Update: Matthew Hickman, Black List/Cassian Elwes Independent Screenwriting Fellowship winner

September 22nd, 2014 by

In December 2013, Matthew Hickman won the inaugural Black List/Cassian Elwes Independent Screenwriting Fellowship. You can read the Hollywood Reporter article about it here. Matthew wrote up a series of dispatches about his experiences in winning the fellowship and his subsequent trip with Elwes to the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.

I reached out to Matthew for an update and he was kind enough to do just that:

It’s terrifying how quickly a year can pass–especially the good ones. Last September I submitted a script that I’d been working on for several months to The Black List. I still remember (and always will, I suspect) waking up on Friday the 13th and reaching for my phone before my eyes were fully open. I’d gotten into the habit of checking my e-mail obsessively sometime that week–ever watchful for the results of my paid read.

I remember seeing that startling and sanity-testing e-mail from The Black List–the one that alerts you to a new rating of your script, but doesn’t bother revealing the damned numbers. Thankfully I didn’t experience a repeat of reading my first Black List evaluation that morning. Nobody forgets their first time, and mine was spent hidden in the bathroom of The UPS Store where I work for five minutes, trying to summon enough bars of signal on my cell phone to log into the website and read my score, only to walk out feeling gut-punched several minutes later. I’m sure my co-workers wondered if I was sick whenever they saw the look on my face that day. They would have been right, in a way.

On this morning, however, cell phone reception was on my side. So were the numbers; I got a 9/10, which in that moment seemed better and more tangible than perfection itself. I was elated. I shook my girlfriend awake to share the news with her. I did a jig in our living room. Going to work was a breeze that day. That night Alexis and I drove to Nevada and spent money we didn’t have drinking cheap champagne on Las Vegas boulevard. Even when it’s just a few little digits, validation can do incredible things for a writer’s sense of purpose. For a few brief moments, the nagging questions of your true, deserved place in the world recede into the horizon–you did pick the right path, you are not a fool after all, and your destiny is assured, beckoning you like the lights of Sin City at the end of a long drive through the desert.

These Swedish kids we met at the pool sure are swell. You also like The Tallest Man On Earth? Why yes, we’d love to accompany you to an overpriced club this evening. What’s that? You can get us in for free?

The velvet ropes of the world seemed to literally part that weekend.

Hickman Matthew

It was impossible to know at the time that my airy sentiments then were anything more than delusions–the kind of stuff writers tell themselves when they get small bits of encouragement just to make it through another day of battling the blank page. But if this were Syd Field, all this would be the “inciting incident” of my story. So much happened as a direct result of that seemingly trivial decision I made to take just one more crack at The Black List with my newest script:

-Several weeks later I entered Cassian’s Fellowship.

-On my birthday I found out I was a finalist.

-On yet another occasion of Friday the 13th (this time in December) he called to tell me I’d won.

I swear I’m not into numerology, but I must admit that 13 has been my favorite number since childhood. Check my little league pictures for proof. All of these events I talked about (probably at too much length), in some of my previous entries. Whenever Scott asked me to write a follow-up about what my life has been like since then, I jumped at the opportunity.

To be completely honest, the idea of what came after Sundance always excited me as much as the actual trip itself. Don’t misunderstand me–I love everything about the festival, and if I have anything to say about the matter, I’ll attend it every year for the rest of my life. There’s something exhilarating about decamping with half of Hollywood to a remote mountain town for a glorified slumber party where the movies never stop playing. Stars are born–and re-born–in that rare air, and if you can’t draw inspiration from that, check your pulse.

I knew Sundance was where I would learn what I needed to know to get started as a writer in this town. As exciting as that was, though, I knew that everything after that trip would be when I did the work of actually starting to build my career. It also doesn’t hurt that Cassian’s endorsement carries weight–it’s a bulletproof reference on the bottom of your resume. I firmly believed that one way or another I’d be on my way toward a career as a screenwriter whenever I left Park City.

The seasons since then have not disappointed, though they have certainly flown by. Although there are some things better left unannounced at this point, here are a few of the things that have taken place in my life since Sundance:

In February I got an e-mail from Noah Rosen at Circle of Confusion about my script. Whenever I met with he and Elana Barry at their offices in Culver City, he capped off a strong case to be my manager by concluding with: “normally this is the part where I tell you that you should go meet with other people and see what fits best–but I don’t want you to meet other people. I want to be your people.” By the end of the weekend, I’d signed with their company.

I started going on meetings at studios and their subsidiaries, getting acquainted with the lots at Fox and Paramount, and wondering who I might see walk by. I’ve formed relationships with the kinds of people who can actually hire me to write scripts, and began to hone my skills on pitching takes in a room. It turns out that in order to be successful as a writer, how you are in a room with people is just as (or perhaps more) important than the words you put on the page. My advice to anyone about to embark on this process is simply to treat them like anyone else–most of the executives that I’ve met with are friendly enough people, they just work extremely hard and are in a position to make or break your career as a writer. Don’t sweat it too much.

Also: I’ve been hired to write a script! Back in December, shortly after I’d first been awarded the Fellowship, Cassian invited me to dinner at a restaurant in Beverly Hills. That night he introduced me to Veronica Ferres, a German actress, and several members of her production company who were interested in helping us bring my script to life. We immediately hit it off, and although I was happy to spend the evening in good company surrounded by people who were saying nice things about my writing, I never suspected that it might be a kind of informal job interview.

Although I doubt anyone at the time viewed it that way, just that kind of opportunity arose when Cassian called me a few months later and told me that they were interested in hiring me to write something that would be a starring vehicle for Veronica. After some preliminary discussions with their creative executives about the subject matter and storyline, I knew it was a great fit, and I’ve been hard at work on a story for them ever since. Although I’d love to share more details about the nature of the story, it isn’t my news alone to share, so I’ll simply say that I look forward to seeing how things develop once I turn in the final polish in a month or so.

That brings me to what might be the nicest part of this all: respect. When you’re an aspiring writer, you claim to have a skill that most people doubt (probably rightfully) you actually possess to the degree necessary for success in Hollywood. You struggle against that doubt for a long time. I have to say that nowadays, I get that vibe from others less than ever. I doubt it will ever go away entirely (perhaps part of it is imagined, something to keep the fire lit within–Michael Jordan was famous for using slights, real or imagined, as motivation to go out and drop fifty on his opponents), but after winning Cassian’s fellowship, whenever I am having discussions with creative executives at Veronica’s company, or I’m building out a pitch with someone after a good general meeting, it feels like they treat me as colleagues–not just some starry-eyed kid with super-sized dreams (although I probably still am very much that). That in itself has been an enormous reward.

I couldn’t let this post end without an update about the script that started this all. Cassian has spoken with several directors about taking the lead on my script, and he made the offer to someone who I know will do an excellent job within the last few months. Right now he’s putting together a budget for the movie, and after that we’ll go out and recruit talent. There are days and moments when I’m tempted to be impatient–when a customer at work yells at me about the broken glass on framed artwork she herself packed and shipped, or at the end of another long day when I come home from one job to finish writing an outline I promised myself I’d have done yesterday. It feels as if I’m at the end of a marathon, and now that the finish line is finally within view, those last few moments of running seem to stretch out into eternity.

Of course this is all an exaggeration, but that is how it feels in certain moments. The reality is, making movies takes a very long time, and by any historical comparison we’re doing just fine. A few of my favorite films help me remember this reality. Little Miss Sunshine was written in 2000. It premiered at Sundance in 2006. Good Will Hunting was the same story. As Damon and Affleck revealed in this highly entertaining interview, “[It was] four years before it got made. I remember just feeling like the film moved at such a glacial pace.” It’s funny to imagine Matt Damon, upstart young actor and would-be screenwriter, sending Harvey Weinstein passive-aggressive faxes in order to motivate him to push the project forward. Bearing these stories in mind, I constantly remind myself that I’m in good company, and if our movie is 1/10th as good as either of those two, I’ll be thrilled.

Regardless of what course things take from here, my life and career have taken giant strides forward in the last eight months. On a macro level, there’s a very good chance that a movie with my name on it will be released within the next two years. I have representation. I’m getting paid to write. But it’s not just the big things that I take satisfaction in. Clichés are repeated for a reason, and since winning Cassian’s fellowship I’ve felt the intimate truth of these words; “it’s the little things in life that mean the most.” Just a few examples before I go–

I signed up for my first two credit cards in exchange for a couple of Jimmy John’s sandwiches when I was a freshman in college. I’ve had credit card debt ever since–until I paid it all off six months ago. I can afford to fly home more than once a year now. During those trips I’ve helped my mother remodel her master bathroom, so that she can finally use the shower inside it–a first in her twenty-four years there. I replace broken locks and knobs that she doesn’t really have the money or time to bother with when she isn’t looking. I take enormous pride in those small measures of progress; they are the nuts and bolts of a reality that is slowly but surely beginning to hew more closely to the grand fantasies I’ve always harbored about what life was destined to be for my family. Even on the long days at The UPS Store–and they do still exist–it is easy for me to see that I’ve got everything to be happy about. Cassian and The Black List have had everything to do with it.

This is a stellar example of why I’m proud to be partnered with the Black List and even prouder to call Franklin Leonard a professional associate and friend. The odds against a writer breaking into Hollywood are enormous, especially for those who have little in the way of connections in the business. Yet there are talented writers outside the system, creatives with unique voices who can bring something special to the world of movies and TV. What the Black List is doing through the many initiatives it has launched in the last few years in conjunction with The Black Board and Go Into The Story is provide aspiring and professional writers a community of online resources to support their growth in the craft and create new opportunities to advance their careers. Just like what happened to Matthew Hickman.

To read all of Matthew’s dispatches, go here.

Onward.

An Argument Against Screenplay Formulas (5 part series)

September 22nd, 2014 by

Last week, I posted this 5 part series:

An Argument Against Screenplay Formulas (Part 1): They are selling you a lie

An Argument Against Screenplay Formulas (Part 2): Formulas lead to formulaic writing

An Argument Against Screenplay Formulas (Part 3): They diminish the craft of screenwriting

An Argument Against Screenplay Formulas (Part 4): They make the job of a screenwriter more difficult

An Argument Against Screenplay Formulas (Part 5): Times have changed and so have expectations for a screenplay

It sparked quite a bit of discussion. Good. At a time when Hollywood movie studios seem to be stuck in a creative rut, the last thing aspiring and professional screenwriters need to be doing is to perpetuate approaches that by and large engender formulaic writing.

I’d like to wrap up my presentation on the subject by making three last points.

* As a tag to the series, I posted this:

Next week I will post something that acknowledges a certain kind of value — extremely limited in my view — in studying these screenplay formulas.

What is that value? If a person wants to explore their creativity by learning how to write screenplays and they are a novice to the craft, discovering there is such a thing as story structure is a critical piece of knowledge. There are certain conventions specific to movies as well as narrative dynamics common to Story more generally which a writer ought to know.

In that regard, of all the screenwriting books, I am comfortable steering people to two: “Screenplay: The Foundation of Screenwriting” by Syd Field and “The Writer’s Journey” by Christopher Vogler: Field’s book because it is the first of the contemporary screenwriting books, and it covers key ideas like three-act structure and plot points; Vogler’s book because it does a good job in exploring Joseph Campbell’s theory of The Hero’s Journey and its potential relevance to screenwriting and storytelling. Both books can help to open the eyes of a neophyte screenwriter to the fact that screenplays do have a structure and much of our work in developing, crafting and writing a script focuses on that dimension of the process.

But even here I have to add a caveat, hence, the narrow limit to the value of these tomes. The idea promoted in Field’s book that key plot points have to happen at certain page counts (e.g., Act One end between P. 25-27, Act Two end between P. 85-90) is precisely the type of rigid thinking and outside-in writing [see below] that is a slippery slope to formulaic stories. Likewise the twelve stages of The Hero’s Journey as detailed in Vogler’s book are often viewed as a normative sequential paradigm, not that Vogler asserts this, rather it’s something readers assume which has resulted in this:

I bring up Campbell because the other day, I posted this question: Why are there so many Protagonist orphans? It spawned a wide-ranging conversation, ultimately leading to Joseph Campbell. At some point in the thread of comments, TripDreamer posted this:

Killer Films producer David Kaplan made a comment on twitter denouncing [Joseph] Campbell. I asked him why and he told me that 90% of the scripts he reads follow the same formula and this, he insinuated, made them flat and, well, formulaic. These books can only give you so much guidance, it’s up to us to inject soul, heart, voice, and identity into a story.

I thanked TripDreamer for posting that, even though it pained me to read it. Not that I doubt Kaplan’s assessment as I’ve read far too many scripts of the ilk he describes as well. However to come to a situation where someone would associate the words “formulaic” and “flat” with Joseph Campbell seems to me… well, almost blasphemous.

And that seems to be where the rubber hits the road with a lot of these screenwriting books, seminars, and software systems promoting screenplay formulas: We end up with a ceaseless cesspool of formulaic crap carving its way into and ultimately out of Hollywood movie and TV development circles.

Honestly I think we’d all be better off studying Aristotle’s “Poetics”, then follow my mantra: Watch movies. Read scripts. Write pages.

* In the series last week, I provided an update in Part 2, making what is a critical distinction between formula and structure. I then posted it with Parts 3-5, and include it here to drive home this point so there is no confusion on this point:

I’ve gotten emails from several writers a bit frantic in tone, so let me make this clear: There is a difference between formula and structure. When William Goldman famously says, “Screenplays are structure,” at a fundamental level, that is true. The ultimate end point for a screenplay is the production of a movie and because of certain limitations and conventions common to movies, the structure of a script is intimately tied to the actual nuts and bolts process of making a film.

So let me be clear: I am not saying structure is bad. On the contrary, story structure is critical to the success of a screenplay.

The problem is equating formula with structure.

First off, as discussed, there is no one single formula to craft a screenplay’s structure. Stories are organic. Formulas are not. So the very premise that this screenwriting guru or that can make some claim as to the universality of their formula is false on the face of it. There are endless possibilities for stories and story structure.

Second, from what I’ve seen in the countless scripts I’ve read from writers who have been influenced by screenplay formulas, clearly their focus in the writing has been with Plot, as if Plot is the sum of story structure. It is not. A screenplay’s universe has two dimensions: The External World, what I call the Plotline, the domain of Action and Dialogue, and the Internal World, what I call the Themeline, the domain of Intention and Subtext. The former is where we see and hear the story’s Physical Journey. The latter is where we interpret and intuit the story’s Psychological Journey. Without the Internal World, a story is essentially without any meaning or emotional resonance. Therefore if the preponderance of focus in a screenplay formula is on the makeup of the External World, that is only serving one part of the story’s structure. Story structure properly understood involves both domains: External World (Plotline) and Internal World (Themeline).

Third, and perhaps most importantly, whatever story structure you end up with, one of the major points of emphasis in my teaching is how you get there. This goes back to outside-in writing, as noted here, versus inside-out writing. I believe you are much more likely to find an authentic story structure, not a formulaic one, through the inside-out approach, starting with characters, immersing yourself in their lives, engaging in an active, dynamic process in which both the Plotline and Themeline emerge.

So when I call into question screenplay formula, please understand, this is not the same thing as story structure. In a sense, screenplays are structure, but that structure involves both Plotline and Themeline… and it’s critical how you go about crafting that structure.

Outside-In / Formula = No!
Inside-Out / Characters = Yes!

* Finally apart from a handful of professional screenwriters I know personally or have read about who acknowledge having been influenced by the likes of Robert McKee or “The Writer’s Journey,” most writers who go on record about the subject of screenwriting gurus and screenplay formulas reject them entirely. To wit:

Andrew Stanton is one of the founding members of Pixar whose writing credits include Toy Story, Toy Story 2, Finding Nemo and Wall-e.

Steven E. de Souza’s writing credits include the paradigm for action-comedy buddy movies 48 Hrs. and the touchstone for all action movies Die Hard.

Justin Marks is writing the upcoming Disney movie The Jungle Book as well as Top Gun 2. His tweet featured above is part of a Twitter rant Justin did yesterday that went at rigid formulaic thinking with regard to script page count.

So if by and large, pro writers take umbrage at most how-to screenwriting books with their screenplay formulas, what does that tell you?

Every story is different. Ever writer is different. If you have studied some screenwriting guru and used what they promote to achieve success in Hollywood or elsewhere, good for you. Go with God! But if you are receiving critiques that specifically take aim at the formulaic, flat and uninspired nature of your writing, or you have read so many of these how-to books that you have been left dazed and confused, baffled by their conflicting language systems, theories and structural paradigms, not knowing what to do and how to approach the craft, I would recommend jettisoning all that stuff, and get to know your story’s characters. Immerse yourself in their world and their lives. Find your story’s structure through your process of engaging them.

Onward.

Video: “The Evolution of Video Effects”

September 22nd, 2014 by

Twitter Rant: Justin Marks on Script Page Count

September 22nd, 2014 by

Screenwriter Justin Marks (The Jungle Book, Top Gun ) offered up a mini-Twitter rant yesterday on script page count. Reprinted here by permission:

The amateur in you panics. The guru is right, it’s too long, but it’s so RICH. Then the pro in you speaks up: fuck the guru it’s just right.

The lesson is simple. SOMETIMES it is too long. Sometimes too long can be just right. For right now.

Knowing when it’s too long is the pro’s job. I’ve read Scott Frank scripts that are 150+ pages, and I hit page 149 sad that it’s over.

Sometimes you have to judge for yourself, which is why I HATE HATE those writing books. Not b/c they’re wrong but b/c they diagnose broadly.

I should also add, most of the time your script is way too fucking long. And it’s a rare script of mine that goes over 109 pages.

But trust your gut and only your gut. If you’re not bored, it’s not too long yet.

So basically be brilliant! That’s when you can get away with stuff. If not, CUT. I’m going back to my little closet of self-hatred now.

You should follow Jason on Twitter: @Justin_Marks_.

Movie Trailer: “Mortdecai”

September 22nd, 2014 by

Eric Aronson (screenplay), Kyril Bonfiglioli, Craig Brown (novel)

Art dealer Charles Mortdecai searches for a stolen painting that’s reportedly linked to a lost bank account filled with Nazi gold.

IMDB

Release Date: 6 February 2015 (USA)

Classi 70s Move: “Jaws”

September 22nd, 2014 by

September is Classic 70s Movie month. Today’s guest post comes from Markham Cook.

Title: Jaws

Year: 1975

Writers: Carl Gottlieb and Peter Benchley, based on the book by Peter Benchley.

The first screenwriter was Benchley, followed by Howard Sackler then Gottlieb. John Milius also contributed some material, and, according to Gottlieb, Robert Shaw co-wrote a key speech.

A credit that doesn’t get mentioned enough for Jaws is the editor: Verna Fields. I won’t go into why here because it’s already running long, but see if you can find the AFI interview with her at your library.

Poster Jaws

Lead actors: Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, Richard Dreyfus.

IMDB plot summary: When a gigantic great white shark begins to menace the small island community of Amity, a police chief, a marine scientist and grizzled fisherman set out to stop it.

Why I think This Is A Classic 70’s Movie: Simply put, Jaws shaped the way movies are made, marketed and consumed.

Before Jaws, national marketing campaigns for movies were unusual. Before Jaws wide release was rare. Before Jaws, summertime was generally a quiet period for movie releases. Movies were released in stages, with largely local advertising campaigns, first in the big cities, then spreading outward. Often in a city even as large as New York, a prestige release might play on only one screen. The prevailing idea of marketing was to build word of mouth.

There were a few precedents for the wide release strategy – William Goldman gives a hilarious account of Joseph Levine’s wide release of Hercules in 1959 – but this was probably the first time that a movie was given wide release in the summer with a full national campaign, and the movie in question was really, really good.

The studios learned that people would go to the movies in droves in the summer (it didn’t hurt that more and more theatres had air conditioning), and that the economics of a national campaign made sense. It had the added benefit of having your word of mouth cake and eating it too: if word of mouth was good, the audience would keep building. If it was bad, well, you jammed as many people into the seats as possible before word got out, then close the picture down.

And as the years went by, it almost inevitably led to the studios concentrating larger amounts of money on a smaller slate which is even more heavily advertised and released in a prodigious number of theaters. Jaws was in 465 theatres in its first weekend. Guardians of the Galaxy was in over four thousand.

Sometimes I think the studios learned the business lessons of Jaws too well, and the movie making lessons not well enough. Because Jaws was special.

Jaws followed on the heels of some of the biggest Irwin Allen extravaganzas like the Poseidon Adventure and Towering Inferno, and movies of that ilk – Earthquake comes to mind. These were sheer razzle dazzle entertainments, disaster movies, big-budget genre pictures, mostly high concept. And Jaws took all of that, threw in a generous dollop of Hitchcock, and an incredible dose of talent on all fronts and showed audiences what a MOVIE could really be. It’s instructive, I think, that the generic disaster movie with a cast of thousands sputtered out after Jaws. Audiences found out how terrific a high concept genre picture could be and there was no turning back.

The screenplay is terrific – Gottlieb (according to his own account) took out most of the subplots and focused the script on the main story. He doesn’t say this, but the effect was (with apologies to Peter Benchley) that all the lurid bits, and the corny bits came out (anyone remember the sexual fire between the chief’s wife and Matt Hooper?) The first half of the story focusses on the brand new police chief struggling against a town dependent on fourth of July tourism. The script does a wonderful job of making us feel for the townspeople – while at the same time knowing their greed will bring them down. And we feel for Chief Brody too, a man clearly out of his depth, despite his experience in the NYPD.

The part of Mayor Vaughan is wonderfully written as well. Just when you think you’ve got the guy pegged as a slick politician, he’s sensitive. Just when you think he’s an ass, you find yourself agreeing with him. My favorite scene with him culminates in his line “and if you think I’m going to stand here and watch that little Kintner boy spill out all over the dock…” I love it because it would have been easy to write one of those greasy politician moments instead. But what we get is the mayor being absolutely, incontrovertibly right. The Chief and Hooper have lost sight of the human aspect of the situation. Mayor Vaughan has not.

Finally, once the three principals get out on the boat, it’s a lovely contest of wills, characters who have been well delineated before this show more dimension, and more capacity to bump up against one another.

The characters are sharply defined, but not over defined. The backstories that we do get aren’t meant to add any real psychological dimension to the characters (with the possible exception of the Indianapolis speech – more on that later), none of them go through anything but the most basic arc. They don’t have to overcome some psychological wound to defeat the shark. Chief Brody himself dismisses the idea – Ellen: ‘Martin’s afraid of the water. There’s a clinical name for it’ Brody: ‘Drowning’ – the character himself is saying it’s irrelevant, just another thing to deal with. More than well written conflict and character, to me the characters feel well observed. These people feel real.

The craftsmanship is so fine, the movie so alive and entertaining that I can’t help but love it. And so it seems to me that it’s a great movie for that reason. It’s craftsmanship raised to the level of art.

My Favorite Moment in the Movie: Sometimes it seems that this movie is made up of one wonderful moment after another. For me the scene I marvel at every time is a little moment, but beautifully executed. Chief Brody is learning to tie a knot, Hooper plays solitaire, and Quint, while instructing the Chief, chews on crackers. In the midst of this the reel on Quint’s rod goes ‘click’. Quint’s eyes flick over to the reel and he stops chewing – no one else notices. Then, the reel goes ‘click, click’. Quint puts the cracker in his pocket and begins to strap himself into his seat — all the while the Chief is tying his knot and Hooper plays solitaire. The scene is so full of suspense and pitched perfectly. In the end you never see the shark, it isn’t even perfectly clear that it was the shark, but the craftsmanship and attention to detail in the scene is amazing. It’s a kind of pure movie making: there’s no equivalent to it in any other art form.

My Favourite Dialogue in the Movie: Again, lots of wonderful bits of dialogue, but my favourite has to be the U.S.S. Indianapolis speech. It follows Quint and Hooper’s comparison of scars – the funniest scene in the movie. And I cannot do it justice, so here it is —

In isolation like this, it seems like a kind of macho speech, but in the movie – after all the gut wrenching suspense – it’s absolutely riveting and chilling.

The speech was shot over two days. Carl Gotlieb says Shaw had been drinking and had trouble delivering the lines accurately the first day. The second day he was stone sober, and it’s a testament to his craft that pieces from both days are cut together in the final film

There is a great deal of argument over credit for the speech – nothing like it appears in the novel. Carl Gotlieb has never, to my knowledge, claimed credit for it. In his book, ‘The Jaws Log’ he says that John Milius is often given credit (even Spielberg has said so), but that he didn’t write it. He says that the version that was shot was written by Robert Shaw (who was also a novelist and playwright). In a recent podcast, Gotlieb elaborated to say that the idea for the speech, and indeed the first draft was written by Howard Sackler, the second writer on the movie. But in his account there’s no doubt: what appears on screen was written by Shaw.

Key Things You Should Look For When Watching: For me, number one, the editing. Watch the rhythm. Watch how it changes subtly – in the beach scene before Alex Kintner is killed watch how Verna Fields cuts the shots to a particular rhythm, then she subtly begins to lengthen the shots. You’re expecting a cut… and it doesn’t come. Then, pop, it does, but the rhythm is off. It’s incredibly unsettling. When the shark finally does attack, you’re disoriented. Wonderful work. And watch for scenes done ‘in one’. Brody, the mayor, the coroner and Meadows the newspaper editor (played by Gotlieb himself) on the car ferry. No cuts, just a terrific scene.

From a writing standpoint I’ve alluded to what I would watch for. Characters who are real, who don’t necessarily do what you would expect. And economy of backstory – Chief Brody didn’t lose a sibling in a boating accident. Matt Hooper didn’t watch his wife get eaten by a shark. Okay, Quint has the Indianapolis, but it isn’t an obstacle he has to overcome in order to vanquish anything. It’s just that he’s Captain Ahab. When you have a great story with great characters, don’t gild the lily.

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

We already have a set of 80s Movies and 90s Movies. This month, we’re working on 70s Movies.

The schedule for posts in this series and the volunteers below [I have put in bold those who have already sent their guest post to me]:

A2Jason: Taxi Driver
Rob Bell: The Friends of Eddie Coyle
chriscaleo: Being There
cilly247: Close Encounters of the Third Kind
cschillig: The Exorcist or Halloween
Markham Cook: Jaws
Jason Cuthbert: Taxi Driver
Kalen Deremo: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
Mark Furney: McCabe & Mrs. Miller
Ryan Gilmore: The Godfather, Part I and Part II
pgronk: Chinatown
Kate Hagen: A Woman Under the Influence
John Henderson: Smokey and the Bandit
Steve Huerta: The Getaway
Jacob Holmes-Brown: Alien
Zach Jansen: Dog Day Afternoon
Will King: Colossus: The Forbin Project
Lynn: Carrie
Jack McDonald: The Last Detail
maveric1974: Apocalypse Now
Karla McNeese: Murder by Death
Debbie Moon: Three Days of the Condor
Nick Dykal: Network
Ivan Oski: Solaris
Daryl Powell: Rocky
Rahul Prasad: Apocalypse Now
Jon Raymond: The Conversation
Eric Rodriguez: Logan’s Run
Greg Scharpf: Shampoo
Arnaud Talaia: All the President’s Men
Barbara Thomas: Young Frankenstein
rich_trenholm: The Man With a Golden Gun
Weston Turner: What’s Up, Doc?
Mark Twain: The Parallax View
Liz Warner: Midnight Express
Michael Waters: The Sting
Thomas Wüstemann: Harold and Maude
Turk187: Monty Python And The Holy Grail
Bretton Zinger: Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope

If you have volunteered, please email your posts to me by as soon as possible.

Thanks to all of you for your participation in this project, creating a resource for writers, movies we should all watch to help learn the craft of screenwriting!

On Writing

September 22nd, 2014 by

“A writer who has never explored words, who has never searched, seeded, sieved, sifted through his knowledge and memory… dictionaries, thesaurus, poems, favorite paragraphs, to find the right word, is like someone owning a gold mine who has never mined it.”

– Rumer Godden

Via Advice To Writers

Daily Dialogue — September 22, 2014

September 22nd, 2014 by

Edmond: What do you want of me?
Mercedes: I want to be free of you… the way you obviously are free of me.Just a few answers from you, and I shall be gone forever.
Edmond: Ask your questions.
Mercedes: Where have you been?
Edmond: Thirteen years in the Chateau d’lf… and everywhere else you can imagine.
Mercedes: The Chateau d’lf for 13 years. Did you suffer? What happened afterward?
Edmond: Much.
Mercedes: Why did you not come to me?
Edmond: Why did you not wait? You married the very man who betrayed…

She holds up her hand. He is suddenly speechless at the sight of her finger with the piece of twine tied around it like a ring, that Edmond put there years before.

Mercedes:I told you that night on the rocks, remember? It would never leave my finger. And it never has.
Edmond: Why?
Mercedes: You know why.
Edmond: If you ever loved me… don’t… don’t rob me of my hate. It’s all I have.
Mercedes: Let it go, Edmond. Let it go. I don’t know what dark plan lies within you. Nor do I know by what design we were asked… to live without each other these 1 6 years. But God has offered us a new beginning…
Edmond: God?
Mercedes: Don’t slap His hand away.
Edmond: Can I never escape Him?
Mercedes: No. He is in everything. Even in a kiss.

She’s kisses him.

The Count of Monte Cristo (2002), screenplay by Jay Wolpert, novel by Alexandre Dumas

The Daily Dialogue theme for the week: Vengeance, suggested by Jon Raymond. Today’s suggestion by Jon.

Trivia: Jay Wolpert deliberately rewrote the Dumas story so that Mondego and Dantes started out as best friends; his logic was that it would be a ‘buddy’ film that turned sinister. Wolpert believed that when a friendship soured, the hate generated was both more terrible and more believable.

Dialogue On Dialogue: Commentary by Jon: “This is a pivotal scene in Edmond’s transformation from seeking vengeance to becoming human and accepting his past fate, and his new found success. Until this point he had been stripped of everything that mattered to him. Even though he regained riches and a friend in Jacopo, and now in Mercedes, he has no loyalty nor caring for anyone. He is focused relentlessly on vengeance. But Mercedes brings him to see the light. He cannot ignore her, in his face with her twine ring, evidence of her own suffering through the years. She melts him. Edmond had become so obsessed with vengeance that he would forsake his own happiness and shut out everyone and everything to carry it out, even himself. His vengeance was all he had left. It is all he was.

It seems interesting that vengeance was a strong theme in these early French related works, as in A Tale of Two Cities, or Les Miserables. It also lends itself well to dramatic story. A person filled with relentless vengeance makes for a very strong driving character, like a runaway train. It makes for a great plot to explain what made the character vengeful, what happens to the people around them, and what extremes they will go to. Perhaps this is what makes it classic, surviving all these centuries, seeming relevant even today. There is something to be said for writing that becomes classic, and what we can learn from it.

There is a sub-theme of God (opposing vengeance). In an earlier prison scene, Edmond’s mentor, the priest, Abbé Faria, speaks to him in another memorable moment:

Abbe Faria: Here is your final lesson – do not commit the crime for which you now serve the sentence. God said, “Vengeance is mine.”
Edmond Dantes: I don’t believe in God.
Abbe Faria: It doesn’t matter. He believes in you.

Later after he first encounters Mercedes and turns her away, Jacopo confronts him, again, to question his vengeance:

Edmond: If you ever presume to interfere in my affairs again, I will, I promise you, finish the job I started the day we met! Do you understand?
Jacopo: I understand you are mad.
Edmond: Mad? My enemies are falling into my traps perfectly!
Jacopo: Mad, your grace, for ignoring this: you have a fortune, a beautiful woman who loves you. Take the money, take the woman, and live your life! Stop this plan, take what you have won!
Edmond: I can’t.
Jacopo: Why not?… I’m still your man, Satara. I swore an oath I will protect you. Even if it means I must protect you from yourself. I’ll drive you home now.

This script is full of such classic scenes.

If you have a suggestion for this week’s theme, please click on Reply and post in comments. Thanks!

Go Into The Story Week In Review: September 15-September 21, 2014

September 21st, 2014 by

Links to the week’s most notable posts:

An Argument Against Screenplay Formulas (Part 1): They are selling you a lie

An Argument Against Screenplay Formulas (Part 2): Formulas lead to formulaic writing

An Argument Against Screenplay Formulas (Part 3): They diminish the craft of screenwriting

An Argument Against Screenplay Formulas (Part 4): They make the job of a screenwriter more difficult

An Argument Against Screenplay Formulas (Part 5): Times have changed and so have expectations for a screenplay

Bookworm data hack lets you map every word in 100,000 screenplays

Classic 70s Movie: All the President’s Men

Classic 70s Movie: Midnight Express

Classic 70s Movie: Murder By Death

Classic 70s Movie: The Getaway

Classic 70s Movie: The Parallax View

Classic 70s Movie: What’s Up, Doc?

Classic 70s Movie: Young Frankenstein

Daily Dialogue Theme for Next Week: Vengeance

Declare Your Independents: Volume 30

Documentary: Rosemary’s Baby

Go Into The Story Interview: 2013 Screenwriters Roundtable

Great Character: Lux Lisbon (The Virgin Suicides)

Interview (Video): Jenji Kohan

Interview (Written): Scott Frank

Interview (Written): Stephen King

On Writing: Flannery O’Connor

Reader Question: Given the odds against success, how do you keep motivated?

Saturday Hot Links

Screenwriting 101: Scott Rothman

Screenwriting News (September 15-September 121, 2014)

Script To Screen: Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery

Spec Script Sale: “In the Deep”

Spec Script Sale: “North of Reno”

Spec Script Sale: “Road to Oz”

Spec Script Sale: “Scarecrow”

Twitter Rant: Eric Heisserer on Drafts, Parentheticals, Respect

Twitter Rant: Eric Heisserer on Loglines

Twitter Rant: Eric Heisserer on Minimalist Screenwriting Style

Twitter Rant: Eric Heisserer on Pitching

Twitter Rant: Eric Heisserer on the Screenwriter’s Creative Power

Writing and the Creative Life: The act of writing provides health benefits

Screenwriters Roundtable: Chris Borrelli, F. Scott Frazier, Chris McCoy, Justin Rhodes, Greg Russo, John Swetnam

September 21st, 2014 by

Last week we were fortunate to feature a screenwriter’s roundtable I did with a group of talented Hollywood screenwriters: Chris Borrelli, F. Scott Frazier, Chris McCoy, Justin Rhodes, Greg Russo, and John Swetnam. How good are they? Between them, they have sold more than a dozen spec scripts and have multiple original screenplays on the Black List.

Here are links to all six installments of the interview:

Part 1: “Writing scripts is fun, but I’d rather be making movies.” — F. Scott Frazier

Part 2: “I’ve watched certain things I’ve written be kind of screwed up over my career, and I want to screw them up. Why not me? I can screw it up, too.”  — Chris Borrelli

Part 3: “If I could translate just a bit of advice for anybody that might be reading this, I would say if you’re going to write something to break in, you probably want to target that under 15 million range, something that has the potential to be read by as many buyers as possible.” — Greg Russo

Part 4: “In terms of staying immersed, a lot of the elements of the story sort of made my head hurt. Kind of just coming in every day and looking at it. I probably read the book 50 times and that’s probably not an exaggeration.” — Justin Rhodes

Part 5: ” I do think that if the audience really cares about a character, they’ll follow you anywhere. You can be the best at plot in the world, but if people don’t care about who they’re looking at up on the screen, then it’s not going to matter.” — Chris McCoy

Part 6: “I think it also comes down to everybody’s process is completely different. I know some writers that do three, four, or five-page bios on their characters. Some can just do a paragraph.” — John Swetnam

Thanks to all involved and the best of luck in your writing careers! We look forward to seeing the many movies you write hit theaters in the future.