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.

Screenwriting 101: Ashleigh Powell

October 14th, 2014 by

“Theme is something that has always felt very elusive and intimidating to me. Maybe it comes from reading a lot of literature, having to dissect and analyze and write serious essays on the importance of ‘THEME’ in a story. But I recently read a piece of advice… this comes from Tawnya Bhattacharya from the Script Anatomy blog… that has really struck with me: ‘Theme is the opposite of your main character’s flaw.’ You start the story with the main character’s flaw, you show how that character is transforming over the course of their journey, and by the end of it they’ve completed an arc and realized the theme. I think there is something beautifully simplified about that approach.”

– Ashleigh Powell (GITS interview, March 29, 2013)

Screenwriting 101: Anthony Minghella

October 7th, 2014 by

“I’ve been writing for over twenty years, all my adult life, and so I suppose that I’ve made peace with myself and my hopeless, undisciplined technique. I’ve stopped unravelling everytime I’m unable to write. I wait. The drawer opens. Waiting is part of writing. When I write the word ‘waiting’ by hand it even looks like ‘writing.’”

– Anthony Minghella

Screenwriting 101: Joseph Wambaugh

September 30th, 2014 by

“Screenwriters are like little guppies swimming in an aquarium filled with sharks, killer whales, octopuses and other creatures of the deep. And plenty of squid shit.”

– Joseph Wambaugh from “Writers on Writing”

Screenwriting 101: Rajiv Joseph

September 23rd, 2014 by

“I feel that every story has to have an idea that transcends the action and the characters. We had a number of things for Draft Day, that this is a story about blank. This is a story about instinct versus logic, this is a story about character versus talent, this is a story about fathers and sons. This is the kind of thing that helps me and Scott [Rothman] think about, ‘Why are we writing this to begin with?’ We can both write funny, cute dialogue until we’re blue in the face and it’s not going to mean anything. Always, no matter how silly a movie might be, I think there has to be some deeper idea that’s its soul. I find myself thinking about that a lot, especially when I find I’m discouraged by a piece of writing.”

– Rajiv Joseph (GITS interview, April 11, 2014)

Screenwriting 101: Scott Rothman

September 16th, 2014 by

“One of the big lessons I learned, when I wrote that script that got me into NYU. It wasn’t this great script, but it was definitely better than anything I had done prior. I had made a terrible movie with one of my really good friends in San Francisco a while ago. It was so much fun making a movie, but the script was terrible. I didn’t know it was terrible until we started shooting it and I saw it come to life. I knew I didn’t care enough about it, and no one else was going to care anything about it either, because of that. I think that was the first big jump my writing took, and I think why I was able to finally write something that was halfway decent, was like, ‘It needs to matter.’ It needs to matter to you. You’re not just doing this to entertain yourself, or to show that you can do it. It’s got to be much bigger than that. It needs a reason to exist and a reason for other people to rally behind it.”

– Scott Rothman (GITS interview, April 12, 2014)

Screenwriting 101: Chris Roessner

September 9th, 2014 by

“Know if it’s that independent, quirky comedy. Know if it’s that big, $200 million action film. Know the target you’re aiming for and let that guide you. Don’t let the fear of a one sheet or the fear of a trailer deter you from pursuing what you’re interested in. By all means, pursue what you’re passionate about. But know where it belongs in the marketplace.”

– Chris Roessner (GITS Interview, April 2013)

Screenwriting 101: Barbara Stepansky

September 2nd, 2014 by

“The most time I devote to is character. I think that plots develop out of character needs and wants. I think the most fun comes from watching people do something and spend time with them. Once I have a kernel of where I want the story to go or the kind of movie I want to tell, I ask myself who is it that propels this plot forward the most.”

– Barbara Stepansky (GITS interview, January 17, 2014)

Screenwriting 101: Stephany Folsom

August 26th, 2014 by

“Don’t worry about getting an agent or a manager. When you have enough quality work under your belt, the agencies and management companies will come calling. Worry about telling stories you’re passionate about. Because the doors are wide open to everyone, it means you really have to care about what you’re writing, and be willing to fight for it for months or years.”

– Stephany Folsom (GITS Interview, April 4, 2014)

Screenwriting 101: Brian Koppelman

August 19th, 2014 by

“The job of the writer on a studio assignment is to deliver a shootable script as defined by other people — the director, actors, producers, and studio. Has the writer been devalued in town? For sure. And wrongly so. And the practice has no doubt made the overall quality of studio movies worse. But it is the current state of play, and there’s no changing it.”

Brian Koppelman