Script Analysis: “12 Years a Slave” – Part 6: Takeaways

February 6th, 2016 by

Reading scripts. Absolutely critical to learn the craft of screenwriting. The focus of this weekly series is a deep structural and thematic analysis of each script we read. Our daily schedule:

Monday: Scene-By-Scene Breakdown
Tuesday: Plot
Wednesday: Characters
Thursday: Themes
Friday: Dialogue
Saturday: Takeaways

Today: Takeaways. You may download a PDF of the script here.

This week, we have been reading, analyzing, and discussing the script and movie 12 Years a Slave. In some ways, today’s exercise is the whole point of the series: What did you take away from the experience of reading and analyzing the script?

Screenplay by John Ridley based on a “Twelve Years a Slave” by Solomon Northup.

IMDb plot summary: In the antebellum United States, Solomon Northup, a free black man from upstate New York, is abducted and sold into slavery.

For Part 1, to read the Scene-By-Scene Breakdown, go here.

For Part 2, to read Plot analysis, go here.

For Part 3, to read Character analysis, go here.

For Part 4, to read Themes analysis, go here.

For Part 5, to read Dialogue, go here.

Head to comments and let me know what your takeaways have been from the script for 12 Years a Slave.

I am looking for volunteers to read a script and provide a scene-by-scene breakdown for it to be used as part of our weekly series. What do you get? Beyond your name being noted here, my thanks, and some creative juju, hopefully you will learn something about story structure and develop another skill set which is super helpful in learning and practicing the craft.

The latest volunteers:

12 Years a Slave – Georgevine Moss
Beasts of No Nation – Jacob Holmes-Brown
Bridge of Spies – Scott Guinn
Carol – Jillienne Bee
Celeste and Jesse Forever – Ryan Canty
Diary of a Teenage Girl – Cynthia
Ex Machina – Nick Norman-Butler
Frozen – Doc Kane
Gone Girl – Ashley Lara
Inside Out – Katha
Legend – Olivia
Leviathan – Piotr Ryczko
Locke – Megaen Kelly
Macbeth – Trung
Man Up – Kristy Brooks
Monsters University – Liz Correal
Mud – Kevin
Nightcrawler – DJ Summit
Pawn Sacrifice – Michael Waters
Steve Jobs – Angie Soliman
Straight Outta Compton – Timm Higgins
The End of the Tour – Steve F
The Iron Lady – Leslie
The Way Way Back – The Deuce
Trainwreck – Joni Brainerd
Wreck It Ralph – Kenny Crowe

Thanks, all!

To see examples of scene-by-scene breakdowns, go here. Part of the goal is to create a library of breakdowns for writers to have at their disposal for research and learning.

You may see the scripts we can use for the series – free and legal – by going here.

To date, we have analyzed 52 movie scripts, a great resource for screenwriters. To see those analyses, go here.

Thanks to any of you who will rise to the occasion and take on a scene-by-scene breakdown.

And for those of you who have volunteered, please send me your scene-by-scene breakdown as soon as possible!

Circling back to where we started, reading scripts is hugely important. Analyzing them even more so. If you want to work in Hollywood as a writer, you need to develop your critical analytical skills. This is one way to do that.

So seize this opportunity and join in the conversation!

I hope to see you in comments about this week’s script: 12 Years a Slave.

Interview (Written): Michael Arndt, J.J. Abrams, and Lawrence Kasdan

January 1st, 2016 by

I’ve read and watched several Star Wars: The Force Awakens interviews and Q&A’s with J.J. Abrams and Lawrence, but in fact they received a co-writing credit with Michael Arndt who was the first person to take a crack at the script. So in this WGA interview, I’m just going to feature Arndt’s comments.

I want to go back to the beginning, the earliest stages of this…So the decision is made to create new Star Wars films. And, Michael, you were there to break the story. You, Simon Kinberg, you went up to the Lucasfilm archives, right, and began thinking about this?

Michael Arndt: Yeah, it was I think May 2012, and I was just sort of doing nothing. I was back in New York and trying to figure out what I was going to do next. I just finished working on The Hunger Games, and I was like, “Okay, like no more big Hollywood franchises. I’m going to go back and do my own original stuff.” And then [Kathleen Kennedy] called me up and the initial thing was she wanted me to write VII, VIII, and IX together, and I said, “There’s no way I can do that because it’s just too crazy and daunting.” And then the story that she pitched me was she just said it’s an origin story of a female Jedi. And I was like, “I’m in. I can’t say no to that. I have to do it.” I went to the ranch and I met with George and we spent a lot of time talking about samurai movies basically. I passed that test, you know? I had spent five years at Pixar and became a big believer in writers helping each other out, so Kathy was just brilliant in having Larry come onboard, having Simon Kinberg come onboard, and have all of us get together and sit down and just start kicking around ideas about what we wanted Star Wars to be. So that was the beginning of it.

Do you begin with characters? Or do you start by saying, “What is the world we’re in and then supply the people who live in it?”

Michael Arndt: It was all of a piece. Actually the thing that we talked about – and this happened when J.J. came onboard also – was we went back to feelings. Like, “How did it make us feel?” You know? Like, joy, euphoria, but a sort of awe and myth. You know, we’re creating a modern myth. Even before we talked about character and story, we were talking about the quality of…I mean, we had a whiteboard, and I remember we started writing down adjectives of what it meant, what a Star Wars film meant. And so we’re writing “mythic but fun.” I remember that was one of the first things we said was, “You know, it has to be fun.” So even before characters or anything else, it was really trying to define what the Star Wars feeling was.

For more, click More, but be warned: There’s a big spoiler in Arndt’s remaining comments.

(more…)

How They Write A Script: Walter Bernstein

November 30th, 2015 by

Walter Bernstein was born 1919 and thankfully is still with us, a screenwriter with a lengthy career in which he managed to survive 4 years in the Army during World War II and a stint during which he was blacklisted. Notable films for which Bernstein received credit: Fail-Safe (1964), The Front (1976) for which Bernstein won a WGA Award for best original screenplay, and Semi-Tough (1977).

These interview excerpts are taken from the excellent “Backstory 3: Interviews with Screenwriters of the 1960s”, one of a 4-part series edited by Patrick McGilligan.

ON HIS LIFELONG LOVE OF MOVIES

I didn’t quite know what I was going to do after the war, actually. When I came back from overseas, I found myself a father with a year-old daughter. It was tough to get adjusted. But what I really wanted to do was to go to Hollywood. Movies had always been very important to me… That’s where I lived my real life. My fantasy life was at home. Starting Friday evening, after school and going through till Sunday afternoon, I lived in the movies. There was always this sense of weight dropping off me when they took the ticket and I walked into a moviehouse. It was very palpable, very important. I loved the movies.

ON WHAT HE LEARNED ON HIS FIRST HOLLYWOOD JOB WITH WRITER-DIRECTOR BOB ROSSEN

I learned about moving a story in terms of action—a kind of movie storytelling. At one particular point [in the script of All the King’s Men ]—it sticks in my mind—Rossen was trying to figure out how to tell the audience that the Huey Long character was not just a marvelous idealist. He wrote a scene—he didn’t like it; it was too wordy. Then he came up with some idea of a scene with no dialogue, where Broderick Crawford is eating a piece of chicken as people are extolling him—cutting to him and his indifferent reaction—so that we know that he’s not buying any of it. Things like that—visual detail, not dialogue—I learned that from Rossen.

ON BEING BLACKLISTED

I was blacklisted because my name was in Red Channels. That’s the only thing. I was never named, at least publicly. I was subpoenaed later on, but I never appeared.

For the next eight years, it was a question of getting different fronts and working that way. Around that time, Abe Polonsky came east, and along with another man I had become friends with, named Arnold Manoff, we formed a kind of group, the three of us, trying to get fronts and helping each other get work. We wrote many of the subsequent Danger shows. Then they started a show called You Are There, and we wrote almost all of those under various names.

I also worked on Studio One, Westinghouse, Phiico Playhouse —mostly the one-hour dramatic shows. I did everything from Thomton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey to, I remember, an adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story “Rich Boy,” which starred Grace Kelly and was a very successful show.

The front that worked the best for me was an old friend of my brother’s, someone I had known since I was ten years old, who had a job on a trade paper, didn’t want to take any money for being a front, and kind of liked the whole idea of going up to story conferences—the playacting part of it. He was the one I used mostly. He was very helpful.

You think of that period as being such an awful period, and it was. But within that, that sense of friendship and helping each other.

ON “THE FRONT”

I had always wanted to do a comedy. Humor was very much a part of me. In college I was editor of the humor magazine. Even in high school, I wrote a humor column for the school newspaper. It was always there. I just kept it down. I didn’t think it was serious, just as nobody thought going to Hollywood was serious. If you were going to be a writer, you should write plays or novels.

But for a long time, Marty [Ritt] and I had been talking about doing something about the blacklist. We wanted to do a straight dramatic story about someone who was blacklisted. We could never get anybody interested at all. It wasn’t until we came up with the idea of a front and making it as a comedy that we were able to get the film done. The Front became my first true comedy.

We went to David Begelman, who was the head of Columbia then. Being the kind of perverse guy that he is, David gave us some money to do a first draft. It was only after we had a first draft that discussions began about a star. We talked about Dustin Hoffman, A Pacino, or Warren Beatty. Certainly, I saw somebody in the role who was not a conventional leading man. I remember, we were talking about it, and Marty said, “What about that . . . kid?” I said, “What kid?” He said, “Woody Allen.” I said, “What a very interesting idea.” So we sent the script to Woody, and he said yes.

It was a very happy experience for all of us. Whether he would acknowledge it or not. Woody got a great deal from Marty in terms of his acting. He was on the film purely as an actor. He didn’t write anything. He only contributed a couple of jokes. The one time he tried something on the picture was the sequence at the end [of the film] where he’s testifying before the committee. We shot the scene and looked at the dailies, then decided we should make it funnier than it was. Woody said, “Let’s shoot it again, and let me improvise.” Marty set up the camera, and Woody improvised. He was hilarious. Only it had nothing to do with the picture. It was like ten minutes of stand-up comedy. Reluctantly, we couldn’t use it.

In some way, I think that picture released me, because I could do comedy after that. I loved doing Semi-Tough, which was really a social satire—not just about football. Things like The Molly Maguires and The Front, which came from scratch, are very important to me and mean a lot to me. But so does Semi-Tough, although it came from a book [Semi-Tough, by Dan Jenkuis (New York: Atheneum, 1972)]. [The director] Michael [Ritehie] and I threw out the story and wrote one of our own. Michael and I did our own movie, just like Marty and I did our own movies.

ON “THE HOUSE ON CARROLL STREET”

The original script was good—and it was the script that I started out to write. The script that was shot was also my script, however. There’s nothing in it that isn’t mine, so I can’t very well say they took it and changed it. But it got unfortunately watered-down and became kind of a one-note thing that happens to have unfelicitous casting. It doesn’t work.

In general, I’ve been very lucky with directors about my scripts. None of them ever wanted to write or to direct their own stuff. With Sidney, he’d read the script, he’d have very strong ideas about certain things, and that would be it. Marty would always spend more introspective time on a script. The difference is also in their personalities and their characters. Michael’s full of ideas. Sidney’s responses are very quick. Marty was always slower, he thought more, chewed it around.

On The House on Carroll Street, I am tempted to say to people . . . there was more to the original script . . . there was a scene that should have been there and is out . . . and there’s a scene they shot, which they didn’t use. But I feel terrible doing that. I hate myself for it.

ON HOLLYWOOD TODAY

I really try not to fall into the nostalgia trap and say, “Gee, it was better twenty years ago.” One of the last times I had dinner with Marty, he was saying that he felt, in his experience there of the last thirty years, that he has never seen studio executives more incompetent, venal, or corrupt than now. But I don’t have that much to do with people in Hollywood. I find it depressing when I have to go out there and meet with them. I never found it exhilarating, particularly. I do find the standards lower. I really do. I find the standards of literacy lower—film literacy, let alone intellectual literacy. There was never, in my experience, this marvelous Golden Age where all that was done was so sacred. And I feel Hollywood today reflects where this country has been going for the last eight, ten, fifteen years. Why shouldn’t it?

It’s fascinating. Some years ago, I went out to Los Angeles to pitch story ideas. My agent set up meetings with Mike Medavoy, Jeff Katzenberg, and Ned Tanen—whoever. You have these meetings with them and always their two assistants. At the end of the day, I couldn’t remember who was who of the assistants. With beards, without beards—whatever. Depressing. They’re bright but interchangeable.

ON WHY HE KEEPS AT IT

I love movies. I love movies. I still get that frisson when I go on a movie set—the most boring business in the world—but I feel that same thing I felt when I walked on the lot of Columbia in ’47: I’m here! It’s always meant that to me. I’ve always wanted to be part of making movies.

The originals—The Molly Maguires and The Front; Semi-Tough; even though the credit is shared with Collin [Welland], Yanks, which I feel very strongly about; and Fail-Safe. The good ones. But the ones that are not so good I feel are mine too, in the sense that I can’t point to any of the ones I’ve done and say, Well, somebody crapped up my script, because that’s not me up there.

I accept the cooperative nature of filmmaking. It’s one of the things that attracts me to movies, that idea. I love working with other people, so that I never feel, or have never felt—maybe it’s a lack of ego—bitter. I accept the nature of that beast—not just accept it, I like it. When I’m working with people I respect, who add creatively to the whole of the thing, I find it exhilarating. I’m a sucker for any kind of communality or community, anywhere but especially, when it’s working well, within a film.

[Originally posted July 31, 2012]

“What makes every Pixar movie tick, in one chart”

November 26th, 2015 by

As loyal GITS readers know, I have an obsession with all things Pixar as they have proven themselves to be master storytellers. So I thought this infographic put together by some folks at Vox was worth highlighting:

PIXAR THEMES GRID

There are some insights to be gleaned here, but it’s a pretty surface level take on what Pixar does. Given the fact that every single Pixar movie has opened at #1, an unparalleled achievement, I’ve always contended writers should really study their approach to storytelling.

What would be ideal is if there were an 1-week online course which analyzed every single Pixar movie, digging into themes, characters, and story structures.

A class which featured interviews with members of the Pixar ‘braintrust’ and an exclusive Q&A with the head of the studio’s story department.

Lectures coming at the subject matter specifically from a writer’s perspective, identifying dynamics common to Pixar movies, as well as storytelling tips.

A class with a title like… Pixar and the Craft of Storytelling.

Hey, wait. I already created that class! And it’s proved to be hugely popular! What’s more, I will be offering it again in January 2016, updated to include this year’s Inside Out and The Good Dinosaur.

So yes, the chart above is helpful. But if you really want to immerse yourself in the Pixar mindset, join me in January for the next session of Pixar and the Craft of Storytelling.

For the Vox article, go here.

Zero Draft Thirty: Story Prep – Character Development

October 22nd, 2015 by

T minus 9 days. On November 1, the Zero Draft Thirty challenge kicks off!

Zero Draft is what some writers call the vomit draft… or muscle draft… the just-get-the-damn-thing-done draft.

And thirty is… well… the number 30 which is… oh, yeah… the number of days in November!

Write an entire first draft of a script in November — FADE IN to FADE OUT in 30 days.

Feature length movie screenplay. Original TV pilot. Rewrite a current project. Break a story in prep. Generate a month’s worth of story concepts.

Whatever you feel will ratchet your creative ambitions into overdrive, do THAT!

Go here, here, and here to learn about the Zero Draft Thirty challenge.

Check out the comments and see the dozens upon dozens of writers who have signed up. And you are invited to join the creative fracas.

In the days leading up to ZDT, I figured we could spend some time talking about story prep as well as psychological prep for our collective writing effort. I began that process in this post sharing some tips on how to break a story in prep. Yesterday we got down to brass tacks in talking about a powerful prep tool: index cards. Today let’s talk character development.

In my view, the single most important key to story prep is curiosity. Specifically getting curious about your characters. They are the players in the narrative. They have lived in your story universe 24/7/365. At some fundamental level, it’s their story. So who better to learn about your story than by engaging your characters?

How to do that? Get curious! Ask questions! Reflect on each character’s personal history and backstory:

Personal History: Everything that has happened to a character which has shaped them generally.
Backstory: Only those events and incidents which have a specific bearing on your story.

The idea is to amass as much information, background, and content about each character as you can. It’s all potential narrative material. Then as you focus your story, the most relevant dynamics emerge becoming the character’s backstory, providing important grist for your plotting process.

Here are links to a bunch of character development tools:

Obviously you’re not expected to use all of these. Rather consider them resources from which you can pick and choose when working with your characters.

But notice how so many of them involve asking questions. Again the key is to get curious about your characters. Why are they the way they are? How are they the way they are?

Who. What. Where. When. Why. The journalist’s credo applies as you are digging into each character to uncover their story so that collectively the Story emerges.

My embrace of the importance of story prep led me to create – to my knowledge – the first online workshop of its type — Prep: From Concept to Outline. That was five years ago when I launched Screenwriting Master Class and it has proved to be one of the most popular courses I have ever offered. The next session begins Monday, October 26. And yes, we work with a variety of question-based exercises to delve into the individual and collective lives of your story’s characters. From that, your plot organically comes into being.

Back to the Zero Draft Thirty challenge.

November 1: Type FADE IN.
November 30: Type FADE OUT.

30 days. A first draft of an original screenplay.

Who’s with me?

It’s cool! It’s crazy! It’s free!

NOTE: For those of you using Twitter, use the hashtag #ZD30SCRIPT.

Background on the Zero Draft Thirty challenge:

Who’s with me to pound out a script in November
Zero Draft Thirty: Write a Script in a Month Challenge
Zero Draft Thirty: Story Prep – Overview
Zero Draft Thirty: Story Prep – Index Cards

And here’s something cool! Writer and GITS follower Sergio Berrione has translated the Zero Draft Thirty challenge into Spanish! Any other hearty souls want to translate it into another language, contact me. Story: The Universal Language!

Onward!

Go Into The Story Week In Review: August 31-September 6, 2015

September 6th, 2015 by

Links to this week’s most notable posts:

Andrew Stanton, Part 1: “The Clues to a Great Story” (TED Talk)

Andrew Stanton, Part 2: “The Clues to a Great Story” (TED Talk)

Andrew Stanton, Part 3: “The Clues to a Great Story” (TED Talk)

Andrew Stanton, Part 4: “The Clues to a Great Story” (TED Talk)

Andrew Stanton, Part 5: “The Clues to a Great Story” (TED Talk)

Black List Writers on the Craft

Classic 40s Movie: Double Indemnity

Classic 40s Movie: Five Graves to Cairo

Classic 40s Movie: His Girl Friday

Classic 40s Movie: Mrs. Miniver

Classic 40s Movie: Notorious

Classic 40s Movie: The Maltese Falcon

Conversations with Wilder (Part 25): On cross-dressing in Tootsie and Some Like It Hot

Daily Dialogue theme for next week: Betrayal

Free Tickets to Upcoming Event: Sublime Primetime 2015!

Go Into The Story Black List Writer Interviews

Go Into The Story Movie Analysis: Straight Outta Compton

Interview (Video): Diablo Cody

Interview (Written): Alex Kendrick and Stephen Kendrick (“War Room”)

Interview (Written): Milan Tomasevic

Movie Analysis: Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation

Movie Analysis: Straight Outta Compton

Next week’s Go Into The Story Script Read and Analysis: “Looper”

On Writing: Joss Whedon

Reader Question: Do characters “own” a scene?

Saturday Hot Links

Screenwriting 101: Alvin Sargent

Screenwriting News (August 31-September 6, 2015)

Story is the foundation of everything

The Business of Screenwriting: The Path of Least Resistance

Video: THR’s Drama Writer’s Roundtable

Why haven’t you finished that script?

Writing and the Creative Life: “Come to the edge”

Andrew Stanton, Part 2: “The Clues to a Great Story” (TED Talk)

September 1st, 2015 by

Last week, I brought up the Andrew Stanton TED Talk from 2012 in the context of a discussion about storytelling. It reminded of how great his presentation was. So great, when I went into the archives to check the series I ran at the time, I had actually taken the time to transcribe the entire 19-minute talk. So for the next two weeks, I will reprise that series from one of the principal figures in the phenomenon which is Pixar Animation Studios.

Last Sunday, our featured video interview was a TED Talk given by Andrew Stanton, one of the key members of Pixar’s ‘brain trust’ whose screenwriting credits include Toy Story, A Bug’s Life, Toy Story 2, Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, Wall-E and the current live action movie John Carter which he also directed [along with A Bug’s Life, Finding Nemo and Wall-E].

The subject of the TED Talk: “The Clues to a Great Story.” Given the success of Pixar and Stanton’s participation in it, I decided to produce a transcription of the entire 19-minute presentation. I will be posting it segment by segment for the next week or so because Stanton packed a lot of big ideas into his short talk.

Today: Part 2.

The most current lesson in story I’ve had was completing this most recent movie in 2012. It’s called John Carter, it’s based on a book called “The Princess of Mars” by Edgar Rice Burroughs. And Edgar Rice Burroughs actually put himself as a character inside the movie, and he’s the narrator. He’s summoned by his rich uncle John to his mansion with a telegram saying, “See me at once.” But once he gets there, he finds out his uncle has mysteriously passed away and been entombed in a mausoleum on the property.

[Scene of character introduced to the mausoleum]

What this scene is doing is fundamentally making a promise. It’s making a promise that this story will lead somewhere that’s worth your time. And that’s what all good stories should do, they should give you a promise. You can do it in an infinite amount of ways. Sometimes it’s as simple as “once upon a time.”

These Carter books always had Edgar Rice Burroughs as a narrator in it, and I always thought it was such a fantastic device. It was like a guy inviting you around a campfire. Or somebody in a bar saying, “Let me tell you a story. It didn’t happen to me, it happened to somebody else, but it’s worth your time.”

A well-told promise is like a pebble being pulled back in a slingshot and propels you forward through the story to the end.

A few things:

* “It’s making a promise that this story will lead somewhere that’s worth your time”: There are two parts to this promise. The first is that do enough to convey the promise in the first place, excite the reader’s imagination and in so doing awaken their expectations. Then you have to deliver the goods!

* “A well-told promise is like a pebble being pulled back in a slingshot and propels you forward through the story to the end”: What a great image to accompany your writing. I call it Narrative Drive, the energy the story generates and sustains to keep the reader always wanting to turn the page, to move forward, to see what happens next.

For Part 1 of Stanton’s TED Talk, go here.

Tomorrow: Part 3.

[Originally posted March 13, 2012]

Classic 50s Movie: “The Searchers”

June 1st, 2015 by

May is Classic 50s Movie month. Today’s guest post comes from Melinda Mahaffey.

Movie Title: The Searchers

Year: 1956

Writer: Frank S. Nugent from the novel by Alan LeMay

Lead Actors: John Wayne, Natalie Wood, Vera Miles, Jeffrey Hunter

Director: John Ford

Adapted IMDb Plot Summary: John Wayne stars as Civil War veteran Ethan Edwards, who embarks on a journey with his adopted nephew Martin to rescue his young niece Debbie from an Indian tribe.

Why I Think This Is A Classic 50s Movie: Cited as one of the greatest films ever made, The Searchers has legendary fans. Writing in The Hollywood Reporter, Martin Scorsese said the film was a “touchstone” for him and other directors of his generation, while Stephen Spielberg has reportedly watched the movie numerous times, including twice on the set of Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

Having said that, I don’t always find The Searchers to be the most enjoyable movie to watch – it feels unnecessarily lengthy (119 minutes) and has some unfunny comic scenes and characters. But I always come back for John Wayne’s performance. When I think of the heroes he portrayed onscreen, I think of a gruff character who treads the line between hero and villain, and I find his Ethan Edwards to be the deepest iteration of that. The Searchers is arguably John Wayne at his finest.

My Favorite Moment In The Movie: Well, let’s start off with the classic scene. Although Ethan has spent years searching for Debbie, he’d rather see her dead than living as a Comanche. Toward the end of the film, he has to make that decision:

But my favorite moment comes earlier in the movie, when he admits he’s hidden the truth about his other niece Lucy from Brad Jorgensen (her sweetie) and Martin. It’s the only scene where he shows the grief he feels; he’s usually so fixated on revenge.

My Favorite Dialogue In the Movie: Near the end of the film, Ethan and Martin return home, and Martin finds out that his sweetie, Laurie Jorgensen, is about to marry another man. (Note that this exchange is followed by one of the most polite fight scenes ever.)

Laurie: Marty, Charlie, I ain’t gonna have no fighting in my house.
Marty: Well, then, we’re just gonna fight outside, doggone it.

Key Things You Should Look For When Watching This Movie:

How the opening and closing scenes mirror each other: As the opening credits roll, the song “The Searchers” (written by Stan Jones) asks: “What makes a man to wander? What makes a man to roam? What makes a man leave bed and board and turn his back on home? Ride away, ride away, ride away.” Then the door of a homestead opens, and Martha in silhouette is framed against a Monument Valley backdrop. She comes outside to see who her visitor is – and it’s Ethan, the prodigal son. Then, at the end of the film, as Ethan arrives with Debbie, another verse of the song begins to play, ending with the same refrain of “Ride away, ride away, ride away.” This time, as the men return with Debbie, they are welcomed home by the Jorgensens. Everyone goes inside – except for Ethan. He’s framed in the dark doorway, and as he turns away, the door shuts on him.

The relationship between Ethan and Martha: There’s been a lot of speculation about the exact nature of the relationship between Ethan and Martha, his brother’s wife. Is it just fondness? Unrequited love? Is he actually Debbie’s father? The film provides no answers, but the dynamic between them is definitely weird.

Sister act: Natalie Wood plays the teenage Debbie, while her little sister, Lana Wood, plays the younger Debbie at the beginning of the film.

And a blooper: About 25 minutes into the movie, Ethan and a group of men find a Comanche Indian buried under a rock. As they lift up the heavy stone, you can very distinctly see movement as the actor breathes.

Thanks, Melinda! To show our gratitude for your guest post, here’s a dash of creative juju for you. Whoosh!

And thanks to everyone who contributed a post.

For the original post explaining the series, go here.

For all of the 50s movies featured in the series, go here.

For previous classic movie series: 60s Movies, 70s movies, 80s Movies and 90s Movies.

How To Write A Screenwriting Book

May 15th, 2015 by

John August (@JohnAugust) tweeted a link to a blog post by Anthony Giambusso who wrote this nice piece of satire: How to Write a Screenwriting Book. I contacted Anthony and he agreed to allow me to feature it here.

Do you have the dream of writing a successful screenwriting book, mixing it up with the pro screenwriting book authors, and seeing your book on all the “Film & Film Production” shelves at the bookstore? Well I’ve compiled an easy to follow step-by-step guide to make that dream a reality. I’ve decided to tear the veil off of the screenwriting book industry and rack that picture into focus.

  • When writing about your credentials, be vague, yet amplified. Instead of saying you have worked with producers in Hollywood, say ‘top’ producers. Instead of saying you’ve worked for a studio, try ‘major’ studio. You may even try switching it up and writing ‘major producer’ and ‘top studio’. Your creativity will be rewarded.
  • Include a minimum of twenty pages of your own work that has not been produced, and use that as your template to teach screenwriting.
  • Choose at least three iconic movies (ex. Jaws, Chinatown, Vertigo) and make a list of decisions made in those stories. Then, make a list called ‘dos’.  (Try throwing in a modern movie like “Birdman”).
  • Do the opposite of the previous step, and make a list of things from terrible movies, and call that list ‘don’ts’. Don’t spend too much time on this step. Just write down anything you can remember from the terrible movies.
    • For example: “Everyone in ‘terrible movie’ wore hats. The top of the human head is one of the most expressive parts of the body. Try to limit your screenplay to a maximum of three hats.”
  • Make bold statements. Here are some for inspiration.
    • “Your movie MUST be about ONE thing” (Notice how I put ‘must’ and ‘one’ in caps so the reader can’t deny it).
    • Characters must represent something deeply passionate to you, or they will NEVER seem authentic” (I just made that up, but it sounds legitimate right?).
  • Throw around the word ‘subtext’ but never truly explain it. Say things like “Jaws is the the physical manifestation of Brody’s deepest insecurities.”
  • Create a ‘steps’ system. Call it something catchy.
    • “The 7 Undeniable Steps to a Sellable Story”
    • “14 Steps to get your reader to sprint from Fade In to Fade Out”.
    • (The more random the number, the more it seems legitimate). “89 Steps to EVERY successful Screenplay” (again, note the caps).
  • Be specific! People love specifics. They love bullet points. Give them a list of technical ‘yeses’ and ‘nos’ that they can hold while writing or rewriting. Some examples below (but create your own!)
    • (Character names) Characters named John are fine, but change the spelling to something new like ‘Jaun’ ‘Jawn’ or ‘Dgon’.”
    • (Fancy grammar terms) NO subordinating conjunctions! (You don’t have to know what it means).
    • (Get em’ counting) Limit one capitalized word per page, and a maximum of fifty per screenplay.
    • (Random no nos) Never set a scene in mud. Directors hate shooting scenes in mud. They will be less likely to attach themselves to your script.
  • Write a list of successful writer’s anecdotes on writing. You can simply Google these.
    • “The most ordinary word, when put into place, suddenly acquires brilliance. That is the brilliance with which your images must shine.” – Robert Bresson   (See! It’s almost as if you wrote it).

A lot of things have changed since I broke in as a screenwriter in 1987. One of the most prominent is the sheer volume of screenwriting books. The awareness of screenwriting among the general population has risen rather spectacularly the last few decades and that has attracted a lot of people looking to feed off that teat. Hence screenwriting books.

What Anthony gets at with this post are some key commonalities between many if not most of them:

* They are pretty much structured the same way.

* They are basically variations on the same themes and yet–

* They make claims about the particular insight only they have about the craft.

* And the not so subtle subtext: If you want to have any chance of succeeding, buy their book.

Are any of the books good? Maybe some, but my guess is scant few. I do know this: A vast majority of the actual pro screenwriters I know have a negative attitude toward screenwriting books ranging from antipathy to outright hatred.

My oft-stated advice: Watch movies. Read scripts. Write pages. Learn from interviews with actual working screenwriters. And feed your intellect and soul by consuming books, music, and culture.

The fact is if you are passionate, persistent, and patient, you can learn the craft… and not spend one dime on screenwriting books.

For the rest of Anthony’s satirical piece, go here.

To learn more about Anthony, go here.

Twitter: @TonyGiambooyah.

HT to John August for the link.

Classic 50’s Movie: “On the Waterfront”

May 1st, 2015 by

May is Classic 50s Movie month. Today’s guest post comes from Bilbo Poynter.

Movie Title: On the Waterfront

Year: 1954

Writer: Bud Schulberg (based on a series of articles by Malcolm Johnson)

Lead Actors: Marlon Brando, Lee Cobb, Rod Steiger, Karl Malden, Eva Marie Saint

Director: Elia Kazan

IMDb Plot Summary: “An ex-prize fighter turned longshoreman struggles to stand up to his corrupt union bosses.”

Why I Think This Is A Classic 50’s Movie: A big reason I think of On the Waterfront as a classic 50’s film is because of the emblematic cinematography of Boris Kaufman, who later shot 12 Angry Men, The Fugitive Kind, and a little later on, The Pawnbroker, among others. Kaufman came out of the French realism movement of film making and brought that style to Hollywood. The result has the feel of an old newsreel or the Gillette Friday Night Fights – fitting for a movie about a washed up boxer.

My Favorite Moment In The Movie: Is actually not the iconic scene of the film – and one of the great movie scenes of all time (see below) – but a much quieter scene where Terry (Brando) and Edie (Marie Saint) take a walk together through their neighborhood and stop at a set of swings. At one point Brando picks up one of Marie Saint’s gloves from the ground and absentmindedly starts to play with it. It’s hard to imagine this was scripted and yet it lends itself so well to building on the moment – meant to be a vulnerable one in world without sentiment. Here the tough ex-pug is fascinated and becoming smitten with the sweet and completely alien girl from the neighborhood who made good. This scene is why Brando was great.

My Favorite Dialogue In the Movie: It would be hard to include anything other than the following – which I act out for my daughter regularly to much eye rolling.

Charlie: Look, kid, I – how much you weigh, son? When you weighed one hundred and sixty-eight pounds you were beautiful. You coulda been another Billy Conn, and that skunk we got you for a manager, he brought you along too fast.

Terry: It wasn’t him, Charley, it was you. Remember that night in the Garden you came down to my dressing room and you said, “Kid, this ain’t your night. We’re going for the price on Wilson.” You remember that? “This ain’t your night”! My night! I coulda taken Wilson apart! So what happens? He gets the title shot outdoors on the ballpark and what do I get? A one-way ticket to Palooka-ville! You was my brother, Charley, you shoulda looked out for me a little bit. You shoulda taken care of me just a little bit so I wouldn’t have to take them dives for the short-end money.

Charlie: Oh, I had some bets down for you. You saw some money.

Terry: You don’t understand. I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am, let’s face it. It was you, Charley.

Key Things You Should Look For When Watching This Movie: The fact that this was filmed on location in Hoboken: the bars are real, the mist off of the concrete, the rooftops and docks all real, but the drama is elevated here by the score of Leonard Bernstein (the only original film score by Bernstein).

The other thing to note is that this a collaboration of Kazan and Schulberg, who had by then both testified before the House Un-American Activitites Committee against others in Hollywood. You can’t help but draw a comparison to the hounded, morally compromised Terry testifying before the Waterfront Crime Commission. Being a rat and what that means is a big part of this film – Don’t take my word for it though. On the Waterfront cleaned up at the Oscars that year, and has been preserved by the Library of Congress as one of the greatest American movies.

Thanks, Bilbo! To show our gratitude for your guest post, here’s a dash of creative juju for you. Whoosh!

We already have a set of classic 60s Movies, 70s movies, 80s Movies and 90s Movies. This month, we’re working on 50s movies.

Here is an updated list of 19 fine folks who have already volunteered [those who I put in bold have already sent me their posts]:

A Place in the Sun – Zach Jansen
A Star is Born – mkm28
All About Eve – Ricardo Bravo
American in Paris – stefani1601
File on Thelma Jordon, The – David Joyner
High Noon – Jeff Messerman
Invasion of the Body Snatchers – Rick Dyke
Kiss Me Deadly – jhenderson
Marty – jetwillie69
Night of the Hunter – Mark Twain
On the Waterfront – Bilbo Poynter
Rear Window – Roy Gordon
Rebel Without a Cause – uncgym44
Searchers, The – mkm28
Seven Samurai, The – PaulG
Some Like It Hot – Will King
Sunset Blvd. – Rick Dyke
Tokyo Story – Jeff Messerman
Vertigo – Jason Pates

I’m looking for 31 guest posts, one for each day of May. Why not pitch in to help add to this online resource to inspire writers to learn about and – most importantly – watch great movies.

If you have a classic 50s movies on which you’d like to do a writeup, please either post in comments or email me.

Thanks in advance!

For the original post explaining the series, go here.

For all of the 50s movies featured in the series, go here.