Screenwriting 101: Stephen Gaghan

December 16th, 2014 by

When I moved to Los Angeles, I wrote spec screenplays. I was really poor, and I thought I was just gonna do this for a while to make a little money so I could write novels. I thought movies were a second-class art form.  I condescended to it—I didn’t know enough to know it was really gonna be hard.

Things changed around the time I met Michael Tolkin. When I saw “The Player” (1992), when I was still living in New York, I had thought, “I wonder if I could do that.” A couple of years later I had become friends with an executive who was working with him on a project for HBO about Microsoft, and she put the two of us together. When he and I first met, we talked about Proust, and we both loved Tolstoy, and we had a lot of similar references. So we ended up spending the whole meeting talking about “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” and “The Kreutzer Sonata.” And I was just so happy. I didn’t care what happened after that—it was just the greatest afternoon. I thought, “I love this guy. He’s so funny and so cool, and just an absolutely first-rate artist in all of his thinking.”

We teamed up on the HBO project, which was a satire about Bill Gates and Microsoft, a sort of “Dr. Strangelove” piece about technology, called 20 Billion. We’d break up the scenes, we’d write our scenes, we’d get back together, and his scenes were just so much better than mine that I couldn’t believe it. I’m lucky I could see how much better his were—I mean, that’s the first real break, realizing how not-good you actually are, and cutting through all the nonsense smoke that’s usually being blown at you in the zip codes around Beverly and La Cienega boulevards. But I knew—I knew he was great and I was terrible, so I started literally sitting behind him and watching him type when he would write his scenes. We’d keep reworking the story, and this went on for a long time. And then one day, I riffed out a subplot involving two characters who were sort of like the girl I was living with at the time and myself. I wrote the scenes, maybe 15 pages, in a few hours. I showed Michael the scenes, and I saw it in his face: “Hey, this is actually pretty good. That’s gonna be in the movie.” And he was happy for me, too. And when it was over, I was at the point where I felt like, “Wow, I’m writing scenes that should be shot.” Three years of my writing career had gone by—I used to think, “I’ll just dash off some Simpsons episode and make some money and come back to fiction”—and in that time, I had written volumes of terrible stuff. But watching Michael changed my approach to everything. I realized that this was a real art form and that I didn’t understand it. I had to prostrate myself before it and study it if I wanted to be good. I had some other friends around this time, too, who were doing very interesting scripts: Charlie Kaufman and Owen Wilson and Wes Anderson. We traded our stuff back and forth. I saw early drafts of Being John Malkovich (1999) and Rushmore (1998). I saw fully formed film artists who were my peers and I wanted to do what they were doing—get my own voice or vision of the world out into that world. I had no clue how this was going to happen, but suddenly I just really loved this fucking art form. It’s like haiku repeated 10,000 times in one document. The bar was set way higher than I thought.

Stephen Gaghan

Screenwriting 101: Larry Gelbart

December 9th, 2014 by

“I just know when you’re in trouble at the end, it’s because you were in trouble in the beginning. There’s no point in writing the end over and over again; you have to go back and see how well you’ve given yourself the opportunity to finish successfully.”

— Larry Gelbart

Screenwriting 101: Larry Ferguson

December 2nd, 2014 by

“There’s only one difference between a writer and somebody who isn’t a writer. One writes. In the final analysis, you are a writer because you write. But more than that, you can write with courage just the same way you can do anything else with courage, or you can worry about not being any good. Start writing now. And when you do write, write from your heart with courage.”

— Larry Ferguson

Screenwriting 101: Guillermo Arriaga

November 25th, 2014 by

“I’ve written novels and screenplays, and with a screenplay you are writing something that’s going to be filmed, and you have to understand that. But, for me, both are forms of literature. I hate when people say, ‘When are you going to go back to literature?’ I say, ‘I never left.’ You never say that to a theater writer–I don’t know why drama for the cinema is lesser than drama for the theater. So I feel that I’m always doing literature. I put every effort in a screenplay to having beautiful language and a beauty of structure and a beauty in the construction of characters. To make a film requires the interest of a lot of people–actors, directors, producers, financiers–and the way to draw them in is to write a beautiful piece. So this is literature.”

— Guillermo Arriaga (FilmCraft | Screenwriting, P. 28)

Screenwriting 101: Ron Bass

November 18th, 2014 by

“If you read my novels, you’d see a lot of sentence fragments. And there are some punchy phrases that are meant to light the mind. I’ve always felt that writing was communication — not showing off how articulate you are, or showing off your vocabulary. It’s about making your reader see in his or her mind exactly what you see in your mind. And when I say ‘see,’ I don’t mean just intellectually. I mean emotionally and viscerally as well as with the mind — ‘see’ with feelings. It’s an attempt to communicate. It doesn’t have to be grammatical. Just the fact of breaking grammatical form helps communication because it forces the person who’s reading it to look at it differently. It does jar you and it does jolt you and it does stick out and you don’t get to put yourself to sleep with the rhythm and flow of normal prose.”

— Ron Bass

Screenwriting 101: Brad Riddell

November 11th, 2014 by

“I think this is the time for creating fantastic roles for actors in smaller projects, maybe even based on existing IP, that have a clear hook and offer a unique world. In the end, scripts are actor bait, plain and simple – no matter what the medium. So it all starts with character and concept, and my advice right now is to think small for your first few projects. What can be made? What can I actually get produced, or produce myself?”

— Brad Riddell

Screenwriting 101: Hossein Amini

November 4th, 2014 by

“In movies, what’s always really interested me are the reaction shots and what the person is thinking. Again, it’s that big-screen experience of seeing someone’s face in a close-up with all that emotion. I want to keep the dialogue as real and conversational as possible–as opposed to using heightened dialogue, where it really is about what people are saying. The favorite scenes that I’ve written have all tended to be the ones where the dialogue is setting up the best reaction from the actor. I love trying to find the simplest way to say something with the maximum impact on the person who’s listening to it. Quite often, the dialogue is almost like background noise, and what’s really important is setting up the silent emotions on the faces of the characters.”

— Hossein Amini (from FilmCraft | Screenwriting, P. 16)

Screenwriting 101: Mickey Fisher

October 28th, 2014 by

“I used to never outline in a real way, it was mostly just brainstorming and bullet pointing ideas for scenes and figuring out what the characters wanted until I had enough of a foothold to really sit down and write.  I typically wouldn’t start until I knew at least a solid beginning and the end.  I won a screenwriting contest early last year that The Writer’s Store sponsored called The Industry Insider Contest, where they pair you with a mentor to write a feature script and my mentor, Kay, had me do extensive outlining. It was really smart the way she went about it and I treated it like it was a studio job, following her notes and really doing the work and it paid off.  For the show, we outline every episode, scene by scene, for our producing partners and the network, so I’m in the habit of doing it now.  I may eventually crave a more free-wheeling approach again one of these days but for now it helps.  Now when I sit down to write the script, I know scene by scene who wants what and why and all the basic questions of the drama.”

— Mickey Fisher (GITS interview, July 11, 2014)

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)