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Posts Tagged ‘Pulp Fiction’

“You don’t know what the story is 30 pages in, you don’t know who the main character is going to be, scenes that go on too long and don’t get buttoned, the scene ends but it drags on for three lines more—or starts three lines earlier [than it should], lack of momentum, lack of pace, tone that’s all over the place—saw a lot of that kind of stuff.”
Stuart Beattie
(On common problems he saw reading screenplays when he was a script reader)

“I have like five basic rules that I try to follow:
1. No book-ends. Meaning like an old man is sitting down by a fire saying, ‘Let me tell you a story,’ and then coming back to a guy at the end. Really bugs me. I think you can always take them out and it means nothing. 
2. Rule number two is no book-ends—for emphasis.
3. You don’t kill the dog. If there’s a dog in the film you don’t kill it. 
4. Four is saving the kiss until the end. That last moment. 
5. Feel free to disagree with the above four. Because at the end of the day there are really no rules. It’s just what you feel is a good story. And take all the experiences of all the films you’ve seen, and all of your life experiences and put that in as objectively as you can. 

Pulp Fiction broke tons of rules, I love that. Just in terms of structure, and character, and time, and all that stuff. I thought The Usual Suspects broke rules. You think Keaton is going to be the main character and it’s not. Breaking rules—I’ve often thought it’d be great to write a serial killer film, a cop chasing a serial killer you’ve seen a thousand times, and have the serial killer killing the cop half way through—and who are you left with? I’m left with a serial killer the rest of the film? Well, that’ll be interesting, wouldn’t it? And seeing how that comes about. That’s breaking a mold.  The most exciting, innovative storytelling kind of stuff. Trying to be on that cutting edge. Not just for the sake of being on that cutting edge, but because it’s interesting. It’s different, You haven’t seen it before. I think audiences are craving originality. I know I am in films. Just something different that I haven’t seen before. That’s at least worth the price of admission.”
Screenwriter Stuart Beattie (Derailed, Australia)
The Dialogue: Learning from the Masters (Part 3) interview with Mike De Luca

P.S. Hard to believe that interview has been online for almost a month and only has 51 views as I type this. It’s also hard to believe that audiences accept people getting killed all of the times in films, but killing a dog in a movie really disturbs people. You can show a character kicking a dog to show he or she is a villain, but if you shoot and kill a dog the odds are good you’ll have to edit that out or reshoot (like Beattie said they had to do in the movie Payback). I’m sure psychologist can tell us why. (And, for the record, dogs are the only animals that seem to get this immunity in Hollywood.)

“A lot of people die in Seven Psychopaths. It is brutal and it is bloody and it revels in its own excess: throats are slashed, people are burned alive, women are shot in the stomach, men get blown to pieces. CBS, which funded the film, was delighted when it read the screenplay, director Martin McDonagh’s follow-up to the much-loved In Bruges. Delighted, except for the bit where someone kills a dog. Hollywood doesn’t like dog-killing, and the studio suggested it would be prudent for him to remove that bit. Not a word about the women who die horribly and slowly, but a dog? You can’t kill a dog. ‘Of course,’ says McDonagh. ‘It’s rule number one.'”
Alex Godfrey, Seven Psychopaths: ‘You can’t kill dogs in Hollywood’

Of course, dogs do die in movies—sometimes gracfully in old age, and sometimes they are killed—and you could probably spend a whole day tracking down threads about it on internet. But I think the general consensus (at least in the United States) is that killing a dog in a movie hits people at such a gut level that it takes them out of the film going experience.

Related post:

“There are no rules.” (Tip #92)
There are no rules, but…(Tip #93+)
Screenwriting’s One Unbreakable Rule
Everything I Learned in Film School (Tip #1)

 

Scott W. Smith 

 

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“Sins can be such fun. Of the seven supposedly deadly ones, only envy does not give the sinner at least momentary pleasure. And an eighth, schadenfreude — enjoyment of other persons’ misfortunes — is almost the national pastime.”
George Will

“Part of the attraction of the first seasons was Schadenfreude — the joy in watching filmmakers suffer and struggle when they got their big chance. As the New York Sun newspaper put it in a headline ‘Bad Film = Good TV’.”
Peter Henderson; Reality TV ‘Project Greenlight’ Has New Goal: Money; Reuters; Aug 6, 2004.

Thanks to a comment (from Scriptwrecked; Making sure your screenplay doesn’t leave you stranded) about my Dorito’s commercial, I just learned of the German word Schadenfreude this week. Now I see it everywhere. Schadenfreude is “pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others.” There’s some schadenfreude going on in Iowa this week with the first criminal charges filed surrounding the Iowa film incentives.

Lee Rood of the Des Moines Register wrote, “The Iowa Attorney General’s office on Monday charged the former manager of the Iowa Film Office with misconduct in office and filed first-degree theft charges against principles involved in the making of a 2008 film in Council Bluffs.” The article goes in detail about the tax-credit scandal and how some filmmakers abused the system.

Filmmakers in Iowa have either known of (or at least heard rumors of) the way that some producers where inflating billings to basically have the taxpayers of Iowa fund films that otherwise would not get made. The most common word I heard from people was the simple word fraud. The government was a little slow to catch on, but they’ve been making up for lost time and the word now being used is felony. Changes have been made of producers from Nebraska and Minnesota and undoubtedly I’m sure there are other producers who are very afraid of the next phone call, letter, or knock on the door.

This drama is becoming more interesting that most of the films made under the Iowa tax incentives.

And since Iowa was a part of the recent runaway production in Los Angeles, I’m sure there are a few production people in L.A. experiencing some schadenfrude.

And according to Rood’s article these charges aren’t just a slap on the wrist, if convicted the filmmakers are facing 2 to 10 years in prison. I guess the flip side is spending time in prison would give you time do to first hand research on a new prison film. I’m surprised  some prison hasn’t harnessed the talent inside those walls to make a feature film. (Any prison wardens out there? I’m open do doing a screenwriting workshop in a prison.) Oscar-winning Pulp Fiction co-screenwriter Roger Avary even got creative and started Twitting from prison (until his privileges were revoked) where he is serving a one-year sentence for vehicular manslaughter.

But some things are better left to the imagination rather than experience. Really, did Stephen King or Frank Darabont need to spend time in a prison during the 1930’s to write The Shawkshank Redemption? Of all the prison films over the years, and there have been some good ones, I bet almost all of them were written by people who didn’t serve time.

Looking at the list of abuses and lack of proper government insight of the Iowa film incentives it’s not a surprise that the state of Iowa has suspended their film incentives. They were once some of the best in the country and some are saying now that they aren’t coming back. We’ll see. It’s too bad this wasn’t a successful program, because it could have been the start of something good.

But, as I’ve said before, the main job of the writer is to write and not get caught-up in all the “if, “ands,” and “buts” of the Alice-in-Wonderland world of filmmaking.

And for all those people out there looking for easy money–remember the old saying, “If it looks too good to be true, it probably is.”

Scott W. Smith

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“Why does New York have a monopoly on theater?”…I have no vested interest in New York, I don’t live there anymore. It’s all the same to me. But that is where the talent is collected, and if it doesn’t happen there, generally it doesn’t happen anywhere else. I wish it would happen in Ann Arbor, when you get a new theater.
Arthur Miller
February 28, 1967
The University of Michigan

Writing is core to everything we do. Yet good writing is becoming a lost art, and a lost value. I am looking forward to watching Michigan invest in what it takes to create the best writing program in the country.
Helen Zell

As I’ve said many times before Screenwriting from Iowa is not limited to screenwriting or Iowa — but it represents movies and people coming from a place beyond Los Angeles. Today we’re going to take a look at talent from another Midwest state as I turn the spotlight on Michigan.

It was no mistake that the great New York born writer Arthur Miller got his college education at the University of Michigan. Even in the 1930s UM was already know for its high literary output and in the 1920s playwright Avery Hopwood created an endowment for UM writers. Miller was an early recipient of the Avery Hopwood Award award in 1937. It was just the first step of recognition for the writer that would go on and write Death of Salesman and The Crucible as well as many other plays, screenplays, short stories and novels in a career that would span 70 years until his death in 2005.

He is considered one of the greatest American dramatists and supported the University of Michigan his entire life. Last year the Arthur Miller Theater opened on the UM campus keeping his wishes as being the only theater bearing his name. That was a tribute to the education he received in Ann Arbor.

But even before Miller became famous the University of Michigan had tradition in Hollywood. Dudley Nichols, a UM alumni  wrote the 1939 John Ford and John Wayne classic Stagecoach. The long train that followed include:
Valentine Davies (Miracle on 34th Street)
John Briley’s (Ghandi)
David Newman’s (SupermanBonnie & Clyde)
Kurt Luedtke (Absence of Malice, Out of Africa),
Richard Friedenberg (A River Runs Through It)
Adam Herz (American Pie)
Josh Greenfield, (Harry and Tonto)
Roger Lowenstein (TV’s L.A. Law)
Judith Guest (Ordinary People)
Lawrence Kasdan (Raiders of the Lost Ark, Grand Canyon, Body Heat)
Laura Kaisischke (
The Life Before Her Eyes)
Jim Burnstein
(D3: The Mighty Ducks)

Burnstein who also wrote Ruffian starring Sam Shepherd has taught at the University of Michigan and gave a presentation this year titled “Wolverines in Hollywood.”

I’m not sure where this Michigan writing legacy started but chances are famed Hollywood screenwriting teacher (and Detroit native) Robert McKee does know. He also attended the University of Michigan where he earned his undergraduate, masters and Ph.D. degrees.  Studying under Kenneth Thorpe Rowe where he learned a good deal about story structure that he promotes in his famed three-day screenwriting seminar and book Story.

Rowe wrote Write that Play and also hooked former student Arthur Miller up in New York that helped Miller start his career.

And though not a writer where would Hollywood be without the talent of former UM pre-med student James Earl Jones? A big voice (“Luke, I am your father”) who was born in a small town of Arkabutla, Mississippi, raised in a couple small towns in Michigan where he overcame a stuttering problem that caused him to be a functionally mute from grade school until high school.

In an interview with Michael J. Bandler Jones mentions Donald Crouch as the teacher that helped him overcome stuttering and find his voice. “I credit him with being the father of my voice. He said, ‘You have a man’s voice now, an impressive bass, but don’t let that impress you. If you start listening to your voice, no one else will.’ It was a good lesson in general. I [try] to be devoid of self-consciousness.”

According to Wikipedia his career in theater began at the Ramsdell Theatre in Manistee, Michigan where he was a stage carpenter before his role in Shakespeare’s Othello. Again to quote to old expression; “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” (And no, I won’t pass up the opportunity to mention that Jones brought his booming voice to Iowa in Field of Dreams.)

And just so we don’t leave out UM rival Michigan St. — that’s where Top Gun screenwriters Jack Epps Jr. and Jim Cash first teamed up. The academy-award nominated screenwriter of Finding Neverland and 48 hr director Walter Hill also graduated from Michigan State. Peter Gent was an athlete at MSU and went on to write the novel & screenplay for North Dallas Forty which impacted me greatly when I saw it as a high school football player. Spiderman director Sam Raimi also attended the school in East Lansing. And lastly writer/director David S. Goyer (Batman Begins) is also a Spartan.

Grand Rapids is where Paul Schrader was raised and attended Calvin College to become a minister before eventually writing Taxi Driver and having a long career in Hollywood.

Flint, Michigan native and current resident of Traverse City, Michigan is Academy-Award winning filmmaker Michael Moore who has made three of the top five grossing documentaries of all time. In 2005 he started the annual Traverse City Film Festival.

Michigan native Mike Binder was the writer/director of The Upside of Anger. In a talk he gave in Ann Arbor Binder told students, “If you’re looking for respect don’t become a screenwriter.”

And batting clean-up is a writer who has been called “the Dickens of Detroit” – Elmore Leonard. His novels and short stories often find their way to the big screen with big talent: Get Shorty (John Travolta), Jackie Brown (Robert De Niro) 3:10 to Yuma (Russell Crowe), Hombre (Paul Newman), and the upcoming Killshot starring Diane Lane. He graduated from University of Detroit Jesuit High School and the University of Detroit.

Back in 2001 Leonard had an essay published in The New York Times called Writers on Writing where he offered ten rules for writing. It’s well worth a read. Though geared toward writing novels most apply to screenwriting such as rule number 9: “Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.”

“Oh, I love Elmore Leonard. In fact, to me True Romance is basically like an Elmore Leonard movie… I actually owe a big debt to like kind of figuring out my style from Elmore Leonard because, you know, he was the first writer I’d ever read.
Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction)
The Charlie Rose Show 1994

Leonard lives in Michigan these days, and though in his 80s has a website (www.elmoreleonard.com) complete with a blog and podcasts. From the man who inspired Tarantino, here’s Leonard’s advice on how to get an agent: “My advice is to learn how to write and the agent will find you.”

Of course, Michigan also has a long history of real life characters who were interesting enough to have movies made about their lives (Ty Cobb, Jimmy Hoffa, Eminem, and most recently the intermittent windshield wiper guy Robert Kearns).  Then there is the storytelling history through music from Michigan which is way too long to list but covers probably every form of American music; Jazz, blues, soul, gospel, rock, country, hip hop, rap, punk, techno.)

The rock and roll hall of fame has a little space taken up with artists from Michigan including Aretha Franklin, Bill Haley, Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, Glenn Frey, and Bob Seger.

I’m sure it wouldn’t be hard to connect Michigan’s creative success to one man — Henry Ford. With his cars and factory line he brought prosperity to the area. Some of the people coming to Detroit were from the Mississippi Delta and they brought their music with them. That’s the short history of the Model T to Motown. But again you can’t ignore the part economics plays in its connection to the arts.

These days are lean times for those in Detroit. (Heck, these days they are even lean times for Toyota and Honda.) As the Michigan prophet Kid Rock sings; “Now nothing seems as strange as when leaves began to change, or how we thought those days would never end.” (All Summer Long)

One thing Michigan has recently done to rejuvenate the area economically is to pass one of the largest tax incentives for the film industry. Late this past spring I did some location scouting for Mandate Pictures for Whip It!, Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut. But Iowa lost out to Michigan and I’m sure the incentives played a part. The roller derby film staring Ellen Page and Juliette Lewis began shooting in Southeast Michigan in July.

The WNEM TV station reported this on their website: In April, Gov. Jennifer Granholm signed legislation aimed at giving Michigan a bigger role in the film industry. The key bill in the package gave film studios a refundable credit of up to 42 percent on production expenses in the state. The bills also cover commercials, TV shows, documentaries, video games and other film work.

Landing the Barrymore film is a nice start out of the gate for Michigan and there is talk of three film studios being built. It would seem like a good time to be writing Michigan-centered screenplays. If you don’t have any ideas you can start here: A popular mayor in Detroit has an affair…

P.S. If you are interesting in shooting in Michigan or in learning more about their incentives contact Janet Lockwood at the Film in Michigan office.

Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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“Structure is the most important element in the screenplay. It is the force that holds everything together.”   Syd Field

Today is the first day of spring and that signals a change. (Not so much here in Iowa, because the forecast is we’ll get 2-6 inches of snow tomorrow.)

If you’ve been thinking about writing a screenplay why not begin today?  This blog is on structure and is a fitting place to begin.

The more scripts you write and the more movies you see the more you’ll understand structure and why it’s a vital part of screenwriting. I’m going to limit this blog on good old western culture traditional structure. You don’t get more basic than this:

Act 1 – Beginning

Act 2 – Middle

Act 3 – End

Syd Field became the modern-day screenwriting pioneer when he wrote Screenplay back in the 1974. Field had been a reader and development executive at various studios and after reading 10,000 scripts he felt he really knew what made a good script.

He even broke it down into page counts.

Act 1     1-30  (setup)

Act 2     30-90 (confrontation)

Act 3     90-120 (resolution)

There’s nothing wrong with a script coming in between 90 and 100 pages either. He’s how a 100 pages script might look like:

Act 1       1-25

Act 2      26-80

Act 3      81-100

Now if this were the sixties I could hear someone saying, “Hey, man, that’s just not my scene.” But these things aren’t written in stone either.

Sure we can look at many films like Memento which turned structure upside down, and Pulp Fiction and Magnolia that mixed structure up. And let’s not forget about the famous quote by Goddard “I believe in a beginning, a middle, and an end — just not in that order.”

How do I answer those? Let me start with the Goddard quote. According to Lew Hunter who later asked Goddard about his famous quote it was simply an off-hand comment at a cocktail party.

As for the film exceptions? It is hard enough to write a solid screenplay, get an agent, and get the film made. The concept of a beginning, middle and end are universal because that is the way most of us of our lives;

We wake up

We eat

We go about our work or school

We eat dinner

We recreate

We go to bed

We’re born, we live, and we die.

Throughout history that is the cycle civilization has lived. Humans around the world have also made sure that life is not predictable. Love, war, new inventions and discoveries help ensure that within the human tradition there are millions of variations.

Traditional structure is the most understood form of storytelling which is one of the reasons it is the most commercial as well.

It’s as basic as one writer said; Get your hero up a tree, throw rocks and him and get him down. That’s structure 101.

Many screenwriting books have different ways of breaking down structure but here’s a common one that Robert Mckee has landed on based on the people that went before him:

1) Inciting Incident

2) Progressive Complication (Rising Conflict)

3) Crisis

4) Climax

5) Resolution

If you can understand those five areas of structure (one for every finger one hand) it will save you some frustration. We’ll look at these in detail at another blog, but for now it’s enough for you to understand that this structure fits most successful films. (Even if you want to flip structure inside out it’s best to understand structure. Check out Picasso’s early paintings to see what I mean.)

There is always that rebel in us that says. “I don’t want to do it the way it’s always been done. I want to do my own thing man. I want freedom!”

But keep in mind what poet Robert Frost said, “Writing free verse is like playing tennis without a net.”

There is freedom in structure. Embrace it. When the limits are set, great things can happen. Performing within certain boundaries helps us understand the greatness Tiger Woods, Lance Armstrong, and LeBron James.

Think of all the structure that goes into:

Making Movies. The script is written and then budgeted. Actors are hired who you want to show up on time. Sets are built and props are found. Cameras are rented and crews are hired. Caterers cook food. Drivers drive trucks. People work, people get paid. There is a lot of structure in place to make a film.

Making Music. Before a concert becomes a reality many logistics have to have taken place. Travel arrangements, tickets sold, money transacted, bathrooms working, electricity flowing, stages constructed, lights hung, usher in place, security in place, green M&Ms in place. There’s a lot of structure there. So you can smile the next time a lead singer screams for anarchy because that’s the last thing he wants at his concert.

There really is freedom in structure.

“I’m a structuralist myself. We believe in discipline, hard work, and architecture. Writing is like carpentry.” Dan O’Bannon, screenwriter (Alien)

Playwright/screenwriter David Mamet compares ignoring structure to the countercultural design movement in the 60’s:

“I was a student in the turbulent sixties in Vermont at a countercultural college. In that time in place, there flourished something called the Countercultural Architecture. Some people back then thought that the traditional architecture had been too stifling. And so they designed and built countercultural buildings. These buildings proved unlivable. Their design didn’t begin with the idea of the building’s purpose; it began with the idea of how the architect “felt.”“As those architects looked at their countercultural buildings over the years, they may have reflected that there is a reason for traditional design. There’s a reason that doors are placed in a certain way.

“All those countercultural buildings may have expressed the intention of the architect, but they didn’t serve the purpose of the inhabitants. They all either fell down or are falling down or should be torn down. They’re a blot on the landscape and they don’t age gracefully and every passing year underscores the jejune folly of those countercultural architects.”

David Mamet

Because I want to hammer this point home take a look at the cars you see today. Cars could be made with three wheels or five wheels but most cars are still made with four wheels because engineers and car builders have decided that is what works best.

Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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