Reflections on and basic tenets about the craft. They represent my take. If any of them resonate with you, great. If not, feel free to ignore them. My hope: May these 30 observations provide inspiration and insight to you.
In Hollywood, there is a saying: “Exposition = Death.” This 1-week online course with Scott Myers breaks down exposition into various types, displays key principles and techniques on how to best handle setting, information, data, and backstory. Starts February 22.
This popular, proven online six-week workshop guides you through the story development process from concept to outline, resulting in a comprehensive guide to write your script. Starts: Monday, February 29. Instructor: TOM BENEDEK.
For those of you in the New York City area, be sure to check out the 6th Annual Athena Film Festival which runs February 18-21, 2016 at Barnard College. There will be many great movies screening including features, documentaries, and shorts, as well as panels, workshops, and special events.
The Black List will be there and I will be part of it for two activities:
* On Thursday, February 18 from 2-4PM, I will be doing a presentation at Barnard: “Using five archetypes – Protagonist, Nemesis, Attractor, Mentor, Trickster – we will analyze several female-centric movies including The Wizard of Oz, The Silence of the Lambs, Juno, Bridesmaids, and Mad Max: Fury Road to learn the fundamentals of Character Based Screenwriting.
* On Thursday and Friday, I will be a mentor along with Darci Picoult, Jane Grillo, and Deborah Kampmeier for the Athena Film Festival Black List Screenwriters Mini-Lab in which we will work with four talented women writers whose scripts were selected from numerous entrants. In addition to one-on-one mentor meetings and workshop sessions which I will lead, participants will attend special screenings, social events, and the festival’s awards gala.
For more information on the Athena Film Festival, go here.
Sam Regnier wrote the original screenplay “Free Agent” which won a 2015 Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting and has been set up at CBS Films. Recently Sam and I had an excellent phone conversation in which we covered a lot of territory, his background and how he got into writing, a deep analysis of “Free Agent”, and a discussion about the writing craft.
Today in Part 3, Sam talks about the surprising route he took to figure out the sports angle in “Free Agent” and how it’s really a sports movie:
Scott: The second point of inspiration from that interview you said for “Free Agent”, this is another quote. “My wife and I had a daughter, and that influenced me as I wrote the script. There’s a character, Taylor that comes in the middle of the central character, Bridgette, has a conflict that represents my dealing with becoming a parent for the first time.”
You mentioned earlier that you had an emotional connection to the material. Maybe you could delve into that a little bit, this Taylor character, was a surprise to you. That was one of the first instincts that you had.
Sam: I wasn’t even planning to have this character. I was planning on it being a workplace drama focused solely around Bridget having a relationship with a younger man.
I remember the moment the Taylor character came to me. I was looking at the script and I thought there was something missing. I knew the emotional journey she needed to take, and she couldn’t do it with Nick because she would be too guarded in that relationship to really experience some of the closeness that she needs, some of the emotional closeness that’s different than a romantic relationship.
I was walking to work one day, and this character popped into my head. What is Bridget was dealing with a younger version, essentially, of herself? Someone that was as driven, and as difficult as she was. What would that look like? What challenges would that person have?
I didn’t know it at the time, but I was writing about becoming a parent. This was within months of my daughter being born, and her befuddlement and lack of confidence in how handle this new interruption in her life was pretty much a carbon copy of what I was going through.
And on top of that complication aspect, there was feeling – what did I do to deserve this great thing that’s happening to me? It’s a feeling that Bridget also reaches throughout the script.
Scott: What better way to create conflict than to physicalize some internal aspect of stuff that Bridget has yet to resolve in the form of this Taylor. So you’re walking to work, and you have this idea of this young, teenage girl. I’m assuming pretty quickly you said, “Oh, she could be the sister of Nick.”
Sam: Yes. I needed a way, I wanted a good reason for her to be involved in the script, and honestly, the way that she becomes involved with a little bit of a cheat. You get maybe one or two cheats in a script, and I needed a really good way to make sure that they would really be in close contact.
Scott: How would you describe Taylor’s character to someone?
Sam: I would say she’s a precocious 15 year old girl who leads with her chin, leads with her own worst qualities, almost daring someone to reject her. Because her overwhelming desire is to convince you that she does not care what you think about her.
She’s gone through a lot. She’s lost her mom, and she’s on her own in the world. But she’s taken that feeling of being on her own and decided to flip it in her favor – make it as a testament to how strong she is.
That baseline “I don’t care” attitude tends to produce a conflict in almost every situation she walks into.
Scott: Like, a good offense is the best defense?
Sam: Exactly. She’s not going to wait for you to reject her, she’s going to reject you first.
A scene from “Free Agent” as read by Jimmy Smits, Freida Pinto, Kathy Baker, and O’Shea Jackson Jr.
Scott: That’s a primary nexus point for Bridget in terms of her personal transformation, this relationship with Taylor. When you’re walking to work, you came up with this idea for Taylor, I’m assuming you didn’t know, “Oh, this is where this is going to go.”
Did that trajectory and arc of that relationship between the two, how did that evolve over time?
Sam: The next key moment is the introduction of basketball into the script. Even though that is the core plot, it was the last piece to come in.
Initially, I introduced Taylor, and there were scenes where she interjected herself into Bridget’s life, but there wasn’t a really good method or vehicle for them to connect with each other; a way of physicalizing or externalizing the conflict that they were having.
The introduction of this shared love of basketball was a way for these two people that are incredibly guarded to plausibly open up to each other.
Once I found that they had this shared love of basketball, this possibility arose that they could get onto a court with each other and essentially battle each other to emotional exhaustion. To where they can reveal something really about themselves.
There are essentially four basketball scenes between Taylor and Bridget that, in my mind, are the core of the script. You can change a lot of things around them, but those beats are the story, in my mind.
Scott: I definitely want to get into that, because it’s a really interesting aspect of this story. Let’s talk about the NBA part of it. On the surface, someone would say, “Oh, this is a sports story,” but it’s not at all, really. The sports is a backdrop, correct?
Sam: Yes. It’s important, in some ways; that Bridget has this somewhat outsider role, that she’s a woman in a man’s world. Also, this idea that she is stuck between rationality and emotion very much comes from that world. At the same time you never see an NBA game, or an NBA practice. You barely see an NBA player in the script. You see one high school game at the very end.
Essentially, it’s less about the NBA and more about what it means to be part of a team. Bridgette has a history that she played basketball, she loved basketball, she had a history of being on teams. But now she’s rejecting this idea of working with other people, of teamwork. She has to work her way back to trust, learning to be part of a team again.
That’s the whole point of the title. She’s chasing this free agent, and she’s acting like a free agent in life. She’s floating, because she doesn’t want to tie herself down to anything. But she can’t be a free agent forever.
Like you said, is it about the NBA? Tangentially. Is it about sports? Yes, in that it’s about connections. It’s about teamwork. It’s about that feeling that you get when you achieve something with other people.
Scott: It’s really interesting to hear you talk about this, Sam. It speaks to the magic of the creative process. You start off the whole thing with this character, Bridget, and you’re interested in her, and the place of a woman in her early 40s, from that generation, dealing with some of those big issues.
Then you come up with this idea of Nick, and then you have the spark of this character Taylor. You’re starting to think, “How can I intersect them, and what can be the possible point of connection between these two?”
Then you take your obsession with the NBA, because you say, “I don’t want her to have a Wall Street job. I want to give her something interesting.” You said you were watching a game, and you saw a general manager for the Houston Rockets or something and said, “That’s interesting.” Is that right?
Sam: That’s exactly what happened. They were talking about him on TV, and I thought – her story would be so much richer if that was her job.
Magic is the perfect word for it, because watching all these things, all these pieces that you suspended in the air and you’re looking at them, and you’re thinking, “No way these things fit together.” Then something happens, and they all fall together into one piece.
It’s a truly bizarre experience, because there is not a great explanation for how it all fits together, as far as I’m concerned.
Scott: Yeah, you wind through the circuitous journey, end up at the NBA and all of a sudden you’ve got, “Wait a minute, I’ve got basketball. That’s what they could connect with, right?”
Sam: Sometimes the pieces fit so well that you wonder how. You wonder – where did this come from? Is this something that I saw somewhere else? How could I possibly get piece Q before I get piece B, and why do they fit so well with each other?
Tomorrow in Part 4, Sam discusses his thought process on writing a project like “Free Agent” which involved making some unconventional choices.
A Creative Screenwriting interview with Phyllis Nagy, nominated for a 2016 Academy Award for Best Adapted screenplay for Carol:
It’s been almost twenty years since you began writing Carol. What enabled you to persist with the project for so long?
Carol was the first script I was hired to write, in 1997, and the first script I said “yes” to as an adaptation.
Initially, it was that I knew Pat, and this project came to me a couple of years after she died. So I felt a strange responsibility to take it, and to make sure that it wasn’t screwed up in some fundamental way, because she so disliked many of the screen adaptations of her work.
Some quite good, famous films, she just had no time for, because they fundamentally changed the nature of her source material, which to me is a huge no-no in adaptation. If you’re going to go out of your way to take on the translation of a vision of a piece of underlying source material, and you’re going to change that so profoundly, why don’t you just write a story with the same plot? Because that’s essentially what you’re doing, you’re borrowing plot: the least, least interesting element of any piece of dramatic writing. And, making a novelist, poet, or whoever you’re taking from very unhappy. So I felt that burden—and not a negative burden, just a burden—to Pat.
Also, the story held personal resonance for me; I found its treatment of the sexuality of the two female characters quite radical, especially for something that had been published in 1952. There’s not an ounce of guilt, there’s not an ounce of regret, over the nature of their attraction for each other. I also found Highsmith’s notions of what makes a good mother to be quite radical—the choices that people have to make in order to make the lives of their children better seemed really fresh, and radical. And still do, to this day, actually.
In choosing or agreeing to adapt a book, what are you looking for? Are you repeatedly drawn to anything?
I think it’s just quite tricky books where other people say, “Oh, I can’t see how you could ever put that into a film!” I’m like, “Oh, I’ll read that one!”
I’ve done one of those recently, which is a novel called The Lüneburg Variation, which is an Italian novel, which is, I don’t know how to describe it—a very slim volume written almost in aphorism. It is a Holocaust revenge thriller set in the world of international chess, and it’s full of men. So, this is quite different, obviously, from Carol. But it’s another “problem” novel.
And I’ve just taken one on for TriStar, a “problem” thriller—which is yet to be published in English, but will be next summer—a novel called The Trap, by a German novelist, about a woman who hasn’t left her house in twelve years, but has to, in order to elicit a confession from the man who murdered her sister. So, it’s quite an interesting psychological thriller.
So, when you say tricky, you mean not only psychologically—
Structurally. Yes, because again, there is a lot of interiority going on in The Trap. And a lot of reverse positioning. The point of view shifts as it does in Carol. And plus, I like where I can—not improve the book, that’s not what I’m trying to say—in some way, enhance the experience of the book for people who know the material. And if people don’t know the material, then it’s an entertaining, hopefully meaningful, ride.
Last year at this time, we did a month-long Dialogue-Writing Challenge. It was a big success with dozens of writers participating. We all learned quite a bit about this important aspect of the craft plus we had some fun in the process. So I’ve decided to bring it back!
Every Monday-Friday at noon Eastern / 9AM Pacific in February, I will upload a post with a prompt for writing dialogue. Each day, write a scene per those guidelines. If you really want to get in the spirit of things, upload your scene here in the comments section of the original post. That way you can critique others’ pages and receive feedback on your dialogue as well.
To provide extra motivation for this series — to get people to WRITE PAGES — I am giving away some of my Craft classes to Dialogue-Writing Challenge participants. That’s right: For free!
The Craft classes highlight key principles and practices tied to the nitty gritty of writing a script. Here is the Craft lineup, the only time I will teach each of these courses in 2016:
Each is a 1-week online class featuring 7 lectures written by me, lots of screenwriting insider tips, logline workshops, optional writing exercises, 24/7 message board conversations, teleconferences with course participants and myself to discuss anything related to the craft of scriptwriting.
A popular option is the Craft Package which gives you access to the content in all eight Craft classes which you can go through on your own time and at your own pace, plus automatic enrollment in each 1-week online course. All for nearly 50% the price of each individual class. And special bonus content: 7 lectures on How to Introduce Characters so a script reader will immediately get a clear sense of who each character is… and be entertained in the process.
To qualify to take one of my Craft classes for free, write and submit ten  Dialogue-Writing Challenge posts, then provide feedback on ten  posts from other writers. The former to get you writing, the latter to work your critical-analytical skills.
A chance to take any of my eight Craft classes, interface with me online along with the usual stellar group of writers who take Screenwriting Master Class courses, while using writing exercises and feedback to upgrade your skill at writing and analyzing dialogue.
ISN’T THAT AN AWESOME IDEA?!!!
A couple of logistical notes:
* Limit your post to 2 pages. Out of fairness to everyone participating in the public dialogue-writing workshop, let’s not abuse anyone’s patience or time with really long scenes.
* Give your scenes a beginning, middle and end. You may enter late and exit early, but provide an arc to each of your posts. Even monologues or telephone conversations, both of which we will be doing this month.
* Don’t be concerned about proper script format when you copy/paste your pages, rather the content and execution are the important thing. So as a default mode, do this: (1) Don’t worry about right-hand margins on scene description or dialogue, just keep typing until it manually shifts each line. (2) Don’t worry about character name position, rather do this:
SCARLETT: Rhett, Rhett... Rhett, if you go, where shall I go? What shall I do?
RHETT: Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn.
Today’s prompt: Somebody gets fired from their job.
Old person firing a young person. Young person firing an old person. Does the person firing the other person relish this moment or regret it? And how to handle the person losing their job?
Focus on the dialogue, not the action to drive the scene. In most movies, it’s the other way around because movies are primarily a visual medium, however sometimes the script requires a dialogue-driven scene and we need to hone our chops at being able to do that effectively.
Write a 1-2 page dialogue-centric scene, then copy/paste in comments.
If you are interested in qualifying for 1 free Craft class with me, please note in each post you submit the number of scenes you have written. If today is your first effort, note that it is Scene 1. The next one, Scene 2. And so forth.
Also when you provide feedback on someone’s scene, please note in each reply the number of comments you have uploaded. So if today is your first response, Feedback 1. The next one, Feedback 2.
You are on an honor system, as I don’t have time to check every post, so do the right thing!
Remember: In order to qualify for one of my free Craft classes, you need to submit ten  Dialogue-Writing Challenge posts, then provide feedback on ten  posts from other writers.
FEEDBACK TIP: Is there a non-conventional, off-the-nose way to approach this scene? An inventive way to approach firing someone? Brainstorm some ideas and toss them out to the writer whose scene you critique.
Want to join in? Here are the previous challenge prompts:
It’s the 2016 Dialogue-Writing Challenge! Give a jolt to your creative and writing muscles… and win 1 free online class with yours truly.
NOTE: My Craft: Handling Exposition class starts Monday, February 22. If you have done all 10 exercises and provided 10 feedback posts by February 19, you are eligible to take that class for free. It’s an important class that dovetails directly into writing dialogue, so you can use that as some motivation!
Finally if you have a suggestion for a dialogue-writing prompt, please post in comments or email me.
To see all of the 2015 Dialogue Writing Exercise prompts, go here.
I think we’d all admit the first time Clarice Starling meets Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs, that was a great scene:
But what about when we all were introduced to Dr. Lecter? That would be in the 1986 movie Manhunter. Written and directed by Michael Mann with a screenplay adapted from the novel “The Red Dragon” by Thomas Harris, here is a plot summary from IMDb:
Will Graham [William Petersen] is a former FBI agent who recently retired to Florida with his wife Molly and their young son. Graham was a ‘profiler’; one who profiles criminal’s behavior and tries to put his mind into the minds of criminals to examine their thoughts while visiting crime scenes. Will is called out of his self-imposed retirement at the request of his former boss Jack Crawford [Dennis Farina] to help the FBI catch an elusive serial killer, known to the press as the ‘Tooth Fairy’, who randomly kills whole families in their houses during nights of the full moon and leaves bite marks on his victims. To try to search for clues to get into the mind of the killer, Will has occasional meetings with Dr. Hannibal Lecktor [Brian Cox], a charismatic but very dangerous imprisoned serial killer that Will captured years earlier which nearly drove him insane from the horrific encounter that nearly cost Will’s life. With some help and hindrance, Will races against the clock before the next full moon when the ‘Tooth Fairy’ will strike again. Elsewhere, a local photographer named Francis Dollarhyde [Tom Noonan], the killer that Will is looking for, struggles to stay undetected while seeing a hope of redemption when be begins a relationship with a blind woman who is not aware of his double life.
Here is the first meeting between Will and Lecktor:
INT. MAXIMUM SECURITY SECTION - DOOR - DAY
We hear three locks opening. The door opens. Graham enters.
An attendant behind Graham closes the door and we hear the
bolts lock again. As Graham is walking towards us, we WIDEN
and TRACK IN. It makes the b.g. disorienting as we get closer
to Graham's face. The CAMERA DROPS as Graham sits in a single
chair. We haven't yet seen what Graham looks at. Now:
GRAHAM'S POV: BARRED CELL
A 6x10 cage. In the center of the bars separating Graham
from the occupant is a three-foot-square perspex sheet. The
occupant can't get at someone sitting in front of him. In
the perspex square is a letter -- passing drawer. In the
cell -- laying on his bunk -- is DR. HANNIBAL LECKTOR. He
appears to be asleep. His back is to Graham. He has not
That's the same atrocious aftershave
you wore in court three years ago.
I keep getting it for Christmas.
CLOSE: LECKTOR'S HEAD
turns to us. His small eyes drill into Graham's brain.
Lecktor's attitude is professionally psychiatric, as if Graham
is the patient.
Did you get my card?
I got it. Thank you.
Graham's struggle will be to keep locked-down inside himself
all his emotional reactions.
And how is Officer Stuart? The one
who was the first to see my basement.
Stuart is fine.
Emotional problems, I hear. He was a
very promising young officer. Do you
ever have any problems, Will?
Of course, you don't.
I'm glad you came. My callers are
all professional. Clinical
psychiatrists from cornfield colleges
somewhere. Second-raters, the lot.
Dr. Bloom showed me your article on
surgical addiction in the journal of
Very interesting, even to a layman.
Lecktor rolls around and examines the term "layman" in his
A layman..., layman. Interesting
term. So many experts on government
grants. And you say you're a 'layman?'
But it was you who caught me, wasn't
it, Will? Do you know how you did
You've read the transcript. It's all
No it's not. Do you know how you did
It's in the transcript. What does it
It doesn't matter to me, Will.
I want you to help me, Dr. Lecktor.
Yes, I thought so.
It's about Atlanta and Birmingham.
You read about it, I'm sure.
In the papers. I don't tear out the
I wouldn't want them to think I was
dwelling on anything morbid. You
want to know how he's choosing them,
I thought you would have some ideas.
Why should I tell you?
There are things you don't have.
Research materials... I could speak
to the Chief of Staff...?
Chilton? Gruesome, isn't he? He
fumbles at your head like a freshman
pulling at a panty girdle.
He actually tries to give me a
Thematic and Apperception test.
Hah. Sat there waiting for MF-13 to
come up. It's a card with a woman in
bed and a man in the foreground. I
was supposed to avoid a sexual
interpretation. I laughed in his
Never mind, it's boring.
You'll get to see the file on this
case. And there's another reason.
I thought you might be curious to
find our if you're smarter than the
person I'm looking for.
Then by implication, you think that
you are smarter than me, since you
No. I knew that I'm not smarter than
Then how did you catch me, Will?
You had disadvantages.
You're very tan, Will.
Graham does not answer. If anything happens, there is a
tightening of the musculature repressing his reactions to
Your hands are rough. They don't
look like a cop's hands anymore.
That shaving lotion is something a
child would select. It has a ship on
the bottle, doesn't it?
Another silence. Lecktor's eyes look as if they're drilling
into Graham's head, trying to find out things. Trying to
find a way to hurt Graham. He's very threatening. Then
Don't think you can persuade me with
appeals to my intellectual vanity.
I don't think I'll persuade you.
You'll do it or you won't. Dr. Bloom
is working an it anyway, and he's
Do you have the file with you
Let me have them, and I might consider
Do you dream much, Will?
Good-bye, Dr. Lecktor.
You haven't threatened to take away
my books yet.
Graham gets up and starts to walk away.
Let me have the file. Then I'll tell
you what I think.
Graham stops at the door before he knocks for the attendant.
Then he folds the abridged file tightly into the sliding
tray. Lecktor pulls it through.
sits in the chair. He wants a cigarette. He doesn't take
one. He waits. And he watches. What he sees:
GRAHAM'S POV: EXTREME CLOSE PAN THROUGH CELL OF DR. LECKTOR
Toothbrush, mirror, sink, Sryrofoam cups, soft paper journals,
T-shirts, neatly stacked hospital pads, sneakers with no
shoelaces, the wall, seatless toilet bowl, etc, etc. All the
objects are brilliantly lit with sharp bluish light. Their
edges are sharper and more defined than normal. The shadows
of the bars make hard-edged stripes. It is a high resolution,
highly brilliant set of images. It feels like a hyper-
perception of reality, a super-realism perceived by the mind
of Graham. It is interrupted when:
There is a very shy boy, Will.
snaps back to the present, looks at Lecktor.
What were the yards like?
Big backyards, fences, some hedges,
Because, my dear Will, if this Pilgrim
imagines he has a relationship with
the full moon, he might go outside
and look at it. Have you seen blood
in moonlight, Will? It appears quite
black. If one were nude, it would be
better to have outdoor privacy for
this sort of thing.
It's not 'interesting'. You thought
of it before.
Yes. I'd considered it.
You came here to look at me, Will.
To get the old scent again, didn't
I want your opinion.
I don't have one right now.
When you do have one I'd like to
May I keep the file?
I haven't decided yet.
I'll study it, Will. When you get
more files, I'd like to see them,
too. You can call me. When I have to
call my lawyer, they bring me a
telephone. Would you like to give me
your home number?
Do you know how you caught me, Will?
Goodbye, Dr. Lecktor. You can leave
messages for me at the number on the
Graham bangs on the door. Locks are starting to be unlocked.
Graham can't wait to get out of here. He wants the locks to
get unlocked faster!
Do you know how you caught me?
The door is now open. Graham fights down the impulse to run
through. As Graham -- controlled -- steps out, what he hears
The reason you caught me, Will, is:
We're just alike. You want the scent?
The DOOR SLAMS shut on Lecktor.
Here’s the scene from Manhunter:
It’s the same psychological games from Lecktor that we see in Lambs, despite the different spelling of his name.
I thought Manhunter was a really good movie. I also thought that Francis Dollarhyde was even more frightening than Buffalo Bill (but I’m basing that on my experience of reading the books as “The Red Dragon” totally freaked me out).
But the big question is which Lecktor / Lecter do you like better: Cox’s version or Hopkins?
CHUCKIE: Oh, hello.
SKYLAR: Oh, hello.
CHUCKIE: Hi, how are you?
CHUCKIE: So, do you ladies uh. . .
SKYLAR: Come here often?
CHUCKIE: Do I come here..? I come here a bit. I here…uh…uh…you know from time to time…Do you go to school here?
CHUCKIE: Yeah…let’s see…see, I think I had a class with you.
SKYLAR: Oh yeah? What class?
CHUCKIE: Yeeesss…I think that’s what it was. You don’t necessarily…might not remember me…You know, I like it here. It doesn’t mean cus’ I go here I’m a genius…I am actually very smart…
CHUCKIE: Hey. How’s it goin’? How are you?
CLARK: Good. How’re you doin’?
CHUCKIE: You wanna…–
CLARK: What uh…What class did you..did you say that was?
CHUCKIE AND SKYLAR: History.
CLARK: Yeah…JUST History? It musta’ been a survey course then, huh?
CHUCKIE: Yeah, it was, it was surveys.
CHUCKIE: You should check it out, it’s a good course. It’s a, uh…good..good class.
CLARK: How’d you like that course?
CHUCKIE: You know…Frankly, I found the class, you know, rather…uh…elementary.
CLARK: You know I don’t doubt that it was.
CLARK: I uh…I remember that class. It was um…it was just between recess and lunch.
SKYLAR: Clark, why don’t you go away..?
CLARK: Why don’t you relax?
SKYLAR: Why don’t you just go away?
CLARK: I’m just having fun with my new friend, that’s all.
CHUCKIE: What, are you gunna’ have a problem? I don’t understand…
CLARK: No, no, no, no..no, there’s no problem here. I was just hoping you might give me some insight into the evolution of the market economy in the Southern Colonies. My contention is that prior to the Revolutionary War, the economic modalities, especially in the Southern Colonies, could most aptly be characterized as agrarian precapital–
CHUCKIE: Let me tell you somethin’, all right?
WILL: Of course that’s your contention.
CLARK: Hang on a second.
WILL: You’re a first year grad student. You just got finished reading some Marxian historian — Pete Garrison, probably — you gunna’ be convinced of that till next month when you get to James Lemon, then you’re gunna’ be talkin’ about how the economies of Virginia and Pennsylvania were entrepreneurial and capitalist way back in 1740. That’s gunna’ last until next year, you’re gunna’ be in here regurgitatin’ Gordon Wood. Talkin’ about, you know, the pre-Revolutionary Utopia and the capital forming effects of military mobilization.
CLARK: Well, as a matter of fact I won’t because Wood drastically underestimates the impact of social di–
WILL: Wood drastically…Wood drastically underestimates the impact of social distinctions predicated upon wealth, especially inherited wealth. You got that from Vickers. Work in Essex County, page 98, right? Yeah, I read that, too. You gunna’ plagiarize the whole thing for us? Do you have any thoughts that…of your own on this matter? Or do you– is that your thing? You come into a bar, you read some obscure passage, and then pretend you, you..pawn it off as your own..as your own idea just to impress some girls..? Embarrass my friend? See, the sad thing about a guy like you is in fifty years you’re gunna start doing some thinkin’ on your own, and you’re gunna’ come up with the fact that there are two certainties in life: one, don’t do that, and, two, you dropped a hundred and fifty grand on a fuckin’ education you coulda’ got for a dollar fifty in late charges at the public library.
CLARK: Yeah, but I will have a degree. And you’ll be serving my kids fries at a drive-thru on our way to a skiing trip.
WILL: Yeah, maybe. eh, but at least I won’t be unoriginal. Pardon me, if you have a problem like that, you and me could just outside ‘n we could figure it out.
CLARK: No, man, there’s no problem. It’s cool.
WILL: It’s cool?
CHUCKIE: You’re fuckin’ damn right it’s cool. How do ya’ like me NOW?
MORGAN: My boy’s wicked smart…
— Good Will Hunting (1997), written by Matt Damon & Ben Affleck
The Daily Dialogue theme for the week: Annoying. Today’s suggestion by Will King.
Trivia: Matt Damon and Ben Affleck found a clever way to choose the right studio for their script: the story goes that on page 60 of the script, they wrote a completely out-of-nowhere sex scene between Will and Chuckie. They took it to every major studio, and nobody even mentioned the scene. When they met with Harvey Weinstein at Miramax, he said, “I only have one really big note on the script. About page 60, the two leads, both straight men, have a sex scene. What the hell is that?” – Damon and Affleck explained that they put that scene specifically in there to show them who actually read the script and who didn’t. As Weinstein was the only person who brought it up, Miramax was the studio chosen to produce the film.
Dialogue On Dialogue: Commentary by Will: “Chuckie‘s flirting is a bit annoying (most flirting feels a bit annoying at last), but the girls laugh and it‘s okay. But the arrogant Ivy League guy is really getting on our nerves. Then Will shines, he defends his friend and the girls against this annoying guy. But mentioning Will‘s missing education is a real annoying blow below the belt. Will still ‘wins’ the scene by making a joke and threatening him with a fight (behavior like this almost brought him to jail) but that proofs as well why he looses – it‘s true: he don‘t uses his potential. That’s really annoying.”
I was curious about stories which follow multiple characters, each with their own plight to overcome in the overlapping storyline. I suppose my question is more than one… which films are good examples of this and the second being what are tips to remember when assuming this format? What are issues that a writer should be concerned with, i.e. things to avoid when writing multiple main characters? I also assume this is suitable for both Drama and other genres.
A good starting point for your research might be this post [originally posted 10/26/08] re the movie Traffic, which is a great example of the type of movie you’re talking about. An excerpt:
Recently an English film critic Alissa Court used the phrase hyperlink cinema to describe this type of filmmaking:
Hyperlink movies are films following multiple story lines and multiple characters. These story lines and characters intersect obliquely and subtly. Events in one story line affect other story lines or characters, often in ways that the characters are unaware of or do not fully understand. Hyperlink cinema is often characterized by globe-spanning locations, multiple languages, multiple characters, strict parameters in art direction and cinematography, and frequent and drastic use of flashback and flashforward. Mise en scene are used in each story line, to create an abrupt visual break when cutting between characters and story lines.
Re advice how to approach writing a multilinear script, another excerpt from my OP:
If you have any aspirations to write a multiple-storyline script,Traffic is a great script to analyze. Gaghan excels in this type of storytelling, witness another excellent ‘multilinear’ script Syriana (2005). On the surface, these type of projects may be seem to be really difficult to write, however it’s mostly a matter of working out each subplot’s story arc — beginning, middle, end — then interweaving them, hopefully so that thematic elements in one subplot embellish the theme in another subplot. It’s not terribly different than what numerous 1-hour TV cop / legal / medical dramas do, stretching all the way from “Hill Street Blues” to “ER” to “C.S.I.”, each of which features (typically) three different subplots, cross cutting between each. Interesting to note that Gaghan wrote one episode of “NYPD Blue”, a show created by Stephen Bocho who has created several TV series that use multiple storylines.
Other key advice:
* Think of the lead characters in each of your subplots as their own Protagonist. Ask fundamental questions about each Protagonist: What do they want (their conscious External World goal); What do they need (their hidden Internal World goal); Who is trying to stop them from their goal (Nemesis); Who is most connected to their emotional development (Attractor); Who is most connected to their intellectual development (Mentor); Who tests them by shifting back and forth from ally to enemy (Trickster). Each of your subplots may not have a full retinue of primary character archetypes, but even so it’s good to understand the relative narrative function of each of that subplot’s characters.
* Be mindful of how, where, when, and why your subplots intersect. As the movie Crash demonstrated so well, those points of interconnection between disparate characters is one of the distinctive strengths of multi-linear stories. You would be wise to spend a good deal of time brainstorming possibilities in this regard, looking for surprising ways to cross various characters’ paths.
* In my experience, the best multilinear movies are those which revolve around one central theme because that theme can pull together the contrasting characters and their respective storylines into a coherent whole. So that’s another area to work on as you prep and write your script.
On a practical level, Stephen Bochco (noted above) came up with a simple system in cracking plots on shows like “N.Y.P.D. Blue”: Color coded 3×5 inch index cards. That is you designate one color for each subplot, work through each of that subplots major beats, then cross-cut between each subplot. I read about Bochco’s approach years ago and to my knowledge, TV writers still approach structuring scripts with multiple storylines in pretty much the same way.
One final piece of advice: While you should watch several multilinear movies and read their scripts as well, you’d be well-advised to do a scene-by-scene breakdown. You can even reverse engineer per the 3×5 inch index card approach, assigning one color per each subplot, then physically tack each scene card up onto the wall to see the story’s structure laid out before your eyes. Great way to grok how multilinear movies work.
GITS readers, any other suggestions on how to handle multilinear stories?
Here are some trailers of notable multilinear movies:
Sam Regnier wrote the original screenplay “Free Agent” which won a 2015 Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting and has been set up at CBS Films. Recently Sam and I had an excellent phone conversation in which we covered a lot of territory, his background and how he got into writing, a deep analysis of “Free Agent”, and a discussion about the writing craft.
Today in Part 2, we start to dig into Sam’s Nicholl winning script “Free Agent”:
Scott: I believe it was Scott Derrickson who said there’s a way of inverting that whole thing about getting on lists, essentially you’re branding yourself as a writer. If you’re a genre writer, in particular, you want to be known as an action writer or a comedy writer or a sci fi writer.
Sam: It can be really useful to brand yourself. I know in the back of my head that I have much broader ambitions or broader interests, and I am still committed to pursuing them, but we work in a business of creativity and ideas and things that are very ephemeral. If you’re going to have a conversation with someone about something that’s real and concrete, you need to ground that. It’s not always the best idea to tell them, “Yeah, I want to comedy, but I also want to do dramedy and I want to do a space opera, also. But also, I want to do a Marvel movie.” It’s not practical to talk about that in conversation. The easier way, when you’re starting out, is to say “These are the things that I’m interested in right now; this is the target that I’m hitting.” And ground that in real things that people understand.
It doesn’t have to be “I’m looking for high concept comedies with a budget of between $10 million and $40 million.” You can say that, but you can also say, “I like stuff with father-daughter relationships.” Or “I like workplace dramas.”
Scott: That’s the value of a spec script. No matter what genre you may be known for, you can always branch out and write something new.
Scott: You made that shift from being an assistant, and you tutored for several years and then worked for an educational type of an outfit, Green Dot Public Schools, both of them in the field of education. That allowed you more time to write?
Sam: Yeah. When I left Paramount, the number one thing I was interested in was writing as much as possible. I knew I had to get my 10,000 hours in. I was tutoring a lot at night and on weekends, and I had huge chunks during the day to write on my own. I never would have gotten to the place that I needed to be as a writer if I didn’t have that time.
I transitioned to my job at Green Dot, which was more of a traditional nine-to-five job, because I got married, I was starting a family, and I couldn’t be away nights and weekends all the time anymore.
Scott: Let’s jump to “Free Agent,” which is this terrific script that you wrote that won the 2015 Nicholl. Here’s a plot summary:
A female NBA, National Basketball Association executive for the Golden State Warriors, Bridget, pursues the biggest free agent of her career while managing a messy divorce. And a complicated relationship with a younger colleague named Nick and his teenage sister Taylor.
If I’m not mistaken, didn’t the script make the Nicholl top 50 in 2013?
Sam: It did.
Scott: So you’ve been working on this for a while.
Sam: Yeah. I submitted it in 2013, and then I continued to write it over the summer, and was so upset that I hadn’t gotten the draft that I liked in the 2013 Nicholl. I finished it sometime in the fall of 2013. I entered it in a screenwriting competition called Tracking B. That’s how I met my manager, Scott Carr.
Scott: In an interview I read, you said you had three points of inspiration for the story. First and here’s a quote, “I approach all my scripts from the characters’ perspective and start with a character who has a really interesting point of view.”
Could you elaborate on that and how that led you to the protagonist of “Free Agent,” who is very definitely an interesting character, Bridget?
Sam: Bridget was an extremely driven, career focused woman in her early 40s, and she belonged to…what I felt like I saw was a generation of women, people I knew, that had embraced this career focus at the same time. They were all reaching a point where they were making a final decision about whether or not they wanted to have kids are not. Because I wrote the script when I was having kids, that’s part of the main thematic element.
I thought it was an interesting time to be with that character, because it says a lot about feminism and the different requirements that are made of being a woman in America right now. It’s something that I see my wife go through, because she’s career focused and also a mom.
I felt like there was a lot to unpack there, a lot of judgments to be made, or answers that are perhaps more complicated and have more gradations than the way they are sometimes portrayed.
Stephanie Allain and Sam Regnier at the 2015 Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting awards ceremony
Scott: Whenever I read a script, and I’m looking at the protagonist as they’re set up in the first act, I’m always looking for what I call these Disunity elements. Essentially, these points of conflict going on in their lives, and Bridget’s got a lot of them.
You mentioned this issue of kids or not, and there’s a revelation on that in the story, but she’s a woman working primarily in a man’s world, the sports environment. She’s going through a messy divorce. She provides herself on her professionalism, and she’s carrying on an affair with a much younger associate at work.
Interestingly enough, too, she’s a statistical analysis type of person, one of those Bill James types of sports people. She got a rational nature, but it seems like a lot of her decisions in her personal life were more influenced by emotional impulses. She’s got a lot of Disunity dynamics going on there.
How did you go about developing that character, so that you had those layers of things to work with?
Sam: That’s a really good question. It all started from the same seed, which is this person that has gone through something dramatic, and as a result of that dramatic thing, had tried to sanitize her life as much as possible. Right around when we meet Bridget, she has finally succeeded in fully sanitizing her life, and that attempt to strip any emotion away from her life is what leads to the disunity that you describe.
All of those decisions – her relationship with Nick, her relationship with Taylor, her decisions that she makes at work, which even though they are based in statistics are often emotional in nature – all of those things are reactions to climbing this mountain of removing emotion from her life. And once she got there, she was so empty that she exploded into all these pieces.
The story is her trying to pick those pieces up, to get back to this place of no emotion – but it’s too late, she’s already unleashed all of these different relationships.
Scott: It’s like Joseph Campbell talks about the Hero’s Journey, saying at the beginning, the character is making do, but they need to change.
Scott: This younger associate with whom Bridget is having a relationship is Nick. Can you reconstruct how he emerged in your story crafting process?
Sam: He was the first element after Bridget. I thought, “What is the number one thing that can make things difficult for her, and really shatter her world?”
Immediately, I knew it had to be something to do with her workplace, and it had to be something emotional. I settled on a workplace relationship very quickly, and it had the added benefit of being something that she was pulling into her own life, as opposed to something that was imposed upon her. That makes the struggle internal; she wonders why she is the one that who is creating these complications by continuing this relationship.
Tomorrow in Part 3, Sam talks about the surprising route he took to figure out the sports angle in “Free Agent” and how it’s really a sports movie.
A Creative Screenwriting interview with Nick Hornby, nominated for a 2016 Academy Award for Best Adapted screenplay for Brooklyn:
The first letter Eilis receives from her sister is very mundane in terms of the content, but because she’s so homesick it makes her break down anyway. Her homesickness takes up much of the film’s early narrative. Could you talk about writing that?
That is one of the things that the book and the movie are about, really. Homesickness is a very profound emotion because usually when it happens the worst, it’s when you realize that even if you do get to go back home, the life that you had there would not be the same. A lot of us feel it when we’re going to college. Even if you move in with a girlfriend, the act of doing that wiped out the life you were living before.
It’s a very powerful and scary thing. From the times I felt it in my life – just the impression of it, thinking “I’m not going to be able to find a way out of this fog” – I think John [Crowley, director] and Saoirse convey that beautifully with that first letter and her inability to deal with a customer at work, with her boss asking her if it’s her time of the month.
I think lots of people know what it’s like to be in the middle of that black cloud, and if the movie was going to work we had to convey that as strongly as possible. The juxtaposition of the banality of the content of the letter and the sheer misery of wanting to have that life, knowing what that life is, and not having access to it was written that way.
You mentioned her boss at work. Female relationships in this movie are fascinating because in most instances they start harshly and grow to warmth, as with her bunkmate on the boat and Miss Fortini, her boss. While the main plot is driven by the relationship between Eilis and her suitors, why are these relationships between Eilis and other women so key to this story?
It’s something very striking when you read the book and think about the lives of those girls. They quite often had to room together, often worked in retail or some kind of domestic service, and marriage was the only route to take you out of the situation you were in.
In terms of the harshness, I had trained as a teacher and there’s a terrible expression that old teachers use, which is “Never smile before Easter.” When you’re a young teacher you’re nice to the kids and you get torn to pieces, so the next year you never smile before Easter [Laughs]. It’s a way of marking out what the rules of this relationship are, and that’s certainly true with the woman on the boat. It’s “She’s not going to fuck with me, and she has to know that’s my bed and this is how we do things. If she understands that, then we can have a relationship.” The same thing applies in the shop – “You have to do what I say, and if you can do that then we can operate.” It’s a hard world, and to a certain extent you have to draw your grid, stand in it, and say, “This is mine!” and after that we can start to get on.