Reflections on the 1st Black List Screenwriters Lab

November 7th, 2013 by

On Monday, September 30th, six writers – Jan Arnold, Minnie Baig, Robin D. Fox, Gia Gordon, Nick Malick, and Casey Scharf gathered in downtown Las Vegas as participants in the inaugural Black List Screenwriters Lab (for background, read this). Joined by professional screenwriters Brian Koppelman (Oceans 13), Jenny Lumet (Rachel Getting Married), Billy Ray (Captain Phillips), Kiwi Smith (Legally Blonde), and myself, as well as Black List founder Franklin Leonard, this select group of writers took part in an amazing, intensive experience, workshopping each of their stories, digging deeply into the craft of screenwriting, and in general having the creative time of their lives.

Wide Group Cut

Here is a summary of the schedule [not including most meals and after hour sessions which were a combination of socializing and talking shop]:

Monday: Arrival, Welcome Dinner

Tuesday: Zappos Headquarters Tour, “The Psychology of Storytelling” with Lindsay Doran (Lunch), Rooftop Screening: The Spectacular Now with director James Ponsoldt

Wednesday: Session on Rewriting, Peer Workshops (Scott Myers, Moderator)

Thursday: One-On-One Mentor Sessions (Brian Koppelman, Billy Ray, Kiwi Smith, Scott Myers)

Friday: One-On-One Mentor Sessions (Brian Koppelman, Billy Ray, Kiwi Smith, Scott Myers)

Saturday: Departure

Here are some of the writers’ reflections:

My experience at the Black List Labs taught me more about screenwriting than any book or class. I came into the Labs expecting a gentle experience, but what I got was intense and much more rewarding. — Minnie Baig

Our mentors were not only interested in our scripts, but who we were as writers and where we were trying to go. They guided us through the process of dismantling our stories and rebuilding them even if that meant an entirely different script. That process was raw, intimate and ultimately exhausting. I am a better writer for it. — Jan Arnold

The Lab afforded this incredibly safe creative space to engage in deep explorations with peers and mentors (and myself) about the ways in which this draft of my script failed. And I’m not saying that with any self-loathing or self-deprecation. No at all. I mean the necessary failures a writer has to recognize, digest, problem solve, and ultimately transcend in order to get it right – to succeed. — Gia Gordon

Peer Workshop Group 1 Cut

Prior to my week in Vegas, everything I knew about screenwriting had come from the shelves of Barnes and Noble, so the opportunity to sit down with some of the most distinguished screenwriters and gurus in the industry was flat out invaluable. The feedback which I received from the lab provided me the confidence to move forward in the rewriting process knowing that I have properly identified the weakest elements of my script and the assurance that the changes I am making will profoundly strengthen my script and the prospects of having it eventually sold. — Casey Scharf

I guarantee that words will not be sufficient to tell you how life changing this experience was. A friend asked me how the event was. Going into I thought it would be around a 9 on a scale from 1 to 10. It was a probably a 35. — Nick Malik

LINDSAY DORAN’S PRESENTATION: Kiss the Girl or Save the World?

I realize this was intended as an intellectual exercise about storytelling to help prep us for our re-write. But I couldn’t help think about how grit, resilience, optimism et al applied to the life of a writer, or anyone really. It was amazing to meet her and get to revel in her knowledge and kindness. — Gia Gordon

Unbelievable. I felt like Lindsay’s speech that everything that was being made or written now was so dark. That the lighter films and comedies didn’t get the same attention. Hearing someone of her stature/experience champion comedies and feel good films made me feel so much more confident about what I want to write. Her knowledge and experience was overwhelming in such a good way. — Nick Malik

THE SPECTACULAR NOW screening

Anytime you can screen a film and have the director available to discuss it is amazing, but to have two days to spend with James– incredible. — Jan Arnold

I had a sort of out of body experience while watching this film where I took a moment to appreciate the fact that A. I was watching an incredible movie, B. The director was 7 yards away from me while I was watching it, and C. I was doing so with the Las Vegas strip in the background in 68 degree weather. — Casey Scharf

Spectacular Now Cut

MENTORS OVERALL

First off, the generosity of the Mentors was staggering. I am forever grateful to every single one of them. The order in which my Mentor sessions unfolded could not have been any more perfect. I “stair-stepped” through: 1) emotional core (Kiwi); 2) excavation (Scott); 3) confrontation (Brian); and 4) problem-solving (Billy). I absolutely needed to process my script through each one of those prisms and in that exact order. It was like divine intervention. Seriously. — Gia Gordon

PEER WORKSHOP

Scott’s passion for screenwriting and teaching is as contagious as it is beneficial. His approach was very much in contrast with the style of feedback from the other mentors, and his efforts to help me understand writing at the most fundamental level through an explanation of theory and structure helped me view my own script in a whole new light. He also helped me build upon the suggestions I had received from the previous three mentors and synthesize the ideas in an attempt to build the foundation for the most effective rewrite possible. — Casey Scharf

The Black List Screenwriters Lab was an unqualified success. I leave it to one of the participants to have the final word on the event:

My experience began as: novice writer stepping off of plane. That week we were treated to a level of not only industry access, but community the likes of which I’m not too sure anyone involved expected (not even the amazing folks hosting it). It was an intimate and honest time of sharing and learning, where there were no social taboos; no punches pulled. We all cut to the heart of each other: peer and mentor respectively. We as peers, became family; those who were Mentors never once took their title lightly, stretching it well beyond its Merriam-Webster meaning (“Guru” would’ve perhaps been more fitting). Our treatment was no less than VIP each and every day, from the food to the private presentation by Lindsay Doran of her brilliant TED Talk and the classy rooftop screening of The Spectacular Now with director James Ponsoldt in attendance. When I stepped back on that plane, I was no longer a novice with promise: I was an integral piece of the future of the craft.Robin Fox

ScreenWriter Workshop

Robin Fox, Jan Arnold, Nick Malik, Gia Gordon, Casey Scharf, Minnie Baig

Here’s looking to the next Black List Screenwriters Lab!

Black List Screenwriters Lab Participants Announced

September 25th, 2013 by

It’s official:

SIX BOOK TRIP TO INAUGURAL BLACK LIST SCREENWRITERS LAB
Aspiring professionals to join mentors Brian Koppelman, Jenny Lumet, Billy Ray,
Kiwi Smith, & Scott Myers in Las Vegas

LOS ANGELES (September 25) – This afternoon, the Black List unveiled the names of the six screenwriters who will make the trip to downtown Las Vegas next week for its inaugural screenwriters lab.

Hosted by Tony Hsieh’s Las Vegas Downtown Project, the Lab will consist of a week-long intensive workshop with mentors Brian Koppelman, Jenny Lumet, Scott Myers, Billy Ray, and Kiwi Smith focused on elevating the writers’ best sample as identified by the Black List website and preparing each writer for the realities of life in the professional trade.

The inaugural Black List Lab fellows and their projects are as follows:

Jan Arnold – Born and bred in South Central and passionate about cinema, music, and Los Angeles culture, Arnold is the author of AFRONELL, the story of a teenage musician from South Central juggling conflicting identities while struggling to create a band during the emergence of the punk rock scene in late 70s Los Angeles.

Minhal Baig – A Chicago native and graduate of Yale University, Baig is the author of BURY MY HEART, a dark thriller in the vein of DRIVE and FIGHT CLUB that chronicles the descent of a detached advertising executive into a world of profound moral ambiguity.

Robin D. Fox – Recently signed by Caliber Media Company via the Black List website, Fox is the author of THE BRIGHT AND HOLLOW SKY, which follows two boys, alone in different parts of the country, who struggle to survive in a post-apocalyptic world full of brutality and loss.

Gia Gordon – A Cultural Anthropology and Film graduate of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Gordon currently lives in Los Angeles and produces promotional films for mission-driven organizations. Her script follows an American Peace Corps teacher who joins the resistance against Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe.

Nick Malik – A Philadelphia native, 2013 Nicholl Fellowship Semifinalist, and graduate of New York University, Malik is a father of two. His dramedy, YEAR OF THE WOODCOCK!, follows “a delusional cripple who blackmails his estranged brother into finding him a date for the biggest night of his life.”

Casey Scharf – A native of South Florida and graduate of the University of Virginia currently living in Studio City, Scharf adapted his own recently published Huffington Post article on the Julian Petroleum scandal into the script JULIAN THIEVES.

The Evolution of Black List

In 2005, Black List founder Franklin Leonard surveyed almost 100 film industry development executives about their favorite scripts from that year that had not been produced as feature films. Since then, the voter pool has grown to roughly 500 film executives. Over 225 Black List screenplays have been made as feature films, which have collectively earned over $16B in worldwide box office and have been nominated for 160 Academy Awards, winning 30, including three of the last five Best Pictures and seven of the last twelve screenwriting Oscars.

In September 2012, the Black List launched a membership site for industry professionals that functions as a real-time Black List and screenplay recommendation engine. A month later, Leonard further extended the Black List’s mission by inviting screenwriters from around the world to upload their scripts to its database for a fee, have them evaluated by professional script readers and, subject to that evaluation and their recommendation algorithm, sent to over 2,000 film industry professionals for consideration. The Black List has partnered with the Writers Guild of America, East, the Writers Guild of America, West, Warner Bros Pictures, and the Sundance Institute to continue its mission to promote great screenwriting via education, advocacy, and access.

For more information on the Black List, please visit: http://blcklst.com/

CONTACT: Franklin Leonard franklin@blcklst.com

This is yet another example of how the Black List continues to be an innovative force in creating new opportunities for outsiders to break into the Hollywood filmmaking community. I applaud Franklin Leonard for his continuing commitment to a vision he has had since the inception of the Black List nearly a decade ago: To honor and advocate for great screenwriters and superior screenplays.

The Black List Screenwriters Lab is a terrific opportunity for these six writers. Speaking personally, I am excited to read their scripts and work alongside a notable group of successful screenwriters to help the participants in the Lab take their stories to the next level.

Congratulations to Jan, Minhal, Robin, Gia, Nick and Casey. See you soon in Las Vegas!

Scene Description Spotlight: “Rachel Getting Married”

August 7th, 2013 by

Since I started this series of weekly posts, spotlighting good examples of scene description, much of the focus has been on action. But how to write about a moment where nothing much is happening visually (External World), but so much is going on emotionally (Internal World). There’s a great example of this from a movie I really liked Rachel Getting Married (2008) with a fine screenplay by Jenny Lumet (personally I thought it deserved a WGA nomination for Best Original Screenplay) and excellent direction by Jonathan Demme. Here’s a summary of the plot:

Kym is released from rehab for a few days so she can go home to attend her sister Rachel’s wedding. The home environment is always challenging for a recovering addict, no less so when the visit if only for a few days. While the sisters feel genuine affection for one another, there is tension in their relationship. Rachel feels that her father dotes on Kym far too much and Kym is upset to learn that Rachel has selected a friend to be her maid of honor. Their father is genuinely concerned about Kym’s well-being but doesn’t see the stress the relationship is causing. Both women also have to deal with their selfish mother who is clearly more concerned with her own well-being ahead of that of her children. Underlying the family’s dynamic is a tragedy that occurred many years previously and for which Kym is held by some to be responsible.

The tragedy is the death of Kym’s younger brother Ethan, just a child, killed in a car crash when Kym, while high, drove off a bridge. In this scene, set in the house of Rachel’s parents, Paul (Bill Irwin) and Carol (Anna Deavere Smith) Buchman, Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt) has just finished complaining to her father about the likelihood of Kym (Anne Hathaway) ruining Rachel’s impending wedding. Then a group of wedding guests bursts inside, led by Rachel’s fiance Sidney (Tunde Adebimpe). For the record, Paul is famous for how masterfully he loads the dishwasher:

RACHEL
Sometimes I don't want her. It's my
fucking wedding, don't you get it?
I want my table to be perfect.

Paul kisses her on the forehead.

PAUL
Stop it. She's your sister.

They look at each other.

The screen door swings open as Emma, Carol, Sidney, Kieran,
and Norman Sklear carry the lunch plates to the kitchen. Kym
follows, carrying the salt shaker.

PAUL
Okay. Dishes? I'm going to load the
dishwasher.

SIDNEY
Paul! Paul, listen. I've been
thinking about it. I did some
preliminary sketches, I'd love to
show them to you...

KIERAN
(to Carol)
He's not kidding.

SIDNEY
And I think if you move the salad
bowls to the upper tier you can get
about 10% more stuff in the
dishwasher.

CAROL
Hee hee hee.

Paul gives him a look. Sidney starts humming PAUL'S
DISHWASHER THEME.

PAUL
Sidney, you're a nice young man.
You make a lot of money and the
world is your oyster. But you don't
know shit about loading a
dishwasher.

SIDNEY
Sir, with all due respect, the
mantle has passed.

Paul takes a moment to size Sidney up then spins on his heel
to the dishwasher.

TIME CUT--

Sidney has his sleeves up and starts to load.

KYM
What's the time limit?

CAROL
Two minutes.

SIDNEY
Are you comfortable with that, sir?
I could spot you thirty seconds.

PAUL
You young people should all go fuck
yourselves.

KYM
Dad!

CAROL
Ha!

SIDNEY
You see Paul, I think your problem
lies in lid placement. Inverting the lids
and stacking them in the upper level is
really for amateurs. It's passe.

PAUL
Rachel, you're out of the will.

SIDNEY
Observe.

With a flourish, Sidney presents a beautifully stacked
dishwasher. Paul pats his shoulder somberly.

PAUL
Clean out this machine please, boy.
So I can break out the whup-ass.

Screaming all around. Kym jumps up and down with her arms on
Rachel's shoulders. Rachel glances at her sister, laughing.

SIDNEY/KIERAN
(delightedly)
He's breakin' out the whup ass!

A SWEET MONTAGE.

Paul is loading the dishwasher like a champ.

Carol and Emma are smiling and giggling.

Kieran has his eye on the clock.

Sidney trash talks from the sidelines.

SIDNEY
You know one of the early signs of
senile dementia is an obsessive
need to organize.

PAUL
Rachel, go fetch me my dart gun.

SIDNEY
I find it touching but ultimately
sad when the warriors of yesteryear
are reluctant to lay down their
plastic containers from Zabar's and
retire gracefully

PAUL
Kieran, how's my time?

KIERAN
You have twenty-five seconds.

PAUL
I need more dishes. You amateur!

SIDNEY
What? No way!

PAUL
Somebody give me some dishes!

Kym yanks open a cupboard and passes a handful of dishes to
Paul. He begins to load them.

CLOSE ON PAUL

He has a bowl in his hands. We see the bowl is a plastic
child's bowl with Engines and Cabooses all over it. Paul
turns the bowl around in his hands like a steering wheel.

It dawns on Kym that she's handed her father Ethan's bowl.
She is stricken.

Paul looks to Carol. He seems bewildered. The kitchen falls
silent and Carol takes Ethan's bowl and places it in the
sink, out of sigh. She leads Paul gently out of the kitchen.

CLOSE ON KYM --

CLOSE ON RACHEL --

She turns and leaves the kitchen. Sidney follows her. Emma
and Norman Sklear step out onto the porch.

Kieran takes the Ethan bowl from the sink and puts it quietly
back in the cupboard and shuts the door. Kym doesn't know
what to do.

Check out the ‘room’ Lumet gives the characters and the moment with her scene description at the end of this scene. Simple sentences, but with power (“She is stricken”) and leaving much room for interpretation what a character can be feeling (“He seems bewildered”). And then that last paragraph: “Kieran takes the Ethan bowl from the sink and puts it quietly back in the cupboard and shuts the door. Kym doesn’t know what to do.”

By putting Ethan’s bowl back into the cupboard, Kieran tries to shut the Pandora’s box Kym has opened, but everything about the scene suggests that can’t happen – which looms over and under the final description: Kym doesn’t know what to do.

Powerful moment. But notice how it’s all set up with this description in the middle of the scene:

Kym jumps up and down with her arms on
Rachel's shoulders. Rachel glances at her sister, laughing.

After Rachel’s concern about Kym ruining the wedding, this wonderful and human moment. Two sisters reveling as part of a family. Perhaps a turning point for the better, yes? Wrong! It turns out to be a turning point for the worse. So what Lumet does is (A) create a switch – this is not a happy scene, this is a painful moment – and (B) by elevating our expectations, the low we experience through the characters’ reactions at the scene’s end is that much lower.

This is a great example of how to write a powerful scene with emotions roiling all in, around, and through its ending, but not overwriting it, rather using restrained description to allow the moment to breathe.

Here is an interview with Anne Hathaway about her role as Kym in Rachel Getting Married.


Jenny Lumet will be joining fellow screenwriters Brian Koppelman, Billy Ray, Kiwi Smith, and myself at the upcoming Black List Screenwriters Lab in Las Vegas from September 30-October 5th.

[Originally posted February 11, 2010]

Scene Description Spotlight: “Rachel Getting Married”

September 1st, 2012 by

Since I started this series of weekly Thursday posts, spotlighting good examples of scene description, much of the focus has been on action. But how to write about a moment where nothing much is happening visually (External World), but so much is going on emotionally (Internal World). There’s a great example of this from a movie I really liked Rachel Getting Married (2008) with a fine screenplay by Jenny Lumet (personally I thought it deserved a WGA nomination for Best Original Screenplay) and excellent direction by Jonathan Demme. Here’s a summary of the plot:

Kym is released from rehab for a few days so she can go home to attend her sister Rachel’s wedding. The home environment is always challenging for a recovering addict, no less so when the visit if only for a few days. While the sisters feel genuine affection for one another, there is tension in their relationship. Rachel feels that her father dotes on Kym far too much and Kym is upset to learn that Rachel has selected a friend to be her maid of honor. Their father is genuinely concerned about Kym’s well-being but doesn’t see the stress the relationship is causing. Both women also have to deal with their selfish mother who is clearly more concerned with her own well-being ahead of that of her children. Underlying the family’s dynamic is a tragedy that occurred many years previously and for which Kym is held by some to be responsible.

The tragedy is the death of Kym’s younger brother Ethan, just a child, killed in a car crash when Kym, while high, drove off a bridge. In this scene, set in the house of Rachel’s parents, Paul (Bill Irwin) and Carol (Anna Deavere Smith) Buchman, Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt) has just finished complaining to her father about the likelihood of Kym (Anne Hathaway) ruining Rachel’s impending wedding. Then a group of wedding guests bursts inside, led by Rachel’s fiance Sidney (Tunde Adebimpe). For the record, Paul is famous for how masterfully he loads the dishwasher:

RACHEL
Sometimes I don't want her. It's my
fucking wedding, don't you get it?
I want my table to be perfect.

Paul kisses her on the forehead.

PAUL
Stop it. She's your sister.

They look at each other.

The screen door swings open as Emma, Carol, Sidney, Kieran,
and Norman Sklear carry the lunch plates to the kitchen. Kym
follows, carrying the salt shaker.

PAUL
Okay. Dishes? I'm going to load the
dishwasher.

SIDNEY
Paul! Paul, listen. I've been
thinking about it. I did some
preliminary sketches, I'd love to
show them to you...

KIERAN
(to Carol)
He's not kidding.

SIDNEY
And I think if you move the salad
bowls to the upper tier you can get
about 10% more stuff in the
dishwasher.

CAROL
Hee hee hee.

Paul gives him a look. Sidney starts humming PAUL'S
DISHWASHER THEME.

PAUL
Sidney, you're a nice young man.
You make a lot of money and the
world is your oyster. But you don't
know shit about loading a
dishwasher.

SIDNEY
Sir, with all due respect, the
mantle has passed.

Paul takes a moment to size Sidney up then spins on his heel
to the dishwasher.

TIME CUT--

Sidney has his sleeves up and starts to load.

KYM
What's the time limit?

CAROL
Two minutes.

SIDNEY
Are you comfortable with that, sir?
I could spot you thirty seconds.

PAUL
You young people should all go fuck
yourselves.

KYM
Dad!

CAROL
Ha!

SIDNEY
You see Paul, I think your problem
lies in lid placement. Inverting the lids
and stacking them in the upper level is
really for amateurs. It's passe.

PAUL
Rachel, you're out of the will.

SIDNEY
Observe.

With a flourish, Sidney presents a beautifully stacked
dishwasher. Paul pats his shoulder somberly.

PAUL
Clean out this machine please, boy.
So I can break out the whup-ass.

Screaming all around. Kym jumps up and down with her arms on
Rachel's shoulders. Rachel glances at her sister, laughing.

SIDNEY/KIERAN
(delightedly)
He's breakin' out the whup ass!

A SWEET MONTAGE.

Paul is loading the dishwasher like a champ.

Carol and Emma are smiling and giggling.

Kieran has his eye on the clock.

Sidney trash talks from the sidelines.

SIDNEY
You know one of the early signs of
senile dementia is an obsessive
need to organize.

PAUL
Rachel, go fetch me my dart gun.

SIDNEY
I find it touching but ultimately
sad when the warriors of yesteryear
are reluctant to lay down their
plastic containers from Zabar's and
retire gracefully

PAUL
Kieran, how's my time?

KIERAN
You have twenty-five seconds.

PAUL
I need more dishes. You amateur!

SIDNEY
What? No way!

PAUL
Somebody give me some dishes!

Kym yanks open a cupboard and passes a handful of dishes to
Paul. He begins to load them.

CLOSE ON PAUL

He has a bowl in his hands. We see the bowl is a plastic
child's bowl with Engines and Cabooses all over it. Paul
turns the bowl around in his hands like a steering wheel.

It dawns on Kym that she's handed her father Ethan's bowl.
She is stricken.

Paul looks to Carol. He seems bewildered. The kitchen falls
silent and Carol takes Ethan's bowl and places it in the
sink, out of sigh. She leads Paul gently out of the kitchen.

CLOSE ON KYM --

CLOSE ON RACHEL --

She turns and leaves the kitchen. Sidney follows her. Emma
and Norman Sklear step out onto the porch.

Kieran takes the Ethan bowl from the sink and puts it quietly
back in the cupboard and shuts the door. Kym doesn't know
what to do.

Check out the ‘room’ Lumet gives the characters and the moment with her scene description at the end of this scene. Simple sentences, but with power (“She is stricken”) and leaving much room for interpretation what a character can be feeling (“He seems bewildered”). And then that last paragraph: “Kieran takes the Ethan bowl from the sink and puts it quietly back in the cupboard and shuts the door. Kym doesn’t know what to do.”

By putting Ethan’s bowl back into the cupboard, Kieran tries to shut the Pandora’s box Kym has opened, but everything about the scene suggests that can’t happen – which looms over and under the final description: Kym doesn’t know what to do.

Powerful moment. But notice how it’s all set up with this description in the middle of the scene:

Kym jumps up and down with her arms on
Rachel's shoulders. Rachel glances at 
her sister, laughing.

After Rachel’s concern about Kym ruining the wedding, this wonderful and human moment. Two sisters reveling as part of a family. Perhaps a turning point for the better, yes? Wrong! It turns out to be a turning point for the worse. So what Lumet does is (A) create a switch – this is not a happy scene, this is a painful moment – and (B) by elevating our expectations, the low we experience through the characters’ reactions at the scene’s end is that much lower.

This is a great example of how to write a powerful scene with emotions roiling all in, around, and through its ending, but not overwriting it, rather using restrained description to allow the moment to breathe.

Here is an interview with Anne Hathaway about her role as Kym in Rachel Getting Married.

[Originally posted February 11, 2010]