Monday, April 30, 2007

Confession of the Day

I get embarrassed reading through some of my posts. Something about this format and my love of an audience brings out the all-knowing pro in me. It's time I fessed up. I have a script that's been kicking my ass for three years. I've tried every tool I can think of -- working with synopsis, writing out backstories, thinking with visuals, characterization, etc. etc. etc. After all this effort, I have probably 300 pages of embarrassing dialogue and untamable plot details.

I'm not giving up for a couple reasons. The premise almost always elicits a "wow". It intersects a lot of important subjects for 2007 in a very classically dramatic way (or it should). Beyond that, the main character is me when I was 16. I was deeply unhappy then. I was desperately private. Desperately, privately Christian. Very screwed up about my sexuality. I spent most of my energy figuring out how people could even register my presence. My inner world was far more real to me than the world around me. That kid's still inside me somewhere, and it's time he came out. No pun intended.

Today, three years in, I suddenly got the midpoint of the script. I had EVERY ELEMENT. The helicopters. The creepy messianic figure. The innocent's lie. The smart retort. The dimension-traveling aliens. But for some reason this disjointed mess waited until today to open up into a six-lane superhighway of drama and emotion. I felt like an idiot for not seeing it sooner. Ever been there?

I'm finally getting somewhere with the script now, and in a way I've resisted for a long time. I'm writing it as prose. Why did I resist? Because I think the visual medium changes and shapes a story. I think prose is better as words, and movies better as movies. Beyond that, I wrote prose for years before turning to scripts. Writing prose is intense. It's very private. No escape. No comps and premiere parties. Lots of staring at the wall and snapping at your boyfriend and forgetting to eat.

Why is prose working for me now? I think I need the backstory in my action lines, in a way. I need to know what the character is all about before I can construct a strong role for an actor. I'm going to get it all down, in my notebook, where no one can see it. I'm going to keep writing until I have the story coherent, organic and strong. And when it's time to write the script, I'll worry about telling it visually. I'm probably also adding the need for another draft of two to simplify and pull out unnecessary detail. But at least the project is teaching me, feeding my art, and keeping me off the streets.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Quote of the Day

"I hear and I forget; I see and I remember; I write and I understand."
– Chinese proverb

By the way, I'm more than open to input about what you'd like this blog to be about. I initially conceived it as a nuts-and-bolts screenwriting workshop, but I definitely have a tendency to range free. There seems to be a small but steady audience out there, and I'd love your input.

I've added a search engine at the bottom of the sidebar. It helps you find scripts on the web. The formatting looks funky, but it seems to work well.

Strange Culture at the SF Int'l..

Strange Culture played the San Francisco International Film Festival last night. It was great fun! Writers lead quiet lives of lonely desperation. Screenwriters at least get to go out and get comped a movie ticket and a cocktail every once in a while.

Fun aside, there's nothing like a film festival to really bring home what you're trying to do. There's an audience, and they're gonna laugh or not laugh at your jokes. When you meet them, you get to remember just how special and powerful writing can be.

There's the film crew... and you remember how you're just one cog in the wheel. You talk to the sound operator, or the post production supervisor, the actors, the director. Everyone is linked by the fact that they've ALL been working in their own field to tell the same story. You remember how screenwriting is more about getting all those people working toward a single goal, and not about a clever line of dialogue.

In this case, I remembered how many shifts, changes, and warping screw ups this film went through. It's a narrative/documentary hybrid (some would say mongrel). It was conceived as such. Then they ran out of money and time, and tried to piece together a narrative. That didn't work. Then they got some more money and time. Then the facts of the case changed. Then it got cut and recut numerous times, both for artistic and legal reasons. What you see is the product of a lot of people working very hard. It could have failed at any number of points.

Writers, myself included, place huge value in their words. It's natural. As a new screenwriter, I never understood what a script has to stand up against in the production process. I'd worry about a line here or there, or fight to the death to defend a paragraph of backstory that means nothing to the people who'll use the script to make a film.

Going to film festivals reminds me of how strong your base idea has to be, and how simply and carefully you have to communicate it.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Scripts to Read..

Following up on the last post, I looked for a couple examples of showing the story, instead of telling it. I found a couple decent examples, both of which you can find at Drew's Script-o-rama. Check out the first couple pages of both.

Watch how David Franzoni uses the set up of a poor barbarian family ducking out of the way of Commodus at the opening of Gladiator to set up most of his themes in a visual way.

Check out Walk the Line -- the Gil Dennis script about Johnny Cash. By the top half of page two, we know the central question of Cash's life, and have a huge expectation for drama and entertainment. A cautionary note here: do NOT copy the formatting. Gil Dennis is not a spec writer.

If you've got suggestions for other scripts to read, please put them in the comments so we can all take a look!

Reading a Script

The more time I spend with screenplays and screenwriters, the more I realize how many problems are tied up with a single problem: writers don't know their audience. I'm dealing with a script right now that very generously lets me know when I've come upon the inciting incident and the tragically flawed hero by indicating that directly in the script. He's also included a list of characters, scene breakdowns, and a three-page synopsis. He's got extensive action lines to give me all the backstory and drama, and, just to make sure we're up on all the details, has the characters remind us who they are, why they're here, and what the essential conflict is at the moment in their dialogue. Then there are the flashbacks, the flash forwards, and the montages so we understand the historical context.

The problem is that a movie audience doesn't have access to his copious notes of back-story, character motivation, and survey of the historical period in question.

You can't SEE the movie, because you're too busy reading the story.

A screenplay isn't a novel, of course. And screenplay readers aren't novel readers, either. In fact, they aren't big fans of reading at all. A studio reader may read 6-8 scripts a day, and is responsible for producing detailed notes and making an initial decision on the viability of a script. That's hundreds and hundreds of pages every night. How do they do this?

Basically, they watch the movie. They play out the visuals, the actions, and the set ups in their heads. The last thing they want is someone telling them what's there, or what it's supposed to mean. This just slows them down. They want to see it for themselves. If you need to explain a plot beat, it isn't going to work on screen. A good script reads quickly.

Now, how does a reader keep all the plot beats straight in his or her head? Think back to the discussion of three-act structure. A reader looks for the inciting event, and the second act complication, midpoint, etc. Everyone has their own way of looking at this stuff, and different ways of interpreting the material, of course. But there is a basic way that movie audiences watch a movie. There is a huge set of expectations that we all share. The studio reader simply applies that set of expectations, and measures your script against them.

It's ruthless. It's unfair much of the time. But a good reader doesn't measure how close you are to hitting that perfect formula. She's much more interested in how you exploit those expectations to tell us a good story.

It's stressful giving up action lines and dialogue that tell the reader directly what's going on. But when you start using action lines to SHOW the story -- to bring it to life in front of your audience -- you'll never look back.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

A Little More on Santoka

I did get permission from Paul Watsky, a notable San Francisco poet and translator, to publish his version of the Santoka haiku:

The road's so straight it's lonely

If you're interested in reading more, check out the book, Santoka, translated by Emiko Miyashita and Paul Watsky, published by PIE Books, Tokyo, 2006. You can find a copy at Kinokuniya Books in San Francisco's Japantown, or online at Barnes and Noble's website.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

The 17-Syllable Script Exercise

An old writing buddy of mine cajoled me into taking part in a poetry reading the other day. I haven't written poetry on a regular basis in years, but she wanted me to read some stuff she liked and remembered. I was terrified, but managed not to embarrass myself too badly on a card with several other far more experienced poets.

One of the poets read some translations he'd made of the Japanese haiku master Santoka. He read one in particular, which went something like this: Why is a road lonelier without curves?

I'll post his translation if he gets back to me and allows it. I found some other translations online, but they didn't seem to catch the essential hook here -- the idea that a straight road is somehow lonelier than a curved one. Somehow curves keep a road company. It doesn't make much sense if you try to explain it, of course. That's why it's good.

What struck me was just how visual haiku can be, and how close it is to screenwriting in many ways. In case you don't know, haiku is typically a poem made up of three lines, with five, seven, and then five syllables to them. They evoke a strong sense of place with as few words as possible.

It's that economy that allows a haiku to feel so clean, so immediate, so real. A novelist could try to add something like this to his work, but it would inevitably end up functioning as characterization, or an internal thought, or something somehow... mediated.

What happens in a screenplay? First, we have a huge advantage here. We can put that lonely road on screen. We can rely on that reality being immediate and visual. And we put some characters walking down it. One says:

Why's a straight road always so lonely?

No curves to keep it company, I guess.

We get to be immediate and we can develop our characters at the same time.

Just like haiku, our goal is to be evocative rather than just descriptive. We need to inspire the reader to engage their own creativity, rather than try to just paint a picture on the page. We've got a broad canvas, and the key is to be sparing with your brushstrokes.

So many screenwriters make the mistake of writing a novel where they need a haiku. Let's try adding a few choice details here, and see just what we can do with our lonely road.

George, 49, carries his daughter MAIZIE (6) on his shoulders as they walk a barren stretch of road. He holds an empty gas can in his hand.

Why's a straight road always so lonely?

No curves to keep it company, I guess.

The dialogue tells us volumes about the father-daughter relationship. Now try this one:

Why's a straight road always so lonely?

No curves to keep it company, I guess.

Maizie pulls her coat around her against the breeze.

What's the matter?

Nothing's the matter.

Maizie's accidentally said something flirtatious, and confirms this when she unconsciously tries to cover her body.

Why's a straight road always so lonely?

No curves to keep it company, I guess.

Not in a million years, George.

They walk on in silence. A mile down the road, the red neon sign of the DEW DROP INN flashes against the horizon.

You got yourself a vision of a longtime friendship. You understand the rules, get an idea of their past, and the probable central conflict between them.

If you find a moment like that, let it speak for itself. Use it, but never, ever explain it.

Try it yourself! I'm going to suggest using these two lines of dialogue:

Is this to go?


If you'd prefer, try one inspired by Santoka himself. You can find some decent translations of his haiku here. Look at how they evoke a very particular sensation. Find one you like, and play.

Feel free to post what you come up with in the comments.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Strange Culture

For those of you in the San Francisco Bay Area, a film I helped write is at the San Francisco International Film Festival this year. It's playing at the Castro Theater on Saturday, April 28. Full information, other dates, and the blurb are here.

The movie is called Strange Culture, and it stars Thomas Jay Ryan, Tilda Swinton, and a very chatty Josh Kornbluth. It tells the ongoing, true story of artist Steve Kurtz, who has been a victim of Justice Department harrassment for two years. After his wife died unexpectedly, Steve woke to the horrible realization that he was a suspect in her death after authorities found bacterial cultures used in his art, as well as books on civil liberties abuses and the war on terror in his house. A day later, the cause of her death was determined to be an undiagnosed heart condition, and the Buffalo, NY police and health department publicly cleared Kurtz. But the Justice Department wasn't done with him. To this day, they refuse to drop a groundless case against him, opting instead to push for endless court date deferments, in hopes of either bankrupting Kurtz through legal fees and forcing him to cop a plea, or of the case fading from the public eye.

I'm credited as "Script Consultant" which means I wrote, rewrote, reconceptualized, and brainstormed with the director in the months up to and just after principal photography.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Shaun of the Dead

If you've never seen this spoof of a zombie film, you owe yourself as a writer to see it. Why? Not because it's brilliant, although it does have its moments, but because it's a great example of all those things that screenwriters are supposed to do. You want a three-act structure, with internal and external conflicts linked inexorably in a life-and-death struggle through the main character? He's right there. Trying to figure out how to build a main character around a strong desire and a single misbehavior? There he is. Want to see how to exploit character to develop backstory? Make him a bored, lazy TV salesman who doesn't actually hear what's being reported on the 32 televisions in the room.

One good thing about both spoofs and zombie films is that a key to their success is playing to audience expectations. You can't spoof a genre unless you portray it accurately. You can't have a zombie film without references to all the other zombie films.

This is valuable because the same basic three-act structure is used in everything from romantic comedies to action-adventures and historical epics. If you don't believe me, try a little experiment. Watch Shaun of the Dead. Stop the DVD every ten minutes or so, and write a sentence or two to describe what you've seen. You should have ten to twelve sentences. Now watch "Young Guns". Do the same thing. Now try "How Stella Got Her Groove Back." Look at when and how the main problem is introduced. Look at how the problem escalates every ten minutes. Look at how the main character grows. Look at the climax, and how it resolves the internal and external conflicts. Even when the problems are different, the answers all come from the same basic place.

I could also point to any number of really bad films with the same structure. It's not the fact of using this three-act structure that makes a film work. It's how you use it. If it's a tool that helps you develop something original and new, you're doing your job as a writer.

"Leave the gun. Take the cannolis."

I saw one of those documentary miniseries about the human body the other day. They say that blushing is actually the limbic system -- that animal brain that controls our baser instincts -- sending a rush of blood to the face as a way of signalling arousal. It's depressingly unsubtle, like those baboons whose hindquarters swell into rainbow-colored balloons when it's time to mate. There's an evolutionary value to maximizing any attempt at mating, even when the rational brain sees no reason for the limbic system's heady optimism. When you embarrass someone, their limbic system responds by flooding the body with chemicals, preparing to mate, or fight, or whatever it needs to do to keep a finger in the gene pool.

A young woman giggle at a forty-year-old CPA trying to still pull off the hockey jersey and backwards baseball cap look. He blushes. Why? Because his lizard brain, which doesn't get the joke, senses a mating opportunity, and it's making the most of it.

The 40-year-old gets drunk and announces to the bar, "Damn, her tits are nicer than Jennifer Tilly's!" She blushes. That little lizard brain is flooding her brain with chemicals to maximize her evolutionary potential.

What does this have to do with screenwriting? Everything. It shows that there's conflict in just about every situation, in just about every human being, most of the time. Every situation, no matter how simple it seems, has numerous layers, and those layers often produce the kind of conflict that makes a scene real. Being flustered isn't really one condition. It's different drives at war with each other. It's the rational brain and the lizard brain at odds. It's wanting to tell off someone you can't tell off. It's wanting an ice cream sundae when you know your dieting boyfriend can't have one. Most of our lives are governed by forces and desires in conflict.

Good screenwriting reflects that. So often I read screenplays where, in the end, most of what the main character did was talk about what he's doing. Many writers try to capture that inner conflict with dialogue about the conflict. It never works. Nope. Never. The answer is always simpler. Let your characters speak to you. Let them be hungry. Let them be horny. Let them be you. You think you're not getting it down on the page, because it's not there in so many words. But it is there, right where an actor can find it.

The quote from the Godfather above is a great example. You could write pages of dialogue and never get the different, conflicting thoughts that happen in anybody's head. All Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola had to do is remember that Clemenza wouldn't just leave a box of fresh cannolis in the car.

Most of my good writing comes from the days I shut up and stop telling the characters what to say. On a good day, I can watch them blush, or remember there's cannolis on the back seat, or make a fool of themselves with the girl who finds them appalling.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Revisiting a script.

I have a couple scripts slowly winding their way toward production. It's a lesson. I was hired for a rewrite on a gay love story. They wanted a psychological drama instead. And it's to be set in the U.S., and not Brazil. Then it got moved to Brazil for tax reasons. Then it got moved again. Then there was supposed to be a happy ending for the straight couple. And the whole gay love issue, which got pushed into the subtext, well, it was okay to use a bit more of that to turn up the tension. There's still another rewrite coming before it gets shot.

Sound awful? It isn't. If you're thinking about your settings and characters, you'll find more there than you ever will slogging through dialogue. And each of those changes, as drastic as they sound, is an opportunity to explore your characters, learn more about the set ups, and find more dramatic ways to bring your story to the screen. While writers naturally have a lot of "ownership" of their work, a screenwriter doesn't have the luxury of it the same way a novelist does. We're just the first step. And a good storyteller needs to be able to use the tools he has available.

I talked about one of those tools -- synopsis -- at length a few weeks back. Once you have that technique down, it's AMAZING how simply reworking the sentences to bring forward one aspect or another, or to brainstorm uses of new locations, can tell you more about the story than you knew existed before.

I'm adding a character to a different script for the same director now. He's got an exciting actress to play a part. She's good for investors in the first script, and adding her to the second is a smart strategy. I've learned enough at this stage that I'm thrilled at the opportunity to go back to my old work, find what needs work, and use the new tool I have wherever possible to make it better. I can't talk about the specifics too directly, but suffice it to say that she's a comic character, and everything the main bad guy envies. She'll be in a few scenes, tell a few jokes, and drive the bad guy to distraction. And it'll add exactly the kind of depth that the main character needs.

It's moments like this that make me glad to be a screenwriter...

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Tip of the Day

H.L. Mencken, the great American man of letters, was once asked his advice for anyone who wants to start writing.

"Sit down," he said.

If he'd been asked in 2007, he no doubt would have added, "and stay off Youtube."

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

A Question is Better than an Answer.

If you listened to the David Mamet broadcast from the last post, you noticed that he talks about the one central question in every movie watcher's head: what's gonna happen now? It's not about what's happening right now. It's not what happened in the backstory. It's a question that pulls the viewer forward into the next scene, and a good screenwriter knows how to work that question to his advantage.

Say your script is about a man who cheats on his wife but still loves her. Many screenwriters will go about this by having a love scene between the man and his mistress, with gasps of pleasure punctuating lines of dialogue like, "But, Bob, you do love me, don't you?" *gasp* "Of course, Martha. I love you with a passion I can't even understand!" *moan* "But your wife!" *frenzied panting* "I love her too, I can't deny it!"

Okay. We got it. Yeah. What's funny about that scene is that it actually works better without the dialogue, and not just as a sex scene. Bob and Martha have at it, and, when they aren't commentating, we, the audience can simply examine what really matters between them. Suddenly the scene becomes a lot more flexible. In the hands of capable actors, it can mean a lot more. And if the scene is successful, we'll be asking one question: what's gonna happen now? Will Bob leave his wife? Will Martha cause problems? These issues frame the material so much better than dialogue that tells us what we're supposed to be thinking about.

The screenwriter molds these questions by carefully choosing scenes, actions, and visuals. What if we cut to Bob at his child's baptism next? What does that say? Or Bob's wife alone in her hospital bed? Whatever she's doing will take on greater meaning when contrasted to the scene before it.

I've mentioned before that the screenwriter has a very important role at the beginning of a long, collaborative process. We don't tell actors how to act. We don't tell cinematographers how to shoot. But we create the potential for them to excel and tell the story themselves. We open up an empty space. For me, this is the big difference between screenwriting and novel writing. We don't get to describe the tiny nuanced shifts of a character's psychology. But we do get to build a series of scenes that bring it all home for an audience.