The Coen Brothers and the Craft of Storytelling

May 23rd, 2016 by

I have two favorite contemporary filmmakers. In terms of mainstream commercial films, there is Pixar. For independent movies, there are the Coen brothers. Both are hugely successful in what they do, commercially and critically.

That’s why I’m thrilled to follow up the popular Pixar class I teach with a companion course: Coen Brothers and the Craft of Storytelling.

In this 1-week online course, we will analyze most of the movies the Coen brothers have written and directed including such memorable films as Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, Fargo, The Big Lebowski, O Brother, Where Art Thou, No Country for Old Men, and True Grit.

Through extensive analysis and discussion, we will dig into six narrative dynamics that appear throughout Coen brothers movies, and enable you to use them to workshop your own original story.

Let’s face it: The Coen brothers have created some of the most distinctive, entertaining movies in the last two decades. They return to certain themes, tropes, memes and talismans like this one: The Howling Fat Man.

We will look at that minutia because… well, it’s just fun. However our focus will be on larger principles that are more applicable to our own writing.

Here is the lecture schedule [all written by me]:

Lecture 1: The Coen Brothers’ Narrative Legacy
Lecture 2: Ordinary Character / Extraordinary Circumstance
Lecture 3: The Long Shadow of Authority Figures
Lecture 4: The Shiny Hope of Grand Schemes
Lecture 5: The Dynamism of Violence
Lecture 6: Morally Complicated Universe
Lecture 7: Unresolved Endings

Plus I will share 6 practical storytelling tips gleaned from Coen brothers movies.

The class includes:

Seven lectures written by Scott Myers
Six storytelling tips
Daily forum Q&As
Workshop writing exercises with instructor and class feedback
A 75-minute live teleconference between instructor and class members

Movies written by Joel and Ethan Coen have been nominated for 14 Academy Awards, winning 4 times, and nominated for the Cannes Film Festival Palm D’Or 7 times, winning once.

Like Pixar, the Coen brothers have carved their own path and have proven themselves to be master storytellers.

I am excited to share storytelling insights I have learned from studying Coen brothers movies in this exciting 1-week online class providing insights you can use to elevate your own writing.

Consider joining me beginning Monday, May 30 for Coen Brothers and the Craft of Storytelling, a great way to learn principles, dynamics and techniques apparent in the movies of these fine filmmakers to upgrade your own story-crafting abilities.

As the Dude might say, “That’s fuckin’ ingenious, if I understand it correctly. It’s a Swiss fuckin’ watch.”

Sign up now here.

Lorene Scafaria on building a career as a screenwriter

May 18th, 2016 by

Lorene Scafaria has established herself as a writer, TV and movie director with such films as Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World and The Meddler, starring Susan Sarandon which is currently in theaters.

In this Co.Create feature, Scafaria reflects on how she has managed to carve out a career in Hollywood and her writing process:

“I’d written three screenplays by the time I moved to L.A. and felt like two of them were livable. None of those have been made, and I think, looking back, for a very good reason,” Scafaria says. “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist was my ninth script and I’d say the one I’d done just before that, it kind of became my calling card. It was about a guy who fired people for a living, who then gets fired from his job—kind of like what Up in the Air ended up being, but before that. It was the first script I thought, like, if this isn’t something, I should leave town. If this isn’t a script, I don’t know what is. And that script got me the job for Nick and Norah’s.”

—-

“I either start with the character, or with a part of a story I know I want to touch on, but I usually just try to write the first 30 pages of something without an outline, and allow for the story to breathe or the characters to talk and think,” Scafaria says. “I know that sounds corny, but I like to just see what happens and make sure I understand the characters well enough before I start to take them somewhere. I’m allowing them to walk around wherever it is they want to go and then find inspiration from there. And then of course you can go back and change absolutely everything that you did in those 30 pages.”

—-

“If you are ever stuck, just try to live your life a little bit,” Scafaria says. “Because you can get lost in your own head and kind of forget to interact with people and be social and realize that a lot of inspiration comes from just getting out of your head and seeing other people and remembering that there is a world outside of you. I think that’s pretty important.”

Takeaways:

  • You have to be willing to commit to the possibility of writing multiple scripts before you have the learned the craft sufficiently enough to produce a story which grabs peoples’ attention in Hollywood. You cannot expect overnight success.
  • Instead locking in to some preconceived paradigm or story structure, give yourself the freedom to explore your characters and story universe. Always better to write from inside-out rather than standing above your story and writing outside-in.
  • Living life and engaging with the world is an essential part of being a writer. That not only helps us to keep from getting “lost” in our own head, but also to feed our creativity and inspiration.

Here is a trailer for The Meddler:

For the rest of the article on Lorene Scafaria, go here.

What’s in a Scene: “Danny Collins”

May 16th, 2016 by

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

Danny Collins passed by last year without too much attention perhaps. Al Pacino plays a rock star. Bobby Cannavale plays his son. It’s based on a true story.

Pacino has, in my opinion, one great scene in the film which made it all worthwhile for me. It is a small, but important kind of moment in the life spectrum – a scene of preparation – before something very important happens.

I won’t say ‘spoiler alert’ and describe it here. Sorry. I will just say that the scene and what follows it illustrate that there are different kinds of scenes, movie moments which need to be framed in different ways.

You may not discover how a scene needs to be constructed within a script until you it. Or you may know before you start writing what the shape has to be.

I have a one week class next week — Scene Writing Intensive — all about different kinds of scenes, how they function within a script structure. We’ll discuss that scene in Danny Collins and many more.

To learn more about Tom’s class, go here.

Character Type: Artist

May 13th, 2016 by

Those of you who have followed my blog for some time or taken courses with me through Screenwriting Master Class know how fascinated I am with character archetypes, specifically how there are five — Protagonist, Nemesis, Attractor, Mentor, Trickster — which recur in movies over and over and over.

Some might see archetypes as a sort of reductionist approach to writing when in my experience, it is precisely the opposite.

By working with these five Primary Character Archetypes, we can identify the core narrative function of every key character, then use that knowledge as a guide as we build them out in a limitless number of ways.

One approach is to use an extensive array of Character Types available to us. So this week, I am running a series in which we will explore several Character Types and consider how writers can use them to create unique, compelling figures in our stories.

Today: Artist.

How does the creative mind work? What are the inner forces the spawn great art? Why are some people drawn to give expression to their unique vision of life?

It is questions such as these that give voice to a longstanding fascination in Hollywood movies with Artists. Much of the persistence which filmmakers have demonstrated in dipping into this particular well again and again for stories arises from the knowledge that the masses are ever curious about the artistic mindset. Some of it, however, must derive from the filmmakers themselves who are, after all, artists in their own rights.

There have been numerous biographical movies about artists including Frida, Pollock and The Agony and the Ecstasy:

Charlton Heston as Michelangelo

Oftentimes Artist stories focus on the ‘madness’ of creativity such as the 1956 movie Lust for Life with Kirk Douglas portraying the brilliant but tortured existence of Vincent Van Gogh:

In some cases, the Artist’s struggles manifest themselves more in the physical than psychological realm as with the 1989 movie My Left Foot featuring Daniel Day Lewis, who learned to paint and write with his only controllable limb – his left foot:

The Artist appears in movies also as fictional characters like Simon Bishop (Greg Kinnear) in the 1997 movie As Good As It Gets:

As Simon’s character demonstrates in the scene above, the Artist can get a sudden inspiration. Combined with their passion to express that vision in some physical form, the Artist character type can be about communication, but also about the intensity of their creative experience.

To see the world differently. To feel life fully. To immerse oneself in the experience of the creative moment. That is the domain of the Artist character type.

What brainstorming can you do with an Artist character type?

One obvious area to mine is this: Artists are about visual expression. Since movies are primarily a visual medium, they would seem to fit hand in glove. So what if you have a story that is weighed down by too much exposition, too much expression of backstory? Why not explore the possibility that one of your characters is an Artist? If a picture is, indeed, worth a thousand words, then what better way to cut excess dialogue by giving a character the ability to speak through what they draw, paint or create.

You can also widen the scope of what we may typically think of art. The central concept of the movie Butter did precisely this: “In Iowa, an adopted girl discovers her talent for butter carving and finds herself pitted against an ambitious local woman in their town’s annual contest.”

Artist as Attractor, filled with passion for living. Artist as Mentor, a distinctive perspective of the universe. Artist as Trickster, living on the fringe of society and the welfare of strangers.

What can you do with an Artist character type?

Tomorrow: Another character type.

[Originally posted February 12, 2014]

Courier 12 Screenwriting Conference

May 12th, 2016 by

For those of you writers in the Chicago area, here is a great learning and networking opportunity:

Through its prestigious Visiting Artists Series, DePaul University’s School of Cinematic Arts is committed to bringing talented artists from across the entertainment industry to Chicago so that they may inform and inspire our students, as well as the Chicago filmmaking community.

We are excited to announce that our annual Courier 12 Screenwriting Conference will take place on Saturday May 21st on DePaul’s Loop Campus. Courier 12 presents a series of panel discussions covering all things screenwriting with some of the top talent in the industry. The event runs from 1:00 – 7:30 PM in the lower level theater of 247 S. State Street (The Daley Building). Admission is free and open to the public, but seats are limited.

Courier12-Promo-8.5x11

Leading off the day will be a panel on pitching, featuring screenwriter Steve Pink (High Fidelity, Hot Tub Time Machine, Accepted), Dina Hiller, former VP of Comedy Development at Paramount Television (Community, Happy Endings), and Adam Peck, Owner and President of Synchronicity Management, who has executive produced pilots for HBO and CBS. DePaul faculty member, Chris Parrish, will moderate this panel.

Script Magazine and The Writer’s Store are partnering with DePaul this year. SciptMag.com is a leading online screenwriting publication, receiving 250,000 visits per month. The Writer’s Store is a top retailer of all things related to writing, and will donate a website discount code and ten copies of The Hollywood Screenwriting Directory. Script Magazine’s editor, Jeanne Bowerman, will lead a panel of Script Magazine contributors in a discussion about ideation and living the creative life in a money-driven business. Panelists include Doug Richardson (Bad Boys, Die Hard II, Hostage), Tawnya Bhattacharya (The Night Shift, Perception, Fairly Legal), and Rebecca Norris (Split, Cloudy with a Chance of Sunshine).

Howard Rodman, Writer’s Guild of America President, Sundance Institute Artistic Director, USC Professor, and screenwriter of Savage Grace, August, and Joe Gould’s Secret, will discuss the issues facing writers today with DePaul screenwriting professor, Brad Riddell.

Tom Schulman, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of Dead Poets Society, as well as the enduring comedies What About Bob? and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, will discuss his writing process with DePaul screenwriting professor, Matt Quinn.

Meg LaFauve, who is the Oscar-nominated co-writer of Pixar’s Inside Out, writer of Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur, and is currently writing Captain Marvel, will speak with DePaul Professor, Jessica King, about writing for Pixar, Marvel, and the challenges facing female writers.

That’s an excellent roster of visiting screenwriters and as noted in the press release, admission is free.

For more information, go here.

Rewriting your script

May 11th, 2016 by

Let’s face it: Rewriting is a bitch. Or a bastard. Pick your gender specific invective. Doesn’t matter. The process is a pain no matter how you shake your fist and swear at it.

One big issue I’ve found with writers caught up in the maelstrom of rewriting is that there is no one surefire path to success. This stands to reason. Stories are organic and so a certain amount of rewriting them involves wallowing in the wilderness. That’s just the nature of things.

However I have an approach which I honestly believe can move your process forward in a big way. It’s one I use in the Pages II: Rewriting Your Script workshop, a 10-week class that guides you through a rewrite.

In this workshop, you will not only drill down into your story and understand it more clearly, if you do the work, you will get from FADE IN to FADE OUT on your next draft, and move you script toward the point you can bring it to market.

Here is an overview of the approach employed in Pages II: Rewriting Your Script:

* The first four weeks, it’s about assessing your current draft, identifying problems as well as content that works, brainstorming solutions, then working up a revision outline.

* The next four weeks, it’s knocking out your draft in quarters: Week 5 – Act One. Week 6 – The first half of Act Two. Week 7 – The second half of Act Two. Week 8 – Act Three.

* The last two weeks: Polish and Edit.

There are 10 lectures that provide prompts and tips to steer you through the rewrite, weekly due dates to compel you to do the work, and a workshop environment in which you receive constructive critiques from your fellow writers along with detailed feedback from myself, a combination of written feedback and teleconferences.

What’s more, you learn tools you can use to incorporate into your rewrite process from here on out, making your experience less bitchy / bastardy.

Here is a testimonial from Russell Simpson, a writer who has gone through the Pages II experience:

“I asked friends, trawled the internet, read the blogs and still found myself a touch bewildered by all the self-aggrandizement and shady plaudits. Then I read the brilliant Black List Blog. And I looked up the writer. And it’s Scott Myers…

Scott’s course is superb. Scott possesses an enviable combination of honesty, bravery and mercy. As long as you are prepared to work hard, this course WILL improve your craftsmanship. I fed a feature through Scott’s dynamo brain and, out the other end is a piece of which I’m intensely proud. If you’re hesitating, stop. You’ll be thankful.”

I do not subscribe to the belief there is one approach to writing… or rewriting. Every writer is different. Every story is different. But I do know this: The process we use in Pages II has helped many, many writers solve major story issues, discover important story keys, and enable them to take their script to the next level.

If you have a script that is a complete draft, but you know needs work…

Or a partially completed draft where you got stuck and couldn’t find your way out…

Or a story you’ve rewritten multiple times, yet feel it just doesn’t work…

I encourage you to consider joining me in my upcoming Rewriting Your Script workshop which begins Monday, June 13. Note: This is the only time I’ll be offering Pages II in 2016.

For more information, go here.

For a look at my first lecture from Pages II: Rewriting Your Script, go here.

I look forward to the opportunity to work with you!

“A spoken-word story within a film can be gold”

May 7th, 2016 by

If you’re not following pro screenwriters on Twitter, you’re missing out on wisdom and insight into the craft on an almost daily basis. Take yesterday. Jon Spaihts (Prometheus, Dr. Strange, Passengers) tweeted this:


Gary Whitta (The Book of Eli, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story) suggested this:

I added this from Short Term 12:

There’s an old movie adage: “Show it, don’t say it.” Since movies are primarily a visual medium, there’s a lot of truth to that. However as Jon suggests and each of these examples above demonstrate, sometimes a “spoken-word story within a film can be gold”.

What are some other examples of spoken stories within a movie that prove the point?

Twitter: @jonspaihts, @garywhitta.

Conscious Goal and Unconscious Goal

May 6th, 2016 by

An interesting discussion arose from this post the other day on the question how to raise the stakes in a plot. I suggested one way was to track a shift that often happens with a Protagonist — from Want to Need — and one of the movie examples I cited in my analysis was Casablanca.

matthewkane noted this in comments:

This is a reason for the romcom trope of one or both of the romantic leads to have no interest in romance until the midpoint. When romance complicates the original goal, it ups the stakes. Though it’s usually good to add another complication at the same time to stretch the rack tighter from both directions.

My response:

Matthew, your point illustrates why I oftentimes think of character work this way: Want and Need can refer to the generalized state of what a Protagonist brings into the story at its beginning. By the end of Act One, they have may have crystallized things into a Conscious Goal, a specific target they have in mind, and an Unstated or Unconscious Goal, a specific psychological end point that emerges from their inner world.

So for example, Rick in Casablanca:

The Want he brings into the story is to be left alone to run his business so he can busy himself with avoiding dealing with the pain of the past (associated with his loss of Ilsa).

Since that way of being has led him to isolationism, the Need he brings into the story is to break out of his cynicism.

In Act One: Enter Ilsa, Victor Laszlo, and the letters of transit. How does this sharpen his Want and Need?

Conscious Goal: Determine what to do with letters of transit.

Unconscious Goal: Confront pain of the past [when Ilsa rejected him] and resolve that relationship.

In dealing with those new narrative elements — letters of transit, Ilsa, Victor — Rick goes on his own psychological journey resulting in the classic ending we all know and love.

I also should note, per the language of Michael Arndt (screenwriter of Little Miss Sunshine, Toy Story 3) who says a great ending must answer a philosophical question, Rick confronts an existential choice: Cynicism or Idealism? He opts for the latter, choosing to ‘sacrifice’ his love for Ilsa for the greater good, represented by Victor’s work as a freedom fighter.

Per your observation about romcoms having “no interest in romance until the midpoint,” it’s interesting to note that the Paris flashback sequence doesn’t happen in Casablanca until the middle of the movie (in a commonly available 127 page version of the script, the sequence ends at P. 61). That flashback represents the very first time we’ve seen what the romance between Rick and Ilsa had been, and understand how and why Rick has been so badly hurt on an emotional level when it ended. So even though not a romcom, your point is relevant to Casablanca.

The usual caveats: This is all psychological language which is in a way ‘artificial’ when applied to a story, organic by its very nature. Some writers may benefit from using these tools — Want, Need, Conscious Goal, Unconscious Goal — others may not. Our goal is to create living, breathing characters in a living, breathing story universe. We do what we can do to get there.

But in my teaching, often I find writers benefit from honing in on a Protagonist’s Conscious Goal and Unconscious Goal at the end of Act One as it sharpens their understanding of their story’s structure and the nature of the Protagonist’s metamorphosis.

[Originally posted August 16, 2013]

“If you write a great script…”

May 6th, 2016 by

…Hollywood will find you.

Sale. Option. Representation. Writing sample. Writing assignments. Any/all of the above.

This is not a pipe dream or fantasy. This statement does not involve unicorns, leprechauns, or magic pixie dust.

This is the damn truth.

If you write a great script, Hollywood will find you.

How do I know this?

Because it happens dozens of times each year, emails I receive from GITS followers sharing their good news with me.

Because hundreds of scripts that do not sell result in writers landing a manager and/or agent and busting into Hollywood to write movie projects and begin screenwriting careers.

Because Hollywood is always seeking new writers, new voices, new blood.

But mostly because there is not an agent, manager, producer or studio exec with whom I have ever talked who has said anything different. [As an example, check out this interview with manager Dan Halsted and scroll all the way down to the bottom.]

All of them are looking for great stories. All of them are hoping for a great script. All of them are searching for great talent.

This is not conjecture. This is a fact. And it is the basis of an invisible pact that exists between Hollywood and aspiring screenwriters, originating perhaps in an imaginary Iowa cornfield: If you write it, they will come.

Sure, you will have to take that first step. Maybe you send 400 emails to people in the business. Perhaps you get your script to a second cousin who has a co-worker whose friend knows the father of a guy who is married to an assistant of an L.A. agent. Or you submit your script to the Nicholl or Austin screenplay competitions. Or the Black List website.

No matter the entry point, a great script will always find its way to Hollywood… because Hollywood is always looking to find great scripts.

Yeah but…

There are no but’s. There are no excuses. There is nothing more to say about anything other than this: Write a great script.

Everything else will take care of itself.

So why this bromide today? Because I want to remind you to get your mind off concerns that don’t mean squat and onto matters that mean everything: You should be entirely focused on the writing, your script, your story, your craft.

Focus. On. The. Writing.

If after having read this post you still have a hard time believing what I’m saying, consider this: I was a complete and utter outsider to Hollywood. I knew nothing about the film business. I had never taken a course in screenwriting.

And a spec script I wrote sold for three quarters of a million dollars and was made into a hit movie.

So if you ever doubt the veracity of that invisible pact between Hollywood and aspiring writers, all you need to do is think of me.

I am living proof it is true. It is a fact. It is the way of the movie business.

If you write a great script, Hollywood will find you.

[Originally posted November 21, 2013]

Know your genre

May 5th, 2016 by

I have gotten to know a lot of screenwriters through the years. In talking with or interviewing them, one thing I find they pretty much have in common: They know their genre.

That is a lesson for all of us.

When you write an original screenplay within a specific genre, you really should know the heart, soul and guts of that genre. This will inform every step of your creative and writing process: concept, character development, brainstorming, plotting, tone, style, atmosphere, voice, pace, and so on. There are patterns, tropes, memes and attributes common to certain genres, and you need to know as much about them as possible, if you want to follow, reverse or break those conventions.

If you are an action writer, you need to know the action genre.

If you are a comedy writer, you need to know the comedy genre.

If you are a science fiction writer, you need to know the science fiction genre.

And so forth down the list of genres, sub-genres and cross genres.

There are so many reasons why this is the case. Here are a few:

* Knowing a genre means you will be informed about what has come before which can help you avoid too closely duplicating scenes or key beats in previous movies. An homage is one thing. Unknowingly mimicking a familiar beat not only means you will have to change that bit of business, it will also convey to a Hollywood insider you aren’t steeped all that well in the genre. On the other hand, if you do have extensive awareness of a genre, that can raise the comfort level of a potential buyer.

* Knowing a genre means you can be inspired by other movies in that arena. Think of any Quentin Tarantino movie, each of them standing on the shoulders of dozens of predecessor films, even to the point where he will cast actors from those movies as a way of honoring them. If you are smart, you can refer obliquely to famous bits in previous movies and they can work as an homage, a great way to draft on successful moments in prior films.

* Knowing a genre means you will understand whether you are inclined to write within that genre or not. If you find it easy to watch horror movie after horror movie as part of your personal education, chances are you have the inclination, even the passion to write within that genre. If, however, it is a struggle for you to watch movies or read scripts in a specific genre, that’s probably an indication you should look elsewhere to find what type of stories turn you on creatively.

There’s a whole other aspect of knowing your genre: Hollywood will pigeonhole you.

If you get known as a writer who does sports dramas, you will get offered lots of sports dramas.

If you become known as a writer who does broad physical comedies, you will get offered a lot of broad physical comedies.

If you are known as a writer who does turgid period pieces about bipolar quadrasexual polar bears who speak in Norwegian subtitles… well, you’re probably not working in Hollywood. But you get my point.

Hollywood is a busy damn place and people there tend to operate in shorthand. “That writer is good with dialogue… He’s great with character-oriented projects… That team really gets frustration comedies.”

There are several reasons why this state of affairs exists. First and foremost, a predominant way studio executives look at writers is that we are problem-solvers. The exec has a project that needs a rewrite, a fresh take, a new set of eyes. So if the project is, let’s say, an R-rated adolescent romp in the vein of American Pie, the exec will more than likely look for a writer who has a track record in that area. This is only natural. If the studio is going to commit dollars to a writer, that writer has to hit the studio’s comfort level. Who would they be more comfortable with: A writer with an established set of writing credits in the specific genre of the project in question or a writer with background in some other area?

Contributing to the state of affairs is the attitude of most managers and agents. Whereas execs look at writers as problem-solvers, reps tend to operate on a line of least resistance approach toward their clients. Being both smart and busy, agents and managers tend to slot the writer into projects that are the easiest deals to make happen. If your claim to fame is aggressive action movies with lots of spilled blood, chances are you’re going to have an uphill slog landing that OWA on an adaptation of the YA title “Summer Camp Puppy Love.” Indeed it’s highly dubious your rep would consider putting you up for that, even if expressed an interest in the project. Why? Because they know your chances of landing the gig are minimal given your area of supposed expertise.

Here is an excerpt from an interview with manager-producer Adam Kolbrenner, founder of Madhouse Entertainment:

The real true evaluation of a manager comes down to the ability to help you navigate and ultimately not waste time on scripts and ideas you shouldn’t be writing… What’s your voice, what are the stories you want to tell, and how are we going to get there together… If a writer comes to me and they’re a great thriller writer, an action writer, and they pitch me an interesting comedy idea, okay great. Don’t write that.

Don’t write that. Your rep is thinking not only about your next writing gig, but also your career. While there are some writers who write multiple genres, most focus in one area. That becomes your line of least resistance to continued employment as a writer in Hollywood.

So yet another reason to delve into genres – watching movies, reading scripts – is to surface what specific arena interests you most, where you talent best lies, and what you have the most passion for. Because if you’re going to be put on a Hollywood list noted for writing a certain genre, you want to be sure that is something you can work at with enthusiasm for at least 5-7 years. At that point, you can, if you choose, stretch your creative wings by writing a spec script in another genre, break into TV, become a mime… whatever you want because if you are successful, you should have the funds saved up to bankroll your reinvention.

But the first step in all of this is to know your genre. Here are the big eight: Action, Comedy, Drama, Family, Fantasy, Horror, Science Fiction, Thriller.

What’s your genre?