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Posts Tagged ‘Mike de Luca’

“I have no idea where it came from. It just came all of the sudden. One minute it wasn’t there and the next thing the whole line was there.”
—Paul Simon on writing Bridge Over Troubled Water

Twice in the past week I heard two accomplished artists talking about unconsciousness in terms of creativity and I thought I’d string them together for you to ponder. And then I tie them in from a screenwriting perspective from my book where Quentin Tarantino (Once Upon a Time in Hollywood), Jim Uhls (Fight Club), and Star Wars writer Lawrence Kasden address the mystical part of writing.

“Your personal experience and your emotional stress finds its way by way of your unconscious mind over into the mind of reality. And it translates itself into your lyrics, and you don’t even know that’s happened.”
—Musician Gordon Lightfoot
The documentary Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind

“I’m interested in acting that involves the unconsciouses. We all know how to do something and hit beats and deliver to kill a performance. I’m interested in giving the performance that I don’t know how to deliver. . . . It’s very fluid when you’re in a take. And there’s definitely some structure to the scene because of the dialogue, or how the scene is going to play out. And I rely heavily on the director for that structure, too. But I’m here to bring responses and truth.”
—Academy Award winning actress Nicole Kidman
WTF Podcast with Marc Maron

Here’s a section pulled from my book Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles:

Mike De Luca asked Fight Club screenwriter Jim Uhls, “When did you first feel when you had what it takes to be a screenwriter? Did you have this specific moment when you felt the confidence of,‘I can do this.’?” Uhls resonded, “It was when the analytical side and the intuitive side merged together, worked together as a creative unit.”

Oscar-winning screenwriter Tarantino said of creating the Mia character (Uma Thurman) in Pulp Fiction, “I have no idea where she came from. I have no idea whatsoever. ” That’s intuition. And talent.

The intuitive side of screenwriting is hard to articulate. The intuitive side isn’t as concrete as the analytical side. It could even be called mystical.

When Lawrence Kasden was asked how he came up with Yoda’s unique speech pattern (“Much to learn, you still have.”) when writing Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back he did not know.

“I don’t know that we choose how we write. I think it somehow chooses us. It’s very mystical.”
—Oscar-winning screenwriter Horton Foote (Tender Mercies).

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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“The basic thing that attracted me to Quiz Show was it was a kind of companion piece to Donnie Brasco. Donnie Brasco was about guys who were really dumb but really shrewed. Cause those mob guys are like that, they all have a 75 IQ but they can read people and read the room. And that was Joe’s (Joe Pistone, uncover FBI agent) achievement—getting over on them is not easy. The Quiz Show people as a companion to it—having written them consecutively—were people who were so smart they were dumb. They were so wrapped up in how smart they were that they were getting defrauded and making horrible life mistakes without any ideas that that was going on.”
Two-time Oscar nominated screenwriter Paul Attanasio
The Dialogue interview with Mike De Luca

Quiz Show’s beginning point was a chapter in the book Remembering America: A Voice of the Sixties by Richard N. Goodwin.

Scott W. Smith

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“To make a good film, to write a screenplay, is surprisingly hard. It shouldn’t be that hard. You’re really creating a diversion for people for two hours. But because of the length—it’s almost like writing a villanelle, or one of those forms that has so many requirements, that to hit the marks you need to hit and to express something is incredibly hard. And the result is there are a handful of people who know how to do it.”
Oscar-nominated screenwriter Paul Attanasio (Donnie Brasco, Quiz Show)
The Dialogue interview with Mike De Luca

Screenwriter Paul Attanasio, like screenwriter Sheldon Turner, came into the film world not through film school but through law school.  He also says he was not “one of those clerk in a video store” kind of guys, but that his writing is based in literature. After graduating from Harvard Law School he turned an internship with the Washington Post into a four-year stint as a film critic.

I’m not sure how he made the jump onto the filmmaking side, but he had the advantage of being mentored by Oscar-winning writer/director Joseph Mankiewicz (All About Eve). His first produced screenplay (Quiz Show) was directed by Robert Redford, his second film Disclosure was directed by Barry Levinson and starred Michael Douglas and Demi Moore, and his third film (Donnie Brasco) starred Al Pacino and Johnny Depp. He had two Oscar-nominations right out of the gate. A pretty good start, huh?

In the ’90s Attanasio also made his mark in TV when he created Homicide:Life on the Street (based on the book by David Simon) and from 2002-2012 he’s credited as executive producer on House M.D.

Here’s a glimpse into his writing process:

“I’m a late convert to outlining. I used to really try to know where I was going to end up and feel my way through it. And [Steven] Soderbergh when we did The Good German said, ‘no, why don’t you outline.’ And I was at the point where my process had gotten so amorphous—it wasn’t quite as amorphous as my friend Alvin Sargent—but it was semi-amorphous. And I said, “Okay, I’ll try that.” And it’s good. It’s like having a road map on a family trip. What happens is the kids have to go to the bathroom, you leave the road, you see something interesting, you go to it, then they’re hungry and you go there. But then when you have to get back to the highway, you know where the highway is, or at least you have a general direction to find your way back to the highway. Writers who stick rigidly to an outline, and never go up those blind alleys aren’t real writers. But on the other side of it is if you’re collecting scraps of paper you can take a long time to write a screenplay.”
Paul Attanasio
The Dialogue interview with Mike De Luca

P.S. Here’s part of Attanasio’s 1987 review of the movie Hoosiers;
“In Hoosiers, director David Anspaugh and screen writer Angelo Pizzo have taken the tired ‘go for it!’ dramatics of a David-and-Goliath story and revived it with the fervor of real experience. Hoosiers demonstrates that it’s not the tale but the telling, for beneath the cliche’s lies a rich and detailed portrait of a time, a place and a way of life.” (I’m pretty sure that should be “beneath the cliches” or “beneath the cliche” but who am I to correct the Washington Post or Attanasio? Anyway, you get the idea of what he was saying. My guess is his years reviewing films was Attanasio’s substitute film school.)

P.P.S. Paul’s brother, Mark Attanasio, is the principle owner of the Milwaukee Brewers Major League Baseball team. Talented family.

Scott W. Smith

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“This is an obscure bit of advice I give writers, don’t write that first thing to sell it or get it made. I mean—that’s great, that’s why we’re all doing this—write it to show that you have a voice. So the first script that I sold, part of me knew that it was never going to get made. What I knew was that it was a great forum for me to flex a certain dialogue, and to get into people’s faces, and have a character that would be very verbose and articulate and do those things, to show yes I could write. Ultimately it’s the equivalent of sort of being the guy who dunks [in basketball] time and time again.  Ultimately as a writer you hope you show that you have a post game, and you have an outside game as well, but sometimes people only respond to the dunks.”
Screenwriter Sheldon Turner (who played football at Cornell University)
The Dialogue Interview: Learning from the Masters (Part 3) interview with Mike De Luca

Related Post:
Finding Your Voice
Finding Your Own Voice
Dif·fer·en·ti·ate Yourself

P.S. Here are a couple of unusual dunks early in the careers of two players that went on to have pretty good careers. Even if you’re not a basketball fan it’s not hard to see how that if you want to get people’s attention when you’re starting out you have to bring a little extra mojo to your game.

Scott W. Smith 

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Mike De Luca: How many screenplays did you write before the first one got produced?
Sheldon Turner: A good 15 probably. You have to be resilient.
The Dialogue: Sheldon Turner Interview Part 2
(Sheldon also mentions on The Dialogue that as he was finding his voice he wrote 11 scripts before he even showed one to anybody.)

“I think all too often now we as a society train ourselves to not have time to think. You get home—you turn the TV on. You get in the car—you turn the radio on. I think those moments [of inspiration] come in solitude. It’s themes—you don’t want to put somebody in a position to go down the hall and tell Amy Pascal (Co-Chairman of Sony Pictures) that Sheldon Turner has some wonderful themes he wants to explore in this movie— but I think that’s what makes for really good [movies]. Even something like The Longest Yard which is pabulum and a fun movie and all that, at least for me I’ve gotta know what the themes are.  Something like redemption or whatever it is, that’s what makes interesting movies.”
Oscar-nominated screenwriter Sheldon Turner  (credits on Up In the Air, X-Men, First Class)

Related Posts:

Writing from Theme (Tip #20)
Obligatory Scene=Story’s Theme
David O. Russell on Characters & Theme
Kelly Marcel on Theme
John Carpenter on Theme
Scott Frank on Theme
Diablo Cody on Theme
Shane Black on Theme
Lawrence Konner on Theme
Theme= What Your Movie is Really About
Theme=Story’s Heart & Soul
Michael Arndt on Theme
Sidney Lumet on Theme
More Thoughts on Theme 

Scott W. Smith

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“My mantra is ‘just keep writing.’ If it’s not good throw it out.”
Screenwriter Sheldon Turner (X-Men: First Class, The Longest Yard)

“I still read five newspapers a day. I try to read a book week, a script a day, all those things. At the end of the day, I believe it’s like the 90 mph fastball—you either have it or you don’t. You can hone those skills…but that’s why I don’t get invited to those screenwriting conferences. Because ultimately my first question is ‘what are you guys doing here?’ Because in a way they’re teaching everyone to do the same thing. And if you look at it from the perspective of a producer, or an executive who’s gotta take home ten scripts in a weekend, or a night take home three scripts, you’ve got to do something to differentiate yourself.”
Oscar-nominated screenwriter Sheldon Turner (Up in the Air)
The Dialogue Interview: Learning from the Masters (Part 1) interview with Mike De Luca

P.S. Two things that differentiates Turner in Hollywood are #1 while he went to NYU like many screenwriters and filmmakers, he’s actually a graduate of the law school, and #2 he gets up everyday earlier than any other screenwriter I’ve ever read about.

“I have a very specific schedule. I get up at 3:57 [a.m.] everyday. I have my whole routine; I’ll write for an hour and then go to the gym and work out for an hour and a half or two hours. And it’s for no other reason other than self loathing, which I find to be the most productive part of my day. I always say I’m motivated by guilt and fear, and also because I don’t take the middle ground well. I’m an extremist. So if I’m not getting up at 3:57 I’m getting up at 1:00 [p.m]. And it’s one of the good things and bad things about being a writer, unless you’re disciplined it’s very easy to fall by the wayside and sort of be the ultimate procrastinator and put things off—So I go to the other extreme.”
Sheldon Turner

Related post:
Self-Study Screenwriting  “I never took a (screenwriting) course, what I did was read every screenplay I could get my hands on.” Sheldon Turner
Finding Your Voice
Shakespeare vs. Ira Glass (Quote for those who don’t have a 90 mph fastball; “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)
Preparing for an Oscar Speech (David Seidler-Style) Only took him about 70 years to hone his writing. 
The Breakfast Club for Writers (2.0) “I began training for the writing life in 1951, getting up at 5:00 A.M. and writing for two hours before going to work at an ad agency.”—Elmore Leonard

Scott W. Smith

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Jake Gittes: There’s some black in the green part of your eye.
Evelyn Mulwray: Oh, that. It’s a…it’s a flaw in the iris.
Chinatown written by Robert Towne

“Scorsese is often called ‘America’s greatest director’ on the strength of a body of work in which all the characters in his movies are various degrees of wicked and miserable people.”
William Froug
Screenwriting Tricks of the Trade

“As a human being I have faults, you have faults, we all have faults. Even a great movie has faults. I think a great movie should have personality. And personality means that there are flaws, and you don’t have to correct the flaws. When you correct the flaws you’re eliminating personality. The Greek word for tragic flaw actually means, in Greek, defining characteristic. So the thing which makes the character is the thing which makes the flaw.  Charlie Kaufman’s movies are highly admired and yet if you analyze them almost all of them have some problem in the third act, things that don’t really work—but they’re part of the fabric. And if you were to clean it up entirely maybe the whole thing won’t work as well…Every script, every movie has a certain DNA, and things which seem illogical may work…Because movies have gotten so expensive, executives feel more fear. And that fear rules. And that fear forces executives to make your screenplay perfect. Perfection is the enemy of art. It’s the enemy of character. It’s the enemy of anything that’s dynamic and interesting.”
Screenwriter Nick Kazan
The Dialogue Interview: Learning from the Masters (Part 3) interview with Mike De Luca

Related posts:

Nick Kazan’s Chainsaw Inspiration (Part 1 of this interview)
Burns, Baseball & Character Flaws
Emotional Evolution/Devolution (Part 1)
Character Flaws 101 (Tip #30)

Scott W. Smith

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“[The Texas Chainsaw Massacre] captures the syntax and structure of a nightmare with astonishing fidelity. The quality of the images, the texture of the sound, the illogic by which one incident follows another —all confirm to the way we dream. No one’s done that before, at least not in a commercial, mass market movie…What makes Chainsaw interesting is that since we are watching it with our eyes open, it’s a nightmare which we can’t wake up.”
Michael Goodwin/ Village Voice 
Celluloid Mavericks: The History of American Independent Film by Greg Merritt

Before Nick Kazan became an Oscar-nominated screenwriter (Reversal of Fortune)—or even a working screenwriter—he was a playwright in Berkeley, California with a fondness for the writings of Harold Pinter—but he also found early inspiration from an unlikely place.

“Eventually I moved to Los Angeles and I was writing movie scripts—some with friends—I wrote a great many of them; 10, 15, 20—I don’t know how many I wrote before I had any success. Then one day I read an article by Michael Goodwin in the Village Voice about The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). Well, I grew-up in New York City—I went to a high-toned college (Swarthmore College) so I can be a little bit of a snob.  So Texas Chainsaw Massacre is not a film I normally would have gone to see. But I read this article where he talked about how film functions like dream. About how this movie was very scary and very funny the way dreams are, and I had to go out and see the movie. I saw the movie and I came home and I had an idea. And in four or five days I wrote a script which had the same feeling, the same ethos, as Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  Well I read it over and thought, ‘This is horrifying,’ and I put it in my drawer. And I went about working on other things, and about a month later I said, ‘You know, maybe I should take a look at that script, maybe it wasn’t quite as terrible as I thought. And it was a script with very little dialogue in it—it was mostly visual. And what dialogue it had was peculiar, Pinter-esque in a kind of way, but also Texas Chainsaw Massacre-esque in a way…I sold that script and that’s how I became a screenwriter.”
Screenwriter Nick Kazan (At Close Range)
The Dialogue Interview: Learning from the Masters interview with Mike De Luca

That film actually got made but Kazan felt it was so poorly done he had his name taken off the movie. And while a time or two I’ve been accused launching a screenwriting career difficult— consider Kazan’s path:
1) Swarthmore College—4 year degree in today’s dollars $57,000 per year=A $228,000 education
2)
Became a produced playwright
3)
Wrote “10-15- 20” scripts before launching his career

Kazan earned his keep in the same way I’ve pointed out in past posts the paths that John Logan (Hugo) and Michael Ardnt took—which is a lot of writing before they were discovered. And though Kazan downplays it in interviews, it should be mentioned that his father was Elia Kazan—the Oscar-winning director On the Waterfront (of one of my all-time favorite films). And one of the reasons he downplays who his dad was I imagine, is because when he was writing those 10-15-20 scripts without success his dad’s legacy wasn’t helping much.

P.S. Tobe Hopper directed The Texas Chainsaw Massacre with a small cast and crew made up of college teachers and students. He also wrote the script with Kim Henkel.

Related posts:
Directing Tips from Peter Bogdanovich  “Silent looks between people—to me, that’s what movies are about.”—Bogdanovich
DAVID MAMET’S BOLD MEMO? “IF YOU PRETEND THE CHARACTERS CANT SPEAK, AND WRITE A SILENT MOVIE, YOU WILL BE WRITING GREAT DRAMA.”—Mamet
Write 2 or 3 Screenplays this Year (If you can write a screenplay in a few days like Kazan did, this shouldn’t be a problem)

Scott W. Smith

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