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Posts Tagged ‘Craig Mazin’

“What is the cost of lies? It’s not that we’ll mistake them for the truth. The real danger is that if we hear enough lies, then we no longer recognize the truth at all.”
Opening lines of HBO’s Chernobyl

I’m going to finish watching the five-part series Chernobly in the next day or two and will write about it more extensively. But today I thought I’d pull a quote from the writer of the HBO/Sky miniseries about the 1986 nuclear disaster.

“In thematic structure, the purpose of the story—listen carefully now—the purpose of the story is to take a character, the protagonist,  from the place ignorance of the truth (or the true side of the argument you’re making) and take them all the way where they become the very embodiment of that argument. And they do it through action.”
Screenwriter Craig Mazin (Chernobyl)
Scriptnotes

In Craig Mazin’s talk How to Write a Movie he likes to refer a few times to Shrek and Pixar’s Finding Nemo as being great at thematic structure, but two personal favorites I like to return to again and again is Rain Man and The Verdict where the Tom Cruise character and the Paul Newman characters start out in one place in the opening scenes and are both changed and transformed by the end of those movies.

Mazin says if you just took the opening and closing scenes of movies with strong thematic structure you would see the anthesis and the synthesis of the theme played out. Two films that jumped to my mind are Erin Brockovich and Flight that show how that plays out on screen in dramatic fashion.

But not everyone agrees on the use of theme in screenwriting, and here are 10 writers and directors giving conflicting views on the topic:

“. . . I’m quite sure that I never thought much about theme before getting roadblocked on [writing] The Stand. I suppose I thought such things were for Better Minds and Bigger Thinkers. I’m not sure I would have gotten to it as soon as I did, had I not been desperate to save my story. I was astounded at how really useful ‘thematic thinking’ turned out to be.”
Stephen King
On Writing, pages 206-207

“I’m not sure I know what themes are. I know English departments care about themes. So it’s possible to look at my work, as I guess anybody’s work, and infer a theme, but it’s not something which concerns me.”
Playwright/screenwriter David Mamet
MasterClass

“I’m personally a big fan of knowing what your theme is before starting. I think they can arise as you tell the story, but writing within and for a theme seems to me to help the process along.”
Screenwriter Kelly Marcel (Saving Mr. Banks)
Go Into the Story Interview with Scott Myers

“So usually, for me, I have a thematic idea—an inspiration —and then I build everything around that.”
Writer/director Judd Apatow (The 40-Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up)
Masterclass/Writing the First Draft

“If somebody asks me about the themes of something I’m working on, I never have any idea what the themes are…. Somebody tells me the themes later. I sort of try to avoid developing themes.”
Writer/director Wes Anderson (Rushmore, Moonrise Kingdom)
Elvis Mitchell interview on KCRW’s The Treatment

From the book Script Tease by Dylan Callaghan:
Question: What guides you through a story if you don’t outline? is it character or a certain voice?
Diablo Cody: “I like to pick a theme. I know that sounds stupid. It’s not a super advanced technique. They pick a theme on Laverne and Shirley. I think about what the emotional core of the story is, what’s something I can play on across multiple story lines, and I go from there.”

“The most important decision I have to make: What is this movie about? I’m not talking about plot, although in certain very good melodramas the plot is all they’re about. A good, rousing, scary story can be a hell of a lot of fun. But what is it about emotionally? What is the theme of the movie, the spine, the arc? What does the movie mean to me?”
Sidney Lumet
Making Movies

“Every great work has something that’s thematic about it. Not a message, because I don’t think movies do messages very well. They fall flat. Socially, I mean, some great films were made back in the ’30s and ’40s and you can see that they were placed in the time they were made, but their themes are for all time. The biggest thing is the story, but within that you need some thematic element that gets the audience going, that reaches out to them.”
Writer/director John Carpenter
Creative Screenwriting, Volume 6, #1

“I try not to think about theme until later. If I’m adapting a book I’ll extract a theme if I can from something that’s already written, but if I’m writing something I don’t say, ‘oh, here’s the theme.’ I feel like the movie feels – this word I keep using – it feels ‘built’ if you start with the theme ahead of time. If you arrive at a theme that’s great. If there are themes you know you love, that’s great. But for me, if I start writing it seems it doesn’t matter to me early on. I know there are certain themes I automatically always go to, but it’s not anything conscious.”
Screenwriter Scott Frank (Minority Report, Marley & Me)
2012 BAFTA Lecture

“The theme rarely is mentioned in the story; it is never rubbed in. The audience may not put it in words at all, but will recognize the theme and the fact that the story keeps in line with it. Suppose that you have taken for your theme the slogan, ‘It pays to advertise.’ These words may never be mentioned in the story, but the story itself will demonstrate the truth of that statement.”
Screenwriter Frances Marion (The Big HouseThe Champ)
How to Write and Sell Film Stories  (1937)
pages 106-107

“I will say like any time that we’ve gone off and written things where we haven’t really honed in on any theme whatsoever, that’s where you start getting into the weeds and you start losing your sight.”
A Quiet Place screenwriter Scott Beck (on how he and Bryan Woods work)

“Sometimes you never really quite understand what the movie’s about until you go into a matinée screening at the Oriental Theater on a Thursday afternoon.”
Francis Ford Coppola
Lew Hunter’s Screenwriting 434

Related posts:
Writing from Theme
Writing Grace Notes (via James L. Brooks & Judd Apatow)
Ryan Coogler on the Theme of Black Panther
Michael Arndt on Theme

Scott W. Smith

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[Substance definition: Significance or importance]

I think if you put energy into how do I break into the industry, how do I get an agent, how do I – it’s putting the cart before the horse. I think that ultimately first and foremost practicing. Shooting it. And then reshooting it. And reshooting it. And rewriting. And just getting, working on yourself and getting better. But just doing it.

Like getting a camera. Getting whatever camera you can get your hands on. And making stuff. And then getting out there however you can. I actually think practically that’s the industry – you can’t say the industry will be the path to your door, but I think the best way to find your career is just to do what you do and get it out there however you can…. Double down on substance. And that ultimately is what everybody is looking for so hard out there. Everybody wants something that’s interesting and good.”
Writer/director Rian Johnson (Star Wars: The Last Jedi)
Scriptnotes Q&A with Craig Mazin (Episode 299)

Related posts:
The 99% Focus Rule (via Oscar winning screenwriter Michael Arndt)
Rod Serling on Breaking In
The Myth of “Breaking In” (Terry Rossio)
Follow Your Own Wacko Vision
‘I never saw myself as a sitcom writer, but I was waiting tables’—How Rob McElhenny helped launch his career with a camera he bought at Best Buy.
Filmmaking Quote #31 (Annie Mumolo)  “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…”

Scott W. Smith

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The moment came at 64 minutes and 11 seconds into episode #300 of Scriptnotes when Chris McQuarrie explained the differences between screenwriting and film directing in just 18 words:

“Screenwriting is pushing a rock up a hill, and directing is running downhill with a rock behind you.”
Writer/ director Chris McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects, Mission Impossible-Rogue Nation)

That’s a great soundbite, and serves as a climax to that episode—perhaps to all 300 programs on the Scriptnotes podcast. Heck, it’s visceral enough to describe the entire 100+ years of cinema.

Sisyphus

Sisyphus=Screenwriting

IJ_rockroll-cropped.gif

Indiana Jones=Directing

I don’t know if there will be another 300 episodes of Scriptnotes where screenwriters and hosts John August and Craig Mazin talk “about screenwriting and things interesting to screenwriters” but it’s been quite a run. Congrats to all involved in making that happen.

Scriptnotes debuted in August of 2011 and was the first podcast I listened to on a regular basis. Fast forward six years and I now listen to podcasts more than I do watching Tv or even movies. (Tomorrow I’ll even start a run of posts on how Alex Blumberg transitioned from NPR/Planet Money to raising $1.5 million to launch the podcast company Gimlet Media. And will look at how it represents a new era for content creators including dramatic writers.)

Here are 10 posts of mine over the years based on quotes pulled from Scriptnotes:

Scriptnotes’ 100th Podcast

Is It a Movie?

How to Get an Agent (Quote from UTA agent Peter Dodd)

I was never good or smart enough to get industry work before I made my first movie—Star Wars: The Last Jedi writer/director

I never saw myself as a sitcom person, but I was waiting tables…—Hit Sitcom Writer

From Houston to Hollywood (Mazin’s interview with John Lee Hancock)

Kramer vs. Kramer vs. Modern Hollywood (quote from Billy Ray)

Film vs. TV Writing (10 Difference)

What’s Changed? (Tip #102)

What’s at Stake? (David Wain)

P.S. The one show I’d like to see Scriptnotes produce is one where they expand on episode 235 showing how the original Game of Thrones pilot was shot and scrapped because it didn’t work. Love to see them explore how the script was reworked and reshot on its way to becoming a hit TV program. (It would be a bonus if Scriptnotes wanted to move into doc filmmaking and make a Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypselike documentary on that topic.)

Scott W. Smith 

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tim-raines1981

I’m holding to my post-Super Bowl promise to stop writing football-related posts on a screenwriting blog. But spring training for Major League Baseball is just around the corner so let me sneak in one baseball post.

Here’s a photo I took of Tim Raines when I was a 19-year-old photojournalist for the Sanford Herald. It was his rookie year during the MLB strike in 1981. Last month the Sanford, Florida native was voted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. He’s the best high school athlete I ever saw play. And he’s on the short list of the greatest athletes to come out of Central Florida.

Highlights to his pro baseball career include being a seven time all star, a three time World Series champ (Yankees, White Sox), NL batting champ in ’86, and #5 on the all-time list of stolen bases (just behind Ty Cobb).

Congrats Tim Raines on finally getting into the Hall of Fame. Hope the wait make the trip to Cooperstown all the sweeter.

P.S. Something clicked for me last October/November that made me turn back toward my jouranalism roots. I’ll unpack that down the road, but there’s no doubt in my mind that there are some great opportunities there for content creators. (That includes some of you who have film and TV backgrounds, but aren’t currently working in film and Tv.)

Check out the New York Times multimedia story Snow Fall, The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek by John Branch to get a taste of where journalism is heading. And you don’t have to look back any further than last year when Spotlight won two Oscars (Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay) to see how journalism and movies can work in tandem.

And since this is a screenplay-centered blog, I’ll mention that Scriptnotes #287 gives a nice shout-out to journalism.  Screenwriter Craig Mazin’s one cool thing was “the resurgence of journalism.” He encouraged people to subscribe to a reputable periodical like the New York Times or the Los Angeles Times. I’ve had a couple of conversations about that this year, so I second that motion.

Scott W. Smith

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John wanted to be a screenwriter. He was born to public school teachers in Longview, Texas and raised in Texas City, Texas. Eventually he earned an English degree from Baylor in Waco. Then after graduating from law school he became a lawyer in Houston.

What are the odds of John making it as a Hollywood screenwriter?

[Dramatic pause]

The odds are against him, right? Well, if you’ve seen The Blind Side, Saving Mr. Banks, The Rookie, or A Perfect World then you’ve seen movies where John from Texas (John Lee Hancock) is credited as writer and/or director.

In an interview with Craig Mazin on Scriptnotes, Episode 27 John unpacked how he made the initial transition from a lawyer/actor in Houston to Hollywood writer/director:

“I really fell in love with movies. Not when I was a kid, but when I was in college and I would go to movies a lot. And so I started thinking hard about kind of movie stories, and how they looked on the page, and — this was back in the days before you could walk into a bookstore and get, like, 17,000 books on how to write a screenplay.They didn’t exist. I mean, and you were lucky, you could — there was no online at that time.”

Hancock just turned 60-years-old so I’m guessing this was the late 70s or early 80s. Not only before the internet, but possibly even before Syd Fields’ book Screenwriting: The Foundations of Screenwriting was originally published in 1979.

So he found a place in the San Fernando Valley (probably Burbank) where he could order a few scripts. After learning the format of a screenplay he wrote his first script on the side while practicing law.

But even before tackling a feature script Hancock was studying acting with a teacher who had been a working actor in Los Angeles. It was there where he first started writing monologues and short scenes. Writing that provided “instant gratification.” (A similar experience that Tarantino had in acting classes. Read the post ‘The way I write’—Tarantino)

Hancock said that first feature script (“a story about a guy in his 20s in Houston, Texas who’s angst-ridden and doesn’t know what to do with his life”) was awful. But that “awful” script changed his life.

He sent it to the newly formed Sundance Institute that was doing a workshop in Austin with John Sayles and Bill Wittliff and others and Hancock thought that would be a great opportunity because he’d “never even met anybody who writes screenplays.” (To keep this in perspective he was probably in his mid-twenties at this time.)

“And I signed up, and it also had a thing that said you could — they were going to select, I think, eight screenwriters to go through an intensive four-day worship with Frank Daniel (who had been the head of Columbia Film School and USC).”

I don’t recall if Hancock says on that interview how he started to get traction and work in L.A. (or when he moved there), but that initial thrust began like many others—a desire to write, then writing a screenplay and sending it to some people, and that writing getting him some recognition and eventually leading to his becoming a working Hollywood screenwriting.

Hancock’s experiece in Houston is an echo of what Diablo Cody did in Minneapolis a decade ago and served as the inspiration for starting this blog. (Read the post Juno Has Another Baby). He may not happen everyday, but it happens.

P.S. Keep in mind that Hancock made that transition began over 30 years ago. If he were a lawyer in Houston today he might connect with some filmmakers in Austin, write something that gets on The Black List, or perhaps fund his own low-budget filmmaking. He would find a different path because times and opportunites change.

Related post:
The 99% Focus Rule (via screenwriter Michael Arndt)
Start Small…But Start Somewhere
Starting Small
Screenwriting from Texas

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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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

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