Want to be a better screenwriter? Learn how actors think

April 24th, 2014 by

Characters are the players in our stories. They participate in scenes, move the plot forward through action and dialogue, influence each other, evolve and change. Each has their own distinct backstory, personality, world view, and voice. When a writer does their best, digging deep into their characters, tapping into their souls, the players in our stories magically lift up off the printed page and come to life in a reader’s imagination.

And perhaps nowhere is this more important than with actors. For it is they who are tasked with bringing our characters to life.

Therefore here is a fundamental truth about the craft: Want to be a better screenwriter? Learn how actors think.

Actors and Crew put together this helpful resource: The Top Ten Best Books on Acting Ever Written. Right there at the top of the list is legendary actor and acting teacher Sandy Meisner, famous for his approach to teaching acting which has come to be known as the Meisner Technique.

Thanks to the magic of the web, you can see Meisner in action and hear dozens of actors talking about his methods. Here is Part 1 of a 7-part documentary called “Sanford Meisner: Theater’s Best Kept Secret:

For the rest of the documentary, click on More.

One of the best things you can do is take an acting class. An improv class. Work with the local theater. Anything to put you into contact with actors and learn to think how they think.

Ingest all of that. Let it settle into your consciousness. Then down into your subconscious. And when you write your characters, let yourself feel your way into the moment, always looking for the truth of how each character would act and react, and what they would say and not say.

HT to Ted Hope for the Actors and Crew link.

If anyone has other suggestions or resources for writers to learn how actors think, please click on Reply and post in comments.

Page One Writers Conference (Chicago)

April 24th, 2014 by

For writers in the Midwest, there is an excellent opportunity coming up on Saturday, May 3 in Chicago:

PDF FLYER 5

Here’s the lineup of participants:

With Josh Stolberg & Pete Goldfinger, the writers behind SORORITY ROW, PIRANHA 3D & the next installment of HALLOWEEN. Moderated by DePaul Screenwriting faculty member Chris Parrish; his numerous TV credits include KING OF QUEENS and CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM.

1:15 THE BUSINESS OF WRITING: THE PEOPLE WHO REP AND HIRE WRITERS
With Daniel Willis who previously worked in development at WALT DISNEY PICTURE and GOOD UNIVERSE and is currently on staff at GREY’S ANATOMY; he’s also a graduate of DePaul’s Digital Cinema program.With Lenny Beckerman, formerly a manager at ANONYMOUS CONTENT and currently HEAD OF FILM AND TELEVISION at Hello and Company where he represents screenwriters.
With Sara Rastogi, Story Editor at Scott Free Productions.
Moderated by DePaul Screenwriting faculty member Matt Quinn who formerly worked in development at DREAMWORKS STUDIOS.

2:30 MULTIPLE HATS: WRITERS WHO PRODUCE, DIRECT, ACT AND MORE
With Theresa Mulligan who has written for HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER and SOUTH PARK and has had acting appearances on SEINFELD and MR. SHOW.With Guineverre Turner, the writer behind AMERICAN PSYCHO and the writer/actress of numerous projects including the film, GO FISH, and the Showtime series, THE L WORD.Moderated by DePaul Screenwriting faculty member Michael McCarthy who has an extensive writing career ranging from SESAME STREET to SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE and acting credits that include CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM and SECOND CITY.

3:45 BREAKING IN: LANDING THAT FIRST WRITING JOB
With Aisha Muharrar of PARKS AND RECREATION.
With Severiano Canales of SCANDAL & PRIVATE PRACTICE.
With David Dastmalchian of ANIMALS (2014 SXSW winner of the “Courage in Screenwriting” Award) and acting credits including PRISONERS, THE LEAGUE, and THE DARK KNIGHT.
Moderated by DePaul Screenwriting faculty member Nathan DeWitt with writing credits ranging from feature film rewrites, pilot options, and webseries work.

5:30 WRITING THE HOLLYWOOD BLOCKBUSTER
With Jeff Nathanson, who has written numerous films for director Steven Spielberg including CATCH ME IF YOU CAN, THE TERMINAL, and the most recent INDIANA JONES movie. Additional credits include TOWER HEIST, RUSH HOUR 2 & 3, and the next installment of the PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN franchise.
With Steve Conrad, the writer behind the blockbuster films: SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY, PURSUIT OF HAPPYNESS, THE WEATHERMAN, THE PROMOTION, and an upcoming John Belushi project.
Hosted by the co-founder and Director of DePaul’s School of Cinema and Interactive Media, Matthew Irvine.

For more information, go here.

For further details, follow the event on Twitter: @depaulcinema.

Interview: Lindsay Devlin (“Devil’s Due”) — Part 4

April 24th, 2014 by

January has turned out to be a reliable month for Hollywood with regard to one genre in particular: Horror. This year was no different when Twentieth Century Fox released Devil’s Due, a movie that thus far has brought in over four times its production budget in box office revenues.

The movie’s success is one reason I was excited to interview its screenwriter Lindsay Devlin. Another reason is her extensive background working in Hollywood on the story development side of things.

Lindsay and I had a terrific conversation, and I’m pleased to share her many insights into the craft of screenwriting and the movie business, along with her creative process with the film Devil’s Due.

Today in Part 4, Lindsay wraps up some thoughts on found footage and lets us in on some other projects on her slate including a personal one that is likely to be her most important production:

Scott:  I’m sure you’re aware that there are these found footage purists out there, who insist the conceit only works if we’re looking at the movie like it’s a documentary of some sort, either edited or raw.

I guess this goes back to Blair Witch Project, but Devil’s Due makes an interesting choice in that there’s multiple video sources. There’s the couple’s camera, a surveillance camera, there are cult members spying on the couple.

What was your thinking about this, and how did you end up landing on this approach that you used in Devil’s Due?

Lindsay:  I think it is always a challenge. As you said, even if you give all the justification in the world, why someone’s filming something so much, and especially as things start to devolve, you really start to question why Zach would be filming his wife quite so much. So, there was sort of just the practical angle of, “We probably need some more coverage, some more sources,” but we also thought that the idea of the cult…

This was, we thought, a cool device to use the cameras in a very sinister, voyeuristic way to have the hidden cameras in the house.

Then it sort of, as you said, was a synchronistic kind of thing, because then you had both the logical reason to believe that the cult would do that, but then of course you get the extra coverage that they don’t know they’re being watched. So, you can have her in the bathtub, or just other moments of…sort of private moments of this couple, that you would otherwise get.

That was something that, to be honest, came with directors, because they had so much more experience with found footage. They’ve been doing that for years, and I certainly…this was my first experience, so we all brainstormed about that aspect of it, and came up with that device, and I thought it was really smart.

Scott:  That speaks to one advantage you mentioned earlier when you’re using this type of narrative device, found footage, and that is you can stop and start the various video sources in such a way that you basically cut out the dull parts, and focus on all of the interesting ones. Did you find that to be the case?

Lindsay:  Yeah, I certainly tried to keep it still feeling as natural as possible, so little moments that maybe at first don’t seem that exciting, but are just a couple doing something silly, or loving. Then, of course something creepy happens right after that.

It’s a balance of…it can’t be just like a scare, it’s got to be couched in something mundane, or something normal that then something else pops up, but yes, I think that that.

That’s definitely a fun way to kind of jump in and out of story, and not have to be quite so fluid with your storytelling.

Scott:  I don’t want to give away the ending because it’s quite shocking, but did you always have it in mind, or did you go through any changes along the way?

Lindsay:  If you’re talking specifically about what happens with Samantha’s character, yes. From the very beginning, I always wanted that to happen to her. But in terms of the last actual several frames of the movie, or what happens with Zach’s character, that changed quite a bit as the script evolved and even up through production and post production.

Scott:  The movie has come out, and I just checked at Box Office Mojo, and it’s done $28 million domestic and international [Note: Currently $45M total]. I think the budget was reported at $7 million, for a movie released in January, that’s a really solid performance, and so I would imagine you got to be pretty satisfied with it. What is it like to have your first movie get released that you’ve written?

Lindsay:  It truly is a surreal experience, especially because it happened so quickly by Hollywood standards. From the moment I had my dream to the day we wrapped production, was barely a year.

It was just hard for me to even fathom it was happening when it was happening, and then sitting in the theater with family and friends, and seeing it, and seeing my name, was…I can’t imagine a more thrilling feeling, to be honest. Obviously film is very collaborative, and I can’t take credit for it, even remotely, in its entirety.

There are so many choices that the directors came in and made, or the studio, or the producer, but I feel really proud of the end product. It’s not something maybe I ever would have necessarily envisioned me doing – everybody always asks, “Why did you write a horror movie?” or, “I can’t imagine you writing a horror movie, you’re so sweet.”

But, ultimately, what I’m most proud of is that we set out to make an elevated genre film, and make it character driven, and make it about something. And because I know where it came from, it literally came from something very personal to me, I am proud that I feel like the end result is representative of where I started.

Even though a lot of different creative choices were made, and not all of them were mine, I still feel like the core is there.

Scott:  Another bit of synchronicity: The movie comes out, and it turns out you yourself are pregnant. Is that kind of strange? Like to go and do these things, like baby showers, and shopping, and all this stuff like in the movie, only you’re doing it for real now?

Lindsay:  It’s totally crazy. I wonder what movie I would’ve written if I wrote it after being pregnant, and really going through it, versus sort of my fears imagining pregnancy.

I guess, in a weird way, I’m glad it happened that way, because I think sometimes the fear of the unknown is more terrifying.

Because I think when you go through it, yeah, there are some scary moments, and some tense moments, but ultimately you feel like, “Oh, it wasn’t that bad.” So, I think, it happened at the right time, but it certainly is very, very ironic timing. The day my film debuted was literally when we announced our actual pregnancy to our group of friends. Everybody thought we were joking at first, but, no, that’s the way the universe played it. We joked that it was the sequel: “Devlin’s Due.”

Scott:   You’re attached to a number of other projects you’re writing. I’d like to ask you about a couple of them. Reboot: “When the world becomes affected by a deadly virus, a pair of zombie teenagers plot to exact revenge against those responsible for the outbreak.” That’s a YA novel isn’t it, originally?

Lindsay:  It is.

Scott:  That’s with Chernin Entertainment, so how’d you get involved in that, and what’s the status on that project?

Lindsay:  That was a book that was sent to me, and I thought it was just a really exciting world. Dystopian YA novels like Hunger Games, and Divergent are certainly a popular genre. I was really drawn to the characters, and sort of unconventional love story.

I also thought it was a great new challenge for me, because I had done horror, and supernatural horror, and I had written a big fairy tale script, and so this was something more in the sci‑fi genre. I pitched my take on it, and they hired me. I just finished my most recent rewrite for the studio, and last I heard they’re going out to directors.

Scott:  That’s exciting.

Lindsay:  Yeah.

Scott:  Then Beta: “In a future world where the very rich use clones as their enslaved workforce. One new Beta clone begins to discover the dark mystery surrounding her origins.” That’s I believe at ABC, and that’s also an adaptation, isn’t it?

Lindsay:  Yes, also another YA novel originally. We aged it up, so the characters were a little bit older. It was a really great experience. It was my first TV pilot, and similar to Reboot set in the near future, slightly dystopian world, but very different thematically, and very different world creation.

So, very much enjoyed that, TV is just so fast paced and exciting. You write the drafts just lightning fast, and you get your answers even faster.

Scott:  Isn’t it interesting, Lindsay, we started off the conversation you talking about when you were six and seven years old, and you’re writing these stories, and one of your favorite movies is Watcher in the Woods, and you were really drawn to these otherworldly type of stories, and here, I’m looking at these two projects, and both of them deal with these kind of otherworldly type of environments.

Lindsay:  Absolutely. I’ve only recently started to look back at the movies, books, and early childhood influences and realize ‑‑ when you’re young, these things really stay with you. I feel so lucky to now be writing in the worlds that excited me back then.

Especially, there aren’t that many women writing in the genre space in Hollywood, so I feel particularly lucky that those were my early influences, because I feel like it makes me stand out a little bit from the crowd.

Scott:  Parenthetically, I wish you the best of success personally, but also just more generally to break down that conventional wisdom in Hollywood like, “Only guys can write horror.” Anything to create more opportunities for a greater diversity of writers in all genre spaces.

Lindsay:  Thank you, and I’m certainly not alone. There’s a handful of women writers who are very strong in this space. What’s even more striking to me in 2014 is there are still so few female directors. I don’t know if the percentage has changed at all in the last many decades. That’s something I’d like to do.

Scott:  Writing director.

Lindsay:  Yes. I look back to my childhood at the fact that I was always directing everybody in my little productions, so I feel like I will be right at home on set. {laughs}

Tomorrow in Part 5, Lindsay reveals some of her trade secrets in terms of the craft of screenwriting.

For Part 1 of the interview, go here.

Part 2, here.

Part 3, here.

Lindsay is repped by UTA and Mosaic.

Twitter: @DevlinLindsay.

Vladimir Propp’s “31 Narratemes”: Another approach to story structure

April 24th, 2014 by

If you were a member of The Black Board, The Official Writing Community of the Black List and Go Into The Story, you might have seen this post by Dean Scott. It refers to a Russian scholar named Vladimir Propp. From Wikipedia:

Vladimir Yakovlevich Propp (Russian: Владимир Яковлевич Пропп; 29 April [O.S. 17 April] 1895 – 22 August 1970) was a Soviet formalist scholar who analyzed the basic plot components of Russian folk tales to identify their simplest irreducible narrative elements.

Propp referred to these “narrative elements” or “units” as narratemes and asserted there were 31 of them. Here they are as presented from the site ChangingMinds.org:

1st Sphere: Introduction
Steps 1 to 7 introduces the situation and most of the main characters, setting the scene for subsequent adventure.

2nd Sphere: The Body of the story
The main story starts here and extends to the departure of the hero on the main quest.

3rd Sphere: The Donor Sequence
In the third sphere, the hero goes in search of a method by which the solution may be reached, gaining the magical agent from the Donor. Note that this in itself may be a complete story.

4th Sphere: The Hero’s return
In the final (and often optional) phase of the storyline, the hero returns home, hopefully uneventfully and to a hero’s welcome, although this may not always be the case.

This is interesting in a number of ways. First, it mimics some of what Joseph Campbell proposed as narrative elements common to The Hero’s Journey.

Second, it reinforces the idea of Aristotle’s articulation of narrative structure:

“A beginning is that which is not itself necessarily after anything else, and which has naturally something else after it. An end is that which is naturally after something itself, either as its necessary or usual consequent, and with nothing else after it. And a middle, that which is by nature after one thing and has also another after it.”

Beginning. Middle. End.
Separation. Initiation. Return.
Introduction/The Body of the Story. The Donor Sequence. The Hero’s Return.

Third, Propp’s take is proof — once again — there are no golden formulas universal to all stories. Yes, many, even most stories may contain some or even many of these narratemes, but not all. Nor in the order laid out above. Nor necessarily with the function for each as elucidated above.

Further in my view, the more specific narrative paradigms are, like this one with 31 “narrative units,” the less relevant they become precisely because they begin to feel like a formula.

That’s why I prefer thinking of screenplay structure in more meta terms: Three acts. Major Plotline Points. The arc of the Protagonist’s metamorphosis. Then allow the story to evolve and emerge during the process of writer engaging narrative in a direct, immersive and organic way, trusting in the characters to take us into and through the story-crafting process.

That said, there can be some value in considering Propp’s narratemes as each of the 31 is recognizable as something we see from story to story. To the degree they help your creative process, great. If they start to confine your creativity and box you in like a formula…

Deposit in the nearest virtual trash bin.

While you’re here, why not go join The Black Board. It’s a great community hosted by super-moderator Shaula Evans and it’s totally free.

Movie Trailer: “I Origins”

April 24th, 2014 by

Written by Mike Cahill

A molecular biologist and his laboratory partner uncover evidence that may fundamentally change society as we know it.

IMDB

Release Date: 18 July 2014 (USA)

A Story Idea Each Day for a Month — Day 24

April 24th, 2014 by

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

Today’s story: Town turns table on school prank.

High school student Whitney Kropp was shocked earlier this month when she was named to the homecoming court.

Her happy surprise turned to humiliation when she learned the reason. The students thought it would be funny if the popularity contest was won by someone who was unpopular.

Kids pointed at her in the hallways and laughed. The boy who was picked with her withdrew.

Students told her that, in case she was wondering why the boy had dropped out, he was uncomfortable being linked with her.

“I thought I wasn’t worthy,” said Kropp, 16. “I was this big old joke.”

Her embarrassment was complete, but it didn’t last long.

This tiny farm town an hour north of Saginaw quickly rallied around her.

For the homecoming dance Saturday, businesses will buy her dinner, take her photo, fix her hair and nails, and dress her in a gown, shoes and a tiara.

For the homecoming game Friday, residents will pack the football stadium so they can cheer when she is introduced at halftime.

They will be wearing her favorite color (orange) and T-shirts with messages of support. A 68-year-old grandmother offered to be her escort.

“I am in awe, overwhelmed at the amount of support,” said Jamie Kline, 35, who began a Facebook support page. “I never expected it to spread as far as it has.”

For Kropp, a sophomore at Ogemaw Heights High, it’s been a remarkable transformation.

Before the homecoming vote, she was either ignored or scorned by classmates.

Now, when she isn’t fielding yet another free offer from a business, she’s being lauded by hundreds of strangers on the support page.

Cast in an unlikely role, she has embraced it. She vowed to continue representing the sophomore class, even if she has to do it alone.

And here is a photo of Whitney at the event:

For good measure, this is a photo from Stop Bullying Whitney Kropp Facebook page:

I literally have nothing to add to this story because if you read the whole article, it lays out all the major characters, all the major Plotline points, and the metamorphosis arc not only of Whitney, but the town itself. It even has its own tagline:

It’s like “Carrie” with a happy ending.

There you go: My twenty fourth 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.

Writing and the Creative Life: What to do when you feel out of touch with your creative energy

April 24th, 2014 by

Awhile back, I received this question from a reader:

Scott, I’ve been reading your blog. I’ve been feeling out of touch with my creative energy as of late.Tell me, does this happen to you at all?

And how do you get through it?

Do I ever feel out of touch with my creative energy? The answer is a decided yes. Sometimes writing is the last thing in the world I want to do.

Anything. Else. But. Writing. Please!

How to get through it?

First, consider this. You know how when you’re standing at the end of a long line, say at the post office or grocery store? Then when someone gets in line behind you, you feel better? It’s not like your wait is going to be any shorter, rather it’s a comfort knowing someone else is going to suffer like you? Well, there’s a certain amount of comfort that can be found in realizing that virtually all writers, indeed, all creative types suffer from occasional bouts of ennui.

In other words, feeling down in the dumps creatively is not unique to you or me.

Personally a great resource in this regard is a book called “Songwriters on Songwriting.” [I've written songs since I was 14]. When I read an interview with Paul Simon, Carole King, or Burt Bacharach, and learn that they have periods of time where they simply can’t write a decent song, even moments where they think they’ve actually lost their creativity, it makes me realize we’re all in the same boat.

I’ll bet if you go through the dozens of interviews with writers I’ve got archived on this site, you’ll find plenty of them who say the same thing.

So first thing: Really try to absorb the fact that all creative types suffer through periods of inspirational malaise.

A second thing I’ll do is ‘rattle my cage.’ This can take many shapes — anything from reversing my writing schedule (instead of writing at night, which is my natural instinct, I’ll write in the morning), go for a weekend away to commune with nature, or blind typing before every writing session — but the idea is to shake up my routine and by doing so hopefully break me out of my doldrums.

I wrote about this as a “Dumb Little Writing Trick That Works”: Get Un-Comforatble.

A third thing is to watch some great movies. Or read great scripts. Or lose myself in a great book. For me, there’s nothing more inspirational than seeing or reading a great story well told. It’s uplifting spiritually and creatively.

Be sure not to overlook an obvious consideration: Do you have a strong emotional connection to the story you’re writing? The simple fact that a writer feels a strong resonance with a story is usually enough to help pull them through tough creative times. If you’re not feeling inspired, Julian, perhaps it’s because you’re really not all that into the story you’ve chosen. Why not explore writing another story?

Finally, sometimes you just have to write your way through your creative funk. There’s a great quote from author Anne Tyler: “If I waited until I felt like writing, I’d never write at all.”

Feelings are fleeting. Energy comes and goes. But the work… the words… the writing is always there… waiting for us.

Sometimes, perhaps even oftentimes, the simple act of putting words down onto paper begets more words… and leads us to a place that restores our creative energy.

Readers, how about you? Do you ever go find yourself in a creative malaise? If so, how do you deal with it? Let’s see if we can’t come up with some solutions for folks who might be flagging creatively just now.

Daily Dialogue — April 24, 2014

April 24th, 2014 by

Ms. Sanchez: [at the meeting with the PG & E lawyers] Let’s be honest here. $20 million dollars is more money than these people have ever dreamed of.
Erin Brockovich: Oh see, now that pisses me off. First of all, since the demur we have more than 400 plaintiffs and… let’s be honest, we all know there are more out there. They may not be the most sophisticated people but they do know how to divide and $20 million isn’t shit when you split it between them. Second of all, these people don’t dream about being rich. They dream about being able to watch their kids swim in a pool without worrying that they’ll have to have a hysterectomy at the age of twenty. Like Rosa Diaz, a client of ours. Or have their spine deteriorate, like Stan Blume, *another* client of ours. So before you come back here with another lame ass offer, I want you to think real hard about what your spine is worth, Mr. Walker. Or what you might expect someone to pay you for your uterus, Ms. Sanchez. Then you take out your calculator and you multiply that number by a hundred. Anything less than that is a waste of our time.
[Ms. Sanchez picks up a glass of water]
Erin Brockovich: By the way, we had that water brought in specially for you folks. Came from a well in Hinkley.
Ms. Sanchez: [Puts down the glass, without drinking] I think this meeting is over.
Ed Masry: Damn right it is.

Erin Brockovich (2000), written by Susannah Grant

The Daily Dialogue theme for the week: Sales Pitch. Today’s suggestion by Michael Corcoran.

Trivia: Richard LaGravenese did uncredited rewrites.

Dialogue On Dialogue: Just once in your life, hope that you can write a monologue like the one Brockovich gives in response to the Sanchez sales pitch.

“Creativity, Inc.”: New book on Pixar

April 23rd, 2014 by

I find Pixar fascinating. Not only because they have produced some of my favorite movies including Toy Story, Monsters Inc., Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Wall-E and Up, but because of how they do it, their utter and absolute commitment to story, and as I discovered in my interview with Mary Coleman, head of their story department, their affection for great characters.

So when I saw that Ed Catmull, president of Pixar Animation Studios and Walt Disney Animation Studios, had co-written a book called “Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration” (published April 8th), I immediately zeroed in on it.

As a taste of what the book offers, here are some tidbits I’ve aggregated for you. First, there is a first-person piece by Catmull in Fast Company: Inside the Pixar Braintrust:

A hallmark of a healthy creative culture is that its people feel free to share ideas, opinions, and criticisms. Our decision making is better when we draw on the collective knowledge and unvarnished opinions of the group. Candor is the key to collaborating effectively. Lack of candor leads to dysfunctional environments. So how can a manager ensure that his or her working group, department, or company embraces candor? By putting mechanisms in place that explicitly say it is valuable. One of Pixar’s key mechanisms is the Braintrust, which we rely on to push us toward excellence and to root out mediocrity. It is our primary delivery system for straight talk. The Braintrust meets every few months or so to assess each movie we’re making. Its premise is simple: Put smart, passionate people in a room together, charge them with identifying and solving problems, and encourage them to be candid. The Braintrust is not foolproof, but when we get it right, the results are phenomenal.

While I attend and participate in almost all Braintrust meetings, I see my primary role as making sure that the compact upon which the meetings are based is protected and upheld. This part of our job is never done because you can’t totally eliminate the blocks to candor. The fear of saying something stupid and looking bad, of offending someone or being intimidated, of retaliating or being retaliated against–they all have a way of reasserting themselves. And when they do, you must address them squarely.

—-

Candor could not be more crucial to our creative process. Why? Because early on, all of our movies suck. That’s a blunt assessment, I know, but I choose that phrasing because saying it in a softer way fails to convey how bad the first versions really are. I’m not trying to be modest or self-effacing. Pixar films are not good at first, and our job is to make them so–to go, as I say, “from suck to not-suck.”

Think about how easy it would be for a movie about talking toys to feel derivative, sappy, or overtly merchandise driven. Think about how off-putting a movie about rats preparing food could be, or how risky it must’ve seemed to start WALL-E with 39 dialogue-free minutes. We dare to attempt these stories, but we don’t get them right on the first pass. This is as it should be. Creativity has to start somewhere, and we are true believers in the power of bracing, candid feedback and the iterative process–reworking, reworking, and reworking again, until a flawed story finds its through line or a hollow character finds its soul.

—-

You may be thinking, How is the Braintrust different from any other feedback mechanism?

There are two key differences, as I see it. The first is that the Braintrust is made up of people with a deep understanding of storytelling, who usually have been through the process themselves. While the directors welcome critiques from many sources, they particularly prize feedback from fellow storytellers. The second difference is that the Braintrust has no authority. The director does not have to follow any of the specific suggestions. After a Braintrust meeting, it is up to him or her to figure out how to address the feedback. Giving the Braintrust no power to mandate solutions affects the dynamics of the group in ways I believe are essential.

It’s interesting to read about this because over the years, I’ve stumbled into a similar approach I use with the writing workshops and classes I teach. I frame each session with my take on constructive critiques which summed up briefly is this:

* Critique the story elements, not the writer.

* Provide an honest assessment of the story elements.

* But also generate suggestions to improve the story.

Moreover when we workshop stories and I inevitably plunge into brainstorming, tossing out lots of ideas, I always say this: Any of my ideas, you are free to use or lose. Use them if they help your story. Lose them if they don’t. I have no ego. All I care about is the quality of your story. Ultimately it is up to the writer to decide.

A second article from Fast Company: Pixar’s Ed Catmull on How to Balance Art and Commerce:

With certain ideas, you can predict commercial success. So with a Toy Story 3 or a Cars 2, you know the idea is more likely to have financial success. But if you go down that path too far, you become creatively bankrupt, because you’re just trying to repeat yourself.

So we also want to do things that are unlikely, that are harder to solve. WALL-E, Ratatouille, and Up would all fail an elevator pitch. A rat that wants to cook does not sound like a commercial idea; you’re not going to generate toys out of that. A man nearing the end of his life goes off with a young Scout in this balloon. Where does that lead? Are you going to sell toy walkers? With such ideas, you start out knowing there’s a top to what you can get. So we try to strike a balance.

There’s a quote attributed to Charlton Heston: “The problem with movies as art is they are commerce.” Catmull’s observations echo that tension. What’s interesting to note is Pixar has an awareness of what they are doing with each of their stories. Some tilt more toward commerce like Cars 2. Others tilt more toward art like Up.

This is another perspective I’ve discovered on my own, reflected in this post: Write what they’re buying or sell them your dreams.

So I’m picking up “Creativity, Inc.” to see what else I can learn about Pixar… and maybe more about how my process is intuitively aligned with theirs!

More about “Creativity Inc.” here.

9 Pulp Fiction Facts For Die-Hard Tarantino Fans [Video]

April 23rd, 2014 by

Via FilmmakerIQ.