The Business of Screenwriting: Movie stars

October 27th, 2016 by

I am staring at a cardboard standup display of an iconic movie character from an Academy Award winning movie, one of the most famous cinematic characters in the last three decades. The cutout figure is positioned just a few feet away from a desk. And behind the desk is the actor who portrayed the iconic character. So I literally only have to flit my eyes mere millimeters to shift my focus: Actor. Iconic figure. Iconic figure. Actor.”So,” the actor says, “What’s the story?”

We are there for a pitch meeting. The actor has an overall deal with the studio. We have an overall deal with the studio. Why don’t you come up with a really big action story for him? It’d be great for you guys to work together.

It would also help to defray the cost of our respective overall deals.

So we generate dozens of ideas, finally landing on one about a Vietnam vet forced by Bad Guys to steal an eighteen-wheel truck, filled with a mysterious explosive cargo, then drive it hundreds of miles along a treacherous route in a war-torn third world country. Not the greatest concept in the world, but we are confident we have crafted a compelling Protagonist role, one that will appeal to the actor in whose office we are currently sitting.

We are about to be proven wrong.

We start into our pitch. We run through the big opening incident. Lots of action. Gun play. Introduce Bad Guys. Set up mystery: What’s with the explosive cargo? What’s with the truck? What’s their plan? Cut to where we meet the Protagonist.

And this is where our troubles begin.

Thinking like writers, if the Protagonist has got to drive a truck from Point A to Point B fending off rebel soldiers and cargo ready to blow to kingdom come, then let’s invest the saga with a strong emotional plot, a psychological journey to accompany the physical journey. It’s a redemption story. A chance for the Protagonist to make up for a broken past.

So how do we meet the Protagonist? He’s down and out. Drunk. A tortured soul passed out on the stoop of his crappy trailer home dwarfed by his beat-to-hell semi-truck. He’s rousted awake. Opens his bloodshot eyes and peers up at a face he hasn’t seen in decades: His commanding officer from Vietnam.

“Got a job for you.”

Just as we’re about to get rolling with our story, the actor shakes his head.

“No, no. How about this.”

He leans forward, gaze locked on us.

“I’m with you for the opening. Fine. After that, we cut to these two bright lights, growing bigger and bigger. A big rumbling sound underneath, ominous, powerful. The rumbling stops. We hear a door swing open. A shadowy figure descends into view. Fog, mist, the whole nine yards. And now our eyes adjust. It’s a truck. The biggest, baddest truck ever. And I’m the driver climbing out of the cab. I step into frame against the lights, a shadowy figure, walking with a purpose. Step by step, heels on cement — thwack, thwack, thwack — straight toward the camera. Until my face appears filling the screen, eyes filled with fierce determination. And I am ready to… kick some ass.”

By now he’s standing right next to the cardboard standout of the iconic movie figure, which I note is two feel taller than the actor. Literally larger than life. And the truth suddenly dawns on me:

We’re pitching a character. He’s thinking a hero.
We’re pitching to an actor. He’s thinking like a movie star.

If you’re a movie star, you have fans. And fans have certain expectations about the roles you play. The actor to whom we are pitching has zero interest in playing a down-and-out-drunk-living-in-a-dumpy-trailer-tortured-soul-Vietnam Vet. No matter what subtle character arc or compelling redemption story we have in mind, the very idea of him playing a broken soul simply does not compute.

He’s a star. And he need only glance up at the cardboard stand-up he has planted near his desk to be reminded of his iconic place in movie history.

Every script he reads, every pitch he hears, every role he considers, he has to assess from the perspective of his place as a movie star.

So our project? Pass. And lesson learned: There are actors. There are movie stars.

When you go into a meeting with talent, be sure you know who you’re talking to.The actor behind the desk. Or the eight foot tall cardboard standup.

The Business of Screenwriting is a weekly series of GITS posts based upon my experiences as a complete Hollywood outsider who sold a spec script for a lot of money, parlayed that into a screenwriting career during which time I’ve made some good choices, some okay decisions, and some really stupid ones. Hopefully you’ll be the wiser for what you learn here.

[Originally posted July 21, 2011]

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Daily Dialogue — October 27, 2016

October 27th, 2016 by

Terence Fletcher: Were you rushing or were you dragging?
Andrew: I-I don’t know.
Terence Fletcher: Start counting!
Andrew: Five, six…
Terence Fletcher: In four, dammit! Look at me!
Andrew: One, two, three, four.

Fletcher slaps him the face.

Andrew: One, two, three, four.

Fletcher slaps him again.

Andrew: One, two, three…
Terence Fletcher: Now, was I rushing or I was dragging?
Andrew: I don’t know.
Terence Fletcher: Count again.

Andrew: One, two, three, four.


Andrew: One, two, three, four.

Another slap.

Andrew: One, two, three, four…
Terence Fletcher: Rushing or dragging?
Andrew: Rushing.
Terence Fletcher: [yelling] So, you do know the difference!

Whiplash (2014), screenplay by Damien Chazelle, based on his short film

The Daily Dialogue theme for the week: Discipline.

Trivia: For the slapping scene, J.K. Simmons and Miles Teller filmed several takes with Simmons only miming the slap. For the final take, Simmons and Teller decided to film the scene with a real, genuine slap. This is the take that is in the film.

Dialogue On Dialogue: This early scene in the contentious relationship between teacher and student is Fletcher’s way of getting Andrew’s attention, and instill in him the disciplined necessary to achieve greatness.

Reader Question: Is it useful to read a bad script to see what not to do?

October 26th, 2016 by

@DStraker90 tweeted a question the other day:

Is it useful to read a bad script to see what not to do? I mean that as a serious question.

Damien, I tend to focus my ‘preaching’ on good movie scripts as reading material, however bad scripts can be every bit as educational in their own way.

First off, I can’t tell you how many Hollywood writers I’ve interviewed, read, or heard say one of the main reasons they even considered screenwriting was because they had been reading one lousy script after another. I dare say if you could sit down with any pro script reader, assistant, or intern, they would tell you 90% or more of the scripts they churn through are mediocre to poor to utter rubbish. Read enough crap scripts, it’s easy to imagine how someone could say, “Hell, I can write better than that.” So there’s that.

“It’s incredible when you read
the bad screenplays of amateurs and aspirants,
not only do they not resemble real life or human behavior,
they don’t resemble movies.”
— Lem Dobbs

But more to your point, can reading a bad script give a writer a grasp of “what not to do”? Yes. The key, however, is not to read a bad script, but lots of them. One script may suck at a few craft related things. If you want to get more of a grasp of the whole panoply of poor writing techniques, better to immerse yourself in tons of scripts. That way trends start to emerge like:

  • Relying way too much on dialogue to advance the plot.
  • Dialogue which sounds like someone writing, not like someone talking.
  • Characters whose dialogues sounds too similar.
  • Too much exposition.
  • Unfocused scenes with too many things going on.
  • Scenes which go on for far too long.
  • Too many scenes of the same type, one after the other.
  • Characters with unclear motivations.
  • Characters who do something out of character just to service the plot.

You read 10-20 bad scripts where these type of things occur over and over, it’s likely you’ll grok that writing lesson in a way you wouldn’t just by talking about it in the abstract.

I would say this: Balance out your reading of bad scripts with great ones. This will highlight both the good and bad writing even more, and reading good scripts can keep you from slipping into cynicism, an attitude which can develop if all you do is slog through one piece of tripe after another.

Another thing: Your job as a professional screenwriter is basically that of a problem-solver. You want to be able to read a script, identify its problem areas, then come up with ways to fix those issues. One way to develop your critical analytical skills is by reading scripts including bad ones.

How to obtain bad scripts? My cute answer: Read some of my zero drafts! But honestly, this is another reason to find and join a writers group. Not that you’re necessarily seek out bad writers, in fact, you’re doing quite the opposite. However as my tongue-in-cheek response above suggests, even good writers can create bad pages. It’s all part of the process of going from a script that sucks to something which does not suck.

Another route: Various screenwriting contests including, I believe, the Austin Film Festival have volunteers weed through submissions. I don’t have much in the way of details, but I’ll bet GITS readers will have some ideas in this regard. People, please help out Damien with some suggestions.

Also what are your thoughts: Reading bad scripts a good idea? Head to comments and let us know your thoughts.

[Originally posted December 29, 2015]

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Free Screenwriting Resource: Movie Story Types

October 26th, 2016 by

If you want to work as a screenwriter in Hollywood, you’d be smart to familiarize yourself with one way creatives there think of stories: They look at them as Genres (e.g., Action, Comedy, Drama), Cross Genres (e.g., Action-Comedy, Drama-Thriller), and Sub-Genres (e.g., Romantic Comedy, Action Adventure).

They also think about them as Movie Story Types. A few examples:

[Blank] From Hell, The

Contained Thriller

Mistaken Identity

Road Picture

Movie Story Types are not only helpful in developing and crafting your script, familiarizing yourself with tropes and dynamics common to the type, but also in generating and assessing story concepts. For instance, you may put together Assumed Identity and Road Picture, then come up with something like this:

North By Northwest

For links to blog posts analyzing over 20 Movie Story Types, go here.

Go here to access links to all of the select group of Free Screenwriting Resources from Go Into The Story.

Each day in October, I’m going to highlight a screenwriting resource available on the blog. Why? Because with over 20,000 posts and 80+ archived topics, I want to make sure readers are aware of the many assets available here for reading and research. And they are all free!

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Classic International Movie: “Y Tu Mama Tambien”

October 26th, 2016 by

October is classic international movies month. Today’s guest post comes from Georgina Hutchinson.

Title: Y Tu Mama Tambien

Year: 2001

Writers: Alfonso Cuaron and Carlos Cuaron (nominated for Best original Screenplay Academy Awards 2003)

Actors: Gael Garcia Bernal, Diego Luna, Maribel Verdu

Director: Alfonso Cuaron

Plot Summary: In Mexico, two teenage boys and an attractive older woman embark on a road trip and learn a thing or two about life, friendship, sex, and each other.

Why I Think This is a Classic International Movie

Describing Y tu Mama Tambien as a quintessential road movie about two teenage boys and an older woman is accurate it’s just that it barely does the reality of it justice. There are layers and intricacies and a much deeper message here. However, Cuaron doesn’t slap you around the face with theme. It’s just there, in everything, as I believe it should be in a great movie.

It’s about the fragility of life, the inevitability of death, the need to experience the now. It’s also about men and women and relationships and what they can teach each other. It’s about the geographical, political and cultural landscapes of Mexico, juxtaposed with the Mexico we see from the eyes of our protagonists. A kind of parallel Mexico that plays out in the background, commented on by an objective and omniscient narrator.

Ultimately I think this is a classic movie because it distinguishes itself in an authentic way. It’s shot in a documentary -realist style. The performances are honest, vulnerable and real. There is a sincerity in the voice behind this story that permeates every shot and I was not surprised to discover that with this movie, Alfonso Cuaron wanted to make the kind of low-budget film he had dreamed of making in Mexico before he went to film school. A road movie, in Spanish with young actors improvising a lot of the dialogue.

My Favorite Moment

All the moments where the soundtrack is silenced and the narrator comments on seemingly unrelated things that have happened or will happen in the outside world. It’s a constant, albeit detached commentary on the current (for the time) social and political climate of Mexico and the way this sometimes overlaps into the characters lives.

At one point the narrator tells us they are passing through the village of Tenoch’s nanny, who left when she was 13 to work for Tenoch’s family in Mexico City, and that until he was 4, Tenoch called her mom. Tenoch had never been to her village. Tenoch chooses not to mention this to the others in the car, and in doing so this small moment speaks volumes of Mexican class divisions and culturally created attitudes. There is something very potent about the way this character insight is conveyed by the narrator in such a seamless, unassuming and un-judgemental way. Leaving us to form our own opinions.

My Favorite Dialogue

Narrator talking over a long shot of the car driving a stretch of road, shot through the front windscreen.

“If they had passed this spot ten years earlier, they would have seen a couple of cages in the middle of the road… and then driven through a cloud of white feathers. Shortly after more crushed cages, filled with bleeding chickens flapping their wings. Later on, an overturned truck surrounded with smoke. Then they’d have seen two bodies on the road, one smaller than the other, barely covered by a jacket…and next to them a woman crying inconsolably. “

The last words over a shot of a small road-side shrine to the dead, barely noticeable.

Key Things You Should Look For

The way the camera often wanders away from the main action to focus on something happening in the background, moments where Cuaron is clearly visually providing the socio-political context to this story. Like when the three main characters are eating in a little roadside restaurant and the camera leaves them to follow the women in the kitchen making the food and dancing. Or the armed police in the background aggressively making an arrest as our protagonists drive casually past.

The camera, though hand held, is not shakily annoying. It’s just extremely present and real. The result is a beautifully authentic feel to the way this story is told. And the style of it manages to capture the balance between juxtaposing the every day friendship of two teenage boys with much wider, heavier issues.

Link to a fight scene between the two friends.

A scene from the movie:

The movie’s trailer:

Thanks, Georgina!

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

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

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

3 Idiots – Abhinav Tiwari
A Prophet – Paul Graunke
Akira – Clay Mitchell
Amarcord – Norma Parena
Amelie – Kevin Curran
Belle Epoque – Melinda Mahaffey
Cinema Paradiso – Traci Nell Peterson
Diabolique – Sherin Nicole
Jules et Jim – Susan Winchell
Kolya – Melinda Mahaffey
Lady Vengeance – David Joyner
Millennium Actress – Chris Neumann
OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies – John Henderson
Reprise – Wally Marzano-Lesnevich
Seven Samurai – Will King
The Lives of Others – Paul Graunke
The Tenant – Marija Nielsen
This Man Must Die – Marija Nielsen
Y Tu Mama Tambien – Georgina Hutchinson

NOTE: Need 1 more volunteer to round out the monthly series!!!

Update: 2016 Award Season Screenplay Downloads (1 new script)

October 26th, 2016 by

Christmas comes early for screenplay fans as Hollywood studios and production companies have just begun their annual ritual of making the year’s movie scripts available to the public. As I update them here and add them to the site’s script archive, what this means is unlike other sites, all scripts here are both free and legal.

Current total of 2016 scripts for download: 11. Newly added script (1): Zootopia.

Anthropoid (Bleecker Street)

Bridget Jones’s Baby (Universal)

Captain Fantastic (Bleecker Street)

Concussion (Sony)

Denial (Bleecker Street)

Eye in the Sky (Bleecker Street)

The Girl on the Train (Universal)

Hail, Caesar! (Universal)

My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2 (Universal)

The Secret Life of Pets (Universal)

Zootopia (Walt Disney)

As the scripts become available, we will add them to our Movie Script Download archive.

Hitchcock with a stack of his movie scripts.

Many thanks to Wendy Cohen who is doing us all a solid by tracking the studio and production company sites for new script releases.

Reading movie screenplays is absolutely critical to your development as a screenwriter. Along with watching movies and writing pages, it is a fundamental practice you should put into place. Make it a goal to read at least one movie script per week.

Where can you go to get access to many of the top movie scripts from 2016? Right here at Go Into The Story! And to learn when they first come online, follow me on Twitter: @GoIntoTheStory.

Reminder: These scripts are for educational purposes only.

Great Scene: “The Exorcist”

October 26th, 2016 by

This being Halloween week, I’ve been celebrating the horror genre each day in Daily Dialogue, so it makes sense to continue the trend with our Great Scene today — from the 1973 movie The Exorcist. Adapted for the screen by William Peter Blatty from his best-selling novel and directed by William Friedkin, the movie grossed an astonishing $441M in worldwide B.O. receipts.

Safe to say, it became a cultural phenomenon. And speaking personally, when I saw it in a theater in Virginia Beach over the Christmas holidays, I remember being absolutely mesmerized by the story – and scared stupid.

There are a number of memorable moments in the movie, but since I was a theology student, I suppose it makes sense the scene I recall with the most clarity is this one: Where Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) and Father Karras (Jason Miller) work double duty in the rite of exorcism upon Regan (Linda Blair), the poor girl who is possessed by a demon.

Here is the scene taken from what purports to be the shooting script:

Regan sits up and with a nightmare slowness, a fraction at a
time, her head begins to turn, swiveling like a mannequin's and
creaking with the sound of a rusted mechanism. Once again
Damien's attention is diverted and Merrin has to prompt him.


Her head completely turns in a 360-degree turn and stares at


Defender of the human race...

A thunderous earthquake knock both priests to the ground.

...look down in pity...

You killed your mother!!! You left her alone to die!!!! She'll
never forgive you!!! Bastard!!!

Shut up!!

... upon this your servant, Regan Teresa MacNeil.

Another quake knocks them to the ground. Regan falls back, the
bed sheets fly off of the bed and the straps slowly rip apart.
Regan's eyes roll back into the socket and she slowly starts to

I command you by the judge of the living and the dead, to depart
from this servant of God.

Regan is now levitating toward the ceiling, arms out stretched
like a cross.

It's the power! (To Karras)- Holy water.

Karras runs to the bedside table and grabs the bottle of holy
water, he runs back and gives it to Merrin.

It's the power of Christ, that compels you.

The power of Christ compels you.

Merrin sprinkles holy water.

The power of Christ compels you.

Merrin sprinkles holy water and we see a cut appear on her skin.

The power of Christ compels you. The power of Christ compels you.
The power of Christ compels you. The power of Christ compels you.

Regan begins to descend.

The power of Christ compels you. The power of Christ compels you.
The power of Christ compels you. The power of Christ compels you.
The power of Christ compels you. The power of Christ compels you.
The power of Christ compels you.

Regan lands back on the bed once more.

The power of Christ compels you.

Karras rushes to the bed and ties her hands together to symbolize
the cross.

He brought you low by his bloodstained cross! Do not despise my
command because you no me to be a sinner. It's God himself who
commands you! The majestic Christ who commands! God the Father
commands you! God the son commands you!

As Karras turns away, Regan raises her tied hands and deals him a
powerful blow on the back of his head. He falls to the floor.

God the holy spirit commands you!

Merrin sprinkles more holy water on Regan, she falls back and
screams in pain.

The mystery of the cross commands you! The blood of the martyrs
commands you!

The priests are again knocked to the floor by an earthquake.
Briefly Regan lifts herself toward an apparition of the demon
statue Pazuzu.

Give way to Christ, you prince of murderers. You're guilty,
before Almighty God, guilty before his son, guilty before the
whole human race. It's the Lord who expels you. He who is coming
to judge both the living and the dead and the world by fire.

As Merrin kneels by the bed, Karras crawls over and covers Regan
with a blanket.

Are you tired?

Karras nods.

Let's rest before we start again.

Merrin leaves the room, but Karras stays sat on the bed,
shivering with both coldness and fear. Regan is asleep.

Here is the movie version of the scene:

We often talk about the importance of conflict in our stories. Hard to imagine a more compelling conflict than between two very human priests, their Holy Water, and exorcism liturgy versus a demon and the power of Satan.

How about you? Do you remember the first time you saw The Exorcist?

[Originally posted October 30, 2009]

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Daily Dialogue — October 26, 2016

October 26th, 2016 by

“Rules? Piss on your fucking rules!”

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), screenplay by Lawrence Hauben and Bo Goldman, novel by Ken Kesey

The Daily Dialogue theme next week: Discipline.

Trivia: Louise Fletcher got the part of Nurse Ratched mainly because she could embody evil without knowing it. She believes she’s helping people even when she isn’t.

Dialogue On Dialogue: Nurse Ratched is the embodiment of discipline without mercy. Her approach and McNulty’s influence leads to chaos and recrimination.

Franklin Leonard on the Writer’s Life

October 25th, 2016 by

As the seven lucky writers who participated in the 2016 Black List Feature Writers Lab made their way home this weekend, Franklin Leonard sent them each an email. Normally what he wrote is something he would communicate to the lab writers on our final night together, but this year Franklin had the misfortune of being felled by a nasty stomach virus, and missed our celebratory farewell meal. So instead, he committed his thoughts to writing. And while I’m certainly sympathetic to Franklin for having gotten sick, I’m glad we now have his reflections in writing. Between his recuperation and handling a spate of meetings, what Franklin dashed off represents a deeply insightful take on the writer’s life. I asked Franklin if I could excerpt his comments and he agreed. Here they are:

So much of what happens from here has everything to do with what you choose to write, how you choose to write it, and how you choose to handle the slings and arrows that come with making a life as a professional writer. That includes the big ones – terrible producers, lost jobs, agents who quit the business – and the small ones – meetings that go poorly, bad notes, just not getting your way on something you really hoped would go your way.

None of it is easy. None of it is fair. It shouldn’t be the former, and it will never be the latter. And because of that, it’s critically important that you find another reason to keep writing what you choose to write.

It can be the money, but ask anyone in this business who’s making a lot of money: That never ends up being enough.

It can be the celebrity, but as I’m sure you’ve heard from your mentors: There’s not much of that to be had for writers.

The writers I know who have found the most success – and find the most fulfillment in that success, which is arguably more important – seem to do it for two reasons: 1. The community of people who their writing attracts and 2. The sake of writing the stories they want to tell…

I’ve always thought there was something special about the fact that every Friday night, millions of people around the world go into dark rooms to watch stories about what it means to be human with a bunch of people they don’t know.

It’s a cultural ritual, one that mirrors the religious rituals anyone can see on a weekly basis at churches, temples, mosques, and most other religious institutions.

As writers, you’re the ones who will commit to word the texts that teach millions of people (literally millions if not tens or hundreds of millions) how to see the world, how to treat each other, and what might be possible in this crazy (and increasingly crazier) world in which we live.

All this is to say that on some level, your work as writers is sacred. Treat it as such, and with your talent, the rest might just take care of itself (and we’ll do what we can to help bridge the other gaps.)

I have been hosting this blog for over eight years and have attempted to convey much the same sentiments. Leave it to Franklin to knock it out of the park in one dashed-off email.

My advice: Print it out. Post at your desk. Consult as necessary as you confront the vicissitudes of your own writer’s life.

Twitter: @FranklinLeonard, @theblcklst.

Free Screenwriting Resource: The Business of Screenwriting

October 25th, 2016 by

Obviously you need to focus on learning the craft of screenwriting, but if you hope to sustain a career in the movie industry, it behooves you to understand key aspects of the business as well. That was the impetus for long-running weekly series The Business of Screenwriting and there are nearly 200 posts doling out advice like Always be nice to the assistants and There is always another way to an inside look at the practical aspects of being a screenwriter like Hip pocket representation and Surviving a script notes meeting. There is even a 20 part series called Everything You Wanted to Know About Specs.

Go here to check out the many topics I have covered over the years about The Business of Screenwriting.

Go here to access links to all of the select group of Free Screenwriting Resources from Go Into The Story.

Each day in October, I’m going to highlight a screenwriting resource available on the blog. Why? Because with over 20,000 posts and 80+ archived topics, I want to make sure readers are aware of the many assets available here for reading and research. And they are all free!