Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Throwing First Drafts at the Wall

Like a lot of writers, I'm cursed with perfectionism. It's hard for me to just leave something be. If a scene's not as sharp as it looks in my head, I'll sit with it all day. A few nights ago I woke up at 4 AM with the solution to a problem in a script I finished two years ago. I couldn't sleep until I wrote it down. I revise my loglines and synopses daily. Perfectionism has a good side, obviously. But perfection is overrated.

Perfectionism also has a price. It's why a lot of people either don't write, or never finish anything. It's why they never show their work around, and get good advice or new solutions. My first draft of my first script took well over a year to finish. I thought it was Shakespeare. I knew nuthin'.

I got around a lot of my perfectionism issues with the synopsis tool, which I've talked about before and may again. It's a heck of a lot easier to work out your ideas on a single page than in 120. Since it's easier, you might as well try new ideas out to see how they fly. You can afford to spend the day throwing mud at the wall.

Writing is circular and squirrel-ish and difficult, and just as you think you've nailed something down, the same problem will pop up elsewhere. It's like Elmer Fudd chasing Bugs Bunny around the rabbit holes. And this is why first drafts are so important.

In a first draft, you're still throwing mud at the wall. And you need to allow yourself to get a little messy and unpresentable if you're going to get anything to stick. There's going to be some atrocious dialogue. There's going to be jokes that you like, but that don't fit. You'll realize that, for gangsters, your characters spend an awful lot of time talking about their relationships and staring at the sea. For some reason it takes thirty pages to get two characters into a room together with their clothes off.

That's frequently what a first draft looks like. And it's a good thing, because all of those problems are actually answers if you look at them from the other way round. Nothing will make you think about easier ways than plodding through those thirty pages. You'll zap those pages, and suddenly she'll step off the bus and into his life. You'll look at your gangsters and realize what kind of script you want to write. That good joke that doesn't fit tells you where it might fit. The atrocious dialogue leads you straight to some really strong action.

And if you listen to what your first draft is telling you, you will probably end up changing most of it.

Embrace that. Throwing mud at the wall is more fun than the perfectionist in you ever had.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Quote of the Day

Found in CS Weekly..

"As you think about a character, to some extent what you're talking about is just the psychological makeup of the character -- what is he like and how does he relate to other characters. But then when you start to talk about 'What is his behavior?' in my mind that's where you get into the aspect of characterization. That's when you're into the dramatization, what the character does and what he says. That's his behavior. So, you have the psychology, and if you have some grasp on some fundamental psychological truths about the character, you want to leave yourself enough room to allow the behavior to evolve naturally. "

– Ted Elliott, screenwriter for Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Tarkovsky, Lebowski, and Us

I may be the only person ever to watch Andrei Tarkovsky's The Sacrifice and the Coen Brothers' The Big Lebowski on the same night. Or the only one who lived to blog about it, at any rate.

The Sacrifice is an astonishing film. It's Art with a capital A. Everything about the film is thought through -- the camera, the use of color, the sound design, the way the shots are composed, the acting. There's a single long take at the end of a burning building which is utterly amazing. That he had the balls to try it makes the film worth watching.

It also breaks every rule of American screenwriting, from opening on a static close up of a murky Leonardo da Vinci painting under a full five-minute credit roll, which cuts to a dreamy monologue in Swedish about civilization, Nietzsche, and whether we can talk about hope that fills the next fifteen minutes. Tarkovsky followed up this crowd-pleasing combo with a long, meandering scene of a Swedish Shakespearean actor and his intellectual family and friends emoting about ennui and referencing 19th century literature before dinner. Then there's a nuclear war. So I guess he got that midpoint beat pretty much nailed.

The movie sounds fairly dreadful from an American screenwriter's standpoint. But it's actually incredibly gripping. Believe it or not. And maybe this post is just about reminding ourselves that there are other ways to do this. We can shoot a little higher.

So much of my job is simply about making a story understandable on screen. For Tarkovsky, understandable was not enough. It had to be truthful. Truth is never simple. It doesn't present itself to us for neat, easy reading. There are no absolutes, which takes me back to the post about Jerry Falwell.

In the DVD extras, there's a very interesting scene on set. In the script, the actor is supposed to get down on his knees, and really pray for the first time in his life. The actor goes through the motions, and Tarkovsky does exactly what an American director wouldn't do. "Loosen up your body! No, it's too clear what you're trying to do. He shouldn't look like he's praying. He might be falling down because he's had too much to drink, or he's just exhausted." Tarkovsky actually wanted to make it murky. Why, because truth is more important than our understanding. Tarkovsky knows that, given the context, falling to your knees to pray includes a lot more than a simple actor's direction. There are many aspects to the simplest act, and as an artist he needs to capture that. This is what makes his films engrossing.

You won't get produced on the spec market following Tarkovsky's lead. But you will get some extraordinary moments that you never thought you'd see. Like what a man's face looks like when lust mixes with rejection and the realization the world won't be saved.

The Big Lebowski. You've probably seen it. It's a beautiful movie in a very different way. It's a monument to good American screenwriting. And I'm not sure that it really says that much less about humanity than Tarkovsky's film. It's the kind of script I'd teach from most days. But not today.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Scriptwrangler Mom-of-the-Week!

... goes to long-suffering mother of Larry Flynt, publisher of Hustler and First Amendment rights advocate. It's not because she's suffered through the pinched, bitter glances of church ladies at the supermarket for the last three decades. It's not because she's responded with patience and aplomb when asked what Woody Harrelson is like as a son. Nope. Mother Flynt wins for this quote from her son:

"My mother always told me that no matter how repugnant you find a person, when you meet them face to face you will always find something about them to like."

Well, isn't that nice, you say. It's a lot more than nice. Let me explain. I found the quote in an article by Larry Flynt on Jerry Falwell's passing. The two spent years trading insults and lawsuits. But the uberpornmeister chooses to remember the brave and affectionate sides of Falwell -- just the stuff that surprised him when they finally met.

I will pull no punches here. I think Falwell was a despicable man. I was a gay man in New York City in the 1980's and 90's. I watched entire circles of friends die while this fool preached it was a sin to educate young people on how to protect themselves, or to inhibit the spread of HIV in any way whatsoever, for that matter. He made millions demonizing people. He blamed gay people for 911. I could go on. I won't. This blog's about screenwriting.

How would I go about writing a Jerry Falwell character? I would start with the article "Larry Flynt: My Friend, Jerry Falwell." No matter how despicable a character someone is, you still have to understand them to portray them. People are rarely 100% evil. Characters that are 100% evil are rarely plausible, and a very bad way of engaging an audience. There's just no internal conflict to power the plot. If your hero is up against one of these guys, there's often a problem with the climax being anti-climactic. The paper tiger just falls over.

When actors start working on a role, they typically do what's called finding the "positive goal". It's what makes a character do what he does. For a good character, it's often fairly straightforward. But negative characters have positive goals too. Say an actor has to play an abusive husband. It's one thing to say he hits her because he's abusive. It's a much more productive realization for the actor to see that he hits her because he's trying to save his marriage. Or to keep his kids from learning the wrong lesson. He's wrong in what he does. He's wrong in how he does it. He's a despicable man. But now he's acting from a standpoint that a human can understand. And that makes him a lot more memorable, a lot more evil.

As screenwriters, we have to overcome a fair amount of revulsion to give that positive goal to characters we dislike. But if we don't, then the actor won't be able to find it. We have to take a risk to build a character flexible enough to carry our message through everyone's creative process. Jerry Falwell was an unstoppable force (until recently). How do I understand that unstoppable trait? It's not that he wanted to oppress homosexuals, demonize liberals and keep women locked up and pregnant. It's his positive goal. In his own eyes, he was doing god's work. In his eyes, he wasn't hurting anybody. He was showing the way to eternal life. How does a good screenwriter get the truer portrait of Jerry Falwell? It's in my own interest as a screenwriter to look deeper. Doesn't matter if my character is Jerry Falwell, Hannibal Lecter, or Spiderman.

Germany produced its first major film portraying Hitler in 2004. It's called The Downfall (Der Untergang). The DVD contains a priceless interview with Bruno Ganz, the actor who played Hitler. Ganz hates Hitler no less than any other German. He feels that deep shame of him that has shaped German identity for decades. He refused the part until he realized he could make a semblance of sense of the evil by doing the job of an actor: finding Hitler's positive goal.

Hitler loved having kids around. Hitler was apparently something of a dream boss to his secretaries, even when he's executing his generals and bombs are raining down on the bunker. Why? Because they represented to him everything he was fighting for -- the good, moral, upstanding German. The traits are not the point of the movie at all. They are there to make the evil he did feel real, plausible, and resonant within a film. Suddenly Hitler is a human being, and not this dark cloud hanging over history. It's f***ing chilling and unforgettable and horrible.

Our media conditions us to put people into a box immediately. Even if they deserve that box, it's not necessarily a good thing for a writer to do. Embrace that ambivalence. It will reward you. What's your antagonist's positive goal?

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Conversation continued..

A client of mine had a great follow-up on the last post. He noted that a lot of people aren't really listening to what the other party says. For them, conversation is more or less a way of making their statement -- dominating the other party, or impressing, or whatever else. And guess what? A conversation like that probably would have a lot of exposition. They WILL tell friends about facts that are already understood between them. They WILL lay out the basic relationships. They will repeat a son's achievements. They will rub a friend's nose in the basic problems of a friendship.

Sometimes exposition is inevitable. And there are ways to make it feel natural. The key here is the same as with any dialogue: context. So the tip for today comes courtesy of my client and buddy, Doc:

Explore your characters for traits that help you communicate necessary exposition. Are they the kind of character who never listens? Are they boastful? Dominating? Do they repeat themselves? Do they like rubbing people's noses in their mistakes? Are they dying for a chance to do it to another character? Let 'em!

Friday, May 18, 2007

Context and Conversation

Let's talk about real life for a moment. Have you ever staged a conversation? Ever heard someone talking on the phone nearby, and realized that the conversation was staged for your benefit? Maybe when you were 8, and hijacked your sister into a conversation about what you want for Christmas and why you're so deserving, and all the good things you did. Or when you're sixteen, and you overhear your parents talking about the evils of smoking, and how good parents listen rather than judge, at least if you come to them sooner rather than later. Maybe the midle manager sitting next to the pretty girl on the morning train, who loudly moves millions of dollars with a simple phone call.

What does that conversation sound like?

"Well, you're my wife, so you've known me for a long time, and I may be hot under the collar at times, but you know I care more about my kids."

"You're serious? I made a cool million before the market even opened? I just wish I had a beautiful woman to take to the Hamptons with me this weekend."

"WOW, you cleaned the whole garage? You must be a devoted and deserving son." "I am a deserving son, Jane. A damn good one who doesn't get enough respect in this family."

When I overhear conversations like this, I turn pale. Beads of sweat trickle down my forehead. It's happened -- there's a rip in the space-time continuum, and these poor people are stuck in the first draft of a screenplay!

Humans are programmed to understand social context. We can't not do it. Reading context is part of our evolution. And when it's not present in a conversation, it sticks out like a sore thumb. When's the last time a 10-year-old sister was interested in her brother's hard work? Why is the millionaire telling his secretary about his love life? Is the father worried that the woman next to him has forgotten she's his wife?

Many writers start and end by writing dialogue. It figures large on the printed page, so it seems natural. But dialogue is a huge trap for screenwriters. If you concentrate on dialogue alone, you'll never get to what makes a script feel natural and comfortable to a viewer.

What it does do is allow you to engage themes directly, and writers will often run miles with that.

-- Maybe Johnny's smoking because he thinks we don't care about him.

-- But we love him so much! If only we could tell him... then maybe he wouldn't smoke!

-- Don't say it!

-- I'm sorry, I have to say it! I was the sixth of seven kids, and I promised myself that Johnny would never know what it feels like to be neglected like I was! So I had the abortion!

-- You can't blame Johnny for the abortion.

-- I don't! I blame you!

-- NO!!!

Not infrequently the writer of this stuff thinks they've plumbed the depths of human consciousness. But hand it to a group of actors, and you'll inevitably hear the word 'turd'.

Everyone writes turds like this sooner or later. How do you avoid it? Two cues.

1. LISTEN. Listen to conversations on the bus. Listen to how your family talks. Write down a transcript in your head. What's it look like? Elliptical. Unfocused. You knew exactly what they were talking about. But it's not so clear as a transcript. Why? Because you've taken away the context. That's what dialogue looks like. That's how the middle class family with the angry mom and smoking son talk.

2. Go to your own scenes. Look for the turds. Don't hate yourself. Don't agonize. But start the editing process in a creative way. Build in context by:

-- Thinking of exacty where the character is at that moment. What happened in the last scene? Are they angry? Hungry? Horny? Bored?

-- Replace at least one line of dialogue with a visual cue.

-- Replace at least one line of dialogue with an action.

-- Listen to what your choices tell you about your story, and repeat the process.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007


I'm still learning to blog. It's a hard format. Just about the only thing that works consistently is a concrete example. So here goes.

I've blogged before about the script that is presently kicking my ass. The main character is more or less me as a teenager. I've found a very strong mediation and genre choice so I'm sufficiently distanced from the material to actually let me subconscious get involved. I'm not going to describe it too directly, but the basic set up is a shy 15-year-old in a stand off with the U.S. Army.

For a fresh reader, what's appealing about this set up is the apparent mismatch. What's intriguing to a fresh reader is how I might make that mismatch work. What's not appealing is that I've set my main character against the U.S. Army in a script targeted at a mass market. The army is supposed to be the good guys.

How do I think about this issue? Logline.

For a long time I tried finessing small details, trying to show how the kid defending his fantasy world is in the right, and the army is in the wrong (but it's still okay for the guy buying the popcorn). I thought about changing the market, but that would require making it a much lower budget film. Couldn't make that work.

Meanwhile, the main issue for me as a writer was that the main character, who's supposed to be a screwed up, closeted, crypto-Christian adolescent who spends his days drawing pictures, was actually turning all Spielberg on me. Boring. Standard. Too easy.

Loglining (did I just create a verb?) helped me figure out the sympathy issue. The U.S. Army can open up the big guns, even on a 15-year-old, if they're defending us. All I have to do to make this set up work: the kid's playing offense, not defense. How do I keep him sympathetic? I don't want to describe my script online. It's enough to say that no one actually controls their fantasy world.

Maybe loglining is just as important as the logline itself. I've written at least fifty loglines for this script. I'll write fifty more before I'm done. I have no doubt it will teach me something about the script every time.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Logline and Story

Back when I was still a wee scriptwrangler, I bristled at loglines. What's the point of trying to sell your script to someone too lazy to read it? I knew that my work was special and brilliant, and the only way they'd see that was to read the script itself. Then they'd see brilliance and complexity and all that jazz. But a logline -- it's like trying to capture an ocean in a teacup. Yup, I was full of it.

I paid for this, of course. Truth is I couldn't really explain most of my stuff even to my friends. It meant a lot to me. Some readers could pick out stuff they liked. But mostly they asked difficult questions I didn't have answers for. That's the thing about loglines. Sooner or later you're going to have to come up with one, even if it's just to stop your aunt from stumbling onto your story problems over Thanksgiving turkey.

Loglines are simple to create but endlessly difficult to perfect. To reiterate, a reader wants to see:

The main character.
The supporting character and opponent, where applicable.
The main on-screen action.
The genre.
The hook. The hook is basically the main selling point of your script -- what makes it unique.

Try it. Combining all these elements almost always leads to a skewed version of your story. I have a friend writing a story on the background of a wedding, and the wedding keeps pushing itself forward, for example. Or you can't balance the love story against the mob story. Or, well, it sounds like something we've already seen.

There are two valuable lessons here. First, the elements of a script rarely line up the way you expect. LISTEN to that. Say you're writing a script set in your hometown. But in the logline, suddenly it looks like it's ABOUT your hometown. Listen to that, because that may be how your audience will see it.

The second lesson is that the only way to make it compelling and clear is to think VISUALLY. What does the audience see on screen? Let's go back to "Walk the Line", the Johnny Cash script. It would be simple to say, "life of Johnny Cash." But the story starts when he isn't watching his older brother, who dies in a horrific saw accident. That guilt follows him through the rest of his life, and brings focus to a story or drug and alcohol problems, endless road shows, etc. The writer found the one moment that could drive all that.

In the wake of his brother's accidental death, a young man's struggle to find warmth and love drives him to become the greatest outlaw singer of all time -- Johnny Cash.

Now we know HOW the writer is attacking the story. (And we know what the writer is selling.)
Another writer might take a very different strategy on the same material. Usually, that strategy plays out in the opening actions. A story about what a great American Johnny Cash is might start with his time in the army, or a more idyllic vision of his rural childhood. An expose would start with him cheating on his wife AND his girlfriend, and destroying his own reputation on stage.

Think concrete. Think in terms of combining. And let that one event that typifies your script take shape on the page. Define your strategy in a single line. And then? Then you take that idea, and put it in your script, where it was meant to be all along.

More soon..

Friday, May 11, 2007

A Script through Other Eyes

I'll get back to loglines shortly, but I just had to write about my experiences today. I had two meetings today, and in both, I learned something about how other professionals view a script. I wanted to bottle and bring it back for you.

First meeting was with a director who's working through a first draft of a script. She's a visual thinker, like most directors, and has come to writing because it helps her make movies. We were talking about her first act was centered tightly around her main character, but at the beginning of the second act, that focus splits, and we follow three characters. How to deal with that? Now, a writer is going to think in terms of plot or characterization. It's called "rhyming" -- meaning you build up resonances in the story line or in what the characters say/do. But since she's a very visual thinker, she naturally thinks of rhyming the visuals. There's a good opportunity for all three characters driving at the same time. Her thought was to place the main character driving left to right, which is the natural path for an eye to follow (like reading). Her aunt drives head on -- we're basically on the other side of the steering wheel looking at her. This allows the reader to examine this visually interesting character on her introduction. And the character working AGAINST the main character drives from right to left, in the opposite direction to a the main character, and the natural flow of the eye for most of her audience. She knows stuff like this because she's worked in film for twenty years. It helps her come up with answers that are eminently easier than the dialogue or plot twists or whatever other technique a non-directing screenwriter might try.

The second meeting was with a sound designer. We're hiring her for a short script with all kinds of radio and television ads, and a strong need for composition that goes back and forth from diagetic (natural, in-scene) sound and a more hallucinogenic feel. How does she see the script -- through her ears. She knows from experience how to cue viewers into tiny shifts in perspective without you even knowing it. That's her job.

Now, you may be objecting that you aren't supposed to include camera angles in spec scripts, and you have no clue what diagetic hoozywhat is going to convince a good sound designer to join your team.

And you'd be right. DON'T include that stuff. A good story INSPIRES that stuff. It opens up the potential for all these people to engage a story and bring so much more to it. There are more tools out there than you or I know about. Learning how to elicit that creative response is a lot of screenwriting.

BTW... Just one more example I have to relate. The sound designer was talking about a long trailing shot in a Tarkovsky movie. Basically, the camera just follows tight on the back of an actor's head. Fascinating, huh? Well, Tarkovsky used sound design to keep you riveted. The sound slowly goes from natural, explicable -- footsteps, the sound of a train. But as the character walks, all the sounds morph into something else. Without realizing it or knowing why, you're deep in the character's head by the time he reaches his destination.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

And Now for Something Useful

Loglines. What are they for? What's the point? What the hell is a logline? These are questions I hear all the time. I'm going to make a series of posts on loglines here. Try to break it down and demystify for the reader.

A logline, at its best, is a pithy, memorable sentence that tells the reader what the main character is like, what the main action is, the genre of the film, and the hook (what makes your script unique). It's very different from a tagline, which is the intriguing sentence at the bottom of the one-sheet (which is a movie poster). A logline might read:

A wizened old fisherman, an arrogant scientist and an earthy sheriff must protect a beachfront town after a giant shark starts feasting on its residents.

A tagline might read:

Just when you though it was safe to go back in the water..

The goal of both is to get the reader interested in the story. But the audiences are quite different. Looking at how a studio reader will typically approach a logline is a clue to how you might construct yours. A good way to learn about this is to find calls for queries. If you've ever read these, you know the frustration.

We're looking for a script involving motorcycles with a strong African-American female lead for a name actress. Budget $1-2M.

Studio looking for psychological style horror scripts (no zombies, please) similar to "Fracture" but without the law element.

Independent studio looking for character drama centering on women's relationships that can be shot in a Victorian. Do not send script unless it is one-location set in a Victorian. We aren't interested in scripts that can be "easily adapted" to a Victorian.

The calls seem way too specific for anyone's good. Don't they just want the best script they can find? No, I'm afraid they don't. They want to make the movie they can make. The reason that the first studio wants motorcycles and a black female lead is probably due to where the money comes from. They have a connection to Halle Berry, perhaps -- and getting her will secure X amount of money. They have a whiff of interest in a motorcycle movie from Halle, or the studio boss, or an investor.

Does your logline answer these questions? At this beginning stage, all a reader really wants is a ballpark sense of your script -- whether it fits his needs or not. Your main characters are a selling point. Your hook is a selling point. Your genre is a selling point. This is where you start to sell them.

Most of that selling means getting the logline worked into a single, well-thought-out idea. But more on that next time.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007


I finally saw '300' last night. You'll have to indulge me a small rant here. Or jump ahead a couple paragraphs if you prefer your scriptwrangling straight up.. The film is a bloody, stylized retelling of the Battle of Thermopylae, where an elite force of 300 Spartans managed to hold out against 150,000 Persians in one of the most dramatic battles in history. The film tells the story about how these 300 straight white guys defend country, truth, democracy, and family against the Persian Empire, which was apparently a rainbow coalition of transvestites, muslims, black people, and the handi-capable. More than half the movie takes place at this mountain pass, which, especially in the long shots, is rather disturbingly Freudian. The 300 fight an assortment of effeminate brown people, stopping only briefly to announce that freedom isn't free, and how they of course get all their strength from their women. Then it's back to defending the hole.

What's particularly galling is that the 300 Spartans in real life were actually 150 homosexual couples, chosen to fight together because they would die defending their lovers. Guess that wouldn't make them too sympathetic for the average red-stater this seems targeted at. Alas. it makes me realize just how screwed up our culture is -- literally -- how things get stuck somehow, then twisted around on themselves several times. They aren't gay warriors. They're straights fighting transvestites. But they wear leather underwear and long crimson capes. And they cackle heartily whenever they say "sculptor", or "boy-lover". Yeesh. And then boring.

I thought this would be a good place to talk about "character sympathy" in screenwriting terms. "Sympathy" is one of those terms -- like conflict, misbehavior, flaw, etc. -- that are NEUTRAL. Hannibal Lecter has sympathy because he promises surprise, and he's extremely dedicated to his task.

For the screenwriter, it's absolutely paramount that the viewer have sympathy for the main character. Doesn't have to like him. But he has to care what happens to him. He has to invest in him. There are a couple ways to do this.

ENTERTAINMENT POTENTIAL. The character conceit is so strong that the audience just wants to get to the next laugh, or murder, or whatever. There is the potential for surprise, or strong choices. I got bored with 300 because I realized all I was going to get was another battle scene, more platitudes.

STAKES. The harder you make a character fight, and the more you make him fight for, the more we care. It's natural. People like underdogs. I think this was the writer's (Zack Snyder) approach with the 300. They need to defend Sparta's rear pass against the effeminate brown masses. Didn't work for me, because I knew they were going to lose, and they seemed to crave nothing more than death.

MERCY. HUMILITY. When audiences see a merciful act, they have a hope that it will be returned to the deserving main character. This is one place where 300 especially failed for me. He comes from a society without mercy. He rejects the pitiful cripple who wants to fight. And frankly, I'm glad when the cripple takes his revenge.

AUDIENCE IDENTIFICATION. We see ourselves in the character. This is the Erin Brockovitch approach. She's got more kids than she can handle. She's got a checkered past. She's not the brightest crayon in the box. But she's loyal, and she'll fight -- for us. I think 300 tries to do this. The Spartans spout the catch-phrases from the war on terror. Fear and barbarism are all full of homosexuality. Xerxes all but mounts Leonidas at one point. Uh oh! There's a real drive to get all the team thinking alike. If it wasn't so pitifully screwed up it mighta worked.

There WAS one character I had strong sympathy for: the young Leonidas. Following Spartan ritual, the seven-year-old is taken from his mother, and forced to live in this army camp for kids. We know he's a sweet kid, the apple of his mother's eye. We don't know what will happen to him. We don't know what he'll become. We don't know if he'll survive. And this is the one place where the violence is really affecting. He punches another boy, and blood flies from his mouth. The transformation has begun. Two little boys fighting can engage an audience better than armies of elephants plunging over an ocean cliff or dudes in burkas throwing hand grenades (hundreds of years before Islam or the invention of gunpowder). Yes, it can.

Saturday, May 5, 2007

The Birds!

I sat down to write a post about "Airplane!" last night but Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds" was on. This counts as a rockin' Friday in Scriptwranglerville.

It's a tremendous movie, and you can't watch it without thinking that modern day horror movies are basically cheating with all the gore and torture and ever more traumatizing visuals. I guess audiences expect it, and they're delivering. I just wish you could make movies like "The Birds" now. They're a lot harder. Maybe you need to be a genius like Hitchcock. But you get a lot deeper into a viewer's consciousness with his approach.

The first thing that struck me is just how long it takes to get into the horror material. The first real attack doesn't occur until fifty minutes into the film -- almost halfway. You almost forget you're watching a horror film because there's this really delightful little love story with in the (still) delightful little town of Bodega Bay. Tippi Hedren's character is one of those perfect balancing acts. She hot. She's rich. She's proud. She's sort of a Paris Hilton of 1963, only she's not as dumb as a martini in a Mexican restaurant. And the only thing she wants more than the smart ass she saw in the bird store is to show that she's smarter than him. Doesn't sound much like a horror movie, does it?

But it is. The ONLY reason it works as a horror movie is that Hitchcock exploits some strong ideas about story. He exploits his conceit.

Conceit here has nothing to do with "conceited". It means a storyteller's strategy. The conceit behind the Birds is that birds are omnipresent, and aren't normally threatening. But maybe there's something about US, humans. And if the birds were to band together, perhaps we wouldn't be at the top of the food chain for long.

"Exploiting the conceit" is very much a nuts-and-bolts issue for a screenwriter. In t he first fifty minutes, bird activity interrupts the activity, and brings the scene to a neat conclusion, or forms a nice bridge between scenes. It's always on the periphery, but it always improves the pacing. And it builds suspense.

Hitchcock also exploits his characters. Tippi Hedren is a walking story. She's just about the only woman alive who could come into a strange town, ask the name and address of the resident town bachelor #1 and his 10-year-old sister, then get these suspicious small town types to actually help her secretly delivering a gift of lovebirds. She gets his jilted ex-girlfriend to give her a bed for the night so she can continue the seduction. She doesn't need dialogue.

He exploits the location. Hitchcock wrote the script very much with Bodega Bay in mind. He knew that a car can move across the circular bay faster than a boat. He knew the geography. He probably knew what it looked like from the bird's eye view.

He exploits the camera. Lovely shots from the bird's eye view every time the humans are trapped inside a building. How else could you capture the idea that windows are no longer a way to see -- they're a point of entry?

Hitchcock once said, "After the script is written and the dialogue added, we're ready to shoot." Dialogue was added. It's not how he thought through his story. He could have, but then we wouldn't still be watching it. Dialogue is the least powerful tool in the screenwriter's toolbox. It's the most malleable element of a script. Choosing your conceit, and building your locations, characters, and visuals will get you miles further.

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Formatting, Resistance, and the Dinosaur Coffee Mug

You've just had a brilliant idea for a script. You wrote a lot back in college, but not so much since you got married and the real job. But now you've got some time and really want to get back into it. So you take the plunge. You get some screenwriting software, or copy the formatting from "Deadly Force 3: The Curdling", which you found on the net.

You write and write... everything's going relatively smoothly. There's joy and meaning in your life! Thoughts percolate in the back of your mind of moving to Hollywood and tapping out brilliant stories in a smallish bungalow at first, then a bigger place up in the hills as your career grows...

Then you come to a phone conversation. How do you format a phone conversation? Will they just know? What's going on? And what about when they're in the car, and then he's on top of the car, then he's back in it, but we're not on the road anymore -- how am I supposed to slugline that? And how can I add DAY or NIGHT when we're in outer space?

There's silence at first. Then the sounds of Youtube. The script is an unspeakable burden, then slowly pushed to the back of the mind.

It would be easy to just tell you how to format this stuff, but the real issue here is RESISTANCE. Writing a script is hard. Writing anything good usually means digging into your head and pulling out details, and that is often a painful process. Writers encounter resistance at every turn, and dealing with it is part of the job.

Many new screenwriters face resistance in the form of FORMATTING. I have had many a first conversation with a new client in which I lay out problems with premise or character sympathy or plot structure -- big stuff -- and get a question about whether they need to note that a particular location already exists, or just describe it for the reader. Do they need the MORE: and CONTINUED:?

You'll never get anywhere worrying about that stuff. And your subconscious knows it.

But your conscious brain needs to be conscious of one important fact: you're probably going to write and rewrite the scene five more times. And Coppola's not drumming his fingers waiting for you to put him to work. And he's not going to pass on a good script because of your unorthodox use of INTERCUT. Just write the story. Stay out of your own way.

A small anecdote about getting over the formatting hump. I had a great deal of anxiety about getting all the stuff right on my first production. One day the art director, who I found unbearably cuddly and adorable, was clearly annoyed with me. Why? Because I'd written a scene with the characters discussing the little dinosaurs on a coffee cup. I hadn't mentioned the prop at the top of the scene. And apparently that's where art directors, or this one at least, look when they build a prop list. Now he had to go BACK to the thrift stores the day before the scene was to be shot. After this herculean effort, he managed to find a coffee mug with little doggies on it, and we changed the dialogue to match. And I learned a big formatting lesson that day. You'll never get anywhere with the adorable art director unless you're clear and straightforward. Learn a bit about the jobs of the people you're writing for, and the formatting will fall into place.

And if you want to know how to format cell phone conversations during car chases in outer space, check out