Archive for the ‘screenwriting’ Category

How did we end up here?
Riggan (Michael Keaton) in Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Screen Shot 2015-04-27 at 1.56.26 PM

By his own admission filmmaker Alejandro G. Iñárritu was a “terrible student,” a college dropout, and a street musician who knew he wasn’t good enough to have career in music. So what road did he take to become the three-time Oscar-winner of Birdman (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay)? He worked for a radio station in Mexico for five years where for three hours everyday he entertained listeners with stories, characters, and political satire between songs. At age 21 he was the director of the radio station. He then moved into television where he made “terrible things that I will never show.” But he got hands on experience producing, directing, editing and “failing.”

In one of his failures was the seeds to his Oscar awards. With another writer he began writing a screenplay about a silent film director who is beginning to lose his image when he looks in the mirror. It was a battle between his evil self, but Iñárritu said, “I could never really nail it right.”

He also studied acting for three years, directed shorts films and TV programs along the way. By the time he started working on Amore Perros (2000) he already had “10 years of commercial directing” (and don’t forget the five years of working on the radio program). It also took a three years for Amore Perros to get produced.

Two projects on the internet reflecting  Iñárritu’s non-feature work are The Things That Connect Us he directed for Facebook, and Naran Ja basically non-stop, cutting in camera experimental project shot “with a video camera from the 80s.”

An early Birdman influence was the book El túnel (The Tunnel) by Argentina writer Ernesto Sabato about a deranged painter that was first published in 1948.

“[The Tunnel] was written with no dots or commas and I read it maybe thirty years ago and I remember that it always impressed me. And I always had this idea to make something like that—a non-stop ride…I have been meditating the last four years and by meditate you observe much more clearly the mechanics of your own voice—which we all have. Basically to observe, not to change. Mediate is just that, to observe what’s going on. And I thought it would be interesting to take all these things and in the moment I got that first idea I remember truly by some thing the first image that I took and the first meeting I had with [co-writers Nicolás Giacobone and Alexander Dinelaris] in New York, I said guys, ‘Interior, Dressing Room, Day— a middle age man is floating in his underpants’…I knew it was about him getting in that state of mind battling with his evil that will become this voice…The process was one of those magical, very lucky strikes in a way that I have worked with Nicolás and [Armando Bo—the fourth screenwriter on Birdman] on Biutiful so we knew eachother. And then I invited Alexander, so I thought that the the three of them would be the best worse idea to make a comedy, because if you know the work of Alexander, Nicolás or me you will never think that we will be able to work in a comedy because our work doesn’t show humor at all. But because of that I thought this was a perfect bad idea.”
Alejandro G. Iñárritu
The Q&A Interview podcast with Jeff Goldsmith

Note: Iñárritu mentions on the podcast that Birdman was not ha-ha comedy, but tragic-comedy.

P.S. You can follow Jeff Goldsmith on twitter @yogoldsmith and subscribe to his iPad magazine Backstory, The Art and Business of Storytelling at backstory.net .

Related posts:
Where Do Ideas Come From (A+B=C)
Filmmaking Quote #42 (Iñárritu)
‘Keep Your Head Down’ Jeff Goldsmith interview with Diablo Cody
Hollywood=Factory Town
Legacy Filmmaking (& Your Bank Account) “They’re never going to talk about your bank account when you’re dead, but they will talk about maybe the movies you left behind if you really cared about what you did.”—Franl Darabont
Earn Your Ending (Tip #76) Jeff Goldsmith interview with Edward Burns

Scott W. Smith

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“And don’t forget to punch the clock, shorty.”
Well-known scene from Oscar-winning Breaking Away screenplay written by Steve Tesich


Scene from “Metropolis” (1927), screenplay by Thea von Harbou based on his novel

Have you ever had a job where you punched a time clock? You know, a place where you punch-in with a time card when you start work and you punch-out whenever you stop working. It’s an accurate way to keep track of your work hours.

I punched a clock in my first job in high school at a grocery store, and punched another one summer in college as a driver at a factory that made boat windshields. (Punch in late three times there and you were fired.) Maybe you’ve never had such a job and maybe you have one now (or all they all digital these days?)— but have you ever punched a clock to keep track of your writing?

Screenwriter John Jarrell thinks it’s a good idea.

“Start keeping a time card. Check out the big brain on me, right? Keepin’ it way old-school — straight out of the 18th Century.

“I created a Word Doc called (wait for it) ‘Time Card’, and whenever I sit down to begin writing I type in the Date and my Start Time. Whenever I break for lunch (or any other extended and/or unexpected absence), I put down however long that took. Lastly, after a hard day’s work, usually distraught and balled up in the fetal position, I enter my Finishing Time.

“Tallying it up is simple math. Total hours spent – break time = actual hours worked on any given day.

“…Committing to keeping a time card forces me to be one-hundred percent honest with myself. About my writing. About how real my effort is. About how real I am.”
Screenwriter John Jarrell
Tough Love Screenwriting: The Real Deal from a Twenty-Year Pro
page 218

For what it’s worth, years ago when I toured the Hemingway Home in Key West they said Hemingway when working on a novel wrote everyday between the hours of 8AM and noon. (Even if he’d been up drinking the night before—which, between you and me, I think he did more than a time or two.) Hemingway also used a typewriter to write his stories and swam laps regularly—just like Oscar-winning screenwriter Quentin Taratino does these days.

P.S. The great thing about artists is they can make art out of anything—even an employee time clock.

Related post:
‘Art is Work’—Milton Glaser
Screenwriter’s Work Ethic
Stephen J. Cannell’s Work Ethic
Stephen J. Cannell’s Work Ethic (Take 2)
The Breakfast Club for Writers (2.0)
‘Breaking Away’—Like a Rock

Scott W. Smith

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“I did a million drafts. And then I did the thing everybody does—I read Syd Field and I used my index cards.”
Producer/writer/actress Tina Fey

The note card/index card method of plotting out your story has been covered a couple of times on this blog in the posts Screenwriting Via Index Cards and Dustin Lance Black Screenwriting Tutorial (with video), but the “brilliant simplicity” of the technique is worth re-visiting from time to time. Today, screenwriter and instructor John Jarrell puts his spin on using notecards which he says Syd Field made mainstream popular with the 1979 book Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting.

Jarrell deviates from Field in that he prefers 4″X6″ cards rather than the 3″X5″ cards Field wrote about. (More writing real estate.) Jarrell says notecards are the first thing students dive into in his workshops. He goes into more detail in his book, but here’s a quick snapshot of his notecard method:

“In the most general sense, I end up with anywhere between 45 and 55 cards when cooking up a feature. Most commonly, I’ve got approximately twelve cards for Act One, twenty-four for Act Two and a final (you guessed it) twelve for Act Three. If I recall, Syd Field recommends fourteen/twenty-eight/fourteen. But since every writer fills in their cards differently, there aren’t any hard numbers to reference. I’ve heard as few as twelve cards total and as many as a hundred.

“For example, I may count ‘CAR CHASE SEQUENCE’ as just one beat, but another writer may have, say, three cards which fully flesh it out — ‘EXT. TOWN SQUARE — CARS RACE DOWN STREET’ then ‘EXT. RAILYARD — CARS SLALOM ONTO TRAIN TRACKS’ then ‘EXT. DOCKS — CARS CRASH AND SINK INTO BAY’. Whatever floats your creative boats while properly building structure is your correct method.

“…The Notecard Method hasn’t survived for over a century now because it doesn’t work. There simply isn’t a better diagnostic tool in the craft of screenwriting as far as I’m concerned.”
Screenwriter John Jarrell
Tough Love Screenwriting: The Real Deal From A Twenty-Year Pro

You can pick up a pack of 100 4X6 cards for under four bucks at any Office Depot, Staples, CVS or Walgreens. A pretty cheap investment. (The 3X5 cards that Fields preferred are under two bucks per 100.)

P.S. If you’re in L.A. and would like to take a screenwriting class with Jarrell, check out his website howtoscreenplay.com.

Related post: Syd Field (1935-2013)

Related links: Index cards and 10 hints for index cards by screenwriter John August

Scott W. Smith

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Five Must-Read Screenplays

“For screenwriters hungry for an even deeper education, reading the actual scripts is about as good as it gets.”
John Jarrell

Why single out just five screenplays to read? Because it’s more doable than climbing WGA’s mountain of 101 Greatest Screenplays. I bet you can track the five screenplays below online and read them by the end of this weekend. (Bird by Bird to borrow Anne Lamott’s phrase.)

The list below is gleaned from screenwriter John Jarrell in his book Tough Love Screenwriting: The Real Deal From A Twenty-Year Pro and his Scriptshadow interview. He didn’t call them Five Must Read Screenplays, but what follows in bold are his insights.

Paddy Chayefsky’s Network — Pretty much the Holy Grail for screenwriting as far as I’m concerned.

Oliver Stone’s Scarface — Damn-near EVERY LINE in the film is right there on the page as Stone intended it. As badass a screenplay as you’ll ever read. 

Hampton Fancher’s early draft of Blade Runner — For pure writing’s sake, I much prefer this to the Peoples’ rewrite. It’s just more textural and evocative to me, with some slight differences that I really enjoy. A magical script in my opinion.

Kevin Walker’s Seven — The greatest serial killer movie ever written, and one that’ll never be equaled.

David Ayer’s tour de force Training Day offers us a world-class example of plotting… From Page One/Line One, there’s a jaw-dropping level of screenplay awesomeness taking place here. Exactly what makes Mr. Ayer’s script so outstanding?
—The world is thrilling, fresh and unique.
—The villain is exceptional.
—The plotting is wicked sharp.

If for some ridiculous reason you haven’t seen or read Training Day, put this book down RIGHT NOW and go do it.

Have a good weekend.

P.S. If you’re in L.A. and would like to take a screenwriting class with Jarrell, check out his website howtoscreenplay.com.

Update: Ambrose Chapel just made your search for those five screenplays easier by posting all five scripts at this ScriptDrive link. (Though you have to signup to be able to download scripts.)

Related posts:
‘Tough Love Screenwriting’
‘Learn from the very best’
‘Network’ Notes by Paddy Chayefsky
Writing Good Bad Guys
‘What it means to be a screenwriter’ —Robin Swicord

Scott W. Smith

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“You believe what you want. You work your side of the street, and I’ll work mine.”
Frank Bullitt (Steve McQueen) in Bullitt (1968)

“Here’s the deal — Continually educating yourself by viewing the very best scripted films in history is every bit as important as knowing what’s crowding today’s multiplexes.”
John Jarrell

Screenwriter John Jarrell spends a part of the time in his 400+ page book, Tough Love Screenwriting: The Real Deal From A Twenty-Year Pro, on anecdotes based on his experience in the film industry. And part of the time he offers specific advice on how to improve your screenwriting skills and film knowledge. Here’s one example of his practical and affordable to do advice:

“When it comes to working up your own projects, my suggestion is to always try and learn from the very best examples found in any given genre. These are the handful of legendary lighthouses staggered across a largely blasé cinematic coastline, existing in perpetuity to help guide aspirants in a variety of insightful ways.

“Here’s a practical example of how this tracks. You decide you want to write a cop movie. The three cop films generally accepted as the modern cornerstones of the genre are Dirty Harry, The French Connection and Bullitt. Educate yourself by screening the ones you feel might best inform your script (personally, I’d watch them all). Late ’80’s Lethal Weapon defined the modern day Buddy Cop flick. Throw that on your list, too, if you haven’t already seen it. Yeah, these grey-haired classics may be older than your Dad, but age is not the focus here — structure and superior storytelling are.”
Screenwriter & instructor John Jarrell
Tough Love Screenwriting: The Real Deal From A Twenty-Year Pro

P.S. If you’re in L.A. and would like to take a screenwriting class with Jarrell, check out his website howtoscreenplay.com.

Related posts:
How to Watch a DVD
‘Study the old masters.’—Martin Scorsese
Learning from Others (Tip #42)  Frank Darabont says that while making The Shawshank Redemption he watched Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas every weekend for inspiration.
Screenwriter Ernest R. Tidyman (The French Connection)

And speaking of learning from the very best, three of my favorite Screenwriting from Iowa blog posts feature insights from writers Michael Arndt, John Logan and Elmore Leonard.

1) How to Become a Successful Screenwriter (Tip #41)
2) The Secret to Being a Successful Screenwriter (Seriously)
) Overnight Success

Scott W. Smith




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“Making a living writing movies is a privilege, something that’ll come hard- earned, if at all. Hollywood doesn’t need you, doesn’t give a sh** whether you live or die, and nobody — and I mean NOBODY — is gonna cry if your Tinseltown dreams don’t come true.” Screenwriter John Jarrell (Romeo Must Die) Jarrell-Tough-Love-Screenwriting-A Screenwriter and instructor John Jarrell’s book Tough Love Screenwriting: The Real Deal From A Twenty-Year Pro is not a feel-good read—but screenwriting is a hard business, so this book is meant to toughen you up for the battle. By his own admission, Jarrell is a “less nurturing version of Sgt. Hartman in Full Metal Jacket.”

So along with the occasional swipe at soccer moms, hipsters, trophy wives, smartphone spawns, and malnourished Millennials (with a Goodfellas-sized amount of f-bombs), Jarrell offers his screenwriting insights ranging the importance of using notecards to WGA Arbitration. I’ll spend the next week or so pulling some Jarrell quotes that’ll give you a taste of the book, and I hope you find useful in your own writing.

“One of the finest character descriptions I’ve ever seen is found in Tony Gilroy’s The Bourne Identity. It’s of Chris Cooper’s C.I.A. character Chester Conklin — ‘Ivy League Oliver North. Buttoned down. Square jaw.’ How’s that for specific? Eight words tell us everything we need to know — the first four alone putting it in the hall of fame.”
John Jarrell
Tough Love Screenwriting,
page 240

P.S. If you’re in L.A. and would like to take a screenwriting class with Jarrell, check out his website howtoscreenplay.com.

Related post:
Character introduction (Tip #71) from Michael Arndt
Descriptive Writing-P3, Characters (Kasden, Cody, Cameron)
Bourne Again The Six-Word Screenplay (And Hemingway’s six-word novel)
Tony Gilroy’s ‘Rules’
Scott W. Smith

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“The only thing I can control is how hard I play, my effort and my attitude.”
George Springer
USA Today interview
photo 2

You may have never heard of George Springer, but I think his career can help your career. Springer is not a screenwriter or filmmaker, but a professional baseball player with the Houston Astros.

This is the last week of spring training for Major League Baseball and since this past Monday it was a 75 degrees, perfect blue sky day in central Florida I drove out in Kissimmee, FL for a baseball game between the Astros and the Toronto Blue Jays.

I don’t follow baseball like I did as a kid and didn’t recognize a single player in the line-up for either team. It didn’t take long to learn Springer’s name because he made a spectacular play in right field when he saved a ball from being a home run to end the inning and on the next play hit a home run.

Turns out the 25-year-old Springer is starting his second year in the big leagues. Time will tell if he’ll become a star but he certainly has a lot of potential.  What does that have to do with screenwriting and filmmaking? This is the way I see it…Springer has had a lot of small victories to bring him where he is today.

He was a high school baseball star in Avon, Connecticut who attended the University of Connecticut on a scholarship. His freshman year of college he was named to the Baseball America Freshman All-America First Team. Two years later he was named the Big East Player of the Year and to several first team All-American teams.

In 2011 he was a first round draft pick of the Astros and had a nice signing bonus of $2.52 million. To develop as a player he played for several minor league teams in Corpus Christi, TX, Oklahoma City, Ok, Landcaster, CA and Troy, NY. His play was good enough in Texas he was voted the Texas League Player of the Year.

Last April he made his MLB debut, and the following month was named Rookie of the Month, before going on to hit 20 home runs in his rookie season. So when I saw him play earlier this week and make that great catch crashing into the right field fence, followed by his home run over the same right field fence—he’s been on a steady upward path for at least the past decade.

Dream big, start small. Consider it spring training for screenwriters. (And sometimes those small victories are just completing a script and starting the next one.)

P.S. Below is a micro doc I made on Tinker Field last year after I learned it was going to torn down. There were some protests which delayed the process, but I just learned that next week the demolition will begin on the former spring training facility.

4/19/15— Just ten days after I wrote this post Springer made perhaps the greatest catch of his career basically duplicating the catch I saw in spring training, but this time robbing a player of a walk-off grand slam home run in the 10th inning of a regular season game. See Springer’s game saving catch.

Related Post:
How to Become a Successful Screenwriter (Tip #41) Advice from Oscar-winning screenwriter Michael Arndt
Play Ball!
Baseball, Bergman & Bull Durham
The Day the Field of Dreams Died
Screenwriting & Pete Rose “Anybody in this business has to hustle.”—WME’s Christopher Lockhart
First Script Home Run
Screenwriting, Baseball & Underdogs

Scott W. Smith

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