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“Boris was a great artist. He did a beautiful job under difficult conditions. The weather was cold and overcast. We rushed to shoot the film in 35 days. Cheap is fast. Every day costs money. Spiegel, the producer, was on Kazan’s tail to go faster. We were pleased by the way the film turned out. Everybody was against it. We overcame all the obstacles.”
Screenwriter Budd Schulberg on Director of Photography Boris Kaufman who won an Oscar for shooting On the Waterfront which Schulberg won an Oscar for writing
on the waterfront

In the past year and a half I’ve been giving away boxes of my screenwriting and productions books to high schools and colleges. Last week I went through my bookshelves again and came up with two more boxes of books to give away and this batch includes William Froug’s Screenwriting Tricks of the Trade which was first published in 1992.

I flipped through my copy heavy with yellow highlighter marks looking for something I hadn’t covered on this blog before. Here’s the quote that jumped out at me:

“You are almost always better off if your scene is located outside in an interesting location with things happening in the background and all around the talkers. Keeping the characters moving helps. Movies are about moving pictures.”
Producer/writer/professor William Froug
Screenwritng Tricks of the Trade

Since this summer I’ve been calling these posts part of Screenwriting Summer School, it would be an interesting test to write down your all time favorite movie scenes and see if the majority of them are inside or outside. I know some screenwriters have a color coding index card system to see if they have a nice contrast of interior and exterior scenes. (Can’t recall anyone else saying you’re, “almost always better off if your scene is located outside.”)

The first exterior scene that jumped to my mind is the playground scene from On the Waterfronwritten by Budd Schulberg and directed by Elia Kazan. A simple walk and talk scene with Eva Marie Saint and Marlon Brando. It’s an understated scene and a bit of an exposition dump, but the good girl/bad boy scene (and their relationship) is important for the transformation of Brando’s character.

It’s a scene that does move the story forward and ties into the climax at the end of the story. I also like this scene because it’s an indie filmmaker-friendly kind of scene. It would be possible to shoot this scene with two actors and a four person crew. (How? Read The 10 Film Commandments of Edward Burns.)

The playground scene opens with a dolly shot* that runs a full two minutes without a cut. But it’s an elegant scene that’s not only well written and acted but watch it a couple of times and see how the direction and cinematography of this outdoor shot work to make the shot visually interesting. There’s the smoke from trashcan fires floating by, the swing set, the dropped glove, the stick of gum, the Manhattan skyline across the river, and the wrought iron fence—all of which to help make the three and a half-minutes visually interesting.

Van Gogh once said that he’d be content with water and a Rembrandt painting. I feel that way about On the Waterfront—a 1954 film that won 8 Oscars including Best Picture, and which the AFI lists as the #8 best movie of all time.

P.S. For what it’s worth, the climax of On the Waterfront is set outside. But the scene most played from the movie “I coulda been a contender” is set inside a car, and Karl Malden’s well-known speech is an interior scene. If someone’s expanded Froug’s outside comment please send me the link.

I’ve been watching the first season of The Sopranos (another Jersey-centered mob story like On the Waterfront) and I know cable TV—especially in the 90s before The Sopranos changed the face of TV—doesn’t have the budgets of an average Hollywood movie, but there’s a lot of sitting around and talking on The Sopranos. (Same for the #2 rated all-time TV show Seinfeld.)

Perhaps that’s the nature of the beast and it’s not fair to compare a top Tv show with a top movie.  Last year the Writer’s Guild of America named The Sopranos as the top show in television history. Created by David Chase it stands on it own and paved the way for one of the writers on The Sopranos, Matthew Weiner, to create Mad Men. And while Mad Men has its share of interior shots, the set design and set decorating of show set a new standard in Tv of how visually interesting an interior shot can be. And I’m sure there are plenty of Breaking Bad fans who would rather watch the compelling opening scene of the series a few times over the scene I chose from a black and white film that’s 60 years old.

This isn’t really about is TV more like theater than film, or a debate if TV writing is the best dramatic work being done today. It’s just three sentences by the one-time TV producer/writer and former UCLA professor Mr. Froug that I hopes helps you contemplate about your scene settings.

Here’s the second exterior scene that came to mind:

*A small indie crew couldn’t lay the tracks needed to do that On the Waterfront dolly shot with the large camera they used, but they could quickly set up and use a shorter dolly move using something like a Dana Dolly or what I have the Porta Jib Explorer. (I’ve even set my up in as little as 10 minutes shooting solo.) Or you could ditch the tracks altogether and using something like the MOVI.

Update: I learned that the studios wanted to shoot On the Waterfront on the lot in Los Angeles, but Kazan said it was an ‘East coast movie” and fought and won to shoot it in Hoboken, New Jersey.

Related posts:
The Source of ‘On the Waterfront’
Telling Our Own Shadow Stories
Paying for Transformation (Tip #65)
Kazan on Directing (Part 1) 

Scott W. Smith 

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“To speak technically, photography is the art of writing with light.”
Gerardo Suter 

“I think that you should make as much film as you possibly can —long and short. But I don’t think it’s smart to start screenwriting without at least having carried a camera around. I really think you have to teach yourself to see the world cinematically in order to write cinematically. The thing I think that’s poorly understood about screenwriting from people who aren’t close to the film business is that screenwriters don’t just write the dialogue, we don’t just make up the story and structure the dramatic beats, but we also describe the images on the page which are then transferred into film images by everybody else. And carrying a camera, which I did for many years, really taught me to see the world in terms of photographs. It gave me a leg up in terms of learning to write visually.”
 Writer/director Robin Swicord (The Jane Austen Book Club)
The Dialogue Interview: Learning from the Masters interview with Jay Fernandez  (Part 1)

Related post:

John Ford’s Advice to Spielberg
Descriptive Writing—Part 1 (Tip #22)
Descriptive Writing—Part 2 (Tip #23)
Descriptive Wriitng—Pt. 5, Setting (Tip #26)
10 Cinematography Tips (Roger Deakins)
Cinematography & Emotions

Recommended Book: The Visual Story by Bruce Block

Recommended Website: The American Society of Cinematography (ASC)

P.S. I didn’t attended Vincent Laforet’s Directing Motion Workshop that toured the country the last three months, but the trailer looks great. And it’s available as a digital download and DVD. (I’m trying to get my hands on the material to review.)

Scott W. Smith

 

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“It’s all those movies from my youth that made me want to get into this—all the popcorn movies.  The Die Hards, Empire, the Star Wars films. Those are the films that made me want to be a filmmaker. Recalling those—the excitiment of  being a 10-year-old kid in a theater again, writing for that kid is a big part of doing those kinds of films.”
Writer/director Stuart Beattie

A couple of years ago I worked on a small video project with Deion Sanders who was not just one of those rare athletes who could play both professional football and professional baseball, but he’s the only athlete in the history of civilization who has played in both a World Series and in a Super Bowl.  That is he played two completely different sports at the highest level possible. If anyone earned his nickname it was Prime Time.

A few days ago in my post Simple Stories/Complex Characters (Tip #95) I quoted screenwriter Stuart Beattie saying, “I’m a big fan of simple stories, complex characters. I love when stories get from here to here. I know then I’ll have room for great character stuff to go on.” But in yesterday’s post I wrote how he was one of the credited screenwriters on one of the most successful blockbuster franchises in Hollywood history—Pirates of the Caribbean. The lesson, of course, is that it’s really not an either/or question. The film world is big enough for Blanche DuBois and James Bond.

Human beings have an amazing ability to enjoy contrasting things. Off the top of my head I recall being one of about 100,000 people once at a Bruce Springsteen rock concert at the Los Angeles Coliseum, but also going to a small theater with a couple hundred people to hear a concert with classical guitarist Christopher Parkening. Granted, both concerts had guitars on stage, but they were two totally different experiences. And both enjoyable as I watched talented performers at the top of their fields.

Movies are no different. This year I went to see the intimate character driven Polish film Ida three times in the theater. But that doesn’t mean that the blockbusters Jaws and Raiders of the Lost Ark aren’t some of my favorite all-time movie going experiences.

Stuart Beattie explains the differences between writing a character driven story and a Hollywood blockbuster.

“The big blockbusters—you have to have a certain amount of spectacle, that’s why they’re blockbusters. You have to have that eye candy that people come back to see again, again and again.  So that usually means more complicated plots and just more stuff going on. Car chases, explosions, exciting moments—all that kind stuff. The plot stuff expands and the character stuff shrinks. You don’t have a lot of time to set up characters, you’ve got to get the plot rolling, things like that. Something like Collateral takes its time. In blockbusters you’re hitting [the audience] in their seats, you’ve got to provide those thrills, have them jumping all around. It’s a ride. It’s the difference between a roller coaster ride and a ride in a horse carriage around the park. It’s a different beast completely. Just as fun, just as many challenges [to write], but a completely different beast.”
Stuart Beattie
The Dialogue Interview: Learning from the Masters 
interview with Mike De Luca

Joss Whedon wrote and directed the blockbuster The Avengers and then turned around and wrote the script and directed Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. Jon Favreau directed the blockbuster Iron Man and this year has a hit with the character driven Chef, which is closer in scope to the first indie film he wrote (Swingers). Swingers in turn was directed by Doug Liman who went on to direct The Bourne Identity.  All great examples of writers and directors at the highest level who’ve made character driven stories and blockbusters—and done it at the highest level.

But if there’s a Deion Sanders of filmmaking my vote goes to director Steven Spielberg who made Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List back to back—and that was just a couple of years after he directed The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun back to back. Spielberg is Prime Time+Oscar TimeX3.

P.S. A good example of a complex story and simple characters is Edge of Tomorrow. Maybe a little too complex. As I walked out of the theater it was interesting listening to various audience members trying to explain the film to each other (especially the ending). While the $178 million film is doing fine globally ($341 million) one of the reasons I think it was a disappointment in the States is the story—despite solid reviews and being full of spectacle (and exposition)was a little too complex to get good world of mouth advertising.

But you’ve got to give Hollywood credit for producing such an ambitious none-sequel project.

Scott W. Smith

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“I like simple stories and complex characters.”
Oscar-winning screenwriter Billy Bob Thornton (Sling Blade)
Filmmaker Fills Simple Stories with Complex Folks/Roger Ebert

“I’m a big fan of simple stories, complex characters. I love when stories get from here to here. I know then I’ll have room for great character stuff to go on.”
Screenwriter Stuart Beattie (Collateral)

In Stuart Beattie’s screenplay for Collateral (2014) the story is simple, a hit man catches a cab at night with the goal to kill five people before he catches a morning flight out of LAX. That simplicity allowed Beattie to add some complexity to the characters played by Tom Cruise and Jamie Foxx. (Cruise’s character is a hit man with an appreciation and knowledge of jazz music.)

“[The jazz scene] is modeled after two favorite scenes of mine, True Romance with Christopher Walken and Dennis Hopper…and the Luc Besson movie La Femme Nikita when he takes her to the restaurant and you think, oh great—he’s finally taking her out. And here’s the gun, here are the people. And the whole thing changes on a dime. I love those kind of scenes and I wanted that kind of scene in Collateral.
Stuart Beattie
The Dialogue: Learning from the Masters (Part 1) interview with Mike De Luca

It’s worth noting that there are echoes of the jazz scene in the 1993 movie Schindler’s List when Amon Goeth (known as the “Butcher of Plaszow” and played by Ralph Fiennes) who appreciated classical music yet had no problem standing on his balcony and casually shooting a couple of Jewish workers in the forced labor camp. It may not be historically accurate, but it’s great cinema in conveying that one can be educated and sophisticated musically —and still be a savage killer.

Screenwriter Steve Zillian, who won an Oscar for writing Schindler’s List, is admired by Beattie. Chances are good that Schindler’s List is in what Beattie calls his “personal reference library.”

“I have a library of probably 100 scripts that are my favorite scripts and I’m going going back and referring to them again and again. How do they do that? How’s that set-up? How’s that written?”
Stuart Beattie

When you watch the below clips in light of the above scene from Collateral keep in mind these five quotes:

“Those who do not want to imitate anything, produce nothing.”—Painter Salvador Dalí

”Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination.”—Filmmaker Jim Jarmusch

“How does an artist look at the world? Well, first she asks herself, ‘What’s worth stealing?’ And second, she moves on to the next thing.”—Author Austin Kleon

“I think it’s fine for young (filmmakers) to out and out rip off people who come before them because you always make it your own.”
Writer/director Francis Ford Coppola

“Lesser artists borrow, great artists steal.”
Composer/ pianist Igor Stravinsky

P.S. Sometimes writers don’t sample or crib other writers, but their own work. Beattie points out that Lawrence Kasdan used two similar love scenes in both of his scripts for Raiders of the Lost Ark and Continental Divide.

Related Posts:

Inspiration Flying Under the Radar
“Steal Like An Artist”
“Impact. Energy. Emotion.” Nice quote from Mike Corrado (from a CreativeLive Rock and Roll Photography class) that describes the jazz scene in Collateral quite well.
Simplicity in Screenwriting (Tip #27) “Let this be our first lesson: Movie stories are usually simple…..Write simple stories and complex characters.”—Paul Lucey
Writing Good Bad Guys (Tip #85)

Scott W. Smith

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“The thing to do is just keep writing. Show it to your girlfriend, boyfriend, or your wife, or whomever, and see if they like it. Then show it to your friends and see if they like it. You keep accumulating these little victories along the way. Pretty soon you’re showing it to an agent, and your agents showing it to a producer, and a producer’s showing it to a director, the director’s showing it to an audience, and it’s just an escalation of these little victories that you have to go through to get to where you’re a successful writer. It’s not a fun process. It’s like homework. I don’t think you can really leapfrog from writing a screenplay to the big premiere with the klieg lights, which I think is the image that ever writer has.”
Screenwriter Jeffrey Boam (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade)
The New Screenwriter Looks at the New Screenwriter by William Froug
page 179

Related post:
Finding Your Voice “For me, it was a matter of years of trying to develop my writing in the same way that some people spend years learning to play the violin.” —
Writer/director Frank Darabont

Scott W. Smith

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“My first eight to 10 scripts were pretty horrendous, but I stayed at it, stayed at it, and stayed at it, until I eventually found a voice and a subject like Rocky that people were interested in.”
Writer, director, actor Sylvester Stallone

Yesterday’s post was a Christopher Lockhart quote about how nobody who reads scripts cares about screenwriting rules—only a great script. Or as Lockhart says in other places “the right script.” I’ve heard others say there are no rules—but break them at your own peril. And, “There are no rules, only guidelines.”  And yet another common phrase is,”know the rules before you break them.”

Is there any way to bring a synthesis to these somewhat opposing views?

I look at writers and filmmakers like I do athletes. Being tall is an advantage in basketball, but not in horseracing. And even within the same sport like American football each position has different requirements. Having the ability to catch a football is a basic requirement of a wide receiver but not expected at all of a left guard playing offense. One has the gift of catching, the other of blocking. There are hall of fame players who wouldn’t even make the team if they had to line up at a position that didn’t play up their strengths.

Screenwriters tend to have strengths in one or two particular genres. And even working screenwriters have a mixed writer’s grab bag of some of the following traits in their writing; great characters, solid story structure, snappy dialogue, humorous dialogue, minimal dialogue, emotional writing, theme, visual storytelling, etc, etc.

Maybe the problem with the word “rules” is we’ve all read and/or written scripts that have followed basic accepted rules of screenwriting and are lifeless. Most if not all script readers say that they only recommend between 2-10% of the scripts they read. But I honestly think that has less to do with rules, and more with talent and how it’s developed.

You may have heard the story about how Michael Jordan,  one of the greatest professional basketball players of all time, was once cut from his high school basketball team.  He had talent, but it needed to be developed. He had to hone what worked with his skill set. He had to play the game a little better.

So while Lockhart says there are no rules, if you listen his whole one hour Final Draft webinar you will find plenty of suggestions based on his years of experience that will help develop your talent and hone your skill set. Here’s some bullet points that jumped out at me. If we don’t call them rules, maybe we can just call them realities.

(Note these are my quick notes from the Q&A with Lockhart not direct quotes. Any errors are mine.)

—Active portagonist: The script revolves around this character. The one who makes everything happen and who moves the story forward. Is in almost every scene. And has to be involved in the climax of the story. Good example: Taken.

—Emotional range: Lead actors like to play roles with a wide range of emotions.

8 to 10 pages: No set page count when he knows a script is working, but if it hasn’t happened by pages 8-10 experience tells him that it’s probably not going to happen.

Visual conflict: Watch the movie Insomnia (2002) 

—Starting Out: Find a manager willing to work with new writers. Know that every writer with an agent, at one time didn’t have an agent. For an unknown to get recognized with an agency like CAA/WME you need to bring some kind of heat to the table, like having a film at Sundance or be a Nicholl finalist. An agent wants to represent you when you have something to sell (or ready for assignments), a manager will help you get to that place.

—One right script. It may take you ten scripts to write that one right script, but you only need one to open doors. It may not get made, but solid scripts always advance a writer’s career.

—Pitching stories: 
Getting in the room to pitch a story is reserved for experienced writers.

—Screenwriting contests: The majority of contests don’t open doors, but they give writers goals and deadlines which are helpful.

—High concept: Best chance for new writers to get traction.

—Query letters/emails: A query from Canada can land on the right desk and get noticed. Never put the word “query” in subject of email—just the script title. Put your logline at the top of the email or letter. Example: “Hi Chris, I have a new horror thriller it’s about a psychiatrist who struggles to help a young boy overcome a bizarre affliction—the boy sees dead people. It’s called the Sixth Sense.”

—Movies vs. TV: In movies the story is in the foreground and in TV the characters are in the foreground.

—Hustle: If you don’t want to hustle then the film business may not be the best career for you. Writing is only about 50% of the job. It’s not rude to ask someone to read your script at a party, standing in line, walking down the street—that’s your job. Just be respectful. When networking realize that people want to work with people they like and want to be around. (i.e. Don’t be a dick.)

—Voice: Not about the words you use, but how you tell the story.

—Page count: In theory, 100-120 pages is the norm in Hollywood.

—Living in LA: You can write from anywhere, but you have to be able to take meetings in LA. (And if you’re Joe Blow/Jo Blow from Idaho traveling to LA comes out of your pocket.) If you do live in Idaho concentrate on writing the right script that will get traction. (That’s what Diablo Cody did with Juno when living in Minneapolis.)  Kevin Fox (Queens of Supreme, Lie to Me) lives in New jersey.

—Treatments: Joe Blows in Idaho don’t sell treatments.

—Pitchfests: Good place if you have the money to get learning experience (but the chances of actually selling a pitch are slim because the people you’re pitching to tend to be from the lowest level of the places they represent).

—Read newly sold scripts: It’s helpful to get your hands on scripts that just sold and see how it creates the movie in your head without any preconceived notion of actors. Understand why that script sold.

Related posts:

Christopher Lockhart (Q&A Part 1)
Christopher Lockhart (Q&A Part 2)
Christopher Lockhart (Q&A Part 3)
Christopher Lockhart (Q&A Part 4)
Christopher Lockhart (Q&A Part 5)

Scott W. Smith

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“About rule breaking—there are no rules. Do whatever you have to do—it doesn’t matter. Nobody cares. Listen to me, I’ve read 30,000 screenplays, I work at WME, and I’m telling you anybody in this business who reads scripts doesn’t given a flying f*#k about the rules. All they care about is a really great script. And as a writer you have to do what you have to do in order to communicate your story to the reader.”
WME Story Editor Christopher Lockhart
Final Draft Webinar

Related post:
Screenwriting’s One Unbreakable Rule
Everything I Learned in Film School (Tip #1)
“Everything Was Perfect…”
Neil Simon on Conflict
Getting Your Script Read (Tip #51) Another Lockhart quote.

Scott W. Smith

 

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