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Archive for the ‘screenwriting’ Category

The writer that probably first comes to mind when you think about the modern classic film Tootsie is Larry Gilbert. But the co-writer of the script was Murray Schisgal. The Oscar and Tony-nominated Schisgal was born in Brooklyn and turns 90 in November. He had his Broadway debut in 1965 with a play he’d written called Luv.

I tracked down an interview he did in 1992 for the theater collection of the American Jewish Committee Oral History Library. Ruth Simon asked Murray this question; “Mr. Schisgal, you are as prolific as any playwright today. What brought you to the theater?”

“Frustration, bitterness and hate for my fellow human beings. I started out writing novels and short stories and I could not get any of it published and so, out of frustration, I started writing plays, being ill prepared to do so, having taken no classes or doing anything other than reading plays, reading every play I could get my hands on. I didn’t even go to the theater that much. But nonetheless, the first plays I wrote included The Tiger and The Typist and I was able to get them produced within a short period and so my future was cast.”
Murray Schisgal
NYPL Digital Collections

I’m not sure how long Schisgal toiled in writing novels and short stories, but he said he began writing plays in 1958, and his Oscar-nomination for Toostie that hot theaters in 1982—so put that down as a 25-year dramatic writing journey to hit that plateau.

He also spent time in the South Pasific after he joined the Navy as a teenager during World War II. And he attended college and law school and worked as a lawyer for a couple of years before realizing he couldn’t practice law and commit enough time to writing. So he quit law and got a part time job to “pay the bills” and found he was able to write three or four hours a day.

His approach to writing was instinctual and self-taught so he shunned learning from teachers or books on writing. He admitted that lead to some sloppy work, but added “I would rather write and throw it away than go through all the steps that are asked for in some of these books I’ve read about how to go about writing a play.”

He was 31 when his first play was produced, but he didn’t start making a living until he was 35 or 36 year old. Find what path works for you. And when you get discouraged remember Schisgal saying “I started out writing novels and short stories and I could not get any of it published.” But he kept writing—and switched to writing plays—and eventually people started noticing his work.

But thanks for the inspiration Mr. Schisgal, because you’ve shown you can be “ill prepared” for the writing task (not even taken a writing class) and still find a way to capture the magic. And his personal story also shows that it can take a little time.

P.S. And as a follow-up to yesterday’s post (How to Get an Agent), UTA agent Peter Dodd said in the Scriptnotes podcast that he does read plays looking for that unique voice that he can rep for TV and film projects.

Related post:
Tootsie at 30

Scott W. Smith

 

 

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“Be so good they can’t ignore you.
Steve Martin

Getting an agent is easy. The actual process I mean;  Script read. Phone call made.

After you’ve written a screenplay that captures the attention of someone influential in the film business. (BTW-That’s the hard part. The part that took Oscar winning screenwriter Michael Arndt ten years to accomplish.) That influential person—a studio executive, repped writer, established actor, whoever— will pass your script to an agent.

“There was a [new writer] sent to me last year. The executive that I like said to me, ‘Managers are chasing this person. He’s meeting with 15 different managers over the next two weeks. This is a hot script, you should read it right away.’ I read it that night. I reached out to the writer….For us and for new clients, it’s all about voice. Do you have a voice? It doesn’t matter if the voice is in the most uncommercial script in the world. That could still be an amazing voice. We can take and use that unconventional, uncommercial script and launch them into the stratosphere as a cool writer.”
UTA agent Peter Dodd
Scriptnotes interview with John August & Craig Mazin

If a script/voice resonates with Dodd, he said in that informative podcast interview that he’ll sometimes contact a writer he’s interested in representing right away, even if it’s Saturday or Sunday. He’ll cold call, email, Tweet the writer, Google search, or stalk them on Facebook. He will find them and let them know right away that he appreciates their work.

That’s how easy it is to get an agent.

Related posts:
The 99% Focus Rule
Outsider Paul Haggis and Your Voice
Finding Your Voice
Scott W. Smith

 

 

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“To do any kind of creative work well, you have to run at stuff knowing that it’s usually going to fail. You have to take that into account and you have to make peace with it. We spend a lot of money and time on stuff that goes nowhere. It’s not unusual for us to go through 25 or 30 ideas and then go into production on eight or 10 and then kill everything but three or four. In my experience, most stuff that you start is mediocre for a really long time before it actually gets good. And you can’t tell if it’s going to be good until you’re really late in the process. So the only thing you can do is have faith that if you do enough stuff, something will turn out great and really surprise you…I register the danger that it might not work. But honestly sometimes you have to just do it. There are definitely interviews that we all go into knowing, ‘Ehhhhh , here’s all the things that can go wrong and here’s the one or two things that it can go right.’ And you just gotta do it…I had this experience a couple of years ago where I got to sit in on the editorial meeting at the Onion . Every Monday they have to come up with like 17 or 18 headlines, and to do that, they generate 600 headlines per week. I feel like that’s why it’s good: because they are willing to be wrong 583 times to be right 17. It kind of gives you hope. If you do creative work, there’s a sense that inspiration is this fairy dust that gets dropped on you, when in fact you can just manufacture inspiration through sheer brute force. You can simply produce enough material that the thing will arrive that seems inspired.”
Ira Glass, Host & Executive Producer of This American Life
Interview with Kathryn Schulz

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“In a well-made drama, I want to feel:  ‘Of course—that’s where it was heading all along.’ And yet the inevitability mustn’t eliminate surprise. There’s not much point in spending two hours on something that became clear in the first five minutes. Inevitability doesn’t mean predictability. The script must still keep you off balance, keep you surprised, entertained, involved, and yet, when the denouement is reached, still give you the sense that the story had to turn out that way.”
Dog Day Afternoon director Sidney Lumet (1924-2011)
Making Movies, page 31

Related posts:
Magnetic Endings
Insanely Great Endings
Insanely Great Endings (Part 2)
Earn Your Ending 

Scott W. Smith

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“A successful focus sentence is the most basic, bare-bones version of your narrative arc.”
Jessica Abel
Out on the Wire, Episode 4

A focus sentence is what screenwriters call a logline. The essential elements of your story. In the podcast Out on a Wire, Jessica Abel explains how some narrative & non-fiction radio/podcast producers use the technique “that allows you to slot in elements of the story in order to identify the essential question of the story.”

And she points out that the focus sentence idea came to her from The Transom Story Workshop teacher Rob Rosenthal, who found the concept in the book From Idea to Air: Getting Paid for Your Writing on Public Radio by Tod Maffin.

Jessica explains the focus sentence:

It goes like this:

Someone
does something,
because…
but…

Let’s go over that again.

Someone.
A main character. A protagonist.

Does something.
The protagonist is in motion, in the middle of living his or her life.

Because…
The protagonist has a motivation–inner, or outer–for doing whatever it is that he or she is doing.

But.
There is something that stands in his or her way. Something that makes this action difficult or problematic, and means that the outcome is unknown.

So here’s an example:

Good boy Luke Skywalker is frustrated, living a boring life on a farm on Tatooine. He buys some boring new farm androids, who turn out to have some kind of holo image hidden inside.
Because he’s a sucker for a pretty girl begging for help, he sets out to find “Old Ben Kenobi.”

But the Empire is looking for those same androids, and when Storm Troopers kill his family, it sets him on a path that will determine the fate of the galaxy.

Now on the the  CreativeLive class Power Your Podcast with Storytelling, Alex Blumberg reveals what he calls The Story Formula (another version of a focus sentence:

The formula is:

I’m doing a story about X
And it’s interesting because of Y

It’s hard for for me, it’s hard work for everybody, to try to figure out what is the most compelling way of framing the thing I’m trying to discuss. What is the thing that takes it out of being sort of a stock, tacky way of thinking about something, and turns it around into something that’s fresh and exciting? It’s hard. And it takes a lot of time. And it takes a lot of practice. But I’m living proof that you can cross the chasm.”  
Alex Blumberg
CEO & co-founder of Gimlet Media and producer/host of the podcast StartUp

And just to throw in a third version of a focus sentence Jessica found one more producer, who came up with a more dynamic demand on the story you are trying to tell.

I want to have some reason for that story to exist. I want to be like, It needs to say something back to the entire universe, or say something back to me in my life in some kind of way.

Yeah, so maybe my sentence would be,

This happened ____, then this _____, then this____, and then you wouldn’t [BEEP] believe it but _______ . And the reason that is interesting to every single person walking on the face of the earth is _________.
Soren Wheeler
Senior Producer of Radiolab

So there have three different options to test your story ideas. Find what works for you.

P.S. And I guess this would be a good time to toss in one of the 22 #storybasics I’ve picked up in my time at Pixar by Emma Coats:
#4: Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.

From the post A Really Simple Writing Rule (via Trey Parker) the South Park gang does this:
 What should happen between every beat that you’ve written down, is either the word ‘therefore’ or ‘but’. So you come up with an idea and write ‘and this happens…and then this happens…’ no, no, no. It should be ‘this happens and therefore, this happens’. ‘But, this happens, therefore, this happens….’”

Related posts:
The Perfect Logline
Screenwriting the Pixar Way (part 2) 
‘The Inside Pitch’ “A logline is a super tiny pitch. A TV guide presentation of your story. Two or three sentences….It’s important to know what the thoughline of your story is…if I don’t hear a throughline, I don’t think you have a dramatic story.”—Christopher Lockhart

Scott W. Smith

 

 

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“I also think you can learn to be a good writer. Like I was a bad writer, actively bad, and I willed myself to get better.”
Ira Glass
Shakespeare vs. Ira Glass 

If you’ve never written a screenplay before, today is your lucky day. If you’ve never worked a day in production, it’s your lucky day, too.

This is the inspirational follow-up to the sobering post 10 Quotes on Paying Your Dues where several well-known and accomplished writers talked about the long and winding road to their successes.

Because while there was a common theme of struggle with each of those writers, it is also true that on average they started their creative journeys 30+ years ago. Because of unions, a ton of boomers in place, and Hollywood traditions it was not uncommon for those coming out college 30 years ago to be told to get in line.

But a 22 year old today doesn’t necessarily have to get in line anymore. What they need is talent, vision, and access to a digital camera and computer with editing software. There are  vloggers in their 20s making a living (and some even making rock star salaries), and a whole crop of teenagers coming up behind them honing their skills and building a audience.

And as far as I can tell, most of them didn’t go to film school. And as I listen to more and more podcasts I think there is a whole wave of people inspired by This American Life and Serial, that Ira Glass may be more influential than Steven Spielberg by the end of the decade—if not elected president in 2020.

But let me get back to screenwriting for the time being. Here’s some inspirational stuff from Fight Club screenwriter Jim Uhls:

“The advice that I give someone who’s going to write their first script is write your first script all the way through. Don’t stop. Don’t go back and revise while you’re in the middle of it. You can make notes, but write forward only, to the words ‘The End.’ Write the whole first draft. I say that because I want to prevent people from rewriting act one for the rest of their life. And then I say put that script aside—no, [you]can’t touch it—write a second screenplay. And write that one all the way through, only writing forward, no going back, all the way until the end. And put that second script aside. Write a third script. Same thing—all the way through until the end. You can make notes, but you can’t go back and revise. Put the third script away and take the first one out. Now you’re a better writer for just haven written three scripts. You’re going to approach the first script as a better writer. You’re going to look at it objectively because you haven’t looking at it for a while. Now you’re going to go back and have a more masterful view of what should be done with that first script. And then you’re going to apply the same thing when you go again to the second and third script.”
Screenwriter Jim Uhls (Fight Club)
Indie Film Hustle podcast interview with Alex Ferrari
(Alex’s podcast is full of solid information on indie filmmaking, including his own micro-budget feature journey—This is Megthat he’s currently shooting.)

And if it will helps take the pressure off, I have quoted screenwriters and filmmakers on this blog who said it’s okay if the writing sucks. You don’t even have to show it to anyone. (Sheldon Turner said he wrote 11 screenplays before he ever showed any one a single one.) You don’t have to go to film school. If you have a desire to write, write. Write those three in a whirlwind like Max Landis and you’ll have written those three screenplays by the end of the year—heck, maybe before Halloween.

P.S. And if you don’t want to dive into writing a screenplay, then in my next post I’ll take a glimpse at Jessica Abel’s podcast Out on the Wire and see if we can get you to start developing other kinds of stories this week in whatever unlikely place you live in the world.

Related posts:
How to Write a Screenplay in One Day
Schizophrenic Screenwriting 
A Drink Before the Fight—Screenwriter Jim Uhls
‘Fight Club’—The First Punch
Start Your Own Writers/Actors Workshop
Don’t try and compete with Hollywood—Ed Burns
Bad Script, Good Pizza, Great Feedback (Ira Glass was a producer on Don’t Think Twice)
Ira Glass on Storytelling

Scott W. Smith 

 

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In light of my last post (Waiting to Be Great) I thought I’d gather 10 quotes on low-budget filmmaking that I found scattered throughout this blog over the years. I hope two or three inspire you on your filmmaking journey:

“My token advice [to aspiring filmmakers] is do it—make your own stuff. Whether it’s short films or whatever you can do, my advice is make your own stuff. I’m a real believer in preparation meets opportunity. When this opportunity (to write Bridesmaids) came along I really had been at this a long time…I was really prepared when this came along. I’m just a firm believer in ‘just do it.’ If you build it, he will come.”
Annie Mumolo 

Oscar-nominated screenwriter of Bridesmaids
Script Mag Podcast with Jenna Milly

“My example was Robert Rodriguez. In an interview he’d said, ‘Take stock of what you have and work with that. I had a bus and I had a turtle, so I worked them both into the script!’ I thought, I can get my hands on a convenience store…So I went home, and got my job back at the convenience store, fully intending to shoot the flick there. And I started writing like mad. I guess the first draft of it was about 164 pages, pretty long, so I handed it over to my friend Vincent. I was like, ‘What do you think?’ And he was like, ‘It’s really good. I think you should do it.’”
Kevin Smith
My First Movie
Edited by Stephen Lowenstein
page 76-77

“We’re in the midst of a digital revolution that allows you to shoot, edit, and distribute your films for virtually nothing. You have the possibility of creating a You Tube sensation…When I talk to student filmmakers, I tell them ‘Read as much as possible. Write as much as possible. Go read (director) Robert Rodriguez’s book Rebel Without a Crew. Get the mistakes out. Write bad. Direct bad. Learn how to tell stories as you do. Find that short film that says exactly who you are and the stories you want to tell. Make it and submit it to the festival process and realize that you may be great, you may be terrible. You won’t find out until you try to get other people to judge your work.’”
Jason Reitman
Orlando Sentinel
December 2009

“The industry is moving toward the big and the small. I think studios will always want a few of the high-budget high-profile projects. And there will be more and more of the micro-budget stuff. Everything in between is getting cut back, the marketing costs and production costs are too high, they don’t make sense in a world of YouTube, video games, cable programming, etc. By all means, try to make your way to one of those big-budget projects. But also take time to write and produce on the micro-budget scale, because that’s where we’re all going to live in a few years.”
Oscar-nominated screenwriter Terry Rossio (Shrek)
Interview with John Robert Marlow (Published 12/2010

“What’s different now than when I started is you can make your own stuff now. It’s cheap enough that you can film your own movie, edit your own movie, and distribute your own movie if you want to. If it’s a big production you’re going to have to deal with compromise if you’re lucky, because you need a lot of resources. I always recommend keeping it small enough that you can maintain that control. Because even if you win the lottery and somebody buys your thing you’re not going to be happy with a lot of the compromises that are going to take place. It’s too painful. You have to counter balance that with how much heat it’s giving you or how much money you’re getting when you’re starting off and getting your foot in the door. But now I think more and more people are getting their foot in the door by doing really good work on a small scale. And then scaling up as people are looking for fresher voices.”
Producer/writer/director/Actor Jon Favreau (Iron Man, Chef)
The Q&A with Jeff Goldsmith

“At this moment, anyone who dreams of becoming a filmmaker is lucky indeed. For the first time in the history of cinema, filmmaking does not need to be a capitalist enterprise. You no longer need millions of dollars or even hundreds of thousands of dollars. You are no longer beholden to someone writing a check. It no longer needs to be a business. it can be your artistic expression…Now you can buy a consumer-model digital camera and the image looks great…You can even shoot a pretty good-looking movie on your smartphone and then edit it on a laptop…You can post your film on YouTube, Vimeo, and any number of digital platforms and slowly build your audience.”
Edward Burns
Independent Ed

“When I meet with recent film school graduates, I remind them that whatever happens next in the industry won’t be something my generation does. It will happen among the 20-somethings, the narrative entrepreneurs who figure out how to make the next great thing. Rather than seeking permission to work in the existing industry, they’ll make their own.”
Screenwriter John August
What’s wrong with the business

“I wanted this movement to be like the French New Wave, in which directors told different types of stories and used the language of cinema a little differently, with smaller cameras on real locations.
Gary Winick (1961-2011)
Tadpole director and founder of InDigEnt

“I think there’s a slight trend toward embracing new cinema, non-Hollywood blockbuster cinema. It’s not erupting, but because of the Internet, I think people have more of a chance to get buzz going on alternative cinema, so I think it’s hopeful out there.”
David Lynch

“It’s good not to follow the herd. Go the other way. If everyone is going that way, go this other way. Yeah, you’re going to stumble, but you’re also going to stumble upon an idea nobody came up with… It’s lined with gold over there because nobody goes that way—it hasn’t been picked clean yet. And you’re going to stumble upon something. You’re going to stumble a few times, but you’re going to consistently stumble upon an idea no one’s come up with by going that way. I’ve always been that way. If everyone is going that way—like they know what they’re doing with purpose—I don’t know what I’d doing. I’m just going to go this other way. At least it’s a new frontier.”
Filmmaker Robert Rodriguez
Interview with Tim Ferriss

Related posts:
The 10 Film Commandments of Edward Burns
Shooting a Feature Film in 4 Days
Shooting a Feature Film in 1 Day
Shooting a Feature Film Over Dinner
Shooting a Feature Film in a Coffin

Scott W. Smith

 

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