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Archive for the ‘screenwriting’ Category

I’m back to livin’ Floridays
Blue skies and ultra-violet rays
Lookin’ for better days
Jimmy Buffett/Floridays

I still have a few more days of posts in me about The Florida Project, but today is a nod to my own childhood in Central Florida. I took the photos below this week on one of those ideal Florida days that don’t come around as often as people think—sunny, blue skies, 70 degrees.

I’ve been going to Lake Eola in downtown Orlando as far back as I can remember and it features one of the few iconic landmarks in the city (the water fountain), and is the longtime home of swans and swan boats.

 

 

Walking around Lake Eola was one of the things people did for fun before Disney World came to town. It was a simpler place. I’m not one that agrees that low wage tourism jobs is totally to blame for the homeless situation featured in The Florida Project. 

Sure it factors into the equation. But a wide variety of people have been drawn to Florida for over 100 years looking for a great vacation or a better life. Some find one or the other, fewer find both, and unfortunately some like Halley in The Florida Project find neither. (There’s a lot of truth in the t-shirt sloan that says, “Wherever you go, there you are.”)

The Florida Projects helps continue the conversation of how we’re going to address the hidden homeless that is a nationwide dilemma. (Read this article regarding the homeless “crisis” in Silicon Valley.)

P.S. I don’t know anything about the organization Hope 192/Hope Community Center, except their stated goal/emphasis “is to assist those living homeless or in motels and hotels along Osceola County’s 192 Corridor.” The real life Halley and Moonies. And the provided some research assistant to co-screenwriters Sean Baker and Chris Bergosh while writing The Florida Project. Check out their site and consider making a Thanksgiving donation.

Scott W. Smith

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[Brooklynn Prince] is just so incredible and she worked very closely with Sam [acting coach Samantha Quan], but to tell you the truth with her in particular she is a born thespian. I mean she is really acting. There is a true performance there, a true character that she found. She is wise beyond her years. I just can’t speak more highly of her, and just love her. She just brought so much to the table and I can’t even imagine [The Florida Project] without her. …For the three kids, Brooklyn,  Christopher Rivera, Valeria Cotto,  [Sam] made it a really fun summer camp environment for the kids. It was shot over their summer, so we were taking their summer away from them, so we wanted to give them the best experience possible. And at the end of every day—you have a limited number of hours you can work with children because of child labor laws, so you get to that six hour mark and you have to let them go. And [Brooklynn] would never want to go. Well it’s the law, get out of here [laughs]. I think because it was so much like a family unit. the kids were having fun, they were having workshops, experimenting, that by the time we actually got them in front of the camera they understood their characters enough where if I did have the audacity to ask little six year old to improvise it was fine. They would actually be able to pull it off. And especially Brooklynn. Brooklynn has that innate, genius ability to comedically improvise. Which is incredible at that age.  Near the end of the film, we just spend time eating with her brunch at a higher end hotel that her mother brings her to. And I just wanted to document her eating. Just a series of jump cuts of her eating. What I did was just roll two, thousand foot mags on a 35mm camera so it’s like 20 minutes. And we just watch this girl eat for 20 minutes. And Chris [Bergoch] and I have scripted lines,—we do have a full screenplay— but I encourage improvisation on top of it. So she got through her 15 scripted lines in a minute and a half and we had 18 minutes to burn. So we just ask her questions, what do you think that taste like? What do you wish that tasted like. And sometimes I’m feeding lines to her, or taking her lines—like if she gives me something that’s almost there, I can quickly figure something out with Chris, and deliver the line back to her and she’ll feed it to us. It was wonderful to see her do that. It was like stand-up comedy night. We had 40 cast and crew just watching this little girl eat.”
Sean Baker , director, editor, co-writer on The Florida Project
Filmspotting
 podcast interview #652

I think my favorite line in the movie is when Brooklynn says while eating the she wishes her fork was made of candy so she could eat it when she was done with her meal. Maybe that was a scripted line that she just delivered real, but it felt improvised, fresh, in character and totally something a six year old would say.

Scott W. Smith

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“I write dialogue fairly easily. Plot is a big pain in the ass.”
David Mamet

If you like discussing screenplay structure, and praising or blasting three act structure, then this post is for you. I’ll start out with an exchange between writer/director Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver) and writer/director Sean Baker (The Florida Project) taken from The Director’s Cut podcast that the DGA produced.

Paul Schrader: This film The Florida Project, which is really amazing, is part of a larger trend that I first noticed four or five years ago. And I called it at that time the exhaustion of narrative, because we see so much plot—so much narrative—in our lives, hour upon hour upon hour, that we’re growing tired of it, so we’re much more open now to things that amble and are anecdotal because they feel more real. We’re so tired of seeing those rusty gears of the three act structure crank, and you start to say; Okay, rising action, falling action, boom, boom, boom. Robert McKee has done none of us favor. So you saw it with Dunkirk, which is a big historical action piece but it’s done anecdotally. And you saw it with Detroit which meanders. And you see it here [with The Florida Project]. And I think that audiences find this more interesting than that heavy plotted stuff that we used to have 25 years ago. I don’t know if you agree with that.

Sean Baker: Well, read Twitter. I don’t know if that’s exactly true. First I just want to say Paul, thank you so much for doing this. You’ve been an inspiration and an influence on my entire career so thank you. Regarding [structure] my co-screenwriter Chris Bergosh actually comes from—our sensibilities are slightly different. He’s really is actually very structured in his writing, he likes the three act structure. I come from the other side of the spectrum where I can have a 10-minute Tarkovsky tracking shot that I’m intrigued by. We sort of meet somewhere in the middle. With this film in particular we kept saying—we’ve written three films together Starlet, Tangerine and [The Florida Project]—and I kept saying on this one, if there is a plot I want it to be disguised, I want it to be buried. I want the lines of our three act structure to be blurred, so it would be hard to figure out where the second and third act begin. And make this film more about character. We wanted the audience to spend a summer with this children. And if you think about your summers of your youth, it wasn’t exactly plot driven. There wasn’t a three act structure to your summer. So that’s how we approached it. 

Now we did take some precautions by writing scenes that didn’t make it into the final film, but we did it just out of safety sake. We actually had scenes that had more exposition, that actually did focus on just the adults, especially the ending it was much more procedural in the script. Hoping that it could come out, but shooting it for safety sake. And end the end we did remove a lot of that stuff and put back in what you might call extraneous scenes back in. For example, the kids dancing on the bed,  that’s not exactly something that pushes the plot forward or the story forward. …Almost like vignettes to a degree. Some people do have an issue with that, but for me ultimately I thinks it’s about connecting with these characters and having spent real time with them and not having every scene about exposition. 

There’s a lot to unpack there, but let me just defend traditional three act structure (and by association McKee since Schrader brought him into the discussion). Three act structure is simply a time proven tradition that’s been around for arguably decades of film, and hundreds (or even thousands of years) of theater. And it will be around forever. Even if it means some work being in four or five acts. (McKee, Syd Field, and others just pointed out what was common in many great films. It’s like blaming the hero’s journey on Joseph Campbell.)

No one is calling Pixar films or Spotlight and dozens of other recent solid traditionally structured films rusty.  Good story telling is good storytelling. Period. Paul Schrader has a brilliant mind and has had a long love affair with movies. But with that said he, like the critics who love The Florida Project, want to see something new. Baker and Bergosh delivered.  You only get that experience in cinema a few times a year. The Florida Project is the poster child for new and different this year.

The Florida Project deserves the praise it’s getting. But it was a risk to make because it is a character driven film that is mini-plot at best. It does build to a climax. But there is no major dramatic question in this movie. No stated goal. Just survival tactics. But there is plenty of what I’ve said are three of the most important things for a script/movie to have; conflict, and emotion. And they toss in several interesting characters who are a part of the end of the rope club.

They ride that train from the opening to the closing scene. And they can downplay the narrative because they made the film for “well under $2 million.” They weren’t going after a Titanic box office. They were going after a small audience. To date the film has made $3 million so they’re doing quite well.

It will do well at the award season and open new opportunities for Baker and Bergosh. But the death of three act structure is greatly exaggerated.  We need structure in our films, because so much of life is not structure. To get the broadest audience you have to wrap in a why that is accepted by the widest group of people. The three act structure (or any structure that works) is not going anywhere.

I think McKee once said something like 80% of all films fall under traditional structure, because it helps give the film a chance to making back its money. The Florida Project falls into that other 20% of films that are made. Heck, it’s hard for any film to find an audience—but even harder for those other 20%. The Florida Project is getting a welcomed standing ovation. (But with that said, I understand why someone would wonder five, ten, 20 minutes into the film, “What is this film about?” They may leave the theater before the movie is over.) But not all films need to be neatly explainable. When The Florida Project was over I felt like I got punched in the face. And it was a great feeling. And it’s way that movie is getting the hype it’s getting and will be remember for decades.

There’s not too many movies you can say that about.

One of my all time favorite films is Tender Mercies which could be considered mini-plot. But 30 years later that film still haunts me. Tender Mercies was directed by Australian Bruce Beresford and I’ve called it an American foreign film. My guess is that though Baker and Bergosh are Americans that one or both of them have had a steady diet of foreign films in their lifetime.

Let me close this with a graph from McKee’s book Story that touches on archplot, miniplot, and antiplot. There is no one way to make a great movie. And in the book he goes even deeper covering non-plot.

Mckee.jpg

P.S. Movies that are well structured but lack meaningful conflict and emotion tend to be boring and lifeless. No one is going to call The Florida Project boring and lifeless.

Scott W. Smith

 

 

 

 

 

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One thing we know is that failure is generally funnier than success. Every once in a while, we get to the point in the story where the guys in the show have a big win, and then we sit down and say: ‘Let’s write three episodes where things are going great for them.’ And we just can’t do it. It is too boring for the audience. The audience is invested in the characters and wants them to succeed, but if they do succeed, it is not interesting.”
Silicon Valley showrunner  Alec Berg (And former Seinfeld writer)
Tim Adams/The Guardian

Related posts:
Running from Failure
Normal is Not Funny
Jerry Seinfeld on What Drives Comedy

Scott W. Smith

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Francis Ford Coppola‘s prompt book for The Godfather is several inches thick and contains Mario Puzo’s book The Godfather with note after note by Coppola as he details what parts he wants to extract and emphasize in the movie. The prompt book was the foundation for which he wrote the script.

Coppola explains that the prompt book is a tradition carried over from his theater days. (Before Coppola got a master’s in film at UCLA, he received a theater degree from Hofstra University.) Coppola also says he based his prompt book on one that Elia Kazan had done for A Streetcar Named Desire. Kazan has written several books about his life and films including  Kazan on Directing and there are many other books that gleam insights from him that I’m sure was an encouragement to Coppola during his own difficult time of getting The Godfather made.

“When I started On the Waterfront, I was what they call unbankable. Nobody would put up money for me because I had had a series of box office failures…. One of my happiest moments was when I got the Academy Award for On the Waterfront.”
Elia Kazan
Kazan: The Master Director Discusses His Films Interviews with Elia Kazan
Jeff Young

In the below video, Coppola discusses part of the process that he went through in writing the script for The Godfather;

“On page 79 of the book we have the actual shooting of the Don. Whenever I felt there was a really important part of the book that was going to be in the movie I would sit there with my ruler and really underline—so this details the shooting. My margin notes are; THE SHOOTING! GREAT DETAIL. The Don is the main character of the movie, so as in Pyscho , we are totally thrown when he is shot. How would Hitchcock design this? Hitchcock was such a master about manipulating information for the audience, usually telling you things so that you were equipped to enjoy what you were seeing —rather than withholding information, he would give you information.”
Francis Ford Coppola

Scott W. Smith

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Playing for All the Marbles

“I learned a lot from [Ernest Rides Again director] John Cherry…He told me, ‘If it’s not about world domination, it’s not about anything at all.’ What do you think that means? And why should something that applies to a goofy comedy created for little kids to watch with babysitters apply to your magnum opus? In a James Bond film, world domination means just that. In Ordinary People, they’re fighting for control of the house. It’s still world domination. If your characters aren’t playing for all the marbles, the reader is going to pack up and go home. If the stakes in your story are small, ratchet them up.”
William Akers
Your Screenplay Sucks!

Related post: What’s at Stake? (Tip #9)

Scott W. Smith

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GRIT

“One characteristic emerged as a significant predictor of success. And it wasn’t social intelligence, it wasn’t good looks, physical health, and it wasn’t IQ—it was grit. Grit is passion and perseverance for very long term goals. ”
Author Angela Lee Duckworth (Grit)
Ted Talk

Related post:
Screenwriting & a 10 Foot Concrete Wall
Emma Thompson on Rejection & Persistence

Perseverance & Persistence (Tip #99)

Scott W. Smith

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