Interview: Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (2005, 2006, 2008, 2009, 2012 Black List)

May 27th, 2016 by

One of the best ways to learn the craft is read what professional screenwriters have to say about it. To that end for the next few weeks, I will be featuring interviews I have conducted with Black List screenwriters.

Today: Screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber have written scripts that have made the Black List a remarkable 5 times, broke in with the hit indie film (500) Days of Summer, and have become go-to guys for adapting novels having written screenplays for The Spectacular Now and The Fault in Our Stars, and writing high profile projects Where‘d You Go, Bernadette, Rules of Civility, among several others.

Michael H. Weber (left), Scott Neustadter (right)

Here are links to the six installments of my March 2013 interview with Michael and Scott:

Part 1: “The false assumption I was under – that I think a lot of aspiring writers are under – is that most scripts in Hollywood are extremely good. Nothing like a few years reading unsolicited material to debunk that idea.”

Part 2: “When the guy doesn’t tell the girl how he feels, it’s because he’s scared. It’s a tool Scott and I have all the time, that probably more than any other tool in our toolbox, is we take a step back, and we ask the question, ‘What would really happen?’”

Part 3: “Again it goes back to the first time Scott and I met and liking the same movies. It wasn’t just great romantic comedies but I loved the work of John Hughes and they’re the movies I grew up on. They felt real to me.”

Part 4: “Happy endings aren’t real. Even the happiest ending is only happy because the story stopped there. But hopeful endings are a beautiful thing. That’s what I always aspire to.”

Part 5: “I would say – despite always having a proper outline before starting to write – I almost always find snags along the way that require us to step back and re-think things. Definitely don’t expect the writing to be surprise-free just because you think you have the road map perfected before you start.”

Part 6: “Just write every day, and then write some more. I try to even be competitive about it. What I mean is, I know that when I’m not writing, someone else is.”

Interview: The Fault in Our Stars.

Scott and Michael are repped by CAA and Kaplan/Perrone.

You may follow Scott and Michael on Twitter: Scott (@iamthepuma), Michael (@thisisweber).

“6 Screenwriting Lessons from Nia Vardalos”

May 27th, 2016 by

An LA Screenwriter post about a recent appearance by actor-screenwriter Nia Vardalos, best known for the 2002 movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding which grossed over $368M in worldwide box office revenues. Not bad for a movie with a reported production budget of $5M. Nia has gone on to write and act in other projects as well as carve out a niche as a ‘script doctor’, so when she offers advice, as she did this past weekend, it’s a good idea to pay attention. Here are two items which caught my attention:

3. Don’t wait for an agent or manager — make things happen for yourself.

When Nia got to LA, her agent told her that she wasn’t pretty enough to be a lead and wasn’t fat enough to be a character actress. When asked, Nia told her agent she was Greek, and the agent said, “Well that’s the problem.” Sadly, Hollywood still has this perception that only what’s been done before can be done again. That’s why Asian actors can’t be leads and Greek women can’t star in their own movies — it’s all bullshit.

So Nia decided to write herself a role. She didn’t get anywhere sending her script to studios, so she started doing it as a one-woman show. The show was selling out, so she put a small-but-pricey $500 ad in the LA Times, hoping it would draw someone — anyone — who could help her turn this show into a film. As fortune would have it, Rita Wilson saw the tiny little ad and came. The next night, she sent her husband Tom Hanks to the show. The day after that, Nia’s phone rang, and it was Tom Hanks. That was the genesis of My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

This is very much in the Spirit of the Spec, a series of posts I wrote several years ago:

You get an idea

You act on your idea

You write your story

You put it out there

Nia Vardalos

5. “Today is the day…”

At Second City, Nia said, they always used to say, “Today is the day…” That’s the point that stories start from. Today is the day that I ask the girl out. Today is the day my daughter was kidnapped. Today is the day I face my greatest fear. Whatever the situation, your catalyst should be a vital day in the life of your main character. Then, for Nia, she writes from a point of motivation — what does the character want? That’s what drives the story forward. In her stories, the answer to that question is usually happiness.

This hearkens back to one of the questions I always ask when doing story prep on a Protagonist character: Why does this story have to happen to this character at this time?

Not that character. Or some other character. This character. Not any story. This story. Not yesterday. Not tomorrow. Today. There is a specificity about why and how a Protagonist goes on the adventure they do, what I call their Narrative Imperative. The Call To Adventure is about leaving the Old World and going on a journey into a New World. And that Call is happening right now. Put the Protagonist at a pivotal point in their life and you’ve got the start of a dramatic story.

For the rest of the article on Nia’s advice, go here.

Twitter: @NiaVardalos.

Interviews (Video): Alfred Hitchcock

May 27th, 2016 by

I stumbled upon several interview with famed director Alfred Hitchcock and thought I’d aggregate them here:




If you discover any other interviews with Hitchcock online, please post URLs in comments.

The Business of Screenwriting: Selling Scripts and Shooting Scripts

May 27th, 2016 by

There are broad stages in the life of a screenplay: There is the selling script and the shooting script.

A selling script can be a beautiful thing to behold, every word precise, the balance of black ink to white space pleasing to the eye, the flow of dialogue to action crafted just so, all a reflection of a screenwriter’s incessant drive to create an entertaining story that makes for a good read. Something like this:

               Evelyn is trembling.

                                     EVELYN
                         I'll tell you the truth...

               Gittes smiles.

                                     GITTES
                         That's good. Now what's her name?

                                     EVELYN
                         Katherine.

                                     GITTES
                         Katherine?... Katherine who?

                                     EVELYN
                         She's my daughter.

               Gittes stares at her. He's been charged with anger and when 
               Evelyn says this it explodes. He hits her full in the face. 
               Evelyn stares back at him. The blow has forced tears from 
               her eyes, but she makes no move, not even to defend herself.

                                     GITTES
                         I said the truth!

                                     EVELYN
                         She's my sister.

               Gittes slaps her again.

                                     EVELYN
                         She's my daughter.

               Gittes slaps her again.

                                     EVELYN
                         My sister.

               He hits her again.

                                     EVELYN
                         My daughter, my sister.

               He belts her finally, knocking her into a cheap Chinese vase 
               which shatters and she collapses on the sofa, sobbing.

                                     GITTES
                         I said I want the truth.

                                     EVELYN
                              (almost screaming it)
                         She's my sister and my daughter!

Then there is the shooting script which can look like this:

Scene numbers. Omitted scenes. Multiple colored pages. Shit crossed out. Which can lead to this:

Honestly that can be a thing of beauty, too, because it means your movie is getting produced. But once it reaches this stage, your beautiful words can be reduced by production necessities to one big to-do list.

So the first takeaway is this: As you read scripts, which is something you should be doing, you will inevitably run across shooting scripts (also known as production drafts). Do not look to them for style tips. At that stage, style points don’t count.

The other takeaway is this. You may think of a selling script as being a spec script. Certainly that is true, you write a spec with the hopes of selling it. Therefore you put in endless hours to ensure it is a great read, every page, every line fine tuned.

But let’s say you do, in fact, sell that script. Your selling does not end there. In fact, every draft of the script you may write up to the point it goes into production is in effect a selling script.

Even after a studio, financier or production company has bought it? Yes.

Why?

Because you still have to do the following:

* Attract a director.

* Attract actors.

* Sometimes attract financing.

* Excite everyone who reads the script.

Your script, no matter how much you revise it, should continue to be as entertaining as possible all the way along to sustain people’s passion for it.

So as you go about fixing story issues raised by the Powers That Be such as trimming scenes to fit budgetary considerations, retooling characters to match with possible casting, shifting scenes to fit with potential selected locations, always remember: You are writing a selling script.

Continue to write pages that sell your cinematic dream.

The Business of Screenwriting is a weekly series of GITS posts based upon my experiences as a complete Hollywood outsider who sold a spec script for a lot of money, parlayed that into a screenwriting career during which time I’ve made some good choices, some okay decisions, and some really stupid ones. Hopefully you’ll be the wiser for what you learn here.

[Originally posted July 4, 2013]

Daily Dialogue — May 27, 2016

May 27th, 2016 by

“Where is pancakes house?”

Fargo (1996), written by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen

The Daily Dialogue theme for the week: The Coen Brothers.

Trivia: Gaear Grimsrud has 18 lines of dialogue in the entire movie and never says more than a complete sentence at one time. By comparison, Carl Showalter has over 150 lines of dialogue.

Dialogue On Dialogue: I picked this because the Coens insisted that Peter Stormare, the actor who played Gaear Grimsrud, say “pancakes house,” not “pancake house” which is the actual name of the restaurant. Yes, the Coens are that precise when it comes to their attention to detail.

Video: “The Directors Series – The Coen Brothers” (Part 1)

May 26th, 2016 by

Perfect timing. With my 1-week online class Coen Brothers and the Craft of Storytelling starting on Monday, May 30, along comes Part 1 of what looks to be an excellent series on the cinematic efforts of Joel Coen and Ethan Coen. Here the video covers how the Coens got into filmmaking and their first two movies: Blood Simple. and Raising Arizona:

I saw Blood Simple. when it was released in 1984 and Raising Arizona will always have a soft spot in my heart as one of the very first industry screenings I attended when I first broke into Hollywood in 1987. Also it features my first agent Peter Benedek as a prison counselor.

The Coens are part of my Holy Trinity of filmmakers along with Billy Wilder and Pixar which is why I’m excited to teach this upcoming class on the duo. For more information, go here.

Interview: Chris McCoy (2007, 2009, 2011 Black List)

May 26th, 2016 by

One of the best ways to learn the craft is read what professional screenwriters have to say about it. To that end for the next few weeks, I will be featuring interviews I have conducted with Black List screenwriters.

Today: Chris McCoy is pretty unique among screenwriters in that he has three scripts that have made the Black List: “Get Back” (2007), “Good Looking” (2009), and “Good Kids” (2011). That alone is enough to warrant significant curiosity about this young writer. The fact his screenplays are highly entertaining, distinctive, and filled with quirky characters and strong dialogue makes it even more so. And Good Kids is Chris’ first writing-directing gig, the movie starring Zoey Deutch, Nicholas Braun, Israel Broussard, Demián Bichir, and Ashley Judd.

Here are links to all five parts of my March 2012 interview with Chris:

Part 1: “Comedy is such a great delivery system for subversive ideas – as long as you make people laugh, you can say whatever you want.”

Part 2: “There’s a Kurt Vonnegut quote about this that I love: ‘Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.’ That is so great.”

Part 3: “In my work, I like introducing a big concept – i.e. a service that matches you to your soulmate with 100% accuracy, which changes the world overnight – and then getting that concept out of the way as quickly as possible in order to focus on the characters.”

Part 4: “When you’re working with a bunch of characters, it’s important to really have their arcs hammered out beforehand so you don’t lose them within the context of the scene. As long as you know where they’re all going eventually, you have a sense of what you need to do with them when they’re together.”

Part 5: “I think that good dialogue comes from character development – the better you know your character, the more specific the dialogue is going to feel.”

Chris is repped by the Gotham Group.

“Everything is a Remix: The Force Awakens”

May 26th, 2016 by

I have been tracking Kirby Ferguson and his “Everything is a Remix” videos since the very first one came out in 2010. So when Kirby reached out to me via email about his latest video — “Everything is a Remix: The Force Awakens” — I had to check it out. Here it is:

While the video notes numerous similarities between Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens and Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope, Kirby makes some more important points for screenwriters:

* Since everything has pretty much been done before, it is inevitable we will be ‘remixing’ content from previous stories. So the challenge is to Copy, Transform, and Combine — this is Kirby’s language — and that fits in with what I’ve blogged about since I launched this site in 2008: That Hollywood’s philosophy in choosing what movies and TV series to make comes down to this: Similar but different. As I articulated in this 2013 post:

Sequels. Prequels. Remakes. Reboots. Why do Hollywood studios choose to go this route with such familiar material? Why not fill their development slates with bold projects full of fresh ideas and innovative stories?

That would run entirely counter to the working ethos which informs the studio system decision-making process, a business mantra that can best be summed up in this manner: What they are inclined to buy, develop, and produce are projects, including screenplays, that are similar but different.

Again the question: Why? There are many reasons. Here are the biggest two.

The increasing importance of marketing: The simple fact is after the acquisition of a project, years of rewrites, talent falling in and out, battles over budget, months of pre-production, production, post-production, none of it matters one whit unless the studios can sell the movie. And in an increasingly noisy world with consumers bombarded by advertisers on all sides, a studio’s task of getting the message out about a movie has become harder and harder.

If the movie’s concept or storyline has a familiar ring to it, so the marketing theory goes, it’s more likely to connect with consumers. And if a consumer remembers some aspect of a movie’s ad campaign, the odds increase exponentially they will be motivated to get off their fanny, drive to the local Cineplex, and actually buy a movie ticket.

—-

So from a purely marketing standpoint, similar but different is supposed to make selling the movie easier and more effective. That’s the first reason. The other reason lies at the heart of the studios’ decision-making process regarding movie deals:

Fear of making a mistake: Studio executives are afraid to commit to projects because if a movie they’re associated with bombs, it doesn’t bode well for their careers. This is especially true with the current climate where the major Hollywood studios are all part of major corporate conglomerates which means pretty much everything boils down to profits.

Flops make bad things happen.

—-

This should put a personal spin on why Hollywood puts out so many sequels, remakes, and film adaptations of TV shows. Even if they fail (Cats & Dogs II, The A-Team), studio execs can defend themselves because there are equally, if not more, hits based on similar but different content (Iron Man 2, The Karate Kid, Star Trek).

* Given these dual realities — Every new story is in some way a remix of old stories / Hollywood actually embraces the idea of ‘similar but different’ — the task of the creator, as Kirby lays it out in his videos, is to find the sweet spot between the Familiar on one hand and the Novel on the other.

In a nifty bit of synchronicity, writer-director Christopher McQuarrie made this precise point on Twitter yesterday:

Screenwriting tip: It’s as simple as giving them exactly what they expect in a way they’ve never seen before.

So there’s the takeaway: Give ’em what they expect, but with a fresh combination of narrative elements.

Here is the combo plate of Kirby’s first four videos in the Everything is a Remix series:

For the rest of his videos, go here.

Classic 30s Movie: “Sabotage”

May 26th, 2016 by

May is Classic 30s Movie month. Today’s guest post comes from Jeff Xilon.

Movie Title: Sabotage

Year: 1936

Writers: Charles Bennett (screen play), Ian Hay & Helen Simpson (dialogue), Alma Reville (continuity), E.V.H. Emmett (additional dialogue), based on the novel of Joseph Conrad

Lead Actors: Sylvia Sidney, Oskar Homolka, Desmond Tester, John Loder

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

IMDb Plot Summary: A Scotland Yard undercover detective is on the trail of a saboteur who is part of a plot to set off a bomb in London. But when the detective’s cover is blown, the plot begins to unravel.

Why I Think This Is A Classic 30s Movie

The simplest and most straightforward reason I consider Sabotage to be a classic 30s movie: It is the best movie Alfred Hitchcock, one of the greatest directors to ever work, made in that decade (and he made 15 of then between 1930 and 1939). Heck, for my money it’s the best movie he made before his 6 year epic run of classic movies that stretched from 1954 to 1960, though many people would probably place their bets elsewhere.

Beyond that though is this: Sabotage is 80 years old, and it can still ratchet up the tension, shock, and surprise a jaded and cynical 21st century audience. If you’ve never seen Sabotage, and remain completely spoiler free, I implore you to see it as soon as possible (and it would probably be best if you came back and read the rest of this afterwards). You can even watch it free online thanks to the internet archive here or on YouTube here though I am unsure of the legality of their availability as the film seems to have entered the public domain at one time and then had it’s copyright restored later thanks to changes in relevant laws.

If you have seen it you’ll know that Sabotage is an excellent reminder that “gritty” and “dark” did not simply spring up in our recent movie offerings as fully formed concepts without heritage. What is perhaps unique to our more modern samples of “gritty realism” is the idea of grit for grit’s sake. Sabotage knows that to have true emotional impact, and thus worth, the darkness, the grit, needs to be earned.  So, it gives us characters to care about and relationships to believe in. It builds to its shocks: it shows us Chekov’s gun (or bomb, or knife, or bomb) and still catches us off guard when they come into play.

If you are at all interested in screenwriting and film-making, then I can’t recommend Sabotage enough. It may not have the pedigree of some of the great all-time 30s classics, but it has timeless lessons to teach about storytelling on the big screen.

My Favorite Moment In The Movie

The bus ride. Could it be anything other than Mrs. Verloc’s brother’s ride with a certain special package? (Though Mr. and Mrs. Verloc’s climactic dinner is a close second)

My Favorite Dialogue In the Movie

Mrs. Verloc: What do you think you’re doing?
Ted: Just lending a hand.
Mrs. Verloc: I thought I told you not to interfere?
Ted: I’ve been delivering a little counter-attack. Look, they’re on the run.
Mrs. Verloc: Well, they can come right back. Listen ladies and gentlemen, you’re going to get your money back.
Ted: Don’t give in now, I’ll stand by you.
Mrs. Verloc: I’d prefer you go and stand by your apple store.

Frankly most of the dialogue between Ted and Mrs. Verloc sparkles.

Key Things You Should Look For When Watching This Movie

Well, of course there is The Bus Scene where you should revel in the lost power of a non-digital countdown clock. Be sure to enjoy the performances of the leads, especially Sylvia Sidney and Oskar Homolka. The times Hitchcock eschews dialogue and lets the actors’ faces tell the story. The way the movie subverts all our expectations of what should happen, an effect that is perhaps now multiplied 8 decades later by many people’s expectations of what they will find when they turn to an “old black and white movie.”

I couldn’t find the movie trailer, but here is the famous — some would same infamous — bus scene:

And here is Hitchcock talking about the movie Sabotage and how he would have changed the bus scene:

Thanks, Jeff!

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 40s movies, 5os movies, 60s Movies, 70s movies, 80s Movies and 90s Movies. This month, we’re working on 30s movies. And thanks to the GITS community, we’ve got at least 22 movies in the works and hopefully!

Those who I put in bold have already sent me their posts. If you haven’t sent yours to me, please do so as soon as you can!!!

All Quiet on the Western Front – Michael Waters
Bride of Frankenstein – Marija Nielsen
Bringing Up Baby – Melinda Mahaffey
Captain Blood – John Arends
City Girl – Adam Westbrook
Dracula – Sheila Seaclearr
Duck Soup – David Joyner
Gone With The Wind – W. H. Morris
Gunga Din – Steve Huerta
It Happened One Night – Joni Brainerd
Make Way for Tomorrow – Susan Winchell
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington – Amber Watt
Rebecca – Katha
Snow White and the Seven Dwarves – Will King
Sabotage – Jeff Xilon
Stagecoach – Thenewlight
The 39 Steps – Felicity Flesher
The Adventures of Robin Hood – Clay Mitchell
The Petrified Forest – Rachel Sheridan
The Women – Liz Clarke
Topper – Wayne Kline
Vampyr – Megaen Kelly

I am still looking for volunteers. If there’s a 30s movie you’d like to write about, please post your suggestion in comments or contact me via email.

Thanks to everyone who steps up for this ongoing project!

For the original post explaining the series, go here.

For all of the 30s movies featured in the series, go here.

Click REPLY and see you in comments about today’s classic 30s movie!

Writing and the Creative Life: Why creativity thrives in the dark

May 26th, 2016 by

Back in 2009, I was up working in the middle of the night, as I always do, when I was inspired to write this reflection:

Is there anything more profoundly intense than pounding out pages…
Yanked from that story universe you’ve created…
Then in the thick silence of night’s deep darkness…
Read aloud what you’ve written?
Not much above a whisper…
Don’t want to wake all the ‘normal’ people in the household.
Just you…
Your story…
And the blackness enveloping the both of you…
A silent witness to the magic of the muses you’ve managed to wrangle.

As long as I can remember, I have been a night person. That’s generally when I do my best creative thinking. I’ve often wondered why. As it turns out, perhaps it’s nothing more than light… and darkness.

This week, Fast Company published an article (“Why Creativity Thrives in the Dark”) that explores this subject:

Psychologists Anna Steidel and Lioba Werth recently conducted a series of clever experiments designed to measure how creativity responded to various lighting schemes. In a paper published last month, Steidel and Werth reported some of the first evidence for what creative masters know by nature: when the lights switch off, something in the brain switches on.

“Apparently, darkness triggers a chain of interrelated processes, including a cognitive processing style, which is beneficial to creativity,” the researchers concluded in the September issue of the Journal of Environmental Psychology.

—-

In a subsequent experiment, Steidel and Werth arranged a simulated office environment with three different lighting conditions. Some of the 114 study participants in this test sat at cubicle with a desk light of 500 lux, which is the workplace standard. Others sat at a spot with a bright light of 1,500 lux, a setting often used by TV studios. A third group had a dim light of 150 lux, similar to a very cloudy day.

At their stations, study participants worked on four classic insight problems that require some creativity to solve. (The “candle problem,” for instance, asks people to put a candle on a wall using just a box of tacks; the solution requires realizing the box can be tacked to the wall.) People at the dim workspaces solved significantly more problems than those at the bright cubicles.

So what’s the secret of dim lighting? Steidel and Werth suspect that it creates a “visual message” capable of nudging our minds into an exploratory mode. The idea is that dark places suggest an uninhibited freedom that loosens our thoughts.

Finally I know why I prefer to live like a mole! Curtains closed during the day. A single lamp with a dim bulb on in my study at night. The shadows are my friends! The night welcomes me like a warm blanket, encouraging my creativity to emerge from hibernation, from darkness to darkness… and to the light of imagination.

I’m not a vampire yearning to sink my fangs into some virgin’s throat. I’m a writer yearning to sink my creativity into a virginal story! Yes, a creature of the night… but maybe more accurately, a creature of little light. As I wrote in that reflection years ago:

Truth be told, I’m more of a monk.
Communing with the Creative in the deepest darkness…
The most still stillness…
Where the people of ‘this’ world…
Give way to the souls of the ‘story’ world…
No folks around to spook my characters.

And so it’s midnight.
No calls.
No appointments.
Just me…
And slinky shadows.

C’mon, souls!
There’s nobody around to chase you away.

Let’s you and me chat for awhile…

For the rest of the Fast Company article, go here.

Writing and the Creative Life is a series in which we explore creativity from the practical to the psychological, the latest in brain science to a spiritual take on the subject. Hopefully the more we understand about our creative self, the better we will become as writers. If you have any good reading material in this vein, please post in comments. If you have a particular observation you think readers will benefit from and you would like to explore in a guest post, email me.

[Originally posted November 7, 2013]