his hand. Dan fires. 
The bullet rips through Harvey's hand and down his arm.

Oh no... N--

Dan fires again, silencing Harvey's cry for help.

Harvey turns away. Another bullet rips into his chest, and he 
falls to his knees, now facing the window. He staggers toward 
it. The moment is extended as we see Harvey’s POV of the 
Opera House outside the window, and the Castro beyond it.

Close on Dan, Harvey still alive. The moment almost peaceful. 
Dan puts his revolver to the back of Harvey's head. He fires. 
And just like that, Harvey falls.

A startled Dan fires once more, and walks out of the office.

Here is the scene from the movie:

A few tiny changes:

* Harvey says “No” before the first bullet is fired.

* He doesn’t say, “Oh, no,” but rather “No,” which compresses the time in which he realizes what’s happening.

* There are four gun shots, but the first three happen with Harvey facing White.

* Harvey doesn’t “stagger” toward the window, rather ends up there by his body’s reaction to being shot.

Some interesting directing and editorial choices:

* Once White closes the door, camera stays on Harvey. It’s an interesting choice. In the script, we’ve already seen White preparing his gun. Plus we know – historically – what happened, so it’s as if Van Sant (director) decided it was more important to play to Harvey’s take on what was transpiring, rather than cut to White producing his gun.

* There is only one CU of White after he closes the door: After he fires the first shot, almost as if he has a moment’s hesitation: Can I go through with this?

The moment that really hits home for me is :26-53 where Harvey kneels at the window, his gaze eventually focusing on the Opera House. It mirrors an image evoked on the very first page of the script in which in the chaos of the shooting, this happens:

Cleve shuts it out. He looks out the second story window to 
see what Harvey must have last laid eyes upon: the SF Opera 
House, and beyond it, the neighborhood that has become 
their home, The Castro.

It also recalls a scene from Harvey’s youth at the New York Opera House [P. 3] and a scene from just before the assassination in which Harvey enjoys an opera in San Francisco [P. 107].

So in his dying moments, Harvey gets to see a place of significance to him — the Opera House — and the neighborhood behind it — the Castro — both symbolic of this place he has come to call home.

And those last shots, the very conceit of that, is all in Black’s script.

What else do you see in comparing the scripted version of the scene to the movie version?

To download a free, legal PDF of the script for Milk, go here.

One of the single best things you can do to learn the craft of screenwriting is to read the script while watching the movie. After all a screenplay is a blueprint to make a movie and it’s that magic of what happens between printed page and final print that can inform how you approach writing scenes. That is the purpose of Script to Screen, a weekly series on GITS where we analyze a memorable movie scene and the script pages that inspired it.

Daily Dialogue — April 16, 2014

April 16th, 2014 by

“I… am the Waffler. With my griddle of justice, I BASH the enemy in the head, or I burn them like so! I also have some truth syrup, which is low in fat.”

Mystery Men (1999), written by Neil Cuthbert, created by Bob Burden

The Daily Dialogue theme for the week: Job Interview, suggested by blueneumann.

Trivia: The Mystery Men were the supporting cast of an underground superhero comic book called the Flaming Carrot. Mr. Furious and the Shoveler were the only ones from the comic to make it into the movie. Captain Amazing was created as a replacement for the Flaming Carrot, who was felt to be too bizarre to bring to the silver screen.

Dialogue On Dialogue: Not everyday you get to see a job interview… for a superhero gig.

Question: How far can a writer go with the "similar but different" approach?

April 15th, 2014 by

A reader question from The_High_Dweller:

I got one for ya… We’re always talking about “Similar But Different” here, right?

And we’ve even had suggestions on how to go about coming up with something that’s similar but different… Check out successful movies from the past and actually take their logline and change the genre, genders, setting, etc.

So I’m wondering how far is too far to take that suggestion??

Like take your script, K-9, for instance… What if someone changed the main character to a woman, the dog to a Dalmatian, and the career to a fire(wo)man, and the setting to say… Texas.

(I’m not thinking of doing this, by the way.)

And with those changes, having steered far enough away from your concept, could they actually use your story as a guideline and create similar conflict, scenes, characters, plot points, etc. as your story?

… I guess it sounds like I’m almost asking “Is it okay to just plagiarize?” But my point is: how far is too far and how far is safe?

I’d like to take the “similar but different” approach with a contained thriller. But I haven’t tried this genre before. So I like the advice of taking a successful film and creating something similar, yet different. But I wouldn’t want to use someone else’s script as my guide and end up with something TOO close to that already-successful and well-known script/film.

To frame my response, I went back to a lecture I penned for an online screenwriting course way back in 2002:

The mantra of the studios’ film divisions can best be summed up in this manner – what they want to buy, develop, and produce are screenplays which are “similar but different.”

Why? There is a two-part answer. The first part goes back to the familiar subject – marketing. Because the simple fact is that after script purchase, years of development hell and rewrites, actors and directors falling in and out of deals, battles over budget, months of preproduction, production, post-production, none of it matters one whit unless the studios can sell the movie.And in an increasingly noisy world with consumers bombarded by advertisers on all sides, the task of getting the message out is becoming harder and harder.

That’s where similar comes in. If the movie’s concept or storyline has a familiar ring to it, so the marketing theory goes, then the consumer is more likely to remember the advertisement. And if they remember the ad, then the odds increase exponentially that the consumer will be motivated to get off their fanny, drive to the local Cineplex, and actually buy a movie ticket than if they do not remember the ad.

The different component should be obvious – the story can’t be exactly the same as something else, it has to be spun just enough to make the consumer think they’ll be viewing something actually worth seeing, even if what’s on the screen turns out to be a nauseating copycat of another movie – of course, by then, they already have your money.

And then these observations from another lecture in that same screenwriting class about the idea of recycling plots:

What do I mean by recycling plots?Just what it says: Take old stories, and use them again.Tweak ‘em, shake ‘em, rattle ‘em around a bit, then put them down on paper, make the movie, and voila – a new theatrical release is born.

This is not a recent phenomenon, indeed, it is as old as Hollywood itself. I read an account from one veteran screenwriter who confessed that he had written the same exact plot for seven different movies, back in the 30s and 40s.One time, it was a western, another time it was a pirate’s tale, another time it was a gangster movie, and so on. One plot. Seven movies.

This approach is not restricted to Hollywood either.In the field of storytelling and creative expression, the old adage is most certainly true: There is nothing new under the sun. But don’t listen to me; hear what these experts have to say on the subject.

“Every writer has certain subjects that they write about again and again.Most people’s books are just variations on certain themes.” – Christopher Isherwood

“I think one writes and rewrites the same book.I lead a character from book to book, I continue along with the same ideas.Only the angle of vision, the method, the lighting change.” – Truman Capote

“Mostly, we authors must repeat ourselves – that’s the truth.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald

Need more proof? See if you recognize these movies from their plot descriptions:

“A man who wins a lottery takes a vacation with the girl who gave him half her ticket.”

Has to be It Could Happen To You, the 1994 romantic-comedy starring Nicholas Cage and Bridget Fonda, right?

Wrong. This is the log-line to a French movie, Bonne Chance, released way back in 1935.

“A shopgirl finds an abandoned baby and is thought to be its mother.”

Sounds like the 1987 comedy BABY BOOM, starring Diane Keaton and Sam Shepherd.

Nope. It’s the one-line description of a 1939 RKO release, Bachelor Mother, starring Ginger Rogers.

“In order to stay in America, a European refugee arranges a strictly platonic marriage with an American.”

That’s got to be the 1990 romantic-comedy Green Card, starring Gerard Depardieu and Andie MacDowell.

Sorry. That is the high-concept behind the 1941 MGM movie Come Live With Me.

With that as background, one thing should be abundantly clear re your question: Recycling story concepts and plot elements isn’t just acceptable in Hwood, it’s in its very lifeblood. Think of it this way: There’s a very thin line between homage and recycling.

Re your question specifically, you zero in on the key consideration: When is a story too similar to a preexisting one? I don’t think there’s any specific guideline. The best bet for a writer is to go with their gut, akin to what former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said of obscenity in movies, “I know when I see it.”

You mention K-9. This might be instructive. After we sold the script, we were the proverbial “flavor-of-the-week,” which meant our agents set up meetings for us all over town. One of those meetings was at Disney with a studio executive (now a major movie producer). We walk in, introduce ourselves, start what we think will be another typical schmooze session to start the meeting when the exec says of our script, “Yeah, we thought about suing you guys.”

Gulp. Turns out Disney had this script lying around in development hell called Turner & Hootch. Here’s its IMDB logline: A detective must adopt the dog of a dead man to help him find the murderer.

The movie’s tagline: “The Oddest Couple Ever Unleashed!”

Here is the IMDB logline for K-9: To stop an elusive criminal, a maverick detective enlists the aid of a police dog who’s an unusually intelligent smart alec.

The movie’s tagline: “Meet the two toughest cops in town. One’s just a little smarter than the other.”

Okay, let’s compare the movies.


* Buddy comedies

* Human and dog partnership

* Cop partners with dog to solve a crime mystery

* At first, the human and the dog don’t get along, but over time they bond


* Jerry Lee (K-9) is a police dog; Hooch is a ‘civilian’

* Scott (Tom Hanks in T&H) is a neatnik and Hooch messes up Scott’s well organized life; Dooley (Jim Belushi in K-9) is having romance issues with his girlfriend (Mel Harris) and the dog messes the couple

More similar than different, right? Evidently not because Disney didn’t sue. [It also happened to be the case that neither I had ever heard of T&H, let alone read it]. Instead based upon the sale of K-9 and in a classic case of Hollywood-think, figuring that if Universal Pictures saw something in a cop and dog movie, Disney dusted off Turner & Hootch and thus began a race between the two studios: Competing cop and dog movies.

But that’s another story.

My answer to your question is there is no answer. It’s a case by case thing. Story Idea A may be too similar to a preexisting movie, while Story Idea B may be different enough.

One easy way to avoid this dilemma: Come up with really different story concepts. I’ll bet when Kyle Killen came up with the idea for “The Beaver” — a dark comedy where one of the story’s main characters, a hand puppet, comes alive — he wasn’t worried about anybody copying him or a studio exec saying, “Eh, too similar.”

So to sum up, it’s perfectly acceptable in Hwood to troll in the ‘similar but different’ waters. You do have to be careful not to be too similar, however there is no specific guideline to steer you in that regard, you just have to go with your gut.

And the best solution: Come up with unique, different story ideas. Especially ones you’re passionate about. Then write the hell out of them.

[Originally posted February 21, 2010]