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Posts Tagged ‘Jim Uhls’

“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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“A logline conveys the dramatic story of a screenplay in the most abbreviated manner possible.”
Christopher Lockhart
The Construction of a Logline (Get this free PDF.)

Today is a mash-up with screenwriter Jim Uhls (nicknamed Professor Peculiar) of comments he made about pitching years ago on The Dialogue interview with Mike De Luca and a CreativeLive class he gave earlier this year called The Screenwriters Toolkit.

“Usually an original idea nowadays in feature films is not pitched—’Oh, we love that idea’—and they pay you to write it. It’s rarer than rare. But anytime you’re hired to write a feature screenplay, which in this case is usually an adaptation, or some kind of source material. Could just be an idea a producer has, a magazine article or whatever—but whatever it is you have to pitch your take of how you would write this into a screenplay. Pitches of originals come in too. You may need to pitch—not a formal pitch— the [screenplay] you already wrote, to get someone to read it. So the idea of pitching is always there.

“This is a performance of passion. It’s not, ‘I memorized it.’ That’s not the best way to go. It’s also not somebody speaking in a timid voice begging the listener, ‘Please like me and like my idea.’ It is, “I’m going to write this thing and it’s going to be absolutely fantastic—and I’m writing it anyway. Whether you hire me or not—I’M DOING IT.’ Passion. 

“Pitching is really classic salesmanship— I hate it actually. It’s just not something that comes naturally to me. But I have worked out my own system for what I think a pitch should probably be and I’ve used it before. And this does come from newspaper journalism where you start with the head line. I think it helps to start off with a title—like a newspaper article has a headline—and give them the log line. And then go into it.  It’s conversational. ‘Let me tell you a story.’ Just tell it like you were in a bar. 

“Then the first paragraph of a classic news article—I don’t know if they’re written this way anymore—was a paragraph that told you the entire story. And the second paragraph told the entire story again but with a lot more detail. Or details about one aspect of it. And the third a lot more detail about another aspect of it. And by the fourth paragraph you should be getting close to the end of your pitch. And that covers some of the bigger themes of what it is, and then some kind of capper to get out of it. Between 15 and 30 minutes is probably smart.”
Screenwriter Jim Uhls (Fight Club, Jumper, Semper Fi)

P.S. A good exercise in a writing workshop or a high school/college class would be pitching a favorite film of yours. If the pitch doesn’t work you at least know that it’s not the story’s fault.

Related posts:
Breaking Bad Y’all (Vince Gilligan on pitching Breaking Bad)
Screenwriter/Salesman Pete Jones (“I’m getting a little emotional and I shouldn’t be, but it’s about making the best film.”)
‘The Best Log Line’—Tom Lazarus (“Log lines are vital in my process of film writing because they force me to distill my idea for the screenplay down to its essence.”)
The Perfect Logline
‘Juno’—The Logline
‘Die Hard’—The Logline
‘Star Wars’—The Logline

Scott W. Smith

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According to screenwriter Jim Uhls, reading screenplays—”as many as you can”—is the best way to analytically as well as intuitively learn screenwriting structure. And while he did his undergraduate theater work at Drake University and his graduate work in dramatic writing at UCLA, he doesn’t believe that a formal education in film school is imperative to working in the business.

“What [college] gave me was a workshop where I did have plays fully produced, I had scenes that I’d written in screenplay structure shot on video tape so I was able to get immediate gratification, and immediate feedback from other artists. So that kind of environment is valuable, no matter where it is or what circumstances—it doesn’t have to be college.”
Jim Uhls
The Dialogue interview with Mike De Luca

Keep in mind that Uhls went to college over 30 years ago and the environment has changed considerably since then. College was not only cheaper, but it was one of the few places you could get your hands on quality production equipment. Nor was there the internet to gain free access to screenwriting and production advice as well as screenplays themselves.

Tuition for UCLA grad school runs $15,582.09 per year. (Other schools can run $40-50K per year. ) Read the article Leaving Los Angeles and consider what it would mean for a writer/filmmaker to have $100,000+ of student loan debt heading into a career in the arts.

Considering today that for under $4,000 you can buy a decent camera, lens, SD cards, tripod, a computer, a microphone, a couple of lights, and editing software and still have enough left over for a couple months subscription to lynda.com— you can get that “immediate gratification” of seeing your work produced by shooting and editing it yourself. Of seeing actors say your lines. And you can do that wherever you live in the world. And if $4,000 is too much buy used gear for $2,000—or find a buddy who already has the gear.

Also, consider starting in your area a writer/actor workshop/lab. Uhls is a founding member of Safehouse in L.A. which consists of working screenwriters, playwrights, and actors presenting material for feature films, TV pilots, shorts films, plays and free standing scenes.

“[Safehouse] is a safe space for writers to workshop their work without any judgment. It’s a place where you can feel free to fall flat on your face and no one’s going to laugh at you or think less of you. We’re going to give you constructive criticism, and whatever you do with that criticism is your business.”
Screenwriter  (and producer of The Dialogue series) Aleks Horvat
LATimes article by Jay A. Fernandez on Safehouse

“That’s why we call it Safehouse. What’s wholesome about the group is that we all know that [the writer’s looking for input] and we’re all helping with that. Everybody’s got something to work out in the material they’re bringing.”
Jim Uhls from the same article

“The idea is that writers bring in about 15-minutes of material from a screenplay, or a play, and they direct the actors in the scenes—in rehearsals—the lines aren’t memorized, the actors are working off a script but it’s blocked and acted out and afterwards the other writers and actors present that evening will give comments”
Jim Uhls 
The Dialogue interview with Mike De Luca

Feel free to comment or email me (info@scottwsmith.com) about your workshop experiences, or where there are other similar groups are meeting—especially ones in unlikely places.

P.S. Speaking of unlikely places and learning about film on the internet, believe it or not, the first place you should go is Cinephilia and Beyond (@LAFamiliaFilm) which comes from Zagreb, Croatia. This is what director Peter Webber (Girl with a Peral Earring) says about that site, “I’ve learned more from Cinephilia & Beyond than I ever did from film school.” Since I’m on a run of posts on Jim Uhls, check out Cinephilia & Beyond’s Fight Club section where there’s a link to Uhls’ Fight Club screenplay and audio commentary.

Scott W. Smith

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“There’s an old cliché: ‘work smarter, not harder.’ As it turns out, the process of skill acquisition is not really about the raw hours you put in…it’s what you put into those hours.”
Josh Kaufman
The First 20 Hours, How to Learn Anything…Fast

“Those who do not want to imitate anything, produce nothing.”
Painter Salvador Dalí

Is it possible to write a screenplay in one day? A feature film screenplay? Even if you’ve never written one before? Yes, to all of the above. What’s the catch? You’re not going to write that original screenplay in your head, but one that’s already been produced.

You’re going to transcribe a film. As in you are writing the script based on an existing movie you’re watching on your TV, computer, tablet or phone. (If you happen to be a court reporter that skill could come in handy here.)

I heard this “Transcribe a Film” piece of advice over the weekend from screenwriter Jim Uhls (Fight Club) on a CreativeLive seminar he gave called The Screenwriters Toolkit.

“Here’s an assignment for you, transcribe a film. Everybody has a way of pausing and rewinding films as they’re watching them—this is a big assignment. It’s a big job. But it’s a very, very valuable thing to do. When we’re writing we’re seeing a movie while we’re writing our movie. We’re imagining it. So that’s similar to watching a film, and transcribing what’s happening. Don’t read the screenplay first and cheat that way. Transcribe it the way you’re experiencing it. Put in the slug lines, put in the action description lines, transcribe that dialogue, put in the parentheticals where you think that makes sense. It’s a very, very good exercise. And what it will eventually do is create a facility to handle transcribing your own imagination as you’re thinking of your film story…You should transcribe the whole film without questions.”
Screenwriter Jim Uhls (Fight Club)
CreativeLive seminar/ Vocabulary & Basic Style Rules

That’s the freshest screenwriting tip I’ve heard in the last decade. It should instantly go into the screenwriting advice hall of fame.

Why do I think it’s such great advice? Because there are many people who for years have been in love with the idea of being a screenwriter—but they’ve never finished writing even one screenplay. This fixes that in one day. Granted it’s not a screenplay that totally came out of your imagination—but it’s a start. (And it might take you all day—as in 24 hours. To help yourself here pick a movie that has a sub-100 minute running time like Pieces of April—80 min., verses The Godfather—175 min.)

But at the end of the day (or the end of the week if you chunk it out) you’ll have a feature script you wrote. Then you can track down the screenplay of the movie you transcribed and compare how the screenwriter(s) who got paid to write the screenplay did it.

Then you can begin to analyze how that script is different from yours. But for now we’re just going to get it written. (No pressure here. You don’t have to show this to anyone.)

If you’ve never read a screenplay, read a book on screenwriting, or taken a screenwriting class there are just three things I want you to do as you dive into writing your first screenplay; Slug line, scene description, and dialogue.

1) Slug line/ scene headings

This is what’s written at the beginning of every scene. Examples:

INT. O’ROURKE’S BAR – DAY
INT. O’ROURKE’S BAR – NIGHT

Does that seem simplistic? Those are slug lines from the Oscar-nominated screenplay The Verdict by David Mamet. There are other slight variations (DUSK, DAWN, AFTERNOON, etc.) but INT or EXT (for interior or exterior) and DAY or NIGHT are the most commonly used.

2) Scene description / action

Example (again from The Verdict screenplay);

Gavin and Laura are in a booth. The remains of a dinner and drinks around them. They are both smoking cigarettes, intent on each other. Both a little drunk.

Four sentences that give you a clear idea of the setting.

(For the sake of economy try to limit those descriptions to three sentences or less. If you have to write more use another paragraph. In writing action movies you may have a burst of short sentences and paragraphs flowing down the page.)

3) Dialogue

Here you’re going to just write down the dialogue the characters say. Put the character’s name in ALL CAPS with the dialogue under it in the center of the page. (Screenwriting software makes the formatting a breeze.)

Example from Oscar-winning Juno screenplay by Diablo Cody. (Major spoiler alert.)

Screen Shot 2015-07-27 at 1.37.38 PM

You can do that, right? Now, there are other aspects of basic screenwriting like  parentheticals, transitions, character introductions, capping SOUNDS, camera directions, MORE, CON’T, etc., but unless you already know how to use those just stick with slug lines, scene description, and dialogue.

Here’s what those three look like when put together from the start of one scene by Damien Chazelle from the Oscar-nominated Whiplash script.

WhiplashExample

There are many other nuances involved in screenwriting (structure, subtext, subplots, theme, etc.) but I’m trying to demystify just the core process as much as possible for this assignment. If you have screenwriting software like Movie Magic Screenwriter ($179.95), Final Draft (on sale today for $169.), Highlander ($29.95 and from screenwriter John August and his team) or Celex (free) it simplifies the formatting process, but if you don’t just do it in Word or Pages using 12-pont Courier font. Some working screenwriters handwrite their scripts so you can even do that. (It’ll just take you a little longer and you won’t be able to have the satisfaction of having your screenplay look like a real screenplay.)

While doing this you’ll be developing muscle memory. Building confidence. Not getting caught up in analytical aspects—and sometimes esoteric concepts—of screenwriting.

One of the hardest aspects of learning how to surf is actually learning how to catch a wave. And if the waves are 3 feet or bigger it can seem like an impossible task. But go out with a surfer/surf instructor on a calm 1-2 foot day and have him or her give you a little push at the right time and all you have to do is watch your balance and stand up. You won’t be Kelly Slater, but you’ll be surfing in an hour or two.

Transcribing a film is like that. Just giving you a little nudge before you head out into the big waves by yourself.

And for the doubters out there, this method is in the ballpark of how Oscar-winning screenwriter Quentin Tarantino started his writing career. While taking acting classes he used to write scenes from memory of movies he’d seen. Along the way an acting coach realized that the writing was not only deviating some from the actual movies, but was actually better written in some cases and encouraged Tarantino to begin writing his own scripts.

P.S. The day after I wrote this post I decided to try this out for one scene to see how long it would take. I went to Netflix and landed on indie film Swingers (1996). Using a yellow pad and pen it look me 20 minutes to write out the opening dialogue driven scene. What I wrote lined up within one sentence of the Jon Favreau script. It was a good exercise. If I was typing it could have been done in 10 minutes so I’m guessing it would take anywhere from 6-12 hours to do a whole script. 

Related Post: Dumb Little Writing Tricks That Work:Transcribe Screenplays (Scott Myers)

Scott W. Smith

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“The first rule of Fight Club is you do not talk about Fight Club. The second rule of Fight Club is you do not talk about Fight Club.”
Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt)

I’m breaking the first two rules of Fight Club today by talking about Fight Club. But it’s okay because it’s really Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk talking about where he got the original idea for his novel Fight Club. (I had never read or heard this account until a few days ago when I watched the movie version and listened to the commentary by Palahniuk and Fight Club screenwriter Jim Uhls.)

“I had gone on a vacation hiking and camping. I’d gotten into a really big fight with some people over noise at night in the woods. Some people who just had to camp right next to our camp—just had to bring some huge radio some 3,000 feet up the Pacific Crest Trail and have some big blow out party in the middle of the night. And I came back to work at the end of my vacation with my face just bashed—like Jack in the urinal next to his boss. My face was so awful, so trashed that nobody would acknowledge it, because to acknowledge it somehow they would have to find out something about my private life they just didn’t want to know. So for three months as my face slowly changed color and started coming back to white people would look at my chest, and they would talk to my Adam’s apple, and they would say, ‘So, how was your weekend? Did you do anything interesting?’ And I’d be looking at them with two huge black eyes and say, ‘No. How about you/’It just seemed so ludicrous that I thought if you looked bad enough no one would ever dare ask you what you did with your free time, and that was the genesis of Fight Club.”
Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk

The irony, of course, is people often go hiking and camping to disconnect from their everyday worlds and reconnect with nature and have a peaceful experience—unplugged from the everyday noise. Yet if Palahniuk has a peaceful hiking and camping experience he doesn’t end up getting in a fight and perhaps Fight Club never gets written.

P.S. A few days ago Jeff Goldsmith  (@yogoldsmith) tweeted this; “So @chuckpalahniuk told me he’s working with David Fincher & @trent_reznor to do a rock opera – an enhanced version of the film!”

P.P.S. Fight Club screenwriter Jim Uhls taught a class on CreativeLive called The Screenwriters Toolkit that is currently on sale for $41. I haven’t watched the class, but in general I love what the CreativeLive team produces. And since people often complain about the lack of teaching material by working screenwriters of well done produced films this would seem a good opportunity to fill that void.

Scott W. Smith

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