A Story Idea Each Day for a Month — Day 1

April 1st, 2015 by

This is the sixth year in a row I’ve run this series in April. Why a story idea each day for the month? Several reasons which I’ll work my through during this series of posts. For today, the most basic one:

If you have aspirations of becoming a professional screenwriter, you should be in the habit of generating story concepts.

Let’s say you write and sell a spec script. Congratulations. You’re the “flavor-of-the-week.” Your agent and manager set up meetings across Hollywood with producers and studio execs. The first words out of their mouths will likely be some variation of “Love your script ” (even if they haven’t really read it). The second thing they say will almost assuredly be, “What else have ya’ got?” If you haven’t been developing other stories, that is likely to be a very short meeting.

There are many ways to generate story ideas. This month, I focus on one: Looking for ideas in news sources. Each of the items I’ll be posting for the next 30 days comes from a news site.

Today’s story idea: The Tragic Price of Ivory.

How extensive is the poaching?

Poachers are now slaughtering up to 35,000 of the estimated 500,000 African elephants every year for their tusks. A single male elephant’s two tusks can weigh more than 250 pounds, with a pound of ivory fetching as much as $1,500 on the black market. The ivory is so valuable because all across Asia — particularly in China — ivory figurines are given as traditional gifts, and ivory chopsticks, hair ornaments, and jewelry are highly prized luxuries. “China regards ivory as a cultural heritage; they are not going to ban it,” said Grace Gabriel of the International Fund for Animal Welfare. Many Chinese consumers don’t realize that elephants must be killed for their ivory; in one survey, more than two thirds of Chinese respondents said they thought tusks grew back like fingernails.

What impact has the slaughter had on the elephants?

Elephants are highly intelligent, social creatures that live in matriarchal groups, and poaching has ravaged much of their social structure. The biggest tusks are found on the largest breeding males and on the oldest females, who lead the elephant troops. Where these animals are targeted and killed, elephant populations are reduced to leaderless groups of traumatized orphans huddling together. In the past year, even they are being wiped out, as some poachers have started dumping cyanide into watering holes, killing every animal that drinks there. Last year, poachers killed an estimated 300 elephants in Zimbabwe’s largest park, Hwange, by lacing watering holes and salt licks with cyanide.

Who are the poachers?

Since the industry is illegal, those who run it largely come from criminal syndicates or terrorist organizations. Al-Shabab, the Somalia-based wing of al Qaida, raises $600,000 a month from poaching to fund its activities. Uganda’s Lord’s Resistance Army, the rebel group notorious for enslaving children, also raises money through poaching. “Poaching has become one of the most profitable criminal activities there is,” says Peter Seligmann, the CEO of Conservation International. Chinese mafia organizations mostly do the purchasing and distribution of ivory after it’s been obtained, selling it mostly in China and Southeast Asia but sometimes to markets in the U.S.

What could you do with this story conceit?

My first instinct: Establish a pair of poachers. Complex, desperate characters. Travel to Africa to score big on the ivory trade. Only this time, they picked the wrong damn elephant to mess with.

Two humans out in the middle of nowhere. Fish out of water. And one majorly pissed off elephant — probably his mate has been killed by these dudes — who is going to stalk, scare and squash these two human hunters.

It’s Jaws meets Predator.

Of course, you could just go naturalist advocate taking on the powers that be. But somehow being out in the wild with a marauding-bent-on-revenge elephant strikes me as a cool low-budget movie.

So there you go: My first story idea for the month. And it’s yours. Free!

Finally each day in April, 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 valuable skills for a writer to develop.

See you in comments. And come back tomorrow for another Story Idea Each Day For A Month.

Spec Script Deal: “Mulan”

April 1st, 2015 by

Disney acquires period drama spec script “Mulan” written by Elizabeth Martin and Lauren Hynek. From THR:

Disney bought a script by writing team Elizabeth Martin and Lauren Hynek that centers on the Chinese legend of Hua Mulan, the female warrior who was the main character in Disney’s 1998 animated film.

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The 1998 film, directed by Tony Bancroft and Barry Cook, followed a young woman who disguises herself as a man so she can take her father’s place in the army and go to war. With the help of her trusty dragon sidekick Mushu, she becomes a skilled warrior and, eventually, one of the country’s greatest heroines. It earned $304.3 million worldwide, earned Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations and resulted in a 2005 direct-to-DVD sequel, Mulan II.

If a writer were to ask me, “Hey, I want to spec Mulan… what do you think?” I would have told them, “You’re crazy. There’s only one buyer. Disney. Try to sell that elsewhere, the studio’s legal eagles would sue your ass off. Are you willing to put all your eggs in one Burbank-based basket?”

Kudos to Ms. Martin and Ms. Hynek. Proved me wrong!

Writers are repped by Benderspink.

By my count, this is the 23rd spec script deal in 2015.

There were 20 spec script deals year-to-date in 2014.

Daily Dialogue — April 1, 2015

April 1st, 2015 by

Ken: Coming up?
Ray: What’s up there?
Ken: The view.
Ray: The view of what? The view of down here? I can see that down here.
Ken: Ray, you are about the worst tourist in the whole world.
Ray: Ken, I grew up in Dublin. I love Dublin. If I grew up on a farm, and was retarded, Bruges might impress me, but I didn’t, so it doesn’t.

In Bruges (2008), written by Martin McDonagh

The Daily Dialogue theme for the week: Foreigner. Today’s suggestion by Daniel Cossu.

Trivia: In the original script, Ray and Ken are English, but when Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson came on board, the characters were changed to Irish as to suit their natural sensibilities.

Dialogue On Dialogue: That’s the thing about foreigners. There are travelers who embrace the possibility of new things. Then there are those who don’t. Ray falls into the latter camp.

If you have a suggestion for this week’s theme, please post in comments.

So-Called Screenwriting ‘Rules’ (15 part series)

March 31st, 2015 by

Since the Bitter Script Reader blogged about it today – “We’re SERIOUSLY still fighting about this “Screenwriting Rules” s***?!?!?!” — I figured it would be a good time to re-post the 15 part series I did back in March 2014.

A comprehensive series on the most significant of the supposed screenwriting ‘rules,’ hopefully to put things into proper perspective: Tools, not rules. Focus on your creativity, not picayune format and style issues. Write a great script. That should be your focus.

Part 1: The Organic Nature of the Screenplay

Part 2: The Emergence of the Selling Script

Part 3: The Evolution of Screenplay Format and Style

Part 4: There are no screenwriting ‘rules’

Part 5: There are expectations

Part 6: We See / We Hear

Part 7: Unfilmables

Part 8: Action Paragraphs – 3 Lines Max

Part 9: CUT TO (Transitions)

Part 10: Parentheticals

Part 11: Flashbacks

Part 12: Voice-Over Narration

Part 13: Sympathetic Protagonist

Part 14: Protagonist and Shifting Goals

Part 15: Certain Events by Certain Pages

The entire 15 part series

These issues rear their ugly heads from time to time. Whoever is promulgating this stuff as “you must do this” or “you can’t do that” in terms of – frankly – the mostly piddlyshit aspects of screenwriting format and style, please stop! You deflect attention from where it should be, that is crafting a compelling story and writing a great script. All of these items listed above are secondary… no, let me restate that… tertiary in importance to the success of a script. My series is an attempt to go through every single so-called ‘rule,’ put them into perspective and hopefully get our collective heads straight.

Please Stop

“Please, for the love of a furry God… STOP!!!”

Stop with this nonsense. Focus on story concept! Focus on characters! Focus on plotting! Focus on themes! Focus on dialogue! Focus on entertainment! But do not get hung up in any discussions longer than a nano-second on any sidebar formatting or style issue.

We all have better things to do!

Interview (Part 2): Destin Daniel Cretton

March 31st, 2015 by

This week, we are reading and analyzing the script Short Term 12, so I thought it would be a good idea to reprise my October 2013 interview writer-director Destin Daniel Cretton.

One of my favorite movies of 2013 is Short Term 12, so I was understandably excited when its talented writer-director Destin Daniel Cretton agreed to an interview. Our hour-long conversation did not disappoint.

Destin’s script “Short Term 12″ won a 2010 Nicholl Screenwriting Fellowship. He used that to write the script for the 2012 movie I Am Not A Hipster which Destin also directed.

Today in Part 2, Destin delves deeper into Short Term 12:

Scott:  There are three staff members key to the narrative. There’s Grace (Brie Larson), the protagonist, who’s deeply committed to her work and the well‑being of those around her. There’s Mason (John Gallagher Jr.), who’s Grace’s boyfriend, also committed to the job, but he seems to have a little more fun in life, and I suppose has less quote‑unquote “demons” than Grace does about her past. And then there’s Nate (Rami Malek), a newcomer to the facility, who provides an outsider‑coming‑in‑to‑this‑new‑world perspective.

Having worked in a foster care facility yourself, which of these three characters is most closely aligned to your own actual experiences there?

Destin:  Well, in certain ways they all do. If I were to just break it down, the main character is very similar to who I was when I first started working there.

The first month I was extremely awkward, always terrified of both saying something wrong, doing something that might mess up a teenager more than he was, also just afraid of getting hit, because some of these teenagers were pretty big. But also underneath it all trying really hard, and sometimes trying too hard to do a good job.

I totally relate to that character, and I also completely relate to Grace and all of the things that she’s dealing with and her questions that she…her questions and her fears of becoming a parent and her fears of having that kind of responsibility with another human being and wondering if she might do something or mess up that human as much as these other kids that she’s working with and as much as she was messed up by somebody else.

All of those fears were things that bubbled up inside me while I was working there. That’s hard not to think about things like that. And the Mason character, honestly, is…when I look at the Mason character he just embodies in many ways the type of person that I wish I was more like.

Scott:  Let’s talk about Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), an adolescent who’s introduced as a newcomer to the facility. One of the issues is she cuts herself and later we discover that’s something Grace has a history with. They also share a connection due to their respective relationships with their fathers who are both abusive. Is it fair to say that Jayden represents to Grace maybe on a subconscious level a younger version of herself?

Destin:  Yes, whether you think of it literally or not, but that’s definitely…on an emotional level that’s how the actors are playing it. That’s what our conversations were like.

Scott:  In some ways that’s a bridge, isn’t it, for Grace, because she discovers she’s pregnant, and so she’s trying to deal with that, and in dealing with Jayden there seems like there might be some kind of psychological connection.

Destin:  Yes, completely. There is a definite emotional connection between the two, because at different moments they both know exactly how the other person feels, and so there are certain moments they bounce back and force between being the one who is vulnerable and being the one who is feeling empathy for the other person.

They both have their own moments of that with each other. Yes, they see themselves when they look into each other, and they feel like if the other person makes it, they can, too.

Scott: I’m curious then, how conscious were you of that dynamic when you were writing the part? Was it like a thing where you said, “Well, I feel like I need to have a character like Jayden in order for Grace to experience this kind of a projection of herself,” or was it more of an organic thing? It just arose unconsciously during the creative process.

Destin:  It was much more organic than something that I contrived as a tool. A lot of those dots began to connect toward the end of the writing process once I had all these ingredients laid out. Some of these emotional connections just naturally came out further on as the characters had developed and as that relationship between the two of them developed in the writing process.

Here is a trailer for the 2013 movie:

Tomorrow in Part 3, Destin discusses the unique way he handled important exposition with two key characters in Short Term 12.

For Part 1, go here.

The official movie site is here.

Go here to rent or buy Short Term 12.

Destin is repped by WME.

You can follows Destin on Twitter: @destindaniel.

Movies You Made: Finale

March 31st, 2015 by

We had so many entrants in this year’s Movies You Made series, I’m using this last day of March to feature several of them.

Operation: Get Rid of Pinky – Chet Johnson (co-writer, co-producer)

The Late, Late News – Chris Hadley (writer, co-producer)

Brothers – Hank Thompson (writer, director)

Below the Belt: Episode 1 – Jared M. Gordon (co-writer, director)

Absent – Al Fernández (co-creator)

Thanks to all the filmmakers involved in the 2015 installment of the Movies You Made series. We’ll see you next year for the next round. Until then, keep being creative… and making stuff happen!

Movie Trailer: “Masterminds”

March 31st, 2015 by

Screenplay by Chris Bowman, Jody Hill, Danny McBride, Hubbel Palmer, Emily Spivey

A night guard at an armored car company in the Southern U.S. organizes one of the biggest bank heists in American history.

IMDb

Release Date: 7 August 2015 (USA)

Script Analysis: “Short Term 12” – Part 2: Major Plot Points

March 31st, 2015 by

Reading scripts. Absolutely critical to learn the craft of screenwriting. The focus of this weekly series is a deep structural and thematic analysis of each script we read. Our daily schedule:

Monday: Scene-By-Scene Breakdown
Tuesday: Major Plot Points
Wednesday: Sequences
Thursday: Psychological Journey
Friday: Takeaways

Today: Major Plot Points.

In every scene, something happens. A plot point is a scene or group of scenes in which something major happens, an event that impacts the narrative causing it to turn in a new direction.

A relevant anecdote. Years ago, I was on the phone with a writer discussing a script project. My son Will, who was about four years old at the time, must have been listening to me talking about “plot points” during the conversation because after I hung up, he asked, “Daddy, what’s a plop point?”

That’s in effect what a plot point is. It’s an event that ‘plops’ into the narrative and changes its course. So when you think Plot Point, think Plop Point!

The value of this exercise:

* To identify the backbone of the story structure.

* To examine each major plot point and see how it is effective as an individual event.

* To analyze the major plot points in aggregate to determine why they work together as the central plot.

This week: Short Term 12. You may download the script — free and legal — here: Short Term 12.

Written by Destin Daniel Cretton

IMDb plot summary: A 20-something supervising staff member of a residential treatment facility navigates the troubled waters of that world alongside her co-worker and longtime boyfriend.

Writing Exercise: Go through the scene-by-scene breakdown of Short Term 12 and identify the major plot points. Post your thoughts in comments and we’ll see if we can come up with a consensus.

Tomorrow we consider the script’s structure in terms of its sequences.

If you’d like a PDF of the Short Term 12 script scene-by-scene breakdown, go here.

Major kudos to Carolina Groppa for doing this week’s breakdown.

Tomorrow: We focus on the sequences in the script.

This series started here and we have 26 volunteers to do scene-by-scene breakdowns of contemporary movie scripts. The scripts we have already analyzed are in italics.

American Hustle: Jon Raymond
Argo: Nora Barry
Barney’s Version: John M
Belle: DaniM
Beginners: Ali
Boyhood: Jacob Jensen
Enough Said: Ali
Flight: 14Shari
Frankenwenie: Will King
Frozen: Christina Sekeris
Gone Girl: NateKohler1
Gravity: Matt Duriez
Hanna: John Arends
Lincoln: pgronk
Looper: erikledrew
Moonrise Kingdom: Daniel Bigler
Mud: Alejandro
Paranorman: OhScotty
Prisoners: Melinda Mahaffey Icden
Short Term 12: Carolina Groppa
The Artist: Traci Nell Peterson
The Grand Budapest Hotel: Rob Hoskins
The Social Network: N D
The Way Way Back: Ricky
Wadjda: iamdaniel
Whiplash: Steven Broughton

If you’d like to participate and do a scene-by-scene breakdown yourself, please indicate which script in comments or email me. We are using scripts available on our site here. Note some of the 2014 scripts are now available there including Belle, Birdman, Boyhood, Calvary, Get On Up, Gone Girl, How To Train Your Dragon 2, Kill The Messenger, Locke, St. Vincent, The Boxtrolls, The Fault In Our Stars, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Theory of Everything, and Wild.

For new volunteers and those who have already volunteered, but not sent me a breakdown yet, please do so as soon as possible. Thanks!

Circling back to where we started, reading scripts is hugely important. Analyzing them even more so. If you want to work in Hollywood as a writer, you need to develop your critical analytical skills. This is one way to do that.

So seize this opportunity and join in the conversation!

I hope to see you in comments about this week’s script: Short Term 12.

Screenwriting 101: Justin Zackham

March 31st, 2015 by

“For me, screenwriting is all about setting characters in motion and as a writer just chasing them. They should tell you what they’ll do in any scene you put them in.”

— Justin Zackham

Daily Dialogue — March 31, 2015

March 31st, 2015 by

Ambassador Swanbeck: On behalf of the United States of America, the signing of this treaty will usher in an era of unprecedented prosperity and cooperation between our two great nations.
Omura: On behalf of the Emperor, we are pleased to have successfully concluded this…

Messenger enters with urgent message.

Omura: …negotiation.
Emperor Meiji: [to messenger in Japanese] He is here?
Omura: [in Japanese] Highness, if we could just conclude the matter at hand…
Algren: This is Katsumoto’s sword. He would have wanted you to have it, that the strength of the Samurai be with you always.
Omura: [in Japanese] Enlightened One, we all weep for Katsumoto but…
Algren: He hoped with his last breath that you would remember his ancestors who held this sword and what they died for.
Emperor Meiji: You were with him? At the end?
Algren: Hai.
Omura: Emperor, this man fought against you.
Algren: Your Highness, if you believe me to be your enemy, command me and I will gladly take my life.
Emperor Meiji: I have dreamed of a unified Japan, of a country strong and independent and modern and now we have railroads and cannon, Western clothing. But we cannot forget who we are or where we come from. Ambassador Swanbeck, I have concluded that your treaty is NOT in the best interests of my people.
Ambassador Swanbeck: Sir, if I may…
Emperor Meiji: So sorry, but you may not.
Ambassador Swanbeck: This is an OUTRAGE.
Omura: [in Japanese] Enlightened One, we should discuss this…
Emperor Meiji: [in Japanese] Omura, you have done quite enough.
Omura: [in Japanese] Everything I have done, I have done for my country.
Emperor Meiji: [in Japanese] Then you will not mind when I seize your family’s assets and present them as my gift to the people.
Omura: [in Japanese] You disgrace me.
Emperor Meiji: [in Japanese] If your shame is too unbearable… [holds out Katsumoto’s sword] I offer you this sword.
Emperor Meiji: [to Algren] Tell me how he died.
Algren: I will tell you how he lived.

The Last Samurai (2003), screenplay by John Logan and Edward Zwick & Marshall Herskovitz, story by John Logan

The Daily Dialogue theme for the week: Foreigner. Today’s suggestion by James Schramm.

Trivia: This film was inspired by a project developed by writer / director Vincent Ward. Ward became executive producer on the film, working in development on it for nearly four years. After approaching several directors (among them Francis Ford Coppola, Peter Weir), he interested Edward Zwick. The film went ahead with Zwick as director and was shot in Ward’s native New Zealand.

Dialogue On Dialogue: Commentary by James: “Very powerful scene that has a foreigner showing an Emperor the ‘strength’ of the Samurai.”

If you have a suggestion for this week’s theme, please post in comments.