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Posts Tagged ‘Judd Apatow’

“When you read a good screenplay, you know it—it’s evident from page one.”
Syd Field

“Shakespeare knew his audience; the groundlings standing in the pit, the poor and oppressed, drinking freely, talking boisterously to the performers if they didn’t like the action on stage. He had to ‘grab’ their attention and focus it on the action.”
Syd Field

Syd Field’s book Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting came out in 1979 putting him at the center of a new wave of interest in screenwriting that continues to this day. Sure there were books on screenwriting before Field’s released his “Step-by-Step Guide from Concept to Finished Script” but he had a flair of looking at then contemporary films like Chinatown, Taxi Driver, Midnight Cowboy as well as more mainstream movies;  Star Wars, Rocky and Raiders of the Lost Ark.

By the mid-70s, the party was over for many baby boomers born between 1946-1964 and they were looking for a new guru to lead them into actually finding an income stream. Field’s, who died last month at age 77, filled that void. (And it certainly did provide an income stream for at least one person.)

I bought the “New Expanded Edition” of his book Screenplay when I was in college. To show how times have changed, I bought that book when I was in film school in the early ’80s. I think it was the first book on screenwriting I ever bought. This was long before the Internet became a great free resource for people wanting to learn about screenwriting. Before DVD commentaries featuring screenwriters. In fact, if you go back to 1979 I bet the average American couldn’t have named one screenwriter.

These days I’m often amazed at the way film savvy high school students can talk about movie structure and their favorite filmmakers (including screenwriters). These days the book Screenplay doesn’t exactly take your breath away, but you have to remember that the gems Field’s tossed out—”The first ten pages of your screenplay are absolutely the most crucial”—were not common knowledge back then.

Field wrote from the perspective of the script reader. He had spent several years as the head of the story department at Cinemobile Systems and began to wonder why so few good scripts were recommended for possible development and why other films succeeded.

“My reading experience gave me the opportunity to make a judgment and evaluation, to formulate an opinion. This is a good screenplay, this is not a good screenplay.”
Syd Field

And just as he was formulating his experiences, he was asked to teach a screenwriting class at Sherwood Oaks Experimental College. His book flowed from the years of teaching that class. Of course, not all of his students became working screenwriters. And one could even argue that the ratio of scripts recommended verses rejected today has basically remained unchange—despite the wealth of screenwriting info out there today.

Field addressed that reason in the introduction to his first book—talent. It’s the same reason sometimes that even gifted college athletes (even Heisman Trophy winners) don’t have sustainable pro careers.

Field ended up giving screenwriting workshops all over the world, and took a lot of blame over the years for basically starting a cottage industry that has made a lot of money over the years out of the pockets of dreaming screenwriters, but after his death there were some accomplished screenwriters that had some positive things to say about him.

“What I learned in Syd Field’s class was here’s how Annie Hall works, and here’s how Witness works, and then I begin to think, ‘OK now how would I do it differently than that?’ That concept of ‘Always being in learning mode’ has stuck with me to this day” 
Producer/director/writer Judd Apatow 

“I did a million drafts. And then I did the thing everybody does—I read Syd Field and I used my index cards.”
Producer/writer/actress Tina Fey

“RIP Syd Field. We can argue about formula and dogma, but Field introduced countless screenwriters to the craft. He was an inciting incident.”
Screenwriter John August

“I’m not surprised to have seen the many acknowledgements from screenwriters, professional and non-pros, about Field today. I know I never would have broken into the business without the insights into the basics of screenwriting his book gave me.”
Screenwriter/Go Into The Story blogger Scott Myers

 “I’ve gone from reading [Field’s] books, to being taught by him in courses! I think one of us must have done something right! I thank him all the time for inspiring me.”
The Shawshank Redemption writer/director Frank Darabont

Field went on to write several books which reportedly sold over a million copies. Just this past September he delivered the Keynote address at STORY EXPO on Why We Are Storytellers. (I’ll try to track that talk down for a future post. ) You can find several videos of Field teaching online, but here’s a short clip of him interviewing screenwriter Micahel Ardnt. (It’s worth pointing out that Ardnt was a co-screenwriter of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire which has been at the top of the box office the last two weeks and pulled in over $500 million worldwide.)

According to the Syd Field website, they list three places charitable donations can be made in Syd’s name:

P.S.  An interesting sidenote: Field was said to have written nine screenplays, none of which were produced. I have also written nine feature scripts, but have only had my short film scripts produced. I like to point out on this blog that there are several Oscar-winning & nominated screenwriters who have mentioned having no scripts made (or even sold in some cases)  after writing nine scripts including Oliver Stone (Platoon), Sheldon Turner (Up in the Air), and Michael Arndt (Little Miss Sunshine). So I think persistence is the bookend to talent. Arndt said well before his success that he made a commitment to be “a screenwriter for life.” (In his case, he wrote ten scripts before selling one.)

Related posts:

How To Become a Successful Screenwriter (Tip #41)
The Secret of Being a Successful Screenwriter (Seriously)
Screenwriting Quote #144 (Syd Field)
Screenwriting Via Index Cards
Beatles, Cody, King & 10,000 Hours
‘Up in the Air’—Take 2 “I wrote 12 screenplays before I gave one to anybody.”—Sheldon Turner
Screenwriting from Pixar (Part 2) One of the all-time most popular posts on this blog. Arndt, who wrote Toy Story 3 with the Pixar team, breaks down what he found in studying previous Pixar movies.

Scott W. Smith

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“The thing I’m always fighting off is wasted time and writer’s block.”
Edward Burns

photo-40

“I have a shoebox and—I have two of them actually. And every time I have an idea for a scene or a scrap of dialogue, or even just a snippet of an impression I have that seems to connote something in my head, I’ll put it in a shoebox. I’ll let six months go by until there’s all these accumulated papers in there. Napkins and business cards and everything that’s scribbled on and I dump it out. And I read through all of the things I’ve collected in the last six months. And some of the things you don’t even remember writing and you can’t even interpret what in the hell it means. Just see if anything connects. Just see if there is a thread that runs through any of the things that obviously that you’ve been thinking about or has been recurring in your subconscious in the last six months. You see what jells—what suggests a shape.
Writer/Director Shane Black
Speaking to students in Minneapolis

“I have three corkboards and then a wall in my office that I painted with the stuff that you can turn into a chalkboard. So basically what I do is I have one corkboard that is divided into four strips. The first act, the first part of the second act, then the second half of the second act, and then the third act. And within that I have index cards of reminders of every screenwriting book that I’ve read. So it’s just like when I’m writing and I’m stuck I’ll just stand in front of the board and say, ‘Oh, Blake Snyder says this, Syd Field says that, Robert McKee says this.’ And a lot of times I can just bust through that the writer’s block…It’s funny when I saw the documentary on Woody Allen and he has the bedside table with all these strips of paper—my version of that is my corkboards. If I have an idea I write it down and post it on the board. And then my chalkboard is basically—since environment is so important to me I want my world to feel very real—that’s usually a listing of my locations.”
Filmmaker Edward Burns
The Q&A Podcast with Jeff Goldsmith

P.S. The above photo is actually a Nike shoebox of mine that has various ideas for screenplay ideas I’d like to explore. Because I played a little football back in the day, there are always themes there that I like exploring. The CNN article was written in 2009 after former NFL quarterback Steve McNair (whose nickname was Air McNair) was killed by his mistress in a murder-suicide. Then earlier this year I read an article about NBA great Michael Jordan who was quoted as saying basically he’d give up all his wealth and fame if he could just play professional basketball again. And that isn’t just an idea that has been percolating in my brain for the past five years, it goes back more than a decade.

The box has various articles and ideas including an insightful Sports Illustrated piece about former Cleveland Brown QB Bernie Kosar and how he went through the $50 million he made before filing for bankruptcy. (Kosar says he was good at making money, but not good at keeping it.) In my shoebox are reports on the lingering effects of head injuries on NFL players. Former players who’ve committed suicide. Index cards that read things like  “Watch North Dallas Forty and “Watch The Electric Horseman”—a 1979 Sydney Pollack directed and Robert Garland written movie starring Robert Redford who played a former rodeo star trying to hold on to his dignity. I don’t know if all those notes, thoughts, and articles will ever lead to a screenplay—but that’s all part of the process.  Judd Apatow (This is 40) types notes/ideas/dialogue on his phone and David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook)  says he “tricks himself into writing” by emailing ideas to himself.

So whether it’s a shoebox, a corkboard, cell phone, or email—find what works for you to gather ideas and move forward with writing your screenplay.

Related Post:

Screenwriting Via Index Cards

Scott W. Smith

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“We have everything we need right now to be completely happy. We’re going to blink and be ninety.”
Debbie (Leslie Mann)
This is 40

This is 40

“I do believe in the old saying ‘we write the movie to figure out why we are writing the movie.’ I started out as someone who wanted to write comedy. I never thought about comedy being an intimate, vulnerable act. Latley I have accepted that writing is a form of self-exploration. I am trying to sort through how I feel about this life while attempting to make it amusing on some level. When I wrote Funny People my mom had just died from ovarian cancer, and the purpose of life was something I was struggling with, so I had the need to write about it. I am not sure if it was a form of healing or denial, but I seemed to have no other option. Lately I have thought a lot about where I am as a forty-four-year-old man. I don’t know if it is a midlife crisis or a simple taking-stock, but I have definitely been thinking about how it is going.”
Judd Apatow
Q&A for This is 40 which Apatow wrote and directed
This is 40; The Shooting Script, published by Newmarket Press

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“Yeah I think I know what my father meant when he sang about his lost highway…”
Hank Williams Jr.
All My Rowdy Friends (Have Settled Down)

“You must break from cliché. You must ‘Give us the same thing…only different.'”
Blake Snyder
Save the Cat

The movie Country Strong is no Tender Mercies. And there are some pluses and minus associated with that. While Tender Mercies is one of my all time favorite films, it did only make $8 million at the box office. Country Strong almost did that this weekend. But since I’ve been writing a good deal recently about movie clones it’s a good time to talk about avoiding clichés.

Tender Mercies is the 1983 Bruce Beresford directed movie for which Robert Duvall earned an Academy Award for Actor for playing a fallen (and alcoholic) county star. Horton Foote also earned an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. Country Strong is the 2010 film written and directed by Shana Feste which stars Gwyneth Paltrow as a (recently) fallen (and alcoholic) county music star . And while Paltrow may get an Oscar nod, the screenplay won’t.

Feste is not Foote, and it would be unfair to compare her to him. He wrote Tender Mercies about 50 years into his career. A career that included Broadway plays and an Oscar for Adapted Screenplay for writing To Kill A Mockingbird in 1962. (And later a Pulitzer Prize.) County Strong is just Feste’s second film. (Who knows what Foote’s early plays were like decades before he became known as “America’s Checkov”?)

And to Feste’s credit she not only wrote the film but directed it putting together a great cast that do their best with a script that crosses the line into a melodrama with a cliché or two—or three. It doesn’t help that last year Jeff Bridges just happened to win an Academy Award in Crazy Heart for playing a fallen (and alcoholic) county music star. In fact, bio pictures of fallen and or musicians struggling with fame, drugs and/or alcohol is such a well travel path (The Doors, Walk the Line, A Star is Born, Glitter, Sweet Dreams) that Judd Apatow found it fertile ground to parody with his 2007 film Walk Hard: The Dewey Coy Story.

“When it seems like you’re stealing—don’t. When it feels like a cliche—give it a twist. When you think it’s familiar—it probably is, so you’ve got to find a new way.”
Blake Snyder
Save the Cat

“Clichés are shortcuts. The more you avoid taking them, the more interesting the places you’ll end up.”
John August
Avoiding cliches

When you start sampling movies about musicians you have to work hard not to hit a wrong note—be diligent to avoid the clichés. (Wait, did I just use a cliché?) I’ll give you one example of good and bad writing. In the opening scene of Crazy Heart, Jeff Bridges as Bad Blake pulls into the parking lot of a dive bar and empties a jug of urine. Not a word has been spoken and we’ve learned a lot about this character and we’ve seen something that no other film has shown before. Here’s a guy who lives on the road and doesn’t want or can’t take the time to make a proper restroom stops between gigs. (A little like the true “stalking astronaut in a diaper story” a couple of years ago.)

Now contrast that with (not really a spoiler, folks) Paltrow’s character finding a baby bird while in rehab and her husband played by Tim McGraw carrying the beat-you-over-the-head-metaphor-in-a-box through half the film. At least one point in the making of the film McGraw had to think, “Is this bird thing working? Seems a little forced to me.”  And I don’t even recall a payoff with the bird.

Country Strong is the kind of movie I used to walk out of when I was younger (ie: Bolero) but now I’ve learned to enjoy the good things about any film. Here the music is top-notch and the studios gave Feste the great director of photography, John Baily (As Good As It Gets), so the film looks wonderful. And despite the 17% Rotten Tomatoes rating from top critics, the film has its moments. I thought the opening scene was a fresh twist and great start to the movie. But somewhere along the way my mind started drifting and I started to wonder how actor Tobey Maguire (Superman, Seabiscuit) got attached to this project as producer.

Later I found out and that’s where the story gets interesting.  I discovered that Feste was once Maguire’s nanny. That’s not meant as a knock. That’s interesting stuff. Everyone needs a job until they break through and Feste was savvy enough to work as a nanny in LA to make connections in the industry. It worked. (I’d definitely recommend being a nanny over some of screenwriter Diablo Cody’s previous income streams. Heck, maybe you could be a nanny for Cody.)

“I went to work as a nanny for people who were in the entertainment business, so that I could get any information I could, even while I was watching their kids. I love children, so it was an easy gig.”
Shana Feste
MovieMaker, December 2010

Along the way, Feste also cut her chops getting a BA at UCLA, a master’s in creative writing from University of Texas at Austin, and another graduate degree from AFI. Solid credentials. After AFI she went to work as an assistant at CAA for  Richard Lovett, who was president of the agency. Again, brilliant move. Her first film The Greatest premiered at Sundance in 2009. Country Strong may not be the best film of the year, but I imagine there are few grads that she went to school with at UCLA, UT-Austin, and AFI who are in the position that Feste finds herself as a Hollywood player writing and directing features.

P.S. Feste was once a nanny for Courney Love. I imagine Love and many others will have a “no screenwriter” request for future nannies. I also have a feeling that the nanny agencies will be getting a lot of calls this week from filmmakers with MFA’s looking for work. So if you happen to live in LA and decide to sign up at one of the agencies like Buckingham Nannies you may want to keep that screenwriter thing to yourself.

Scott W. Smith

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