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Posts Tagged ‘Christopher Lockhart’

When Alex Ferrari asked WME Story Editor Christopher Lockhart (who estimates he’s read over 60,000 scripts in his career) about screenplays that people who want to write screenplays should read, he gave this answer:

“I say this because I use it in my classes—Insomnia. Hillary Seitz wrote a screenplay that was adapted from [the 1997 Norwegian film Insomnia]. The [Seitz] screenplay is much better than the [2002] film. I believe the screenplay for Insomnia—the actual reading experience— is flawless. I would say that is the very best screenplay that I have ever read. I’m not talking about the movie, so don’t go out an watch the movie. I’m talking about reading the screenplay. I think that script was and is brilliant. ’Cause it just does everything that a screenplay should do. And does it so well. And in a fairly complicated way.”
—Christopher Lockhart
Bulletproof Screenwriting podcast #110

Here’s a link to Hillary Seitz’s Insomnia script.

P.S. The 1997 version of Insomnia was written by Erik Skjoldbjærg and Nikolaj Frobenius.

Scott W. Smith is the author of Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles

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”What Tom [Cruise] and I have learned to do over the course of three [Mission: Impossible] movies is we’re constantly striving to make a silent film. We’re pushing harder and harder with each film to make ways where the dialogue doesn’t matter . . . I’m extremely suspicious of dialogue and consider dialogue to be a last resort rather than a first wave of storytelling.”
Christopher McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects, Mission: Impossible—Fallout)
The Inside Pitch Facebook live interview with Christopher Lockhart

P.S. Of course, one wouldn’t expect Aaron Sorkin to agree with McQuarrie. But here are a couple screenwriters who are in the striving to make a silent film camp.

“The perfect movie doesn’t have any dialogue. So you should always be striving to make a silent movie.”
David Mamet
On Film Directing 

“Storytelling without dialogue. It’s the purest form of cinematic storytelling. It’s the most inclusive approach you can take. It confirmed something I really had a hunch on, is that the audience actually wants to work for their meal.”
—Two time Oscar-winning writer/director Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo, WALL-E)
TED talk The Clues to a Great Story

Related posts:
Emotionally Silent Dialogue
Storytelling Without Dialogue

Scott W. Smith is the author of Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles

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“What I’ve learned to do, probably really in just the last couple of films is to regard music and dialogue as very much one in the same. Dialogue is just as musical as music is a language. And by thinking of dialogue in musical terms, thinking of dialogue in terms of something that  conveys an emotion rather than information. It has changed they way that I write scenes. When I find myself writing something that is purely informational, if I can’t inject it with something like conflict, humor, tension, suspense, drama—especially conflict—then I know that what I’m doing is writing is information. And information is the death of  emotion. The biggest lesson I learned between Rouge Nation and Fallout was how to articulate that.  Somebody asked me about writing exposition and what was the secret to writing exposition and without thinking I said that ‘information is the death of emotion.’” Thinking about dialogue as a delivery device for emotion. That’s not to say it’s a character expressing emotions. There’s nothing less emotional than watching a character experience an emotion. What you want is the audience experiencing emotion through that character. That really changed the way I wrote dialogue. They way that I wrote exposition.”
—Writer/director Christopher McQuarrie  (Top Gun: Maverick)
The Inside Pitch interview with Christopher Lockhart 
(starting at the 1:55:02 mark)

P.S. Starting on August 1, I’m going to begin a string of posts on Hamilton which is a prime example of blending music and dialogue in what I found to be an emotional story.  If you haven’t seen the play or the taped version on Disney+ at least get the 10 day free subscription to check it out.  I look forward to exploring what Lin-Manuel Miranda created what is the best production I’ve seen this year.

Related posts:
40 Days of Emotions
‘Exposition is BORING unless…’
Mysterious Minimal Exposition from ‘A Quiet Place’ and ’Sicario’
Cary Grant & Exposition (Tip # 38)
Screenwriting & Exposition (Tip #10)
Cody on Expo
10 Solid Exposition Examples 
Dialogue as Music (Aaron Sorkin)
‘I’m in the feelings business’—Brian Grazer 
Emotion—Emotion—Emotion

Scott W. Smith 

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Christopher Lockhart’s two hour interview with writer/director Christopher McQuarrie— that was originally shown on the private Facebook group The Inside Pitch— is now on YouTube.

Here are two filmmaking lessons from the Mission: Impossible writer/director McQuarrie (the second which he said took him 25 years to articulate):

LESSON 1

“I didn’t understand lens on my first film, and I never had one discussion about lens on the film. I do not know a single shot  in my first film—what lens it was shot on. I can guess it now because I’ve developed an eye for what lens are. Once you’ve determined who the audience is, the next most important conversation to have is about what is the lens? On my first film I never discussed the lens once. On Mission: Impossible Fallout, I had 3,000 setups in that movie. I had more setups than two Harry Potter movies combined. There was not one setup on that movie where the first conversation we had didn’t have the lens. We talked about the lens every single time. And what you need to think of when you think of lens. You can look up focal length. You can look up the rule of thirds. You can look up lighting. You can read all that stuff—all those books are so tedious and so boring, and I don’t understand them. And they’re really, really hard. Here’s what you need to do: when you look at a lens, look at the number on the focal length on the lens. Whether it’s an 18mm lens right up to, say, a 150 mm lens. The number on the lens signifies the amount of intimacy that that lens provides. And the more intimacy you want to put into the scene, or a line or a moment, the higher that number goes. And the more you want to stand back from the action the lower the number goes. . . understanding that principle when I was 20-years-old would have gotten me where I am a lot faster.”

LESSON 2:

“The other thing I want you to do is I want all of you to go out and take photographs. And I want you to do it with you phone. And what I want you to do when you’re taking the photograph is I want you to think about three things and only three things; lens, light, and location. And when you take a photograph and look at it and go ‘Why don’t I like this photograph?’ It is because one of three things, or all three of those things, are not in sync. And remember that you can almost always alter one of those three things. You can either change the light, you can change the location, or you can change the lens. On most iPhones now you can sort of pretend to change a lens. What we don’t understand when we’re first starting out, and what most people don’t tell us, they don’t make us aware of those things. They don’t make us aware of light. And so what happens is we look at the picture and we can’t understand why when we’re taking the picture that it doesn’t look like what our eye sees.. . . . So what you want to do is stop looking at the world through your eyes, and start looking at the world through the lens. If you don’t tell the lens what you want to see exactly, the lens will show you what it sees approximately  . . .  The first lesson in photography is just an awareness of those three things: lens, light, and location.”

Here’s an example of that from a photo I took last week with my iPhone. (Straight out of the camera with zero post production.)
Lens: I used the 2x (telephoto) on my iPhone 7 Plus to compress the tree in the foreground and the sunrise in the background.
Light: I knew the sunrise was at 6:41 so I had to be in position in my kayak before then. I also knew that the small sensor on the iPhone doesn’t actually handle the blinding sun well so I wanted to capture the sun just before it breaks the horizon. And because the camera want to expose for the tree in the foreground instead of the bright background, I had to use the slider to bring the exposure down. This would silhouette the tree which was the effect I wanted.
Location: Since I started kayaking four months ago I was familiar with the best places to shoot the sunrise. This cypress tree is my favorite location because I knew where I could position myself to get the best composition of the rising sun and the tree with Spanish moss to make it visually interesting. I was fortunate to get the clouds as they add extra visual interest. Perhaps the trickiest part was positioning myself on a kayak to be at the right place just before the sun shined through. There was less than 30 seconds to get the shot I wanted to get where the lens, light, and location came though.  The only thing that would have made it better was if I would of had Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) kayaking in the frame between the tree and the horizon. If Tom ever wants to make the two and a half hour trip from Clearwater to Orlando I’m up for a reshoot. (Seaplanes can land on the lake.) I’d even break out my Nikon for that.

IMG_5767

Light, Lens, Location

Related posts:
I did go to film school so I’m not bored by all the technical aspects of cinematography. Here are some posts I’ve written about the subject over the years:
Wide, Normal, and Telephoto Lens Explained & Other Cinematography Resources 
The Five C’s of Cinematography
Cinematography for Directors
Cinematic Storytelling
Master Shots 
Film Directing Shot by Shot
Film Directing, Cinematic Motion
Oscar Winning Cinematography ( 1927-2016)
Cinematography (Overview)
Cinematographer Allen Daviau (1942—2020)
Cinematography Cheats #1 (Jerry Maguire)
‘It’s all about emotions’ Cinematographer Jamusz Kamunski
10 Cinematography Tips (Roger Deakins)

Scott W. Smith 

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“Here’s how you become a screenwriter: Get yourself a pencil and a piece of paper—you don‘t need a computer, you don’t need Final Draft— and write interior [INT] and then chose any location you want. And then decide whether it’s night or day.  You’re a screenwriter. There’s no such thing as an aspiring screenwriter or an inspiring filmmaker. You’re either creating or you’re not creating. I haven’t made it. And I’m making two Mission: Impossible movies and I’m producing Top Gun. I have’t made it—I’m making it. I’m in the process of making it to where I still dream of being, and you will be, too.”
Christopher McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects, Mission: Impossible—Fallout)
The Inside Pitch Facebook live interview with Christopher Lockhart
7/11/2020

A quick look online shows you can buy 100 sheets of paper for just over two dollars and pencils cost around twenty cents each. So that’s how I came up with three dollars. Now if you want to get fancy like Jerry Seinfeld and use a yellow legal pad and a pen that can push you to around the $10 mark. But the good news is, no massive student loan is required for either. (I believe Quentin Tarantino also uses a yellow legal pad to write his scripts.)

One of the themes that has emerged in writing a screenwriting blog for the past 12 years is screenwriters come from everywhere. And there are many contradictory views on screenwriting and filmmaking. What I’ve tried to do is curate many of those views and present them in a way that I hope will resonate with others and help them create. (And I hope to have news this month on how I’ve boiled the 3,000 posts over the years into a greatest hits of sorts into a 250 page book.)

McQuarrie’s advice reminds me of the story I once heard where William Faulkner was giving a talk to writers and asked them why they where there instead of writing.

Of course, if it was as easy as just write we’d all be walking around with Academy Awards and Nobel Prizes like McQuarrie and Faulkner. But McQuarrie didn’t say, “Here’s how you become an Academy Award winning screenwriter….”

So sharpen your pencils and get busy creating something today.

Related post:
The Myth of ‘Breaking In’

Scott W. Smith 

 

 

 

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“Any writer that’s listening to me right now, you’ll gain a lot more knowledge by studying editing than you will by studying screenwriting. Screenwriting is something inside of you, it’s what you’re going to do. It’s going to be dictated by so many other things. Watch how movies are built. That’s where it really comes together.  Watch how movies evolve through the process of editing.”
—Writer/director Christopher McQuarrie (Mission: Impossible—Fallout)
The Inside Pitch Facebook live interview with Christopher Lockhart
7/11/2020

Of course, the catch—22 is how can you watch a movie be edited unless you”re working on the movie? Here are to three places to start:
1) Read the post: How Great movies are Made (and Why ‘The Godfather’ was Once a Pile of Spaghetti in the Edit Room) 

2) Watch this video featuring Water Murch who was ADR supervisor on The Godfather.

3) Watch The Godfather once again.

4) Buy these books on editing:
In the Blink of an Eye: A Perspective on Film Editing by Walter Murch

The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Film Editing by Michael Ondaatje

P.S. If you know if some resources showing how a movie evolves in the editing process send that info my way. If I recall correctly, the original script for Annie Hall and the finished film are one of the best examples of being radically different creations. A movie salvaged in the editing. It went on to win four Oscar awards including Best Picture and Best Writing.

Scott W. Smith 

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“Prep is the movie you want to make. Production is the movie you think you’re making. And post is the movie you made.”
—Writer/director Christopher McQuarrie (Mission: Impossible—Fallout)
The Inside Pitch Facebook live interview with Christopher Lockhart
7/11/2020

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Today’s post actually uses more than twice as many letters in the title than in the definition of story according to one Oscar-winner:

“Story’s an emotional journey. That’s all it is.”
Christopher McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects, Mission: Impossible—Fallout)
The Inside Pitch Facebook live interview with Christopher Lockhart
7/11/2020

Since McQuarrie has made seven films with Tom Cruise (including Valkyrie, Jack Reacher, and the upcoming Top Gun: Maverick) it’s worth repeating this  simplified version of story:

“Story’s an emotional journey. That’s all it is.”
—Christopher McQuarrie

Related post:
40 Days of Emotions
Emotion—Emotion—Emotion
Screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie 
‘Move Me’ (advice from Christopher Lockhart)

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 the 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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“The MDQ (Major Dramatic Question) is the linchpin of the dramatic narrative – the purpose for which the story is being told.”
Christopher Lockhart

“Hunger for the answer to the Major Dramatic Question grips the audience’s interest, holding it to the last act’s climax.”
Robert McKee
Story, page 198

This whole concept of a Major Dramatic Question should have been screenwriting tip #1 (instead of #101) on this blog— but here it is unpacked a little and I hope you find it useful in your writing.

“At the center of every good movie there is a single driving force around which all other elements gather. It has the rage of a hurricane, the focus of a cougar, the horsepower of a Lamborghini. It’s not the movie’s star. It’s not a special effect. It’s not the awe-inspiring action sequence or the most tearjerking dialogue. It is deceptively simple, so sly and stealthy, you don’t even know it’s there.

It’s a question.

Sure, a good story raises lots of intriguing questions, but there is one question at the white hot center of all others. This is the ‘major dramatic question,’ or MDQ for short. Every good story has its unique MDQ. Think of it as the story’s nucleus. It’s a centrifugal force that propels the story along its path of action, accelerating it steadily and breathlessly toward a climatic conclusion. And once the MDQ is answered, the story is over.

…The MDQ is the thing that keeps us watching, wondering how things will turn out. By the end of the movie, there will be—there must be—an answer to the MDQ. A ‘yes’ or a ‘no.'”
Daniel Noah
Writing Movies: The Practical Guide to Creating Stellar Screenplays 
Gotham Writers’ Workshop edited by Alexander Steele

According to the writers at Gotham Writers’ Workshop the way to find your MDQ is through your protagonist who has a tangible goal with obstacles that presents conflict in achieving their goal. Here are some MDQ examples they give:

Will Scarlet win Ashley? (Gone with the wind)
Will Indy obtain the legendary Ark of the Covenant? (Raiders of the Lost Ark)
Will Clarice catch Buffalo Bill? (Silence of the Lambs)
Will McClane free the hostages? (Die Hard)
Subtle films have a MDQ—but they tend to be more internal than external.
Will Miles pull himself out of a rut? (Sideways)

What some call the Major Dramatic Question, others call The Central Dramatic Question, and Joe Bunting at The Write Practice simply calls it The Dramatic Question and here are some examples from his website:

Is Odysseus going to make it home from Troy? (The Odyssey)
Will Romeo and Juliet ever be together? (Romeo and Juliet)

Here are examples from Act Four Screenplays:
“Who/what is Rosebud?” (Citizen Kane)
“Will Chuck Noland survive this ordeal? (Cast Away)

And a couple more recent examples from Daniel McInerny:
“Will Walter find missing negative #25? (The Secret Life of Walter Mitty)
“Will P.L. Travers sign over to Walt Disney the rights to the Mary Poppins books? (Saving Mr. Banks)

While a single MDQ isn’t always clear (and sometimes it even shifts) here are a broad range of films that come to mind when I think of a MDQ:
Will Rea (Jennifer Lawrence) find her father? (Winter’s Bone)
Will Marlin find his son? (Finding Nemo)
Will Kramer be able to keep custody of his son? (Kramer vs. Kramer)
Will a freed slave find his wife? (Django Unchained)
Will the troops find Ryan? (Saving Private Ryan)
Will Pee Wee find his bike (Pee Wee’s Big Adventure)
Will Phil (Bill Murray) find a way to stop reliving the same day over and over? (Groundhog Day)
Will E.T. get home? (E.T.)
Will Scotland find freedom from tyranny? (Braveheart)
Will Neal (Steve Martin) make it home for Thanksgiving? (Planes, Trains & Automobiles)
Will three buddies find their friend—before his wedding? (The Hangover)
Will a man buried alive survive? (Buried)
Will a stranger protect a small western town against outlaws (High Plains Drifter)
Will a sheriff protect a small western town against outlaws (High Noon)
Will Erin bring justice to a small town? (Erin Brockovich)
Will Matt Damon’s character reach his potential? (Good Will Hunting)
Will Ida ever return to the convent and become a nun? (Ida)
Will Butch, Sundance and Etta make it to Bolivia? (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid)
Will Jerry land a large contract for his client and save his business? (Jerry Maguire)

Will C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) get a promotion? (The Apartment)
Who killed the under-employed screenwriter? (Sunset Blvd.)
Who is Keyser Söze? (The Usual Suspect)

WME Story Editor Christopher Lockhart on his post Screenwriting 101 gives these examples:

Will Dorothy get back to Kansas? (The Wizard of Oz)
Will Sheriff Brody kill the shark? (Jaws)
Will Galvin win the case? (The Verdict)

Lockhart adds that while the MDQ tends to be external (physical), a connected internal dilemma (psychological) can be proposed in the form of minor dramatic question.

Will Galvin win beck self-respect? (The Verdict)
Will Dorothy find her place in the world? (The Wizard of Oz)

(Playing off of Lockhart’s physical/psychological idea let me drop in two of my favorite films and ponder if you can ask a single layered, mash-up question. Will Rocky beat Apollo Creed (physical/external) or at least go the distance with him—and prove to himself that he’s not a bum (internal/psychological)? Is it possible for the MDQ to have a one-two punch? In the indie film Pieces of April, “Will April find a way to cook a turkey for Thanksgiving AND make amends to her family?” Now we’re tying in theme and climax into the MDQ—powerful stuff.)

But it’s the MDQ that drives the story and is tied to the major goal of your hero/protagonist. And I’ll let Lockhart drive home the importance of The Major Dramatic Question:

“The MDQ is the THROUGHLINE. It carries us from the END OF THE FIRST ACT through to the CLIMAX. The dramatic narrative builds to the climax – which is the dramatic and emotional pinnacle of the story. It is the moment of cathartic release.”

P.S. There are always exceptions, and biopics and ensemble movies seem to be the trickiest in dealing with a Major Dramatic Question. For instance in both Apollo 13 and Schindler’s List, the MDQ is not “Will the astronauts survive? and “Will Schindler save lives in Nazi concentration camps” but a question of how they were accomplished. And even in cases where a MDQ is not 100% clear, the questions you always want audiences asking is, “What happens next?” and “How is this going to end?”

Related post:
Writing from Theme (Tip #20)
One Clear Dilemma
Magnetic Endings (Tip #100)
Insanely Great Endings
‘What Happens Next?’—Mamet

Scott W. Smith is the author of Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles

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