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.
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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: My April 2014 interview with Elijah whose screenplays “Mississippi Mud” and “Hot Summer Nights” both made the 2013 Black List. Subsequently Elijah directed “Hot Summer Nights” starring Maika Monroe (It Follows), Timothée Chalamet (Interstellar), and Alex Roe (The 5th Wave).
Here are links to the six installments of the entire interview:
Part 1: “I was born and raised in a little town in a little state 3,000 miles away from Hollywood. I figured I had a better chance of striking oil in my backyard than making a career in entertainment.”
Part 2: “First of all, just naturally the way I approach story, I always have a question I want to explore. I never want to answer the question. I want to raise the question and present both sides of the argument and let the audience drawn their own conclusion.”
Part 3: “I wanted to explore religion and faith and the idea of fate and happenstance. What some call fate others call ‘the way shit is’”.
Part 4: “It’s the fear of becoming that thing that the world around you tells you that you’ll become. All of our characters fight against that. Some win. Some don’t.”
Part 5: “I have an index card taped to my desk that says, “Don’t be boring.” I have to remind myself of that all the time. Any time I feel the plot dragging and I realize I’m going down the wrong path I look down at my desk and that little index card is staring up at me.”
Part 6: “Writers have to be curious by nature. Curious about life, curious about human beings, curious about what makes the world go around. As long as you’re curious, there will always be something to write and you’ll always be raising the right questions.”
It is perhaps the single most fundamental truth about screenwriting in particular and writing in general that I know…
There is no right way to write.
No single formula.
No one system.
No mystical process that guarantees success.
Think about it: Why should there be?
Stories are organic.
Living, breathing, malleable entities.
They are not widgets.
We work on them tirelessly.
We engage them fully with our minds and hearts.
We write… and rewrite… and rewrite some more…
Yet with all that conscious effort and intentionality, there is always some element of magic to the story-crafting process.
And no one has discovered a way to box up that magic into a universal approach for every writer.
Each of us has to find our own way.
We can – and probably should – seek out as much advice as possible.
Wisdom from our writing peers.
Study, analyze, ingest.
But our paths as writers are individual ones.
Whatever he says about his writing…
Whatever she says about her writing…
That can be informative, instructive, even inspirational.
But that is about their path.
The process of being a writer is about carving out your own way.
Yes, it would be easier if there was one right way to write.
But then all our stories would be pretty much the same.
Besides whoever said writing was supposed to be easy?
So learn what you can along the way.
Listen to the Masters, actual writers who have successfully created a sustainable path of their own.
Test out a variety of approaches.
Try tips you pick up here and there.
Always be learning.
However at the end of the day…
It’s about you…
Your Creative Self…
And your Stories.
May is Classic 30s Movie month. Today’s guest post comes from Clay Mitchell.
Movie Title: The Adventures of Robin Hood
Writers: Norman Reilly Raine and Seton I. Miller
Rowland Leigh was brought on to write the screenplay early in the process, but the studio didn’t like the script. Leigh’s script served as the structure for the film. Raine was assigned the script and Miller, who had penned James Cagney films and contemporary dramas, was added to the team. Raine had won an Oscar for his work on The Life of Emile Zola (1937). Miller was also a prolific writer and later shared an Oscar with Sidney Buchman for Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941).
Lead Actors: Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Basil Rathbone, Claude Rains, Patric Knowles, Eugene Pallette and Alan Hale.
James Cagney was slated to star in the title role, but a dispute with the studio had him walking out of his contract. Warners didn’t want to put the film on hold and began to consider a replacement. Flynn had come off of Captain Blood (1935) and The Charge of the Light Brigade(1936) and presented Warners the iconic vision of the character the studio was looking for as Robin Hood. Hale had played Little John in Douglas Fairbanks’ 1922 version of the film, and will play Little John again in Rouges of Sherwood Forest (1950).
Director: Michael Curtiz and William Keighley.
The original director was Keighley, who had directed Flynn and Rains in The Prince and the Pauper (1937) and Warner’s first excursion into three-strip Technicolor God’s Country and the Women (1937). Keighley ran afoul early on in the process with the studio and the writers when he wanted to begin the film with a jousting tournament, but many felt having the biggest scene at the start would unbalance the film. Concerned with the delays (wet fall weather) and early footage, Keighley was replaced by Curtiz, who worked with Flynn in Blood and Brigade.
IMDb Plot Summary: When Prince John and the Norman Lords begin oppressing the Saxon masses in King Richard’s absence, a Saxon lord fights back as the outlaw leader of a rebel guerrilla army.
Why I Think This Is A Classic 30s Movie
It serves as the perfect bridge between the Old World and the New World with a more modern spin to the dialog (thanks perhaps to Miller), and the transition old style of black and white films to color. The Adventures of Robin Hood wasn’t the first Technicolor film, but the first more successful ones at the box office with The Wizard of Oz arriving a year later.
It was a bold risk to make. Douglas Fairbanks had a successful Robin Hood film just 16 years earlier. However, with Flynn’s portrayal and the color, Robin Hood becomes a template for future Robin Hood portrayals on the screen, in comic books, and even cartoons (to me the Bugs Bunny ones involving Robin Hood are among the best.)
At times, I forget that I’m watching something made in 1938.
My Favorite Moment In The Movie
The quips… Mostly contained in the first meeting between Robin, Marian, Prince John and Sir Guy.
Robin Hood: What’s a matter, Gisbourne? Run out of hangings?
Sir Guy: I know a ripe subject for one.
Robin Hood: I hope my lady had a pleasant journey from London?
Marian: What you hope can hardly be important.
Robin Hood: What a pity her manners don’t match her looks, Your Highness.
(a lot of the back and forth between Robin and Marian is similar to Han and Leia… including this exchange:
Robin: Then you do love me, don’t you? Don’t you?
Marian: You know I do.
Prince John: You speak treason.
Robin Hood: Fluently.
My Favorite Dialogue In the Movie
“What do you call a man who takes advantage of a king’s misfortune to seize his power? And now, with the help of this sweet band of cutthroats, you’ll try to grind a ransom for him out of every helpless Saxon. A ransom that’ll be used not to release Richard, but buy your way to the throne.” – Robin Hood
Key Things You Should Look For When Watching This Movie
Sir Guy (played Basil Rathbone) and the Sheriff of Nottingham (Melville Cooper).
In subsequent films, the Sheriff becomes the main antagonist for Robin Hood. Sir Guy was the invention of an operetta in which Warners owned the rights at the time. The original intent was to turn the operetta into the movie (which was never filmed).
• Rathbone was a fencer and it was adopted as the fighting style for the film even though fencing wouldn’t be invented until much later (in regards to when the movie takes place.)
• Marian’s horse later shows up in a western as “Trigger” for Roy Rogers.
Many of the elements we seem to take for granted got their first big push or start with The Adventures of Robin Hood. Robin boldly enters the castle of his nemesis which is similar to James Bond strolling into the midst of Blofeld or some other villain, and fighting his way out to safety.
Even the breaking into the castle to rescue Marian, who is to be executed harkens to the first STAR WARS film.
The colorful costuming is reminiscent of what is later found in comic books and thus translated back to film in modern era films.
To show our gratitude for your guest post, here’s a dash of creative juju for you. Whoosh!
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 – Mark Twain
Gunga Din – Steve Huerta It Happened One Night – JoniB22 Make Way for Tomorrow – Susan W
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 – supergloss
The Women – Liz Clarke Topper – Wayne Kline
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!
BLACKWOLF: The trouble with you, my brother, is that you’ve always been too good.
AVATAR: Well, that may be, but I still think I look more like Ma than you do; y’know, uh, lots of character. I’m aging better.
BLACKWOLF: Brother, there is no need for me to destroy you. Surrender, surrender your world.
AVATAR: (Applauding, chuckles) You always did need an audience, you sap. Lemme tell ya, I ain’t practiced much magic for a long time. I wanna show you a trick mother showed me when you weren’t around, to use on special occasions like this. Ah, oh yeah, one more thing…I’m glad you changed your last name, you son of a bitch.
— Wizards (1977), written by Ralph Bakshi
The Daily Dialogue theme for the week: Brothers. Today’s suggestion by Will King.
Trivia: Bob Holt modeled Avatar’s voice after Peter Falk.
Dialogue On Dialogue: Commentary by Will: “At a time after the apocalyptic end of mankind when magic has returned to the earth, two brothers struggle for control of the world. Blackwolf uncovers “technology” left buried from the time of men and uses it (in the form of weapons of war: tanks, guns) to lead a Nazi-like attack to subjugate those remaining alive and defeat their magic. In this final scene, Avatar confront his megalomaniac brother and uses the very technology Blackwolf worshipped to defeat him.”
One of my online students asked a great question today about whether it’s possible to over-analyze characters too much, to overthink them. What follows is my brain-dump response, slightly edited, that winds all around and incorporates the wit and wisdom of Donald Rumsfeld: Screenwriting Guru. Note: Our study script in the current course has been Witness.
Each writer needs to answer how much they think about their characters and story before and during the writing process. If what I’m promoting sounds like it’s too much prep-writing, too much reflection, too much character development, you may well be right. However, I do that in these classes because a majority of the material I read from aspiring screenwriters demonstrates that they have not done enough work in advance of writing.
It’s not just about the number of hours spent living with characters, the amount of pages read in research, the time devoted to brainstorming, it’s about what you end up with: understanding the characters enough to write them well and bring them to life.
Bottom line: if the writer doesn’t understand the characters, how is an actor supposed to?
Now it would be foolish of me to claim that prep-writing work, reflection, digging, and so on is all there is. Because, as I’ve noted previously, our biggest hope is that our characters come to life, they get up off the printed page as flesh-and-blood individuals. At that point, it’s our duty to follow them because if you’ve done the work to bring them to life, trust me, they’ll take you and your story where it needs to go.
To the bigger question, let me refer back to former Secretary of Defense and great screenwriting guru Donald Rumsfeld who said this:
“There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.”
When we type FADE IN, we have our notes, our outlines, all of that ‘stuff’ we’ve generated from the prep-writing phase. In that, we have the ‘known knowns,’ various plot points and character dynamics that we know work. We also have ‘known unknowns,’ that is story ‘stuff’ that will arise in the page-writing process that we can’t know in advance, but we are cognizant some of those surprises will emerge. And then there are the ‘unknown unknowns.’ That’s the magic. That’s the ‘stuff’ that happens where all of a sudden, a character will pop up and go over here, when we thought they were going to go over there. Complete surprises of the palm-slapping-forehead kind. Whoa! Where’d that come from?!?!
And then, of course, there’s the entire movie production and post process, which means another whole set of known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns. By the time the movie is locked, if by some miracle it turns out well, there will be these levels of meaning, symbolism, emotion, themes, which every individual can, if they so desire, dig into and access. Movies are amazing that way. And if we asked Earl Wallace, one of the screenwriters of Witness, “Hey, when you named him John Book, the use of ‘book’ meant something symbolic, right,” perhaps he’d say, “Hell no… it was just a name that popped into my head.” Fine. Perhaps he didn’t consciously mean anything by it. But I will choose to believe that at that moment, he tapped into a ‘collective unconscious’ of ideas that all artists tap into. That’s just the magic of creativity.
So circling back, each writer needs to sort out for him/herself how much prep-writing and reflection they need to do to write a good script. I don’t know what the tipping point is on that, but if you do do enough of it, you will excite a realm of unknown unknowns that dance around in that Jungian world of the ‘collective unconscious,’ and your fingers will type out words that you may not even know have the additional meaning you are imbuing your pages with.
But down the line, some viewer will catch it. And your story will be the better for it.
There you have it, my ruminations on the wisdom of Donald Rumsfeld: Screenwriting Guru.
I read an interview some years ago in which James Cameron advised creatives to do this: “Make stuff.” Per Cameron, actually making movies is the single best way to learn, really learn the entire process of cinematic storytelling.
Screenwriter Ian Fowler did just that and wrote a reflection on his experiences making his movie Crazy Right.
Here is the three-part series which ran this week:
Ian Fowler has been writing scripts professionally for 8 years and began making short films 6 years ago. He’s written everything from science fiction to comedy for producers from LA to Toronto, original works based on producer’s ideas to books and even a life story. The best thing about writing so far has been getting paid even though none of the films have been made to date (especially the 100 million dollar sci fi script – hehe) In 2016 he set off to make his first feature film Crazy Right.
An annual series I run every April: 30 story ideas I collect from news sources over the course of the year. These ideas are free for you to use, but more importantly, the series is a reminder about how important the story’s central concept is to the success of an original screenplay.
Day 1: What Happened When Axl Rose Rented My Apartment.
Day 2: 14-year-old Muslim girl dreams to be the first hijabi ballet dancer.
Day 3: Guy Exploits Airline Loophole, Flies First Class Around The World.
Day 4: Before Gates, Zuckerberg, or Jobs, 6 women programmed the first digital computer.