Posts Tagged ‘Mike Birbiglia’

What real writers follow are their characters. And what great writers follow are their characters as they evolve around a central dramatic argument that is actually meaningful to other human beings.
—Craig Mazin

This is the time of year when New Year’s resolutions are traditionally made. And if you need a little mojo before you write your first screenplay (or your next one), here’s a talk screenwriter Craig Mazin (Chernobyl) gave that may help. It was released on the Scriptnotes podcast in 2019, but just put on YouTube a few months ago. Super stuff and and another spin on screenwriting you can pour into your funnel.

Two things to pay particular attention to are his use of theme and a major dramatic argument. (Reviewing the movies Finding Nemo and Shrek will help you understand his illustrations.) Mazin also gets a little deep talking about the Hegelian dialectic but it’s an important concept to grasp.

Back 1998 screenwriter/playwright David Mamet touched on the dialectic when he wrote in his book Three Uses of the Knife that dramatic structure “is an exercise of a naturally occurring need or disposition to structure the world as thesis/antithesis/synthesis.” (So Mazin is in good company there.)

In my book, I point out what this looks like and add a helpful example:

A (thesis) + B (antithesis) = C (synthesis)

Mike Birbiglia says he used the thesis/antithesis/synthesis concept on his Netflix special The New One:

Act 1: “All of the reasons no one should ever want to have a child.”
Act 2: “How I had a child and how I was right.”
Act 3: “And then in the emotional twist how I was wrong.”

He started with a point of view (thesis), he tested the opposite view (antithesis), and came up with a third view (synthesis).

So don’t get scared away when Mazin dips into philosophy. And, lastly, there’s Mazin’s charge for you to “torture your heroes” in your screenplays.

You can download the entire transcript of Mazin’s talk at Scriptnotes.

P.S. My manic meme making continues today with Annie Wikes (Kathy Bates) from Misery (with a cameo featuring James Cann’s ankles) from the famous hobbling scene.

Related posts:
The Major or Central Dramatic Question
Screenwriter Craig Mazin on Thematic Structure—Plus 12 Conflicting Views on Theme
Oscar Winning Screenwriter Michael Arndt on ‘Beginnings: Setting a Story in Motion’ (click on view on Vimeo)
Oscar Winning Screenwriter Michael Arndt on ‘Endings: The Good, the Bad, and the Insanely Great’ (also click on view on Vimeo)

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

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When I studied dramatic writing in college my professor John Glavin printed out the screenplay for American Beauty and told me, ‘Notice that it says draft 12.’ I remember thinking, ‘That must be an anomaly.’ But it isn’t. Everything I’ve produced on stage or screen went through 10 or 20 drafts. Believe it or not, you’re currently reading the 12th draft of this.

Rewriting is a badge of honor. For a year the final story in The New One took place with my wife and daughter on a beach. And one day Ira Glass said to me “It shouldn’t end there. It should end somewhere else.” (I won’t say where).

I had already toured 30 cities with artwork of myself on a beach. I had made a promotional video with live seals in La Jolla, Calif., on a beach. Now the beach story is gone.”
—Writer Mike Birbiglia (Don’t Think Twice, The New One)
6 Tips for Getting Your Play to Broadway 

Related post:
Bad Script, Good Pizza, Great Feedback

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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“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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“I would have these script readings for Don’t Think Twice at my house to workshop the film script the way that I workshop my standup…and I would say at the beginning of the reading, ‘the script might be bad, but at the end, we’re all going to eat pizza.’”
Writer/Director Mike Birbiglia

In Mike Birbiglia’s podcast interview with Tim Ferriss he explains his writing process from gathering ideas to writing, and re-writing his screenplays. When writing he schedules three hours each morning to write in a coffee shop (but may write for five if the writing is flowing). He encourages writing in a trance where you don’t think consciously what you’re putting on the page.

Back at home he has a cork board wall full of 3″X5″ notes cards which has scene ideas, pieces of dialogue, and what he calls mind writing quotes. Inspirational sayings by well-known writers.

Here’s an edited version of his exchange with Ferriss about what he does after he has a draft completed:

Mike Birbiglia: I always urge screenwriters, or anyone who needs feedback on their work, to just invite people to something where you give them something, give them food, give them ice cream, give them pizza, and try and solicit their feedback. Because I think feedback is the most valuable thing you can have for your writing.

Tim Ferriss: Can you explain how you workshop the material? At what point do you invite your friends over and ply them with pizza? How rough is it when you give it to them?

Mike Birbiglia: Probably about two month in. I started writing [Don’t Think Twice] two years ago at the end of April, and then June 10 I had people over. I prefaced it by saving, “It might not be good”and “thanks for coming.” I had ten or 12 of those at my house. They ended up being some of the most fun parts of the process entirely. Because there’s really no stakes to showing your friends your work. It feels like there’s stakes—I was very nervous. But there’s something communal about it, there’s something fun about it.

Tim Ferriss: Do you do a table read? Do people take roles or do they all read in silence and give you feedback? How does it work?

Mike Birbiglia:I have them read it aloud. Like I’d have my assistant at the time Greg would read the screen directions and I would assign parts and I would highlight the script for people. We’d read it a loud, and then we’d eat pizza and just kind of talk about what it made us feel like. The director of my one person shows is this guy named Seth Barrish, this really brilliant theater director. He always does this thing dramaturgically—I will pitch him what my idea is and then he says back to me, “Well, what I get from that is this…” and it’s a non-judgmental way of interfacing with a collaborator. In other words, he reads the script and then says “Well, what I get from that is it’s a group of friends and one of them gets more successful than the others and they’re all trying to figure out what they’re doing with their lives.” If he says that back to me and I say, “Well, no, it’s more than that, it’s actually about this, this, this, and this.” And he says, “Well, that’s not what I got from it.” It’s actually helpful to the process. I think one of the most important things about the writing process is that people are getting what you’re intending.…What I’m doing essentially in my little shabby apartment in Brooklyn is basically what they’re doing on the hundred million dollar level in Hollywood. It’s “development” in Hollywood where they develop these screenplay for years and years and years with all of these executives giving notes. I don’t want executive giving notes to me, I want writers giving notes to me. And I want actors to give notes. I want collaborators who actually do the things I like and who I aspire to be like. And I invite over writers who are way better than me….We read it start to finish like a table read for a sitcom or a movie. And then at the end we kind of adjourn. Some fiery discussions start. A lot of people give their thoughts and they really conflict with other people’s thoughts. And those people fight with each other, and I listen to that. It’s really helpful.

Note: It helps, as in Birbiglia’s case, if some of your friends are Brian Koeppelman (Billions), Michael Weber (500 Days of Summer), and Phil Lord (The Lego Movie). But do what you can, where you are, with the friends you have.

P.S. This is the way that Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather) and Brad Bird (The Incredibles) also work, as I wrote in the 2009 post  The Francis Ford Coppola Way (Tip #29). And #86 on William Akers’ reasons why Your Screenplay Sucks! is you haven’t done a table read.

Scott W. Smith


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“If you want to perform five minutes of good comedy, write what you think is three hours of great comedy.”
Comedian/writer/director Mike Birbiglia (Sleepwalk with Me)
Interview with Tim Ferriss

P.S. One excellant documentary that shows Birbiglia’s quote in action is Comedian, Jerry Seinfeld’s love letter to comedy.

Related Link:
Jerry Seinfeld Interview: How to Write a Joke
Seinfeld on What Drives Comedy

Related posts:
‘Art is Work’—Milton Glaser
Frank Gehry on Creativity 
Stephen King’s Double Wide Trailer (Could be subtitled “Writing is Work.”)
Billy Wilder on Writing “(Writing) is blood, sweat, and tears, believe me. ”
Art & Fear
Off-Screen Quote #15 (Edgar Degas)
Screenwriter’s Work Ethic (tip #2)
The Secret to Being a Successful Screenwriter (Seriously)

Scott W. Smith

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“Only emotion endures.”
Ezra Pound
A Retrospect

Terms of Endearment and Broadcast News are two James L. Brooks films that I can just watch over and over again…I strive to make movies like those where you’re laughing and you’re crying. That’s what all of it is for; It’s to experience the range of emotions within and hour and a half or two hours.”
Writer/Director Mike Birbiglia (Don’t Think Twice)
Interview on The Tim Ferriss Show

Check out the Don’t Think Twice website to see when the movie will be playing in your area. Select theaters with include Q&A with cast and/or crew including Mike Birbiglia tonight and tomorrow in Los Angeles. I’ll look forward to seeing it in Central Florida at the Enzian in August.

Related posts:
“It’s all about emotions”—Jamusz Kaminsky
Pity, Fear, Catharsis
Del Close & Emotional Discovery
James L. Brooks on Chayefsky
40 Days of Emotions (The longest single sting of posts on this blog.)

P.S. The posts Finding Authentic Emotions (Part 1) and Part 2 touch on how Alex Blumberg found the emotional core of an interview he did with artist Ann Rea on the CreativeLive class Power Your Podcast with Storytelling.I just watched that class again online and I think Alex’s pre-interview and interview with Rea (and the finished edited results) are the best example discovering and capturing the creative process/emotions in real time that I’ve ever seen. (And a gamble that could have gone wrong in several places since it was recorded live.)

Alex learned a lot about storytelling from Ira Glass when the two worked together producing This American Life. Ira is also one of the producers of Don’t Think Twice.  (Read the post Ira Glass on Storytelling.) 

Scott W. Smith

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