Screenwriting 101: Michael Arndt

October 21st, 2014 by

“On Tuesday, May 23, 2000, at 4:27 p.m., I sat down to write LMS [Little Miss Sunshine]. I wrote twelve pages the first day, thirty-seven pages the second, and–pulling an all-nighter–fifty-four pages on the third day. I finished the first draft at 9:56 a.m. on Friday, May 26. Then I spent a year rewriting it.

On July 29, 2001–a Sunday–I heard from Tom Strickler.

On December 21, 2001–the Friday before the holidays–the script was purchased by producer Marc Turtletaub.

Principal photography began on June 6, 2005, and ended–after thirty shooting days–on July 18.

The film had its world premiere on January 20, 2006, at Sundance, and was bought by Fox Searchlight the next day.

Little Miss Sunshine opened in theaters on July 26, 2006.

As of this writing (November 6, 2006), it has grossed $75 million worldwide.

So the film has “succeeded,” and I have (temporarily, at least) escaped from the jaws of failure.

In many ways, though, my life has remained much as it was in 2000. I still rent the same one-bedroom walk-up in Brooklyn, and I still spend my days sitting in a chair and staring at a computer (though the chair is more comfortable and the computer is nicer). The main difference is I don’t worry about having to get a day job. (Not yet, anyway).

A number of people who know my story have been quick to seize upon it as a rewards-of-virtue narrative–all that effort and persistence, they tell me, was bound to pay off. In this view of the world, character is destiny and success is the logical–almost inevitable–consequence of hard work, patience, and a shrewdly applied intelligence.

That is not how I see things.

From my perspective, the difference between success and failure was razor-thin and depended–to a terrifying degree–upon chance, serendipity, and all manner of things beyond my control. A thousand things could have gone wrong in the five years it took to turn Little Miss Sunshine into a movie, any one of which could have destroyed the project.

Yet at every turn the script was met with good fortune; every setback was revealed to be a blessing in disguise. I was lucky to stumble upon the right agents, who got it to the right producers, who chose the right directors, who cast (perfectly) the right actor and hired the right crew. A single misstep in this concatenation and the film would have been made badly or, more likely, not at all.

Which brings me–in a roundabout way–to Richard Hoover, Winning and Losing, and the underlying concerns of Little Miss Sunshine.

All of us lead two lives–our public lives, which are visible to others, and our private lives, which are not. Richard is obsessed with the values of public life–status, rank, “success.” His view of the world, divided into Winners and Losers, judges everyone–including himself–accordingly. These values have become seemingly inescapable–including himself–accordingly. These values have become seemingly inescapable in our media-saturated culture–from American Idol, to professional sports, to the weekend box office reports. Everything, it seems, has become a contest.

The problem with this worldview is that it neglects and devalues the realm of the private–family, friendship, romance, childhood, pleasure, imagination, and the concerns of the spirit. Our private lives–invisible to the outside world–tend to be far richer and more gratifying than the rewards of public life. We would do well, as poets and philosophers have long advised, to turn away from the bustle of the world and cultivate the gardens of our souls.

And yet–as I learned in July 2001–it is extremely difficult to set aside the judgments of the world and march to your own drummer. To “do what you love and fuck the rest,” as Dwayne says. That is a hard path, and not often one that leads to happiness or fulfillment (see van Gogh’s letters). I wouldn’t recommend it to everyone.

What I would recommend–and this is the central hope of the movie–is that we make an effort to judge our lives and the lives of others according to our own criteria, distinct from the facile and shallow judgments of the marketplace.

James Joyce once said we should treat both success and failure as the impostors they are. I would humbly concur–the real substance of life is elsewhere.”

– Michael Arndt, “Little Miss Sunshine: Screenplay and Notes by Michael Arndt,” PP. x-xii.

Daily Dialogue — October 21, 2014

October 21st, 2014 by

“I feel… cold.”

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003), screenplay by Ted Elliott &
Terry Rossio, screen story by Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio and Stuart Beattie and Jay Wolpert

The Daily Dialogue theme for the week: Dying Words. Today’s suggestion by Sam Tyler.

Trivia: The name “Barbossa” might have been derived from the real Turkish pirate “Barbarossa”. Barbarossa, also known as “Redbeard”, was once a pirate in the Aegean and the Mediterranean seas before he became a fleet admiral of the Ottoman Empire navy.

Dialogue On Dialogue: Commentary by Sam: “The first draft below doesn’t have this line and the whole battle is very different.

==================================================================
Jack stands out of the moonlight, flesh and blood again,
holding his smoking pistol, still aimed at Barbossa.

BARBOSSA (CONT’D)
Hah. Ten years you carried that
pistol, and you end up wasting your
shot.

WILL
He didn’t waste it.

Will stands over the Aztec chest, holding a bloody sword, his
left hand in a fist. He opens the fist –

– the medallion, blood covering it, drops from his hand,
revealing the cut in his palm.

Barbossa stares, then looks down at his chest. Blood blossoms
on his shirt around the bullet hole. It spreads quickly.

Barbossa clutches his chest, his face registering pain for the
first time in years. Barbossa falls heavily to the ground,
dead.
==================================================================
The emotional impact is amazing. At first, Barbossa registers excitement and happiness, followed by confusion and shock. All this represented in 3 words. Minimum words, maximum impact.

For those who don’t know, there is a great commentary on the DVD with Terry Rosio and Ted Elliot. It is one of the best screenwriting commentaries out there in my not-so-humble opinion.”

Wrangling your story

October 20th, 2014 by

Some call it breaking a story. Others cracking a story. I prefer wrangling a story. Whatever you call it, you have to do it… figure out the story. What goes where. Who does what to whom. And for most writers, the ideal time to do that work is before you type FADE IN.

What we call prep-writing.

Of the many things that can go wrong with a screenplay, perhaps the most frequent contributor to a project’s crash-and-burn is the writer not spending enough time in prep wrangling their story.

Conversely if you do spend sufficient time in the prep-writing phase of the process, you significantly increase the chances you’ll not only finish your script, but produce a draft that will be much closer to realizing your goals.

WranglingComplexity

When Tom Benedek and I launched Screenwriting Master Class nearly four years ago, the very first class we offered was Prep: From Concept To Outline. I created the workshop precisely because I believe so strongly in the value of prep-writing combined with the fact there is nothing out there remotely close to the approach I had in mind.

Prep: From Concept To Outline is a 6-week online workshop in which you start with your basic idea and your story’s Protagonist, then through a series of weekly writing exercises, you develop and build your story’s structure. Not just the plot, but also what’s going on in the emotional and psychological world of your story universe, the foundation of Character Based Screenwriting.

Character work. Brainstorming. Plotting. Subplots. Connecting the dots. Mapping your narrative. Weekly teleconferences where we workshop your story. In the end, you have a detailed outline providing you a foundation upon which you can craft a first draft.

What’s more, you can adopt this approach — and adapt it to your own unique skills — for every future writing project.

I will be leading the next session of Prep beginning next Monday, October 27. So if you have a good idea for a movie and want to learn a professional approach to wrangle it, sign up now for Prep: From Concept To Outline.

If you have any questions about the workshop or what we offer online through SMC, please post in comments or email me.

Amazing things happen in these workshops, so I look forward to the opportunity to dig into your story with you!

The 2014 For Your Consideration Screenplay Download Season officially begins!

October 20th, 2014 by

It’s that time of year again when studios make available PDFs of movie scripts for award season. As in years past, we will be tracking them and posting links as they become available.

Current total of 2014 scripts for download: 1.

Newly added script: Get On Up

Get On Up (Universal Pictures)

get on up poster

Studios also make production notes available:

A Million Ways to Die in the West

Get On Up

Magic in the Moonlight

As the scripts become available, we will add them to our Movie Script Download archive, all of the scripts official, free and legal.

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 2014? Right here as Wendy Cohen and I will be tracking and aggregating them as they go public.

Austin Film Festival: Do you have questions for Whit Stillman?

October 20th, 2014 by

The Austin Film Festival and Conference begins later this week and I’ll be there as part of the Black List team speaking at three events and moderating three others. For those of you who will not be attending the Festival, I want to give you a virtual opportunity to participate with the possibility I will select some of your questions to ask panelists during my moderating sessions.

Austin Film Festival

A Conversation with Whit Stillman: Sunday, October 26 • 3:00pm – 4:15pm
The Driskill Hotel, Ballroom

Come absorb the wit and wisdom emanating from author, screenwriter, and director Whit Stillman. Known for writing and directing the films Metropolitan, Barcelona, The Last Days of Disco, and Damsels in Distress, Stillman is a modern Jane Austen, critiquing the “urban haute bourgeoisie” with satirical charm. Learn about the art of observation, contemplation, and articulation in your stories while enjoying some “Whitty” repartee along the way.

The focus of our conversation will be the writing and creative process behind the movie Metropolitan, so fans of the movie and Whit as a filmmaker, head to comments and post your questions. I will consider including the best ones for our discussion.

You may follow Whit on Twitter:

Whit Stillman: @WhitStillman

For those of you who will be at this year’s AFF, be sure to look me up. Also we will have a very casual Go Into The Story / Screenwriting Master Class meet-up in the Driskill Hotel bar area on Sunday, October 26 beginning at 4:30PM. Spread the word and see you there!

Austin Film Festival: Do you have questions for Craig Borten, Tom Schulman and Jim Uhls?

October 20th, 2014 by

The Austin Film Festival and Conference begins later this week and I’ll be there as part of the Black List team speaking at three events and moderating three others. For those of you who will not be attending the Festival, I want to give you a virtual opportunity to participate with the possibility I will select some of your questions to ask panelists during my moderating sessions.

Austin Film Festival

Status Quo: Saturday, October 25 • 10:45am – 12:00pm
The Driskill Hotel, Ballroom

Some of the most satisfying screenplays revolve around characters who choose not to conform to the status quo. Whether they are carpe-ing the diem or smuggling drugs to save lives, the act of taking matters into their own hands makes for rich and often emotional stories. Hear from the writers behind Dead Poets Society, Dallas Buyers Club, and Fight Club for a conversation on ways to infuse themes of status quo in your screenplay, and where to break your own rules in regards to story structure and development.

If you have any questions for Craig Borten (Dallas Buyers Club), Tom Schulman (Dead Poets Society), and Jim Uhls (Fight Club), please post them in comments. Make sure they have some relevance to the subject of the session as detailed in the paragraph above and I will consider including the best questions for the discussion.

You may follow these screenwriters on Twitter:

Craig Borten: @CraigBorten
Jim Uhls: @wohojak

For those of you who will be at this year’s AFF, be sure to look me up. Also we will have a very casual Go Into The Story / Screenwriting Master Class meet-up in the Driskill Hotel bar area on Sunday, October 26 beginning at 4:30PM. Spread the word and see you there!

Austin Film Festival: Do you have questions for John August, Richard Kelly and Jim Uhls?

October 20th, 2014 by

The Austin Film Festival and Conference begins later this week and I’ll be there as part of the Black List team speaking at three events and moderating three others. For those of you who will not be attending the Festival, I want to give you a virtual opportunity to participate with the possibility I will select some of your questions to ask panelists during my moderating sessions.

Austin Film Festival

The Sanity Spectrum: Friday, October 24, 10:45AM-12:00PM
St. David’s Episcopal Church, Bethel Hall

The protagonist is often the audience’s guide through a narrative, the anchor for all the twists and turns a story reveals. So what happens when that character is not what he or she seems, and when the very core of the film’s veracity is called into question? Screenwriters who have crafted characters that range from psychotic to psychopathic will discuss the difference between the two, as well as their own mental decisions when crafting such complex characters. Join the brains behind Fight Club, Big Fish, and Donnie Darko for an inside look at exploring distorted realities and the sanity spectrum in screenplays. We promise they’ll tell the truth.

If you have any questions for John August (Big Fish), Richard Kelly (Donnie Darko), and Jim Uhls (Fight Club), please post them in comments. Make sure they have some relevance to the subject of the session as detailed in the paragraph above and I will consider including the best questions for the discussion.

You may follow these screenwriters on Twitter:

John August: @JohnAugust
Richard Kelly: @JRichardKelly
Jim Uhls: @wohojak

For those of you who will be at this year’s AFF, be sure to look me up. Also we will have a very casual Go Into The Story / Screenwriting Master Class meet-up in the Driskill Hotel bar area on Sunday, October 26 beginning at 4:30PM. Spread the word and see you there!

Video: “The Wire” cast reunion

October 20th, 2014 by

Via Slate:

On Thursday night, as part of the Paley Center for Media’s PaleyFest 2014, the cast of  The Wire reunited for an hour-long panel discussion, which you can watch in full above. Though not everyone could attend—Dominic West and Idris Elba chimed in via video messages—the panel included the show’s co-creator David Simon and executive producer Nina Kostroff Noble as well as cast members Michael K. Williams (Omar), Wendell Pierce (Bunk), Sonja Sohn (Kima), Seth Gilliam (Carver), Jim True-Frost (Prezbo), John Doman (Rawls), Lawrence Gilliard, Jr. (D’Angelo), and Jamie Hector (Marlo). More cast members—Tristan Wilds, J.D. Williams, Bob Wisdom, and Michelle Paress—were seated in the audience.

Here is video of the event:

Just makes me miss “The Wire” even more.

Slate article here.

Movie Trailer: “The Humbling”

October 20th, 2014 by

Screenplay by Buck Henry, Michal Zebede, novel by Philip Roth

An aged and addled actor has his world turned upside down after he embarks upon an affair with a lesbian, in this acidulous adaptation of the Philip Roth novel.

IMDB

Release Date: 23 January 2015 (USA)

Great Scene: “Life of Brian”

October 20th, 2014 by

October is Great Scene month at Go Into The Story whereby we put a spotlight on notable movie scenes, then analyze and discuss them. Their structure, themes, character dynamics. Why do they work? What are their narrative elements that elevate them to greatness? Let’s face it: In a fundamental way, screenwriting is scene-writing, so the more we learn about this aspect of the craft, the better.

Today: The 1979 movie Life of Brian, written by Graham Chapman & John Cleese & Terry Gilliam & Eric Idle & Terry Jones & Michael Palin. IMDB plot summary:

Brian is born on the original Christmas, in the stable next door. He spends his life being mistaken for a messiah.

Brian (Graham Chapman) attempts to escape a crowd of devotees who believe that he is the Messiah.

Given my background in theological studies and my adoration of the Monty Python troupe, I found Life of Brian to be both provocative and extremely funny. This scene encapsulates just about every theme and dynamic in the movie: mistaken identity, Brian denying his divinity, believers so desperate for hope their ‘faith’ trumps all logic, along with lots of inanity. The debate between Brian and the crowed reaches a peak with this exchange:

Brian: I’m not the Messiah! Will you please listen? I am not the Messiah, do you understand? Honestly!
Girl: Only the true Messiah denies His divinity.
Brian: What? Well, what sort of chance does that give me? All right! I am the Messiah!
Followers: He is! He is the Messiah!
Brian: Now, fuck off!

[silence]

Arthur: How shall we fuck off, O Lord?

The use of the F-word is the ultimate expression of Brian’s frustration. It’s also quite a shock to think that a Messiah would use such foul language. All that is funny enough. But then the topper: The believers are so cocksure they have found a Savior, they are willing to embrace the profanity as part of a possible path to follow Brian.

To read all of the entries in the Great Scene archive, go here.If you have an idea for this Great Scene series, check out the responses people have made so far here. If you have a different scene in mind you think would be worthy of analysis, please post it there or in comments for this post. Thanks!