Austin Film Festival’s 25 Screenwriters to Watch, 2016

July 21st, 2016 by

Just released yesterday by MovieMaker magazine:

Screenwriters are, of course, the perennially overworked, underappreciated artists whose heart, soul and lifeblood the movie world depends on.

Since its inception in 1993 the Austin Film Festival (AFF) has valiantly worked to erode the “underappreciated” part by championing screenwriters through its Writers Conference, film programs and screenplay/teleplay competitions; now the festival wants to share some of these stars with the world. With different backgrounds, and at different stages in their careers, the moviemakers on this inaugural list (presented in no particular order) possess original voices, keen storytelling sensibilities and bright and buzzy futures. Take a quick look at their faces; you’ll hear their words soon enough.

Here they are:

VJ Boyd

Who: Writer and producer for TV series Justified and The Player; author of graphic novel Ghost Cop; currently producing pilot The Jury for ABC.

David Broyles

Who: Former pararescueman in Iraq and Afghanistan; has sold several screenplays; recently co-created dramatic series Six for the History Channel.

Matt Cook

Who: Writer of Triple 9 (2016), The Duel (2016) and the upcoming Paul the Apostle, produced by Ben Affleck, Matt Damon and Hugh Jackman (who stars); served two combat tours in Iraq and as a former correspondent in Afghanistan.

Mike Covino and Sam Kretchmar

Who: New York-based writers (amongst other things) of Keep in Touch (2015), their debut feature.

Negin Farsad

Who: Comedian; director-producer of comedic docs Nerdcore Rising (2008) and The Muslims Are Coming! (2013), and narrative 3rd Street Blackout (2016); author of recently published How to Make White People Laugh.

Kieran Fitzgerald

Notable Works: Wrote documentary The Ballad of Esequiel Hernández (2007); co-wrote The Homesman (2014) with Tommy Lee Jones and Wesley Oliver; co-wrote upcoming Snowden with Oliver Stone.

Jared Frieder

Who: Dropped out of USC’s Screenwriting MFA program to write for ABC Family’s Chasing Life; wrote 2014 AFF-winning screenplay Three Months which made the 2015 Black List; writing for MTV’s upcoming Little Darlings.

Sasha Gordon

Who: Composer and moviemaker born in St. Petersburg; has scored, amongst others, Gortimer Gibbon’s Life on Normal Street. Recently wrote and directed debut feature It Had to Be You (2015).

Kevin Hamedani

Who: Wrote and directed ZMD: Zombies of Mass Destruction (2010) and Junk (2013); created the short “In Her Place (2015) as a proof-of-concept for a feature currently in development.

Eric Haywood

Who: Music video director-producer for Usher, Cee-lo Green, Outkast and others; wrote Charles Burnett-directed Relative Stranger (2009); co-producer and writer on Empire.

Julie Howe

Who: Wrote screenplays Jasper Milliken (2010) and Down on the Farm (2014); is also the executive producer and writer of spec pilot The Adventures of Catty Wompus (2015).

Eric Hueber

Who Wrote and directed documentary Rainbows End (2010) and Flutter (2014).

Brian Klugman

Who: Co-wrote The Words (2012) with Lee Sternthal; wrote, directed and starred in Baby, Baby, Baby (2015).

Andrew Lanham

Who: L.A.-transplant born in Maine; wrote the award-winning screenplay The Jumper of Maine (2010); co-wrote Destin Daniel Cretton’s upcoming The Glass Castle based on Jeannette Walls’ memoir.

Nina Ljeti

Who: Bosnian-Canadian moviemaker and musician for manic-wave rock band Nani; co-wrote and co-directed 2016 feature Memoria; adapting a biopic on Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead and writing feature Beautiful Children.

Troy Anthony Miller

Who: Wrote and directed microbudget Severance (2005); also wrote horror screenplay The Hitch. Performs in his nationally-touring improv-comedy troupe Confidence Men: Improvised Mamet.

Tess Morris

Who: London-born, L.A.-based writer of Man Up (2015); currently writing Textbook Behaviour and co-writing comedy drama Dead to Me.

Faraday Okoro

Who: Nigerian-American filmmaker pursuing an MFA at NYU; known for the shorts “Full-Windsor” (2014) and “Blitz” (2015).

Maya Perez

Who: Producer on television series On Story: Presented by Austin Film Festival; currently writing feature Bring Back Our Girls and pilot The Bohemians.

Edward Ricourt

Who: Wrote Now You See Me (2013) and the upcoming Year 12; currently writing for Wayward Pines; served as a consulting producer on Jessica Jones.

Arturo Ruiz Serrano

Who: Spanish law graduate with filmmaking degree; multiple-award-winning shorts; first feature is The Exile (2015).

Annie Silverstein

Who: Writer-director of short “Skunk,” winner of a Cannes 2014 jury award, amongst other accolades; Sundance Institute Fellow; planning to shoot feature Bull in fall, 2017.

Ya’ke Smith

Who: Writer-director of shorts “Katrina’s Son,” “dawn.,” “Hope’s War and “One Hitta Quitta,” and 2012 South by Southwest-premiering feature Wolf; had February 23, 2013 proclaimed Ya’Ke Smith Day by the City of Buffalo, New York; professor at University of Texas, Arlington.

Max Taxe

Who: Writer of 2012 Black-Listed and AFF-winning comedy feature Goodbye, Felix Chester, currently in production.

Monica Zanetti

Who: Screenwriter and actress behind features Skin Deep (2014) and Amy’s Baby (in development); also series Young Politicians and short “On Hold for Taylor.

David Broyles participated in the very first Prep: From Concept to Outline workshop I offered back in 2010.

You can read my interview with Tess Morris here.

The MovieMaker article features brief interviews with all of the writers. To read more, go here.

Update: 2016 Black List Screenwriters Lab

July 20th, 2016 by

When: October 16-22, 2016

Where: Los Angeles

Cost: All expenses paid

Information: Here.

NOTE: THE EVALUATIONS DEADLINE IS AUGUST 6TH!

I have participated in all eight Black List screenwriting labs and each has been a tremendous experience. You can read testimonials from participating writers below:

Athena Film Festival

Chicago

Las Vegas

Los Angeles

New York

San Francisco

Toronto

I am scheduled to be a mentor once again in the October session in Los Angeles. A few observations about what it’s been like for writers to work with me in these sessions:

“A very special thank you to Scott Myers, the ultimate screenwriting guru. You are amazing!” — Jennifer Noonan (Athena Film Festival)

“We were able to dive into the scripts in our first workshop with Scott, who challenged and guided us in discovering the core elements of our own stories. He had this zen master ability to get us to look at our script from different angles, which led to us being honest with ourselves on what we felt were the strengths and weaknesses in the scripts, as well as ‘why?’ we were writing these stories.” — Mark Fleming (Chicago)

“We ended the lab with a group workshop led by Scott. Together we sifted through the feedback we had been given and then added feedback for each other. Scott took us through some writing techniques, strategies, and theories. I found his notes illuminating and helpful in clarifying questions I had about all the feedback I was given over the course of two days.” — Chloe Hung (Los Angeles)

“Then, in our wrap-up session with Scott Myers, we discussed the mentor advice and our comments on each other’s scripts. Scott pulled together all the information, focused our attention, and brought home the obligation we have to develop a character’s needs and the journey to achieve them. Teacher, mentor, philosophical guru—he gently and gradually brought us from a place of disorientation to a place of clarity. The experience was like being cocooned inside a supportive and nurturing environment. Nothing existed outside the lab—only the story and only the writing mattered.” — Yvonne Paulin (New York)

“We also were given the opportunity to workshop each other’s scripts with the awesome Scott Myers as our moderator. Scott’s approach was both systematic and personal. Scott asked a series of thought-provoking questions, which later aided us in discussing our personal ties to the scripts at present and to the stories we ultimately wanted to tell with them.” — Elizabeth Oyebode (San Francisco)

“A quick word about Scott. I’ve long-appreciated the work he does on GoIntoTheStory, especially his 1, 2, 7, 14 technique and his Definitive Spec Script Deals List. And that passion that fuels the blog is so totally evident when you meet him in person. Being around Scott reminds you that telling stories is one of the most wondrous and life-enhancing things human beings do. It’s an infectious enthusiasm that set the perfect tone for our in-depth workshop sessions. And he didn’t just focus on our current scripts but the next idea, the next story, the next step on your journey towards an actual writing career. Had his passport mysteriously disappeared on the final evening, thereby prolonging his stay in Canada for a few more days years, I can think of four writers who would have been very, very happy.” — Stephen Davis (Toronto)

The work I do at Go Into The Story and Screenwriting Master Class is the same as my involvement as a mentor at Black List screenwriting labs. I am full-tilt and on-board to help writers realize their highest creative ambitions. That’s one big reason why I’m excited about this upcoming event in October.

If you have questions about the 2016 Black List Screenwriters Lab, here are some helpful links:

Toronto BL3 SM

Quick reminder. I don’t get paid for anything I do with the Black List, so in promoting these labs, I do it because I am passionate about working with writers, helping them dig into their stories as well as explore the creative aspects of who they are. It is incredibly gratifying to see Black List lab writers I have worked with go on to success like Simon Nagle, Savion Einstein, and many others. Hopefully these stories will translate into something we see in movie theaters because now more than ever, we need new, fresh, and diverse voices in Hollywood.

If you are so inclined, check out the October session of the Black List Screenwriters Lab. I hope to have the opportunity to work with you.

Onward!

Werner Herzog calls three-act structure “brainless”. Is it?

July 19th, 2016 by

Werner Herzog is teaching an online filmmaking class and in this promotional video gives his take on three-act structure:

Transcript:

“This whole three-act structure that is being taught in film school is kind of ridiculous. What is three acts in Aguirre? In that the leading character at a certain point at the end has to change and has to be a different man. No, not so. Not Aguirre. Aguirre is bad and only worse at the end. So it doesn’t function with me like that. Sometimes there may be something like five or six acts in the film I have made. I think it’s brainless. It’s really brainless to structure yourself in it. Very often it’s a signature of mediocre filmmaking.”

Herzog is a remarkable filmmaker, both fiction and documentaries. He’s a writer, director, producer, and has even staged operas. Some of his more notable movies: Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972), Stroszek (1977), Fitzcarraldo (1982), Burden of Dreams (1982), Grizzly Man (2005), and Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009). That we should take his comments seriously is a given, however I think they deserve closer scrutiny because he seems to be implying a couple of things which are not necessarily associated with three-act structure.

First, let’s acknowledge that three-act structure is at its core simply a way of looking at how a movie’s narrative is constructed. It echoes Aristotle’s take in “Poetics”:

“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.”

Technically speaking at its purest level, that’s all three-act structure is about: Beginning. Middle. End.

What Herzog is critiquing is something not necessarily associated with three-act structure, rather it’s the idea of what is often called a character’s ‘arc’, as Herzog puts it, “the leading character at a certain point at the end has to change and has to be a different man.”

Indeed Herzog implies something even more specific and that is how a character needs to go through a positive change. We can infer that from this comment: “Not Aguirre. Aguirre is bad and only worse at the end.”

I think that is the primary thing which Herzog is calling ‘brainless’, that there is some sort of rule whereby a character, most often the Protagonist, must have a positive arc. With that, I agree. Some Protagonists refuse to change. Others have a negative arc, even to the point of self-destruction. Still other Protagonists don’t change, instead acting as change agents who inspire or compel other characters to go through some sort of personal metamorphosis. But this critique of a positive arc is not something by definition attributable to three-act structure.

Now if what Herzog is trying to say — that the Hollywood convention is (A) stories should be told in three acts and (B) the Protagonist must have a positive arc, which frankly is pretty much a default mode in development circles — and that we as storytellers must slavishly stick to this particular paradigm, that is, indeed, brainless. We should feel free to write any and all types of stories, follow them where they lead us. Three acts, five acts, six acts, eight sequences, dozens of sequences… whatever. As long as the structure reflects an honest account of the story as it unfolds in our creative process, we ought to embrace the flexibility to create anything and everything.

That said, two final observations about why I would advise caution in trampling three-act structure. First, everyone in the Hollywood acquisition and development community talks in terms of three acts. As a writer, you can craft a story with however many acts or sequences as you want, however in story meetings, you have to be able to translate that into three acts because that’s the most universal language of screenplay structure in Hollywood.

Second, I don’t care how many acts, sequences, or scenes a script has. I don’t care if it’s told forward, backward, or nonlinear. If it’s a mainstream or even indie movie, not an experimental film, that story is going to have a beginning, middle, and end. Why? Because those three movements are innate to story:

The Hero’s Journey: Separation. Initiation. Return.
Sonata Form: Exposition. Development. Recapitulation.
Hegel: Thesis. Antithesis. Synthesis.
Human Existence: Birth. Life. Death.
Aristotle: Beginning. Middle. End.

Each movement can be and almost always is divided up into smaller subsets of beats or scenes, but still they exist within these three overarching narrative pieces. Besides rather than looking at this as something which restricts creativity, why not think of three-act structure as simply providing a context? And within that context, we as writers have total freedom to do whatever we want.

For more information on Herzog’s master filmmaking class, go here.

Last chance to do story prep workshop with me in 2016!

July 18th, 2016 by

By now, most of you know I have accepted an offer to become an assistant professor at the School of Cinematic Arts at DePaul University. In the near term that means…

* I am busy packing to move our family to Chicago so…

* I have pushed back the start date of my next Prep: From Concept to Outline workshop from July 25 to August 8 and…

* This will be the last Prep workshop I offer until the summer 2017.

That’s right, if you’ve ever thought about working with me in this unique workshop which I created and have taught with great success over the last 5+ years, this is the time.

I love teaching the course because I find it exciting to dig into a new batch of stories and because the process we use can have a transformational effect on writers, which is a wonderful thing to behold. For example, here is an email sent to me from Dawn LeFever who worked with me in the Prep workshop in October-November 2014:

Hey Scott –

Hope you and your family are well. I know you are about to begin another prep course and I thought I’d give you a little insight you might want to share with your new students.

Since taking the course last year at this time, I not only wrote the script I prepped in class, but have written three more since then, having just completed the first draft of the third one yesterday. I LOVE this process and it feels really organic to me.

Every time I begin a new project, I pull out my notebook with the reading assignments and work through the process just as we did in class. I sort of begin the brainstorming list from day one and just add to it whenever anything comes to me while working through the process. I also use note cards before going to outline because it helps me with pacing.

Then, when I’m writing, I have both my script and my outline on my screen and just write away, checking back at the outline to stay on track. More than a few times, as I’m writing, I think about a line of dialog or an action and then look back at my outline and realize what I have in the outline is much better than what was occurring to me in the moment.

At other times, while writing, I will find ways to weave moments in the script that foreshadow what happens later, because I know what’s coming thanks to the thorough prep process.

In other words, as you say, I do truly break the story in prep, which makes the writing so much easier and (hopefully) deeper and richer. I easily knock out 10 pages a day with this process.

I know there are as many different ways to approach writing as there are writers, but, for me, your process makes everything click and, even more, allows me to get really excited to finally sit down and write.

In the past year, I have had some encouraging responses – I was in the top 15% of the Nicholl Fellowship screenplays and was in the top 50 for the ISA Fast Track Fellowship. I made the quarter finals for the Screencrafting Comedy Competition with two scripts (One of them a rewritten version of Smoker’s Choice).

So… forging ahead and having a blast!

Thanks again for everything and tell the folks IT WORKS!!!

All the best,
Dawn

When Tom Benedek and I launched Screenwriting Master Class over 5 years ago, the very first course I created was Prep: From Concept to Outline. Why? Because no one else was teaching story prep for screenwriting. That struck me as crazy because most professional screenwriters I know and all TV writers break their story in prep.

Since 2010, I have led over 20 online sessions of Prep and worked privately with dozens of writers. The response has been almost universally like the sentiments expressed by Dawn above.

I literally tell writers at the beginning of every Prep workshop: “If you do the work… it works.”

In fact, Christian Contreras whose script “LAbyrinth” made the 2015 Black List is a Screenwriting Master Class alumnus, having taken this same Prep class with me back in 2014. And Verity Colquhoun, an Australian writer who did a private one-on-one version of my Prep class in 2011, let me know the script she wrote (“Wonderful Unknown”) landed a director and is slated to go into production this fall.

It’s not magic. It’s just a proven, professional approach to develop your story, stage by stage, from concept all the way to outline, beat sheet, or treatment, whichever you prefer.

Writing Scrabble

Consider joining my next session of Prep. But whether you take a class with me or not, it’s imperative you learn some sort of approach to story prep.

Can you imagine routinely writing 10 pages per day? Can you imagine being able to write 3 full-length screenplays in a year? Can you imagine actually enjoying the page-writing process?

As Dawn suggests, all of that can happen if you wrangle your story before you type FADE IN.

And as I say, this is the last time I will be teaching the Prep workshop until summer 2017.

NOTE: I will cap enrollment for this session, so if you are interested in taking it, I advise you to enroll sooner rather than later.

To check out the Prep: From Concept to Outline workshop which begins Monday, August 8, go here.

2016 Mid-Year Spec Script Deal Word Cloud Logline Challenge!

July 18th, 2016 by

Time for the 2016 Mid-Year Spec Script Deal Word Cloud Logline Challenge! I’ve taken the loglines for each of the 36 spec scripts which have been set up (officially announced) from January through June of this year and created this word cloud:

2016 Spec Script Half-Year Word Cloud

To enlarge the image, click on it. To see the entire list of 36 spec scripts, their loglines, and my reports on them, click here.

Your mission for the 2016 Mid-Year Spec Script Deal Word Cloud Logline Challenge should you choose to accept: Come up with a logline using words from the word cloud. Or loglines (you may enter as many times as you want).

NOTE: One way your logline will be assessed is by how many words from the word cloud you use in your logline. If only one or two, less points. If five or six, more points.

BIG NOTE: Please CAPITALIZE each word cloud word in your logline.

Example: A YOUNG FORMER WOMAN COP MUST FIND a SUSPECTED SUPERVILLAIN using UBER to create TURBULENT traffic on MIAMI BRIDGES.

That, my friends, is a truly crappy logline. However it gets across the key CAPITALIZATION point. This helps in judging each entry. Speaking of which, the inimitable Max Millimeter will return to select the winners, and you know what a hard ass he can be. His whole thing is about entertainment — “Get my [bleeping] attention!” — which you can read about here. So bear that in mind.

Oh, and when he talks about the six words test, he’s not saying make your loglines six words. What he means is can you reduce your story concept down to six words and if so, do those six words communicate a solid story and an entertaining one.

There will be five (5) winners! Prize: My upcoming 1 week online Core III: Character course. If you’ve read any of my blog posts in which I talk about five character archetypes — Protagonist, Nemesis, Attractor, Mentor, and Trickster — here is your chance to learn how you can use these as tools to develop and craft your own stories. People rave about this class and 5 GITS readers are going to be able to take it for free by winning this Word Cloud Challenge.

Deadline for entries: Today Midnight (Pacific), Monday, July 18. The Core III: Character class begins Monday, July 25.

If you’d like to see some examples of previous Word Cloud loglines, check out submissions here (2012), here (2013), here (2014), and here (2015) for some challenges we’ve held for the annual Black List.

More details about the contest:

(1) “How many loglines may I post?” You can submit as many as you’d like. That said, even in a fun challenge like this, you should focus on quality over quantity.

(2) “Since there is bound to be overlap with loglines, how will you sort that out in terms judging?” Good question. And hopefully a good learning point for all of us, the difference between the logline for Dude, Where’s My Car? — “Two potheads wake up from a night of partying and can’t remember where they parked their car” — and The Hangover — Three groomsmen lose their about-to-be-wed buddy during their drunken misadventures, then must retrace their steps in order to find him”. The focus on a lost groom due for his wedding is substantially better as a comedic conceit than simply looking for a car.

(3) “What about people riffing off earlier loglines?” Another good point and I would think Max will tend to look more favorably on earlier loglines with similar iterations simply due to the earlier writer came up with the idea first.

Bottom line, let’s remember this is supposed to be a fun exercise. The opportunity to get a free class with me is a nice treat, but hopefully won’t create any ill will on the part of folks who don’t get selected. Even if you don’t win, you will have exercised your creative muscles, and that’s a plus for you.

FINAL REMINDER: Please CAPITALIZE word cloud words you use in your LOGLINE!!!

Let’s have some creative fun! Good luck!

Screenwriting News (July 11-July 17, 2016)

July 17th, 2016 by

This week’s writing deals and movie project news.

Charles Cumming sells his idea for “The Plane” to MadRiver Pictures.

Bill Kunstler adapting children’s book “Castle Hangnail” for Walt Disney Pictures.

Camille Perri adapting her novel “The Assistants” for Cold Iron Pictures.

Steve Pink and Jeff Morris adapting video game “Rent a Hero” for Stories International.

Laura Solon adapting autobiography “In My Shoes” for Working Title Films.

2016 Mid-Year Spec Script Deal Word Cloud Logline Challenge!

July 15th, 2016 by

Time for the 2016 Mid-Year Spec Script Deal Word Cloud Logline Challenge! I’ve taken the loglines for each of the 36 spec scripts which have been set up (officially announced) from January through June of this year and created this word cloud:

2016 Spec Script Half-Year Word Cloud

To enlarge the image, click on it. To see the entire list of 36 spec scripts, their loglines, and my reports on them, click here.

Your mission for the 2016 Mid-Year Spec Script Deal Word Cloud Logline Challenge should you choose to accept: Come up with a logline using words from the word cloud. Or loglines (you may enter as many times as you want).

NOTE: One way your logline will be assessed is by how many words from the word cloud you use in your logline. If only one or two, less points. If five or six, more points.

BIG NOTE: Please CAPITALIZE each word cloud word in your logline.

Example: A YOUNG FORMER WOMAN COP MUST FIND a SUSPECTED SUPERVILLAIN using UBER to create TURBULENT traffic on MIAMI BRIDGES.

That, my friends, is a truly crappy logline. However it gets across the key CAPITALIZATION point. This helps in judging each entry. Speaking of which, the inimitable Max Millimeter will return to select the winners, and you know what a hard ass he can be. His whole thing is about entertainment — “Get my [bleeping] attention!” — which you can read about here. So bear that in mind.

Oh, and when he talks about the six words test, he’s not saying make your loglines six words. What he means is can you reduce your story concept down to six words and if so, do those six words communicate a solid story and an entertaining one.

There will be five (5) winners! Prize: My upcoming 1 week online Core III: Character course. If you’ve read any of my blog posts in which I talk about five character archetypes — Protagonist, Nemesis, Attractor, Mentor, and Trickster — here is your chance to learn how you can use these as tools to develop and craft your own stories. People rave about this class and 5 GITS readers are going to be able to take it for free by winning this Word Cloud Challenge.

Deadline for entries: Midnight (Pacific), Monday, July 18. The Core III: Character class begins Monday, July 25.

If you’d like to see some examples of previous Word Cloud loglines, check out submissions here (2012), here (2013),  here (2014), and here (2015) for some challenges we’ve held for the annual Black List.

More details about the contest:

(1) “How many loglines may I post?” You can submit as many as you’d like. That said, even in a fun challenge like this, you should focus on quality over quantity.

(2) “Since there is bound to be overlap with loglines, how will you sort that out in terms judging?” Good question. And hopefully a good learning point for all of us, the difference between the logline for Dude, Where’s My Car? — “Two potheads wake up from a night of partying and can’t remember where they parked their car” — and The Hangover — Three groomsmen lose their about-to-be-wed buddy during their drunken misadventures, then must retrace their steps in order to find him”. The focus on a lost groom due for his wedding is substantially better as a comedic conceit than simply looking for a car.

(3) “What about people riffing off earlier loglines?” Another good point and I would think Max will tend to look more favorably on earlier loglines with similar iterations simply due to the earlier writer came up with the idea first.

Bottom line, let’s remember this is supposed to be a fun exercise. The opportunity to get a free class with me is a nice treat, but hopefully won’t create any ill will on the part of folks who don’t get selected. Even if you don’t win, you will have exercised your creative muscles, and that’s a plus for you.

FINAL REMINDER: Please CAPITALIZE word cloud words you use in your LOGLINE!!!

Let’s have some creative fun! Good luck!

“Scenes are the water of screenwriting”

July 12th, 2016 by

A guest post from screenwriter Tom Benedek (Cocoon) and co-founder of Screenwriting Master Class:

SCENES ARE THE THE WATER OF SCREENWRITING

• The human body is more than 60 percent water. Blood is 92 percent water, the brain and muscles are 75 percent water, and bones are about 22 percent water.

• A human can survive for a month or more without eating food, but only a week or so without drinking water.

A movie can survive for a few minutes with great cinematography, fine actors or movie stars, an interesting story. BUT if the scenes don’t work, the film will not play right. Solidly constructed scenes carry films. Great scenes lift them high, make them mighty.

None of us will ever have thought about scene writing too much.

The director Mike Nichols believed that there were only three kinds of scenes: confrontations, negotiations and seductions. Each of these categories offers a way to shape how a character behaves in a scene. Which of your characters might try always to seduce to achieve a goal, push past an obstacle in their story movement. When would that character opt to confront or negotiate? Confront. Negotiate. Seduce. All active verbs. And great starting points to write your characters’ destinies in any given scenes.

There are many other kinds of scenes. But there may be an element of these three approaches to conflict in every scene you write.

Next week, I will be running an online scene writing clinic starting on Monday, July 18. We will be at all kinds scenes – their uses of conflict, reflective contrast between characters, expository, flashback, indirection, subtext, more. There will be four lectures. Class members each post a scene for feedback and a revision.

Join me next week as we plunge into the waters of your creative imagination!

Here is some background on Tom’s career as a screenwriter and teacher:

Tom Benedek has written screenplays for Robert Zemeckis, Lawerence Kasdan, Lili Fini Zanuck and Richard Zanuck, David Brown, Ron Howard, Martin Scorsese, Sydney Pollack, Richard Rush, Harold Ramis, Lauren Schuler Donner and Richard Donner, Ray Stark, Brian Grazer, Working Title, Jersey Film, Chris Blackwell and many others.

He is a member of the Writers’ Guild of America, West and the Writers’ Branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. He has taught screenwriting at the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts and UCLA. He currently teaches at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor where he is a James Gindin Visiting Artist and at the University of Massachusetts.

Tom knows his stuff. For more information on his online Scene Writing Intensive which begins Monday, July 18, go here.

“Conversations With Wilder”: Part 7

July 12th, 2016 by

Billy Wilder is my all-time favorite filmmaker. Consider just some of his movies: Double Indemnity (1944), Sunset Blvd. (1950), Stalag 17 (1953), Witness for the Prosecution (1957), Some Like It Hot (1959), The Apartment (1960), an oeuvre that demonstrates an incredible range in a filmmaking career that went from 1929 to 1981.

One of the best books on filmmaking and storytelling is “Conversations With Wilder” in which Cameron Crowe, a fantastic filmmaker in his own right (Say Anything, Singles, Jerry Maguire, Almost Famous) sat down with Wilder for multiple hours and they talked movies.

This month, a series of posts featuring excerpts from “Conversations With Wilder” along with my reflections and takeaways from the words of this great filmmaker.

I trust this will be a good learning experience for each of us and while we’re at it, why don’t we watch some Wilder movies to remind ourselves what a master storyteller he was.

Today’s excerpt in which Wilder discusses the hit 1959 comedy Some Like It Hot comes from Pages 37-38:

BW: There was, for instance, the situation where Tony Curtis steals the clothes of the guy, and plays now Mr. Shell. The Shell family, do you remember? And he now gets also the boat of Mr. Joe E. Brown, who is dancing somewhere with Mr. Lemmon. You have two things going there. Now Joe E. Brown, dancing a tango with Lemmon, that’s going to be good, I knew that. We had that cold, the dips, and the rose in the teeth, you know.

CC: Is that the kind of moment you’d already acted out in the room, writing with Izzy [Diamond]?

BW: [Shakes his head immediately] No, we just knew it. Now, when we were writing, we got a very good idea, a very important part of the picture. The idea was that he, Curtis, invites Monroe back to the boat of Mr. Shell. And it’s all set up, they’re alone. Now there’s going to be sex, right? I woke up in the middle of the night, thinking, this is no good, this is expected. But what we will do is that [sparkle in his eye] he plays it impotent! And she suggests the sex. And she fucks him–that has to be better. It must be better to be subdued, seduced, and screwed by Marilyn Monroe–what could be better? So we switched this thing around. And we had the scene, right? I cam in the morning before we filmed. I just said, “Look–we are now at the situation where he takes her to the boat. There’s nothing new here. But how about this?”

Now, we set it up, it was just like picking oranges, you know. Because it was just all there. And now we can say what his family spent his fortune on, trying to cure him. “We tried Javanese dancers with bells on, we had every goddamn thing, and every doctor–it doesn’t work.” [Laughs] And she says, “May I try?” And then they try. And you know his real feelings by what happens to his leg, as it goes up, the leg goes up, and she’s kissing him. “How is that?” she says. “I don’t know,” he says. And up goes the leg. She says, “Let me give it another try, just one more thing.” Now we lose them and we know what happens. So the idea, that made that scene. Because otherwise it’s just too flat. [Wilder still marvels at the scene.] She’s kissing, and Curtis is laying there on the couch. Kissing him, with the camera here, and now you see the leg coming up, in back of her. Wonderful!

CC: And the leg is so important, it’s the final touch.

BW: Absolutely, yes.

CC: The leg is everything. And did that come in the rehearsals, or was that part of the idea?

BW: That was part of the writing. It was easy. It just came.

When you write comedy, you dream of inspirations like this, where the idea for a scene makes everything about its execution easy, “just like picking oranges.” But to get to these type of creative breakthroughs, generally you have to push yourself. That is the subtext of this anecdote.

Put yourself in Wilder’s position. You’ve constructed the Joe-Daphne plot of Some Like It Hot to build to a seduction scene with Tony Curtis (Joe) and Marilyn Monroe (Sugar). The Marilyn Monroe. There will be his assumed identity. Her desire to marry a rich guy. Making out on a huge yacht. Leading to implied sex. Easy, right? The scene writes itself.

Not for Wilder. He thought the original take — Joe seducing Sugar — was “expected,” it was “just too flat.” In pushing himself, he topped it: Make her the seductress. Talk about the ultimate moviegoer fantasy: Marilyn Monroe seducing you!

How to do that? Make the Curtis character ‘impotent’. As soon as you hit on that, now you are in orange-picking territory. And because it’s 1959, you have to be metaphorical when it comes to sex. So what comes up during their hot-and-heavy petting sessions? His leg. In virtually the entire scene, there in the background is Curtis’ ‘erect’ leg.

Check out the scene and the cross-cuts to Jack Lemmon (Jerry) and Joe E. Brown (Osgood) doing the tango:

Everything you see there is scripted, all the action, cross-cut to cross-cut.

Takeaway: Don’t be satisfied with the first inspiration. Try putting a spin on the dynamics. Brainstorm how to make the scene more visual — erect legs, fogged up glasses, a rose passed between two dancers’ mouths. Push yourself to find the real funny.

The hard part is finding an inspired bit of business. Once you’ve got that, it’s easy… just like picking oranges.

Tomorrow: More from “Conversations With Wilder.” If you have any observations or thoughts, please head to comments.

For the entire series, go here.

Screenwriting 101: Joe Forte

July 12th, 2016 by

Screenplay“There’s a phrase you hear in Hollywood: ‘It’s a movie.’ I didn’t really understand that phrase when I first came into the business. It’s code for, ‘This script encompasses everything we need it to be.’ It can attract an actor, it can attract a director, it can attract an audience, it can be marketed, it’s a movie… it’s complete.”

— Joe Forte

Via “Tales from the Script”