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Archive for March, 2008

“My psychological state when I start a screenplay is always the same. It’s a mix of fear, anxiety and insecurity.”
Akiva Goldsman, Oscar winner (A Beautiful Mind)

“Who is your hero, what does he want, and what stands in his way?”
Paddy Chayefsky (Network)
Three-time Oscar winner

How do you start your story? Something must happen to set your story in motion. Some call this an inciting incident, a hook, or a catalyst.  When this event or situation happens it disrupts the life of your protagonist. It sets them on a quest.

It must be a dynamic event. An event that rocks their world and one in which they must fight to correct. And most of the times the inciting incidents are easy to spot.

Juno finds out she’s pregnant (Juno)

E.T. misses his ride (E.T.)

The Italian Stallion is chosen to fight for the championship (Rocky)

A shark eats a girl on a late night swim in the ocean (Jaws)

A sports agent writes a controversial mission statement  (Jerry Maguire)

Zack Mayo signs up for officer training (An Officer and a Gentleman)

Dr. Richard Kimble’s wife is killed (The Fugitive)

Miss Daisy wrecks her car (Driving Miss Daisy)

Charlie Kane dies just after saying “Rosebud”  (Citizen Kane)

Jack wins a ticket on the Titanic boat (Titanic)

Thinking she’s getting engaged her boyfriend break-ups with her (Legally Blond)

Charlie Babbit’s gets news that his dad is dead (Rain Man)

Nemo is captured by fishermen (Finding Nemo)

The war happens (The Pianist)

A Helicopter is shot down (Black Hawk Down)

Ferris takes the day off (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off)

Will solves a difficult mathematical equation (Good Will Hunting)

The oven breaks on Thanksgiving day (Pieces of April)

A special bike is stolen (Pee Wee’s Big Adventure)

A large family goes on vacation leaving a child behind (Home Alone)

A law grad takes an offer for what looks like the perfect job (The Firm)

The movie opens with a man face down in water (Sunset Blvd.)

The movie opens with a man face down in water (Bourne Identity)

Boy wishes that he was bigger and wakes up a grown-up (Big)

A farmer hears a voice telling him “If you build it he will come” (Field of Dreams)

“As long as the protagonist wants something, the audience will want something.”

David Mamet (The Verdict)

Two Oscar nominations

Often inciting incidents boil down to the worst things that can happen in your life:

Divorce (Kramer vs. Kramer)

Murder (Witness)

Illness (The Doctor)

Shooting victim (Regarding Henry)

Plane crash (Castaway)

Financial Crisis (The Perfect Storm)

Quitting a job (Lost in America)

Taking the perfect job (The Firm)

Aging (City Slickers)

Dying (The Bucket List)

Kidnapping (Ransom)

Natural Disaster (Wizard of Oz)

Recession (Indecent Proposal)

Things that make newspaper headlines on a regular basis. They are headlines because they get our attention. What’s the old newspaper expression, “If it bleeds, it leads.”

These all set the story in motion. Like a boxer’s one-two punch they often have a set-up & payoff:

Jerry Maguire writes mission statement—gets fired.

Dr. Richard Kimble’s wife is killed—he’s charged with murder—he decides to flee bus wreck and track down killer.

Miss Daisy wrecks car—Hoke is hired to be her driver.

The shark attacks the girl—the sheriff finds her body, well, an arm.

Charlie Babbit’s dad dies in Rain Man—he learns he’s out of the will, well, he gets the car and the award winning rose bushes, but not the millions he hoped for.

Ferris takes the day off—Principle wants to catch him skipping school

Someone has to hear Charlie Kane say “Rosebud” or there can’t be the quest to find out what it means. (Never mind that nobody is around to hear the words actually being said.)

You could argue that if the girl dies in the ocean without being discovered then the case is written off as a drunk girl drowning, so which is the inciting incident? But let’s not get hung up on technical things or we’ll say the beer is the inciting incident…or the moment the beer was bought. Chalk it up to a cause and effect. Find your inciting incident and get on with writing your story.

If the inciting incidents doesn’t happen then the movies doesn’t happen. Writer Skip Press asks, “Will this event put my main character on a path to his ultimate goal from which there is no turning back?”

Sometimes this event happens in the first scene, but usually within the first ten pages, and always within the first act. Syd Field notes that in studying Joe Eszterhas scripts he noticed, “In most cases…the inciting incident was a cinematic tool he used to set up the story from page one, word one.”

If you’ve ever found yourself watching a movie and wondering when it’s going to start the cause is usually too much time was spent setting up the inciting incident. The moment needs to come when it will have the most impact, but in our ADD culture it’s hard for viewers (and studio readers) to wait too long for the inciting incident. Over and over again that’s why you will hear about the importance of the first 10 pages of your script. It sets the tone of your story, and gives us an indication of who the characters are and what they want.

The inciting incident must happen on screen and it must be dynamic. It gets our attention and the attention of our protagonist. If our protagonist doesn’t react to this then you have no movie.

The climax of the film will be tied into this inciting incident. Think of them like bookends that hold your story in place. Rocky is picked to fight Apollo Creed and the climax is occurs after the fight is over and he’s still on his feet.

An inciting incident arouses a desire in the protagonist that he or she is willing to go to the end of the line to get. Rocky can’t say, “I don’t even have a locker. I’m a bum. Maybe if I can get into shape.” Well, he could but it’s a different movie.

Your audience wants to know what your story is about. They have paid money to be entertained. And they want to watch your characters wrestle with life issues. Because that’s really why we go to movies. To watch human drama be lived out in a way that helps us with our own human dramas.

So your inciting incident is what sets your protagonist in motion.

“The overwhelming majority of stories are based on a need, a problem, or an unusual situation.”

Edward Dmytryk (The Caine Mutiny)

Oscar & DGA nominations

“Find a character who’s obsessed and you have a real driving line.”
Ron Bass (Rain Man)
Oscar winner

P.S. If indeed Rocky’s inciting incident is Apollo Creed picking it fight him, it is one of the latest inciting incidents ever—it comes around the 33 minute mark.

Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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Johnny Depp is in Wisconsin this month shooting a John Dillinger film based on the book Public Enemies by Bryan Burrough. While in Wisconsin the Michael Mann directed film will be shooting in Columbus, Darlington, Madison and Milwaukee.

(You can view photos of the film at www.thedailypage.com/daily/article.php?article=21981)

Wisconsin is just over the Mississippi River from Iowa and has had a three-year legislative wrestling match for the final passage of a state incentive package to attract filmmakers. Film Wisconsin’s executive director Scott Robbe reports of an interim measure for qualified producers and should be encouraged by Depp filming in the state.

While Wisconsin’s film related history is often overlooked, it does have some legendary connections. Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Thorton Wilder (Our Town) was from Madison and the man named by the British Film Institute as the greatest director of all time, Orson Welles (Citizen Kane) was born in Kenosha. Nicolas Ray, who directed Rebel Without a Cause, was from the small town of Galesville.

Actor/writer Gene Wilder (Young Frankenstein) is a Wisconsin-Iowa combo having been born in Milwaukee and was a theater major at the University of Iowa. Wilder-Depp connection: Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory and the remake.

Milwaukee was also the setting of one of the most popular all-time TV programs, Happy Days. (I had said Kenosha in an earlier post, but only “Al the Grocer”–Al Molinaro– was from there.) The setting for the TV program Laverne & Shirley was also Milwaukee.

One of the most well-known film characters of all time, Jack from Titanic (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) was from Chippewa Falls. And I have to add that his love interest Rose when we find her as an elderly woman is living in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

DiCapario and Depp both starred in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape that was set in Iowa and written by Des Moines native Peter Hedges.

Wisconsin news is usually overshadowed by the Green Bay Packers football team and their cheese head fans. (I once did a shoot with Packer Hall-of-Famer Reggie White, the minister of defense, and found him to be a friendly and kind man.) Wisconsin is also where Land’s End clothing, Oshkosh B’Gosh, Kohler, Harley-Davidson, and Trek Bicycle Corporation, have their headquarters, but it does have its artistic bent.

In fact, check out the work Madison interactive group Planet Propaganda is doing — not only with Trek but companies in Chicago, Minneapolis and on both coasts. And just for the record its creative director John Besmer is a screenwriter as well. He was one of the writers of the recently completed Winter of Frozen Dreams starring Keith Carradine.

The creative heartbeat of Wisconsin is Madison. It’s the Midwest equivalent of Austin, Texas. Free spirited college town, state capital, thriving businesses, and plenty of live music. (Nearby Middleton was recently voted the #1 place to live in the country by Money Magazine.CNN.)

Madison is also just two hours away from Chicago by train. And about an hour away from hidden (to people outside the area) jewel of a town called Lake Geneva, which has been called “The Newport of the West” and “The Hamptons of the Midwest” for its mansions on the lake.

The University of Wisconsin, Madison is where “America’s Finest News Source” and satire The Onion began and where Oscar-winning writer/director Michael Moore (Bowling for Columbine) went to school. Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker (David, Jim & Jerry) grew up in Shorewood, Wisconsin and attended UW Madison together before hitting it big with Airplane! in 1980, and other hit films that followed. Documentary filmmaker Errol Morris (The Thin Blue Line) and producer Walter Mirisch (The Apartment) also graduated from UW-Madison.

I know this will be hard to believe but with a Ph.D. from UW-Madison is screenwriter/director Andrew Bergman, whose work includes Blazing Saddles, Fletch, Honeymoon in Vegas, and Striptease. Woody Allen’s co-writer on Manhattan, Sleeper, and Annie Hall is Academy Award winner writer Marshall Brickman –who, yes, attended UW-Madison.

Those also attending UW-Madison include screenwriter/director David Koepp who wrote the upcoming script for the new Indiana Jones film (as well as Spider-Man and the Depp thriller Secret Window) and Michael Mann (Miami Vice) himself. Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings graduated from UW-Madison in 1918 twenty years before her book The Yearling was published. Recent Oscar-winning screenwriter Diablo Cody (Juno) wanted to attend UW Madison but says she went to University of Iowa was because she couldn’t get into Madison.

Madison has a chapter of the Wisconsin Screenwriters Forum which offers writing workshops and seminars. (There are also chapters in Milwaukee and Los Angeles.)

Elsewhere in the state many memorable movies have been shot in Wisconsin including A Simple Plan (from a novel by the other Scott Smith), Blues Brothers, Mr. 3000, Meet the Applegates, Uncle Buck, Major League, and parts of Hoop Dreams.

And don’t forget the classic scene in Wayne’s World when Wayne and Garth meet Alice Cooper in the “we’re not worthy” scene backstage at Cooper’s Milwaukee show:

Wayne: So, do you come to Milwaukee often?

Alice Cooper: Well, I’m a regular visitor here, but Milwaukee has certainly had its share of visitors. The French missionaries and explorers were coming here in the late sixteen hundreds to trade with the native Americans.

Pete (Band member): In fact, isn’t Milwaukee an Indian name?

Alice: Yes, Pete, it is. Actually, it’s pronounced mill-e-wah-kee, which is Algonquin for “the good land.”

Wayne: I was not aware of that.

Alice: I think one of the most interesting aspects of Milwaukee is the fact that it’s the only major American city to have ever elected three socialist mayors.

Wayne: Does this guy know how to party or what?

To watch the Alice Cooper scene fast forward past Wisconsin native Chris Farley’s cameo to the 3:00 mark.) 

When I was 19 I went to an Alice Cooper concert in Tampa and about 15 years later met him at a conference I was working in San Diego. Like Reggie White he too appeared to be a friendly and gentle man. (Though quite a bit smaller than White.) He’s quite the golfer and joked that his garage looked like Nevada Bob’s (a chain of golf wholesale stores).

And to come full circle if ever there was a film done on Cooper’s life I can’t think of anyone better to play him than Johnny Depp. (Though he might need to work on his golf game. For some reason Depp strikes me as the kind of guy who like sharp things in his hands versus a golf club.)

As we pull away from our little road trip to Wisconsin let me say that Depp is originally from Owensboro, Kentucky and once driving back to Iowa from a shoot in Charlotte I spent the night in Owensboro. I’m a sucker for shooting neon signs and took this photo near Depp’s childhood house.

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Who knows, maybe long before he was Jack Sparrow, Edward Sizzorhands or John Dillinger he hung out at this place. Just another reminder that talent comes from everywhere. (For what it’s worth George Clooney is also from Kentucky.)

Did you know that writer Hunter S. Thompson was also from Owensboro? The same guy Depp played in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

Here’s a quote from Thompson for all those itching to leave home and run off to LA: “The TV business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There’s also a negative side.”

Just wanted to pass that along – just in case you were not aware of that. (Good thing for Depp that he fled the TV business early, huh?)

Oh, and back home in Iowa I received a call Saturday to work on a feature film shooting in Des Moines in April and May staring Ellen Page, the star of Juno. That’s really coming full circle for this blog since I started Screenwriting from Iowa after seeing Juno. Schedule-wise I don’t think I’m going to be able to work on that film but it’s good to see that Iowa’s film incentives are working as well.

Actors interested in auditioning for the Ellen Page thriller send pictures, resume, and contact info to PMS Casting, 2018 Hwy G28, PO Box 122, Pella, IA 50219. More info can be found on Iowa casting director Ann Wilkinson’s website www.pmscasting.com .

P.S. Anyone looking for a different place to vacation this summer? One of the great travel surprises of my life was visiting Door County in Wisconsin years ago. I was blown away by how much it reminded me of the Florida Keys. (Good place for actors to find summer stock work as well.) And if you want more of a taste of Florida in Wisconsin, Jimmy Buffett will be playing in Apple Valley on July 19.

Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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“Structure is the most important element in the screenplay. It is the force that holds everything together.”   Syd Field

Today is the first day of spring and that signals a change. (Not so much here in Iowa, because the forecast is we’ll get 2-6 inches of snow tomorrow.)

If you’ve been thinking about writing a screenplay why not begin today?  This blog is on structure and is a fitting place to begin.

The more scripts you write and the more movies you see the more you’ll understand structure and why it’s a vital part of screenwriting. I’m going to limit this blog on good old western culture traditional structure. You don’t get more basic than this:

Act 1 – Beginning

Act 2 – Middle

Act 3 – End

Syd Field became the modern-day screenwriting pioneer when he wrote Screenplay back in the 1974. Field had been a reader and development executive at various studios and after reading 10,000 scripts he felt he really knew what made a good script.

He even broke it down into page counts.

Act 1     1-30  (setup)

Act 2     30-90 (confrontation)

Act 3     90-120 (resolution)

There’s nothing wrong with a script coming in between 90 and 100 pages either. He’s how a 100 pages script might look like:

Act 1       1-25

Act 2      26-80

Act 3      81-100

Now if this were the sixties I could hear someone saying, “Hey, man, that’s just not my scene.” But these things aren’t written in stone either.

Sure we can look at many films like Memento which turned structure upside down, and Pulp Fiction and Magnolia that mixed structure up. And let’s not forget about the famous quote by Goddard “I believe in a beginning, a middle, and an end — just not in that order.”

How do I answer those? Let me start with the Goddard quote. According to Lew Hunter who later asked Goddard about his famous quote it was simply an off-hand comment at a cocktail party.

As for the film exceptions? It is hard enough to write a solid screenplay, get an agent, and get the film made. The concept of a beginning, middle and end are universal because that is the way most of us of our lives;

We wake up

We eat

We go about our work or school

We eat dinner

We recreate

We go to bed

We’re born, we live, and we die.

Throughout history that is the cycle civilization has lived. Humans around the world have also made sure that life is not predictable. Love, war, new inventions and discoveries help insure that within the human tradition there are millions of variations.

Traditional structure is the most understood form of storytelling which is one of the reasons it is the most commercial as well.

It’s as basic as one writer said; Get your hero up a try, throw rocks and him and get him down. That’s structure 101.

Many screenwriting books have different ways of breaking down structure but here’s a common one that Robert Mckee has landed on based on the people that went before him:

1) Inciting Incident

2) Progressive Complication (Rising Conflict)

3) Crisis

4) Climax

5) Resolution

If you can understand those five areas of structure (one for every finger one hand) it will save you some frustration. We’ll look at these in detail at another blog, but for now it’s enough for you to understand that this structure fits most successful films. (Even if you want to flip structure inside out it’s best to understand structure. Check out Picasso’s early paintings to see what I mean.)

There is always that rebel in us that says. “I don’t want to do it the way it’s always been done. I want to do my own thing man. I want freedom!”

But keep in mind what poet Robert Frost said, “Writing free verse is like playing tennis without a net.”

There is freedom in structure. Embrace it. When the limits are set, great things can happen. Performing within certain boundaries helps us understand the greatness Tiger Woods, Lance Armstrong, and LeBron James.

Think of all the structure that goes into:

Making Movies. The script is written and then budgeted. Actors are hired who you want to show up on time. Sets are built and props are found. Cameras are rented and crews are hired. Caterers cook food. Drivers drive trucks. People work, people get paid. There is a lot of structure in place to make a film.

Making Music. Before a concert becomes a reality many logistics have to have taken place. Travel arrangements, tickets sold, money transacted, bathrooms working, electricity flowing, stages constructed, lights hung, usher in place, security in place, green M&Ms in place. There’s a lot of structure there. So you can smile the next time a lead singer screams for anarchy because that’s the last thing he wants at his concert.

There really is freedom in structure.

“I’m a structuralist myself. We believe in discipline, hard work, and architecture. Writing is like carpentry.” Dan O’Bannon, screenwriter (Alien)

Playwright/screenwriter David Mamet compares ignoring structure to the countercultural design movement in the 60’s:

“I was a student in the turbulent sixties in Vermont at a countercultural college. In that time in place, there flourished something called the Countercultural Architecture. Some people back then thought that the traditional architecture had been too stifling. And so they designed and built countercultural buildings. These buildings proved unlivable. Their design didn’t begin with the idea of the building’s purpose; it began with the idea of how the architect “felt.”“As those architects looked at their countercultural buildings over the years, they may have reflected that there is a reason for traditional design. There’s a reason that doors are placed in a certain way.

“All those countercultural buildings may have expressed the intention of the architect, but they didn’t serve the purpose of the inhabitants. They all either fell down or are falling down or should be torn down. They’re a blot on the landscape and they don’t age gracefully and every passing year underscores the jejune folly of those countercultural architects.”

David Mamet

Because I want to hammer this point home take a look at the cars you see today. Cars could be made with three wheels or five wheels but most cars are still made with four wheels because engineers and car builders have decided that is what works best.

Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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Happy St. Patrick’s Day.

I recommend that along with your pint of Guinness or green beer as you celebrate today that you add watching the movie Once if you haven’t seen it (or again if you have seen it). This independent film made in Ireland won the recent Academy Award for Best Song “Falling Slowly.”

It also won the Best Foreign Film at Film Independents Spirit Awards. Shot mostly handheld with a couple Sony HDV cameras for a little over $100,000., this little film has gathered quite a following.

It made many Top 10 film lists for 2007 including the LA Times and USA Today.  Steven Spielberg was quoted as saying “A little movie called Once gave me enough inspiration to last the rest of the year.”

I think it exemplifies the ideals I write about in Screenwriting from Iowa.  And that is people hunger for stories told outside of LA and you can make these films anywhere without spending a lot of money.

Here’s the story in a nutshell from the Fox Searchlight website;

A modern-day musical set on the streets of Dublin featuring Glen Hansard from the Irish band “The Frames.” The film tells the story of a street musician and a Czech immigrant (played by Marketa Irglova) during an eventful week as they write, rehearse and record songs that reveal their unique love story.

Writer/director Jim Carney said that he didn’t want to spend a year and a half writing the script so he wrote 60 pages and shot the film with a mix of the script and improv. (One of the funniest lines in the film “I’m a broken-hearted-Hoover-fixer-sucker guy” was an improv line.) The film is made up of approximately 60% of music.

“Camcorders are a small thing. You don’t need huge arc lights and 35 mill. If you have some way of getting a bit of sound on your picture and syncing them up — go off and make you bleeding movie. It doesn’t matter where it’s made or how it’s made. At the end of the day an audience just wants to see a director’s vision.”

Carney says he was inspired by the John Cassavetes’ film Faces. In that you could make a film “with four characters in your parents home.” Once was shot in 17 days.

If you want to make it an independent Irish double feature night throw in The Brothers McMullen. A film made for $25,000 in 1995 and which launched writer/director Edwards Burns’ career.

Finish the night with a little U2, Van Morrison and Enya and you’ve had quite a proper St. Patrick’s Day celebration.

And let’s not forget Ireland’s great literary past that includes Jonathan Swift, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett and William Butler Yeats.

In closing let me mention that Carney says on the DVD that he titled his film Once because people always have an excuse and say “Once….”

As in “”Once I get some money saved…”

“Once I get a camera…”

“Once I move to LA…”

…then we’re going to do something special. We miss many opportunities.

As the old saying goes, “Do what you can, where you are, with what you have.”

Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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I was talking to John Irving the other day…

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Okay, technically that’s true, but it’s not like we were hanging out talking about his writings and the finer aspects of American literature. Irving was in Iowa City this week and doing a Q&A session sponsored by the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. I was simply one of the approximately 200 people in attendance and I got to ask him a couple questions.
After University of Iowa grad Diablo Cody won an Oscar for her screenplay Juno the school gave her a blurb on its website and they put in a link to Screenwriting from Iowa because I had written an article about her called The Juno–Iowa Connection. In that blog I went into detail on the long list of great writers who have come out of the University of Iowa.

After poking around their website I found out the Writers’ Workshop had regular readings and decided that Irving was worthy of making the 75 minute trek from Cedar Falls. Not because I’m a huge fan of his work but because of his place in American literature. I do remember discovering his writings while in college and have seen most of the movies made from his novels. Since he was a student and a professor at Iowa I thought he fit the Screenwriting from Iowa concept fairly well.
Some of his movies are The Hotel New Hampshire, The World According to Garp, Simon Birch (Prayer for Owen Meany) and The Cider House Rules. The later for which he won an Oscar for best adapted screenplay. 
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Florida State football coach Bobby Bowden once said of one of his players, “He may not be in a class by himself, but whatever class he’s in it doesn’t take long to call roll.” With Norman Mailer and Kurt Vonagunt dying in 2007, Irving is in a class that includes just a handful of American literary giants like John Updike and Tom Wolfe.
It’s been said that film directors are either geeks or jocks. I don’t know if that’s true of writers but in Irving’s case he looks every bit the jock. Even at age 66 he looks like a wrestler to be reckoned with and has had a life long love for the sport. If you follow the American literary scene you have to agree that he is also a writer to be reckoned with. Writer Peter Matthiessen has said, “He’s probably the great storyteller of American literature today.”  
Here are some notes from his Q&A that I thought you’d be interested in;
Irving was turned on to writing at a young age and after reading Dickens  and thought that being a writer would be a good thing. He said that if he would have read Hemingway first instead he’d of probably have ended up doing something different. He went as far as saying he hated Hemingway’s writing which was good for a few chuckles from those gathered at the Dey House. He’s said worse things about Updike in the past. Irving is a man with opinions.
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He said he never thought he could earn a living solely as a writer and in fact was a teacher through his first four books. (Before Garp made him rich and famous he had been writing for 11 years with limited success.) Though he writes his first drafts quickly he spends two-thirds of his time doing re-writing. That is when the book comes together. 
He said that he enjoys the editing side of filmmaking because it closely resembles what he does in rewriting. Though he is a novelist he comes at his work with the audience in mind. “My goal is to entertain you–and break your heart.” He wants to provoke the reader.
Like many (all?) writers with Hollywood experience he’s had his share of bad experiences. But he didn’t seem bitter when he said of the film industry, “It’s not a nice business.”

I’ve been told that in the days before amateur wrestlers wore headgear protection that you could always tell a wrestler by his cauliflower ears. (Cartilage damage that permanently deforms the ear.) It’s an old school badge of honor, a source of pride. It’s a tribal thing for wrestlers. I’m not sure what the equivalent is for a Hollywood screenwriter, but I think Irving has those scars. But he’s a grappler so they don’t appear to weigh him down. He may even enjoy that aspect of the business.
Perhaps he appears more grounded because he’s a novelist that really wouldn’t have a problem walking away from Hollywood if he had to. But more likely it’s because he lives in Toronto and Vermont. and because his roots are far from Hollywood in Exeter, New Hampshire. Maybe he learned something from the stories of Faulkner and others hanging around Hollywood too long.
In his book My Movie Business Irving writes “All writers repeat themselves; repetition is the necessary concomitant of having anything worthwhile to say.” Stephan King in his book on writing says that every writer has their “little red wagon.” For King it’s the paranormal, for John Grisham it’s justice, for Pat Conroy it’s his dysfunctional family, and for Woody Allen it’s his neurotic self.
For Irving it’s themes of disturbing sexual relations, abandonment and a touch of nihilism. I think it was Proust who said that every artist paints the same picture. You may be eclectic in the books you read and movies you watch, but chances are good that there are only a couple issues or themes you care enough about to invest your time writing stories about. (If you’re unsure of the themes that move you just look at the films you watch over and over again. Something there touches a cord inside you.)
A look at the scripts I’ve written and the few movies I own show a fascination with the concept of restoration. (David Mamet’s The Verdict, Ben Afflack & Matt Damon’s  Good Will Hunting, and Cameron Crowe’s Jerry Maguire, Gary Ross & Laura Hillenbrand‘s Seabiscuit are a few restoration movies that jump out at me as I glance over at my DVDs.)
As fallen New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer said a few days ago in his resignation speech, “I go forward with the belief, as others have said, that as human beings, our greatest glory consists not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.” Few of us will experience such public disgrace as being link to a sex scandal, but is anyone exempt from some level of falling and or brokenness?
“We all walk as crippled men” I once heard a Scottish preacher say drawing out the word crippled in a way that resonated with me to this day.  And so Jenny in Forrest Gump throws rocks at the home she was abused in as a child and Forrest says, “Sometimes there just aren’t enough rocks.” What I call redemption, the Greeks playwrights called catharsis (cleansing).
After Irving’s Q&A session I made a quick stop at Prairie Lights Bookstore. While it doesn’t have the funky character of The Tattered Book Cover in Denver’s LoDo district or the physical size of Powell’s City of Books in Portland, the quality of books that Prairie Lights Books carries put it on a CNN list of Nine bookstores worth a tourist stop. 
Last November I did a video shoot on Sproule Plaza at UC Berkeley and downtown Iowa City has that kind of feel. (Though I must say I thought it was humorous that the police at Berkeley were giving out tickets for bike riding on Sproule Plaza. Free speech may still be cherished there but riding a bike will cost you.)
I also grabbed this movie marque shot in Iowa City because when else again will I see The Who’s Tommy next to The Princess Bride? (If only it were a double feature.)
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If you live in Iowa or are driving through Iowa on I-80 you owe it to yourself to make a little detour in Iowa City. Soak in the atmosphere that has produced  many Pulitzer Prize winning authors and has become known as The Writing University. Below is a photo I took of the Dey House after Irving’s Q&A session. If you are interested in learning more about the MFA writing program at the University of Iowa visit the website of The Writers’ Workshop.
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The last question I ask Irving was if there was any truth to his writing a screenplay on wrestler Dan Gable. High School & college wrestling is huge in Iowa and Dan Gable is the number #1  icon. Gable was an Olympic champion and coach at the University of Iowa where he won 15 national championships. His only loss in high school and college came on the last match his senior year. Irving said he was serving as producer on the film about Gable. Irving’s love for the sport can be seen by a tattoo one of his forearms. It could be mistaken for a bulls-eye or a skinny version of the Target store logo , but it is actually a wrestling mat starting circle.  I’m sure that won’t be your typical sports film.
As I made the drive home after hearing Irving speak I couldn’t  help but think how ironic it is that in the last eight years two University of Iowa grads have both won Academy Awards for screenplays that are essentially about unplanned pregnancies? (And I’m not sure that topic could be handled more differently than the serious Cider House and the humorous Juno.)
Producer David Puttnam, who won an Oscar award for Chariots of Fire, once wrote that “all films are propaganda.” In that all films are propagating something.  So despite the old Hollywood adage “If you want to send a message use Western Union,” films again and again have messages.
Irving writes in My Movie Business, “The Cider House Rules is a didactic novel. The nature of Dr. Larch’s (Michael Caine) argument with Homer Wells (Tobey Maguire) is polemical, and Larch wins the argument in the end…The Cider House Rules was not a love story, Phillip Borsos and I decided. It was a history of illegal abortion.”
He went through fifty drafts of the script to make sure his abortion rights vision was clear. He was clear enough that when Paul Newman read the script he turned down the roll of Dr. Larch and told Irving, “There are so many scenes at that incinerator (Where the aborted babies are burned). That incinerator really gets me.”
What got Juno was an pro-life advocate and school friend who told the Ellen Page character, “Your baby has fingernails.” Juno stops in her tracks and says, “My baby has fingernails?” and the story takes a different direction when she decides not to have an abortion.
Juno was actually the fourth film  of ’07 (following WaitressBella, and Knocked Up) to feature an unplanned pregnancy and an attempt to adjust to less than ideal circumstances to bring the baby into this world.  An interesting trend, don’t ya think?
I’m not sure what it all means, but I’ve said before that one of my favorite quotes is from William Romanowski;  “Movies reflect the culture they help produce.” Remember that when you’re writing.
Copyright ©2008 Scott W. Smith

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“The length of a film should be directly related to the endurance of the human bladder.” — Alfred Hitchcock

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Since tip #3 focused on the one main person in your story,  it makes sense to address the other numbers related to screenwriting. Numbers play a key part in every production from the slate that keeps track of takes to you keeping track of your mileage for expenses. Screenplays are not exempt from the numbers game.

When you were a child the chances are pretty good that somewhere along the way you used one of those paint by numbers kits. If the number was one, you were supposed to use blue, number two yellow, and so on. And when you finished painting in all the numbers you actually had a decent little painting—for a six year old.

That’s actually not a bad way to approach writing––no matter what your age. I know it sounds cold, calculated and superficial, but hang with me for a moment. When I first started writing I was confused about the numbers game. Advice I got in books and magazines seemed conflicting and confusing.

Screenwriting by numbers is simply basic story structure and demystifies the process. Think of it like playing or watching a sport. It helps if you know the rules of the game. What are the boundaries, how high is the net in basketball or tennis? How are points scored, how long is the game played?

It takes nothing away from your originality. It takes nothing away from the story you have a burning desire to tell. It does not diminish the status of a great athlete just because he shoots a basketball at the same ten-foot hoop everyone uses, it enhances it. The limitations show his greatness. 

“Limitation stimulates the imagination.” — Milton Glazer

This is my favorite chapter to talk about because it’s like pulling back the veil on the main part of simplifying the screenwriting process. It’s easy to grasp and easy to follow, yet it’s a hangup for many writers because they miss it. If you don’t like the sports analogy think of it in terms of cooking or whatever field of expertise you have.  As Clint Eastwood says in Dirty Harry, “A man’s got to know his limitations.”

Part of knowing the limitations is knowing what form you are writing for. For instance how long can a short film be and still be eligible for an Oscar? According to the Academy “A short film is defined as a motion picture that is not more than 40 minutes in running time (including all credits).” The total run time of a 30 minute sitcom is 22 minutes.  A video for You Tube cannot be longer than ten minutes. And to point out the obvious if you’re writing a 30 second commercial you have 30 seconds.

How long should a feature film script be? A coy response would be—as long as it needs to be. In the feature film world (especially for the new screenwriter) the real answer is most films fall between 90 and 120 pages.  

You can rebel against that all you want (go ahead point out the exceptions) but in reality, at a page a minute, the majority of movies made fall between an hour and a half and two hours in length. Why fight that? There is great freedom there.

A mighty river is powerful only if it has banks to contain it. (Just to sneak in an Iowa reference here and remind you that the mighty Mississippi River flows along eastern Iowa. Part of the Third Coast.) Look at these great films from a variety of genres that fall within the 100-120 minute parameters:

Finding Nemo 100m.

Casablanca 102 m.

The African Queen 105m.

Psycho 108m.

On the Waterfront 109m.

Sunset Blvd. 110m.

Citizen Kane 119m.

Raiders of the Lost Ark 115m.

Pretty Women 117m. 

The Bourne Ultimatum 115m.

That’s a pretty good list of films, but what about those under 100 minutes? You’ll find more comedy and horror films here because if you can scare people or make them laugh for an hour and a half you’ve done your job. You’ll also find low budget films here because it’s simply cheaper to shoot a film closer to 90 minutes than one that’s two hours. Films with limited sets also are common in this time frame as well.

Annie Hall 94m.

When Harry Met Sally 95m.

Twelve Angry Men 95m.

Halloween 91m.

Reservoir Dogs 99m.

Juno 96m.

Monsters, Inc 92m.

There are examples of films that are even a little shorter than 90 minutes. Generally, today these are limited to youth oriented films.

Bambi 68m.

Toy Story 80m.

Stand by Me 89m.

The Gold Rush 82m.

High Noon 84m.

She’s Gotta Have It 84m.

Stranger than Paradise 89m. (By the way, I just saw yesterday that Jim Jarmusch’s film is now out on DVD as part of  The Criterion Collection. Worth getting just to see a film done in master takes.)

Perhaps, you’re stubborn and you want to point out all the great films that are well over the two-hour mark. Let’s deal with them.

The Godfather 175m.

Dances with Wolves 181m.

Titanic 194m.

Lord of the Rings (3) 210m.

Ben Hur 212m.

Gone with the Wind 222m.

Longer films tend to have a built-in audience which justifies the extra expense. In the case of these listed five were best selling books first and one was based on a well documented historic event. But even those fall between basically the 3 and 4 hour mark. A long limitation, but a limitation nonetheless.

It’s hard enough to get any film made much less one over two hours, so if you’re really interested in getting produced why not improve your odds by writing a 90 minute screenplay? Keep in mind that low budget producers are trying to keep cost down so less is more there. And in Hollywood there are readers who get paid by the scripts they review. Human nature says they’ll choose the 90-page script before the 150-page script.

Embrace the limitations.

90 Page Script

So let’s say you’re setting out to write a 90 page script. Now what?

1-3 page scenes

Here’s an interesting observation I’ve made simply from reading scripts and watching movies. Most scenes are between 1 and 3 pages in length. So if that averages out to 2 pages per scene and you have a 90 minute movie you have 45 scenes.

45 Scenes

Do you see the freedom here? Most of you could stop reading this blog right now and write down 45 scenes from your childhood or odd things that have happened to you at work. I’m not saying you have a screenplay yet—but you may have an outline. 45 scenes. That’s doable, right? There’s nothing magical about 45 scenes, but it’s a good number to shoot for. I hope you’re beginning to see the freedom in writing by numbers.

When I first started writing I wondered how you kept track of all your characters. Believe it or not readers have the same problem in reading scripts. Which is why most screen plays only have four main characters. There’s just not room to develop characters beyond that. 

1 Protagonist/ 1 Antagonist

Limit yourself to one protagonist and one antagonist.

As I’ve said before, when you write your script either your protagonist or antagonist should be in every scene. (Or have a really good reason why they’re not there.) Once I tuned into this I have watched movies with awe how some writers include the protagonist is in ever scene. It’s so easy when to go off on little tangents and side characters. 

Lots of White Space

When you read a screenplay of your favorite movie the chances are good that there will be a lot of white on the page. Meaning that top screenwriters write sparingly. You generally don’t find big chucks of scene descriptions and thick lines of dialogue.

The Law of 3

I’ve read many a great scripts that basically applied what I call the law of three. As you watch movies from now on I think you’ll see the truth here. 

3 Lines or Less of Dialogue

Dialogue: Most lines of dialogue are three lines or less.                      

3 Characters (or less) Per Scene

“It’s difficult to have a lot of characters.”– Francis Ford Coppola

Most scenes involve three characters or less. There may be other characters around but the main conversation is limited to three characters. The main reason behind this is I think it is hard to write—and hard to follow—more than three characters talking.

Three Subplots or Less 

Generally you are limited to three subplots in a story because again you have limited time to develop them.

There you have it the basic numbers you need to contain your story.  As you watch films with this perspective in mind I think you’ll find that they are generally followed pretty closely. I hope this fires you up to write. How long does it take to write a screenplay? Well those numbers are all over the place but if you want some motivation to write quickly I’ll leave you with a quote from Sylvester Stallone: 

“It took me about three and a half days to write Rocky.” 

Copyright @2008 Scott W. Smith 

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What can politics teach us about screenwriting?

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I’ve already talked about the importance of conflict so let’s skip over that for this blog. And first let me say that I took all the photos for this section in the months leading up to the famed Iowa caucus. Jay Leno joked that many people don’t realize that the word caucus is Indian for “The one day anyone pays attention to Iowa.” (Bonus points if you can tell which political “Where’s Waldo” is in the above photo.)

The highest point in Iowa is just 1,670 feet but the political view from just about anywhere is spectacular leading up to the caucus. We understand politics and power, but what’s this all got to do with screenwriting?

When I connect screenwriting and politics it is not the Watergate Hotel, Bill Clinton’s cigar, hanging chads in Palm Beach, restrooms at the Minneapolis airport, or the back stabbing kind of politics. I simply mean this year’s race for the presidency of the United States. The process of going from the many to the one.   I call this the power of one.

When I set out to write my first screenplay one of the first questions I wondered about was, “How do you keep track of all the characters?”  My answer now could make this my shortest post ever; Your screenplay is about one person. Not too hard to keep track of one person is it? Feel better?

Granted not every character is on a deserted island like Tom Hanks in Cast Away. (I still see Wilson sadly drifting away–“WILSON!”) But most scripts are like Cast Away in that the story is really about one person being transformed. Even if it appears that the film is about two or three people it’s really about one person. Just like there is only going to be one president. Here are a couple Academy Award winning examples:

Good Will Hunting – Will (Matt Damon) is the one who is changed at the end. Ben Affleck’s character is basically unchanged. It’s Will’s story.

The Shawshank Redemption – Where would Andy (Tim Robbins)  be without Red (Morgan Freeman)? But it is Andy’s story. Red is like the Vice President.

Rain Man – Dustin Hoffman got the Oscar and the memorable lines, but the story is really about Tom Cruise’s character. He is the one who undergoes the transformation.

Wasn’t that simple? Sure there will be more than one character in your script,  a strong antagonist and a supporting cast, even a couple subplots,  but your script will have one focal point. There are exceptions–such as ensemble casts (Crash, Magnolia, any Altman film)–but I am addressing probably 75% of all films made.

One could even argue that in buddy films like Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid and Thelma & Louise that the characters are so close they represent one person. (And those dynamic duo’s are as rare as they are close.)

As I mentioned, here in Iowa we get a ground floor perspective on the presidential candidates. And not just for a week or two leading up to the caucuses but it’s a several month-long process. In fact, my writer friend Matthew said it should come with a warning, “If elections last longer than three months…see your doctor.”

My goal leading up to the ’08 election was to see as many of the candidates as I could. I got a nice jump-start when I received a call from Des Moines to cover an event in my neck of the woods where I would be video taping six of the presidential hopefuls. By the time the caucuses were over on January 3 I had seen a total of 13.

It is a bit overwhelming to keep track of what 13 people believe and what they say they can do for the country. For the majority of the candidates I was within ten feet of them and all this happened no more than ten miles from my home. Considering I had only seen one other presidential candidate in my life, I thought it was a pretty interesting opportunity.

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Tuesday night Mike Huckabee officially dropped out of the Republican primary so what was over a dozen candidates just two months ago is down to three viable ones. By November it will be either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama versus John McCain.

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But come January there will be one new president. And just one.

And so it is with your script. Pour your creative energy into one main character and you will be on your way to keeping track of your characters. I need to stress the importance of reading scripts a lot more than reading books about screenwriting. In reading a script multiple times you will begin to see patterns. Read Susan Grant’s wonderful script for Erin Brockovich and you’ll see that Erin (Julia Roberts) is in every single scene.   In most cases if your protagonist  is not in a scene you need to have a good reason for that scene being there. (And if neither the protagonist or antagonist is in a scene you need to take an extra long look at why that scene is in your script.)

To test this out I just flipped through Diablo Cody’s Oscar-winning original screenplay Juno, I found three scenes without Juno but even those three were about or connected to Juno. The same thing holds true for A Beautiful Mind where the script I have has John Nash (Russell Crowe) in every scene. (Even if I missed a scene or two where the protagonist is absent you have to admit the evidence for the power of one is pretty strong.)

So the main ways to keep track of your characters is to limit them and don’t let them wander off-screen too long.

This isn’t just a Hollywood movie star thing, it keeps the story on track. Easy for you the writer, easy for the reader at the studio or production company who is reading four scripts a day, and easy for the audience to follow.

We’ll look at the importance of a strong protagonist later, but think of your favorite films and how one character is at the center of the show. Never underestimate the power of one.

I’m sure if Addicus Finch (To Kill a Mockingbird), Virgil Tibbs (In the Heat of the Night), or Ellen Ripley (Aliens) were running for the presidency they’d get a few votes. Heck, I bet The Terminator could even win the thing. What would his plan for Iraq be? Maybe in the future there will be amendment to the Constitution that allows cyborgs to run for president.

Photos & Text Copyright © 2008 Scott W. Smith

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