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“When I first meet with the scriptwriter, I never tell him anything, even if I feel there’s a lot to be done. Instead I ask him the same questions I’ve asked myself: What is the story about? What did you see? What was your intention? Ideally, if we do this well, what do you hope the audience will feel, think, sense? In what mode do you want them to leave the theater?”
Director Sidney Lumet (Network, The Verdict)
Making Movies 

P.S. This quote is actually a nice bridge between the worlds of podcasting/radio and filmmaking. One of the things that makes Ira Glass’s work stand out is he is known to sometimes ask over 150 questions to decide if a person or topic is worthy of a radio program on This American Life. That and he’s also said to have a 40% kill rate of shows they start to produce but do materialize in a way that is worthy of the program. The great thing about asking questions is they’re quite inexpensive.

Related posts:
‘Out on a Wire’ Podcast (A good list of sample questions to ask?)
The Major of Central Dramatic Question
Screenwriting Quote #194 (John Jarrell)
Is It a Movie?
What is it about? (An Oscar-winner weighs in on asking questions.)
What’s Changed (Tip #102)

Scott W. Smith

The Focus Sentence

“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

 

 

“The key to writing fiction and screenplays in terms of character is conflict, just like it is in non-fiction. And you have to come up with what is the thing that’s going to test that character. And how are you going to make evident what they’re all about? If you can’t make it evident through action or the results of action it’s not believable.”
Jessica Abel
Author of Out on the Wire: The Storytelling Secrets of the New Masters of Radio

Just a few years ago as the economic dipped and newspapers and magazines started to go out of business or lay off thousands of journalists, some colleges started to drop journalism as an undergraduate or a graduate degree.

Then an interesting phenomenon happened. Podcasts helped revive a new type of audio storytelling.  This American Life, Radiolab, and Serial are currently in the top ten on the iTunes chart and are great examples of audio storytelling/reporting at its best.

In her podcast Out on the Wire, host Jessica Abel explores what radio masters like Ira Glass go through in developing their stories. You may or may not be surprised that the questions are the same ones screenwriters, filmmakers, producers, and studio executive ask when developing their stories.

—What’s the hook?
—What does your protagonist want?
—What’s the inciting incident that disrupts the protagonists life?
—What’s the arc of the story?
—What’s the central conflict?
—Where’s the special sauce?
—Why is it interesting?
—How are the stakes raised?
—What’s universal about this story?
—How will it resonate with an audience?
—What’s the focus sentence? (More on that tomorrow.)
—Is there mystery, surprise, and irony?
—Is there a “You won’t f-ing believe it!” moment?
—Who or what changes?
—What’s the theme? What’s the takeaway when it’s all over?
—How do you make the story land most effectively?

Over the years since graduating from film school I’ve worked professionally in film, television, newspaper, photography, radio, and video production (and non-professionally in theater), which possibly makes podcasting my next frontier to explore creatively.

The tools for working in audio (a microphone, a recorder, headphones, an XLR cord, computer/editing software and batteries) are cheaper to acquire than what’s needed for shooting video/film projects. That and the fact you can work solo, you don’t have to have a college degree (or even have finished high school yet), perhaps explain the rise in individual podcasts.

Sure there’s a gap in storytelling quality between the person just starting out and This American Life, but even Ira Glass said he was bad for a long time before he became good, and eventually great.

On Episode 1 of On the Wire Jessica interviews Stephanie Foo (@imontheradio)  a former young skateboarder who once had a podcast with a few listeners called Get Me on This American Life (that she says wasn’t legit but got her press passes). That opened an opportunity to work on Snap Judgment, and she now is a legit producer at This American Life.

In that interview I think they hot on a universal truth; in the world of storytelling it is not only the protagonist who struggles toward their goal, but the storyteller does as well.

Jessica Abel: What do you want to say to the skateboarding girl who was pretending to journalist, who had a podcast Get Me on This American Life? 

Stephanie Foo: “I wouldn’t talk to that girl because she was excited. I would talk to the girl who was at Snap Judgment producing five stories in a week and feeling like her head was going to explode, and that she was crazy and not good at her job. And I would just say you’re in it.  This what it takes to be good. And it’s working. And you might not feel like it’s working, because you might be buried in a million stories. And you might not be able to find your way out. And the bosses might be like arguing with you, and everybody at work might be an absolute chaotic mess. But that’s what it takes. That’s what everybody goes through to become good. Getting completely messy, feeling completely lost is absolutely necessary to finding your way out and becoming good.

Jessica: The German Forest.

Stephanie: Yeah, the Dark Forest, exactly. Getting completely lost, over and over and over again. Because each time you find different paths out. And so at a certain point you can go almost anywhere and know how to find your way back. It’s kind of nice. 

Stephanie is also the creator of Pilot podcast which according to its website: “Is a podcast that seeks to explore and expand possibilities in audio storytelling across formats and genres. Every episode will be a pilot for a different type of podcast.”

P.S. If you want to do some workshops or gather info on audio storytelling check out the Transom website located in Woods Hole, Massachusetts.

Related post:
Conflict, Conflict, Conflict
Ira Glass on Storytelling
The Major or Central Dramatic Question 
Commitment in the Face of Failure
Finding Authentic Emotions “Just because it’s a worthy cause doesn’t make it interesting.”— Alex Blumberg

Scott W. Smith

 

 

 

“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 

 

Earlier this week I heard the first quote listed below on a Scriptnotes podcast and it didn’t take long to track down similar quotes on paying your dues that I’ve posted over the years on this blog. (And while you may see these quotes as more anecdotal than empirical data—there does appear to be a common theme. Press on.)

Eugene Mirman says this thing, because he gets approached by young comics all the time, and they say, ‘what do I do?’ And he says, ‘Start doing comedy, keep doing comedy, call me in ten years.’ And I think that applies to anything in the artistic realm. It’s like it takes a hard ten years.”
Writer/director Mike Birbiglia (Don’t Think Twice)
Scriptnotes interview with Craig Mazin

“I spent 18 years doing stand up comedy. Ten years learning, four years refining, and four years of wild success.”
Commedian/actor/writer/musician Steve Martin (The Jerk)
Born Standing Up

“A mere seven years after my graduation day, I had failed on an epic scale. An exceptionally short-lived marriage had imploded, and I was jobless, a lone parent, and as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless.”
Author J.K. Rowling (Harry Potter series)
On the Benefits of Failure

“The myth about me is that I sold my first screenplay and it’s true. But I had also worked very hard as a fiction writer for ten years and that’s how I learned the craft of telling stories.”
Oscar-winning screenwriter Akiva Goldman (A Beautiful Mind)

“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 (The Shawshank Redemption)

“Before I got adept at it, I had to write about ten scripts.”
Oscar-winning screenwriter Brian Helgeland (L.A. Confidential)

Question: How did you first get your break in writing, and what were you doing before writing [the novel] Fight Club?
Chuck Palahniuk: “I worked at Freightliner for thirteen years right after college. I worked on the assembly line for several years. Then I moved into working as sort of a research mechanic, I would do repair and vehicle modification procedures and then write about them. So I worked on trucks and wrote about them.”

“I graduated from Northwestern. I had no money. No one had any money. So I got a day job, shelving books at the Northwestern University Law Library. Every morning I would work from nine to five and shelve books, for ten years. Every single day for ten years.”
Three time Oscar nominated screenwriter John Logan
The Secret to Being a Successful Screenwriter (Seriously) 

“I devoted myself to writing for years without representation or a promise of anything. And there were times when I felt quite down about my prospects.”
Oscar-winning screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher

“I think every writer harbors—secretly or not-so-secretly—delusions of grandeur. Still, when you’re starting out, it’s hard to imagine how you’ll ever ‘succeed….The question is ‘How do you meet an agent?’ or get your script to an agent—It’s a mystery to me. Everyone sort of is able to find a different path, and usually it just comes to referrals…. I would say 99% of your effort should go to writing a good script.  And my story is a testament to that. I spent 10 years teaching myself how to write. [The Little Miss Sunshine script] went to one [agent’s] desk basically and once it hit that desk though it was like the doors were flying open.”
Oscar-winning screenwriter Michael Arndt (Little Miss SunshineToy Story 3, Star Wars: The Force Awakens)
2007 talk at Cody’s Books

Related links:
10,000 Hours vs. 20 Hours
Stephen King’s Double-wide Trailer
‘Art is Work’—Milton Glaser
Bob DeRosa’s ‘Shortcuts’
Start Small…But Start Somewhere

Scott W. Smith

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

 

“You have so many opportunities now….We’re in a new frontier.”
Screenwriter Diablo Cody
Juno Has Another Baby (Emmy)

“You absolutely can make movies. The idea of having a career in the movie business is very, very different ”
Writer/director John Sayles (Lone Star, Sunshine State)

Diablo Cody poses backstage after winning an Oscar for best original screenplay for Juno at the 80th annual Academy Awards in Hollywood

Apparently it’s Mike Birbiglia week. After three days of pulling quotes from Mike Birbiglia’s interview with Tim Ferriss, I was surprised yesterday to hear Birbiglia interviewed by Craig Mazin on Scriptnotes.

What jumped out to me on his interview with Mazin was a brief exchange that hits at the the core of what I’ve been blogging about since 2008 after former University of Iowa grad Diablo Cody hit the screenwriting scene with Juno.

Mike Birbiglia: I’ve been traveling around the country with Liz Allen who coached our improv team in [Don’t Think Twice] and she does these free improv workshops at these [indie film] theaters, and I speak about how improv is related to my process as a director, writer and actor. And the thing I say is I would highly recommend people make something. If they’re living in Austin, or Iowa City, or Chicago or anywhere, and feel like you have something to say or a story to tell—we’re in an era where you can shoot something for nothing. And if you don’t believe me, go on Netflix and watch Tangerine [a film shot on a iphone that played at Sundance] and you’ll go, “Oh, that can be a movie? Holy cow. ”

Craig Mazin: You’re 100% right. But I wouldn’t suggest necessarily for people to start making things so that you can become famous and sell those things. Make them as part of your education. You don’t have to show them to anybody. If you make something of your own thing and hate it, you’ve learned so much.

MB:I did that in college. I shot a short film called Waiting to Be Great.

CM: —It’s still waiting?

MB: Yeah, it’s still waiting. It’s really not done. In the edit we kind of gave up on it at a certain point. We showed it to friends. It was just terrible. They said, “Nice try.”

So while you’re waiting to be great—just make something. It doesn’t even have to be good.  Have you ever seen Quentin Tarantino‘s first feature film? There’s a good chance you haven’t. I’m not talking about Reservoir Dogs, but the lesser known My Best Friend’s Birthday. A film that reportedly took four years to shoot and of which only 36 minutes survive due to a fire. (The first cut was 70 minutes and never released.)

I can’t recall Tarantino even talking about My Best Friend’s Birthday, but I imagine friends at some point told him, “Nice try.”And I’m pretty sure it played a key part of his education in becoming two-time Oscar-winning screenwriter Quentin Tarantino.

As you’re waiting to be great, just make something. It won’t be Juno, and it won’t be My Best Friend’s Birthday, but it will be a heck of an education. And it will be your vision that you helped create with a small team of people.

P.S.. And to round out yesterday’s post Bad Script, Good Pizza, Great Feedback you can add Frank Oz, Nicole Holofcener, Greta Gerwig and Mazin to the list of people Birbiglia had over to his place for script readings of Don’t Think Twice.

Note: Liz Allen coauthored the book Improvising Better: A Guide for the Working Improviser.

Related posts:
How to Shoot a Feature in 10 Days
Shooting a Feature Film in 4 Days
Shooting a Feature Film in 2 Days
Shooting a Feature Film in 1 Day
Shooting a Feature Film Over Dinner
The 10 Film Commandments of Edwards Burns
Writing for Low Budget Films
Filmmaking Quote #44 (John Sayles)
Filmmaker/Entrepreneur Robert Rodriguez
Start Small…But Start Somewhere

Diablo Cody related posts:
The Diablo Cody–Damien Chapelle Connection
Diablo Cody Day
The Juno-Iowa Connection
“Keep Your Head Down” “You will be a big deal for about ten seconds.”-Cody

Quentin Tarantino related posts:
Tarantino Gumbo Soup Film School
“When you have a big flop…”
“What I’m really here to do…”
“The way I write…”

Scott W. Smith

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