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Posts Tagged ‘screenwriitng’

”I think we’re actually in the heyday of [professional storytelling] right now. There is the right medium for all kinds of stories.
—Chris Moore (Co-producer on Good Will Hunting)

“You have so many opportunities now….We’re in a new frontier.”
—Blogger/book author/ Oscar-winning screenwriter/webshow host/Tv writer/musical writer Diablo Cody

You don’t hear the word heyday much these days. But I like that producer Chris Moore (Manchester by the Sea) used it on his Indie Film Hustle podcast interview with Alex Ferrari. There’s been a lot of talk in recent years about this being the new golden era of television. But the phrase ”golden era” has a romantic feel to it. When Moore said we’re in the heyday of professional storytelling it made me pause and ponder what he meant. This is how he unpacked it on the podcast:

”Now there are way more professional ways to be a storyteller than there used to be where you can make a living. That’s the kinds of thing I did as an agent. Maybe you should do this as a novel. Or maybe this would be really cool as a play. Or maybe this is an animated piece because you can do really funny stuff with annimation that you can’t get away with on live action. . . . Think about Good Will Hunting. How would we make Good Will Hunting today? I’m not sure it would be a $25 million movie. It could be a bunch of episodes. It could be a podcast—just Ben and Matt’s characters talking about how the hell to get out of Southie. Kevin Smith could have done Clerks as a podcast and it would have been super funny. I think Kevin’s the kind of guy who would tell you, I just want to tell these great stories about these these characters and situations—and however is best to tell them, I’ll tell them. Anyway, that’s what I think’s interesting about professional storytelling right now. There’s a lot of options.”
—Chris Moore

In fact, Kevin Smith today has the Smodcast website where you’ll find multiple podcasts, info on where to find his movies, in person speaking events, and links to his Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram accounts. A few years removed from his 2018 heart attack, Smith is still hustling and still telling stories.

Moore who also produced American Pie said that today that film franchise might simply start of with a series of TikTok videos featuring the actors to gain interest and a wider audience, before it got turned into a limited series. He does point out that some of these storytelling methods are more lucrative than others, but the keep point to be creating. Here are some ways you can put your stories out into the world beyond just film and TV. Ways that could lead to bigger stuff.

Graphic Novels
Story stories
Short films
Blogs
Podcasts
Stage plays
Novels
Audio books
Web Series
YouTube
TikTok

In the last chapter of my book Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles, I touch the importance of these alternative ways to tell stories. Ways that are especially important if you live outside New York and LA. Here are some quotes I’ve grabbed from various blogs posts I wrote going as far back as 2008.

“You need to be very ‘platform agnostic.’ You want to find an audience wherever that audience is. So think about the web, TV, and theaters. Open yourself to as many possibilities as you can imagine.
—Morgan Spurlock
Filmmaking Quote #36 (Being Platform Agnostic)

“Stop calling yourself a filmmaker. Call yourself a storyteller. Call yourself a content maker. Start looking at everything as all the different ways, all the different platforms, all the different methodologies of telling your story and getting it out of there. And don’t confine yourself to one almost archaic form. Now young storytellers will come in and say, ‘This is my series idea,’ ‘This is my long form series,’ ‘This is my episodic series,’ ‘This is my web series.’”
—Indie film producer Christine Vachon on
’Stop calling yourself a filmmaker’—Producer Christine Vachon

”There are so many places to tell stories. I want to tell cool stories and not have to ask for permission.
—Kevin Smith
Kevin Smith is Platform Agnostic

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. ”
—Mike Birbiglia
Waiting to Be Great

“The advice I give for filmmakers starting out is don’t wait for me. Don’t wait for the industry… It’s a mistake to wait for Hollywood to tell you you have a good idea. If you have a good idea, try to make it on your own as cheaply as possible… on your phone.”
Producer Jason Blum (Whiplash, Get Out, Paranormal Activity)
Don’t Wait for Hollywood

“People ask, ‘What’s the advice you’d give young filmmakers?’ And I always say, ‘Don’t try and compete with Hollywood. Take your lack of resources and make it work for you. Look at ClerksEl MariachiMetropolitan, even McMullenSlackers.  All of these films embraced their lack of resources and instead focused on story or style or characters, and dialogue.
—Edward Burns
Don’t Try and Compete with Hollywood

”Make three-minute movies, make a five- minute movies, make webisodes, because it is a maker culture now. And that’s how people get noticed and get movement, with distinct voices and things that are made and not just on the page.
—Screenwriter Clare Sera
‘Smallfoot’ and the Legend of Clare Sera

P.S. Here are a couple of my favorite scenes from Good Will Hunting written by and starring Ben Affleck and Matt Damon. Close your eyes and listen to the dialogue and sound design and see if you think it would have worked as a podcast.

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

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Hello darkness my old friend
I’ve come to talk to you again

The Sound of Silence
Paul Simon

”As the writer, you need to burn down houses. You need to push characters out of their safe places into the big scary world — and make sure they can never get back.”
—Screenwriter John August
Burn it Down

“Sometimes your strength is a double weakness” is a saying I first heard more than three decades ago. That could be said of Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) in Nightmare Alley as well as the 2021 version of that film directed by Guillermo del Toro.

Stanton got lost in Nightmare Alley. Guillermo del Toro got lost in Nightmare Alley. And I got lost in Nightmare Alley.

Spoiler alert: This is not a lost and found story. (As a side note, I’d rather a movie be swimming around the culture for a few years before I write about it. But here we go.)

Stanton got lost in his own abilities.

Guillermo del Toro got lost at the carnival.

And I got lost in del Toro’s vision.

Now getting lost is not always a bad thing. If Stanton doesn’t get lost in Nightmare Alley there isn’t a movie. If he gets married, quits the carnival, is successful selling life insurance, buys a house in Cincinnati, and raises two above average kids, and lives a normal life there isn’t a movie. As former UCLA professor Richard Walter once wrote, “People do not go to the theater to see The Village of the Happy Nice People.

You won’t find many happy nice people in Nightmare Alley.

And if del Toro had of gotten just a little more lost at the carnival he might of had two movies instead of one. The opening carnival sequence in the first hour is its own spectacle. To borrow a question from the film, “Did I oversell it?” I think so. I think del Toro created a world he didn’t want to leave. I actually thought he or someone else could make a limited series on that world, then I realized HBO already had—Carnivale (2003—2005).

The Nightmare Alley carnival was more fantasy than Tod Browning’s 1931 classic Freaks. But these attractions have been around forever for a reason.

And an additional 20-25 minutes of the carnival to Nightmare Alley and they had feature film one in the can. Then the second film would start with the Stanton’s mentalist show in Buffalo with Molly (Rooney Mara), then jumping into Bradley Copper and Cate Blanchett sizzling on screen through to his downfall. It still would have made for an hour and a half movie. Yet, even as a single 150 minute film, I got still lost in del Toro’s vision. The film actually reminded me of how I felt after first watching Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and Scorsese’s’ Raging Bull. Movies I still ponder over from time to time—though both are hard to grasp even after multiple viewings.

I bought a ticket and enjoyed the ride to Nightmare Alley. But not enough people did, and so the $60 million movie was a box office disappointment. Martin Scorsese even wrote a LA Times piece in January encouraging people to see the movie. The COVID pandemic was no doubt part of reason people didn’t show up. (And how amazing it is that a film of this scale got made during the pandemic?) But a 2 1/2 hour run time with dark themes, released at Christmas time, didn’t help. Nor did the heavy doses of exposition. Just show the magic tricks without explaining how they were done. When I did my little writing experiment of breaking down the book into a three act structure, I had the carnival sequence ending at the end of act one. That would have streamlined it down to a manageable two hour movie.

Here’s what I mean about the movie’s strength being double weakness. Nightmare Alley is a visual feast. I was lost in the wonder of it all. The set design, the cinematography, the wardrobes, the acting, and the overall production value was spellbinding. It was a delight to take it all in. The problem is I was lost in the filmmaking aspects of the movie rather than the movie itself.

But this is a screenwriting blog, so let’s talk about that aspect. I thought a nice opening scene was the way the book opened with Stanton seeing the geek—the man/beast act and wondering how you could get someone to bite the head off a live chicken or a snake. The major dramatic question being “How does one become a geek?”

I thought the best use of the first act would be showing Stanton finding his place in this world by joining the circus and moving up the ranks.He’s ambitious and resourceful, but not a bad guy. A guy who wants to make a name for himself. My arc was Act 1: Good guy, Act 2: Wrestling with good/evil, Act 3: Evil wins. The anti-hero’s journey. Del Toro opens with the the Stanton dragging a corpse and burning down a house. ”I needed a big question mark,” was what del Toro said about opening with the burning corpse scene. I guess to have the audience wondering who did he burn and why?

But I thought that burning house scene, and the continual flashbacks to it, took away from keeping the story movie forward. Plus it sets Stanton up as a bad guy at the start of the movie, so he doesn’t have much trajectory throughout the whole film.

In the book on the production (Nightmare Alley: The Rise and Fall of Stanton Carlisle) by Gina McIntyre, she writes that the novel and concept first got on del Toro’s radar back in the 1990s when he was making Cronos. So this film has been in the works for 30 years. Perhaps giving del Toro extra time to think about his vision for the film.

“The pre-production and scouting took longer than they have on most projects I’ve ever tackled: We needed to find the perfect doorway, the perfect street, the perfect street, the perfect field for every frame.”
—Guillermo del Toro

The only thing they didn’t find was the perfect script. (But how many of those have there been?) Or maybe I just yearned for that Rod Serling touch, where at the end of the film I recognized myself in Stanton Carlisle. (But how many Rod Serlings have there been?)

But I think where del Toro and Morgan exceeded the book and the 1947 movie version was the whole Ezra Grindle (Richard Jenkins) sequence through to the ending. The book was too convoluted and the ’47 movie too unbelievable. Cooper does a brilliant job of showing Stanton’s emotional breakdown at the end. I hope I get to see the black and white version of Nightmare Alley in a theater some time.

P.S. After I wrote this post, I looked at some reviews of the film. I think Rex Reed said what I wanted to—but he did it in just 33 words:
”It’s too long, too uneven in some places, too slow in others, and too flawed to be a masterpiece, but even with its drawbacks I could not take my eyes off the screen.”

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

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“A good character always has a crisis lurking inside them like a ticking time bomb. Once I’d decided who the characters would be in Little Miss Sunshine, it was just a matter of figuring out when those crises would happen. You also want those crises to happen in ascending order of importance. It all fell together pretty easily in the outlining process. The only really noteworthy choice I made, I’d say, was to kill off Grandpa at the midpoint, rather than hold off until the end of the second act. I hate seeing characters die in the late second act or early third act—it’s just such a clichéd time for a character to die. There’s a lot more shock value in a midpoint death, because audiences aren’t used to losing a major character that early in a movie.”
Screenwriter Michael Arndt
Little Miss Sunshine
MovieMaker interview with Jennifer M. Wood
February 3, 2007

Classic character from The Shining with a “crisis lurking inside ”:

 

 

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“How did I learn screenwriting? Endless hours at the typewriter, then the computer, which came along later. It was really a lot of applied time and effort and self-study. Which is the way most people learn.”
Writer/director Frank Darabont

Long before Shonda Rhimes signed a contract with Netflix for $100 million, she graduated from a series of private schools, Marian Catholic High School in Chicago, Dartmouth College, and and MFA from USC School of Cinematic Arts. Being smart, talented, and driven, I don’t know exactly what scholarships and grants Rhimes received back in the ’80s and ’90s when she was in school, but today that education has a list price of over $500,000.

Perhaps that’s why she gives the following advice to young people interested in going to film school. (And this was before a global pandemic shook up the economy and film industry in ways that will take months or years to sort out.)

“I think that USC was really instrumental for me in getting me contacts and getting me acclimated. I came to Los Angeles not know a single person, and getting an internship, getting to know people, getting the introductions to things—USC was very helpful for that. Here’s what I think, ’cause I think film school is invaluable in that it’s an amazing little lab. And I did come in knowing a lot about production because of it, and that was really helpful as well. But I think it terms of just financially if you are hurting for money if you have to take out a lot of student loans, if there’s not a scholarship waiting for you, and you are worried about that—and frankly it’s different now. Student loans back when I went to school (because I’m an old lady) and going to school now are just different. So, to me, if you have to make the choice between going to film school, and coming out to L.A. and getting a job as a PA [production assistant] on a set, or a job as a PA in some writer’s office or something like that, get the job. Because I think there’s a lot you can get done with you writing at night, and getting a job during the day, and working your butt off and making contacts that way. I think it’s very, very, very expensive to go to school right now. And while I think that everybody should get a college education, I’m not necessarily sure you need a film school education.”
—Writer/Creator Shonda Rhimes  (Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal)
MasterClass, Take the Job Over Film School

Now, you don’t need to do much digging to find production assistants in Los Angeles today complaining about the low pay and long hours of working as a PA in the film industry. On top of living in one of the most expensive cities in the United States. On top of, as of this writing, potentially being laid-off or underemployed because of the shutdown over the coronavirus.

It’s a hard business. Would Rhimes have had the same success if she hadn’t taken the educational route she took? We’ll never know. But we do know there are filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino and Tyler Perry who’ve had phenomenal success without ever attending college. (In fact, both of them dropped out of high school.)

But you have to create. And you have to get good enough at creating something that someone will pay you to create more and you can make a living. That’s the game. And one thing this pandemic has taught us is people still need entertainment (and toilet paper). Actual movie theaters may decline in coming months and years, but streaming content is in ultra growth mode. (Amazon, Netflix, YouTube and others have all had recent jumps in daily viewership.)

Be as creative getting an education as you are with writing stories and creating videos with your friends. Avoid getting monster student loans that follow you for decades and drag you down professionally with house payment-like monthly payments.

Look at inexpensive community colleges with solid digital media programs. (Some two-year schools now offer four-year degrees.) And, yes, there are good film schools out there that aren’t over-the-moon expensive. If you picked up basic production skills in high school, there’s a good chance you can find an entry level production position as soon as the country is back up running again.  “Hire for attitude, train for skill” was an popular expression way back when I went to film school back in the ’80s—and probably long before that.

Which brings up some bonus advice from Rhimes that is helpful if you move to New York, L.A., Atlanta or stay right where you are and take a entry-level PA job:

“A thing that I think can be really helpful for people when they get a job, and people don’t seem to know this right now, and it’s feels very obvious. If you get a job in the industry making someone coffee, making someone copies, running someone’s errands, you better make the best coffee they’ve ever had. And it better be with a smile. The ones that seemed flat out pissed that they’re there, or frustrated, or lazy, or entitled, you want them to go away.  Because you think, man, they’re just sucking the air from the room. . . . People that have a great attitude are the ones that I always end up saying, ‘What’s your script about?’ or ‘What are you doing? What are you interested in?’ Those are the people that get noticed and get their scripts read, and get advice. And get a chance. Because you think, man, they’re working hard.”
—Shonda Rhimes
MasterClass, Do Grunt Work with a Smile

Writer/director Lulu Wang is the most recent filmmaker who did a version of what Rhimes talks about. She did not go to film school but did get her undergraduate degree. (I think she took one or two film/photography classes.) Then she moved to L.A. and did various film-related assistant jobs and wrote and produced her own stuff, networked, until she got the opportunity to make Farewell. Check out the post Lulu Wang’s Day Job Before ‘The Farewell.’

Before Scott Beck and Bryan Woods wrote A Quiet Place they also decided to not got to film school since they’d been making films together since sixth grade. They did get communication degrees before moving to Los Angeles where they had a series of small successes before hitting it big. Read the post How Do You Break Into the Film Industry Without Any Connections to see their abridged version of how they did it.

And lastly, if you‘re into hacks and shortcuts, let me link to a post I wrote back in 2003 that’s one of my favorites on the subject—Bob DeRosa’s ‘Shortcut.’ 

P.S. For those of you graduating from high school or college in 2020, I know this is not how you envisioned the final months of school ideally ending.  But you’ll earn a layer of resilience that will serve you well throughout life. Go back and watch The Shawshank Redemption (1994) again with 2020 glasses. One of the main reasons that film is currently the #1 rated movie of all time on IMDB is that going through a lot of crap in life is a universal experience.

“Hope is a good thing…maybe the best of things.”
—Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) in The Shawshank Redemption
Written by Frank Darabont, based on a story by Stephen King
(Darabont was born in a refugee camp, immigrated with his family to the U.S.,  and also did not go to college. He started his Hollywood career as a PA on low budget movies and writing on the side until he got good enough to be paid for doing it.)

Additional related posts (for those without wealthy parents) and a great ending quote from Amazon’s Ted Hope:
Is Film School Worth It?  A post I wrote as a response to The $330,000 Film School Debt.
What’s It Like to Be a Struggling Writer in L.A.?
Scriptnotes Ep 422: ‘Assistants Aren‘t Paid Nearly Enough’

“If I ran a film school, I would require the students to make a feature film for just a thousand dollars. They’d learn tricks that they could apply for the rest of their lives, no matter how poorly the movie turned out.”
Ted Hope
Hope for Film, page 15

Scott W. Smith 

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“The first Mickey Mouse was made by twelve people.”
Walt Disney
(It is debated whether Disney or Ub Iwerks drew the first Mickey)

“According to market research, Mickey Mouse has a 97% name recognition in the United States, which is even higher than Santa Claus.”
Elizabeth Segran
Fast Company article 4.01.19

Screen Shot 2020-03-15 at 6.59.20 AM

“The original Mickey was rattier and leaner. He also had clawed feet.”        — Garry Apger

As original a thinker as Walt Disney was, he didn’t create things out of thin air. And the creation of Mickey Mouse was no exception. The inception was probably somewhere between Aesop’s Fables (that Disney enjoyed reading)  that often featured mice and real life mice that were around the Hyperion Studios where Disney and his team created their short animations, and  drawings of a character named Johnny Mouse drawn by Clifton Meek.

Screen Shot 2020-03-14 at 7.09.14 AM

Johnny Mouse by Clifton Meek

Looking for a character to animate, Walt drew a picture of a mouse. With Disney’s team of artist, that mouse would evolve into the character Mickey Mouse and first appear in the 1928 short Plane Crazy.

It’s impossible to watch Plane Crazy today and not see that first iteration of Mickey as devious —after all, he does try to scare Minnie into giving him a kiss. She not only refuses but jumps out of the plane that Mickey is piloting. Spoiler alert;  Fortunately, Minnie does have a parachute and lands safely.

Mickey’s second film Barn Dance was his first film that showed that Disney and annimator Ub Iwerks had hit something special as it played in more theaters.

Over the years, both Mickey’s movement—and morals—improved, and he  found a wide audience. Mickey Mouse offered cheap escapist entertainment to audiences that had just experienced the Wall Street crash of 1929, and the start of The Great Depression.) By 1930, Mickey was getting 30,000 fan mail letters a month.  But his relationship with Minnie was still complicated.

Disney did not hide his admiration for Charlie Chaplin, calling him “the greatest of them all.” In Neal Gabler’s book Walt Disney, he quotes animator Ward Kimball as saying, “Walt kept the feeling of this little droll kind of pathetic little character who was always being picked on. But cleverly coming out on top anyway.”

“We wanted something appealing, and we thought of a tiny bit of a mouse that would have something of the wistfulness of Chaplin—a little fellow trying to do the best he could.”
Walt Disney

Another influence on Mickey Mouse was the actor Douglas Fairbanks, who was known for his action movies The Thief of Bagdad, Robin Hood, and The Mark of Zorro. Disney animator Ub Iwerks  said of Fairbanks, He was the superhero of his day, always winning, gallant and swashbuckling.”

Iwerks was the one who took Disney ‘s early rough drawings of Mickey and brought him to life in the early films. Though Iwerks and Disney had worked together since their Kansas City days, and on Silly Symphonies  together, the two had a falling out and parted ways in 1930.

But Disney and Iwerks—with a little Chaplin and Fairbanks—created one of the great and most loved characters in film history.  One whose popularity that moved from silent films to talkies,  and as a brand has moved all the way into the current digital era—almost 100 years after his first film.

But every mouse has his day, and as a movie star Mickey seemed to be peak somewhere in the late—1930s. In 1935 there were 500 million paid admissions to see a Mickey Mouse movie.  (To put that in perspective, Gone with the Wind has sold more tickets than any single movie—202,286,100 .) Granted the releases over ten movies that year, but 500 million admissions is a big number. At Mickey is the character that kicked off the whole merchandising thing in Hollywood, and Walt ended up making more on shirts, dolls, toys, etc. than on Mickey movies.

Gabler points out that Mickey was the victim of his own success. As animation got more realistic, Mickey had an identity crisis. Was he more mischievous like Chaplin, or more a hero like Fairbanks? Was he man, boy, or animal? His body movement changed, as did his hands and feet change in this new style of animation. He became nicer—and more boring.  Then, like all stars sooner or later, he got upstaged by a rising star—the wacky, brash Donald Duck.

If you have Disney+ you can see in high quality how sound, color, and animation techniques transformed both Mickey Mouse and Disney Studios over the years.

Related links:
Stealing for Screenwriters (According to Paul Schrader)
Stealing from Shakespeare
Fueling Your Imagination (Jarmusch Style) “Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination.”
Creating Under the Influence “Oh, I’ve stolen from the best. I mean I’ve stolen from Bergman. I’ve stolen from Groucho, I’ve stolen from Chaplin, I’ve stolen from Keaton, from Martha Graham, from Fellini. I mean I’m a shameless thief.”Woody Allen
Movie Cloning (Part 2) “I think it’s fine for young [filmmakers] to out and out rip off people who come before them because you always make it your own.” Francis Ford Coppola

P.S. I had this photo taken with Mickey about five years ago when I did a shoot at Walt Disney World. Mickey has aged better than most.

Screen Shot 2020-03-15 at 7.03.47 AM

Scott W. Smith 

 

 

 

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Every once in a while I’ll hear on a podcast or read someone saying about movie endings “the end should be implied in the beginning.” It’s sound advice, but it’s advice that’s been kicking around the movie industry for over 80 years. Oscar winning screenwriter Frances Marion (The Champ) bridged the gap between the silent film era and the Hollywood heyday of the ’30s and ’40s, and was once the highest paid screenwriter.

And that exact quote—”the end should be implied in the beginning”—is in her screenwriting book first published in 1937.

It is possible to start a novel without having a specific ending in mind, but both purpose and ending of the film story should be clearly in the mind of the writer before it is written because the story naturally ends when its theme is proved. The ending should not suggest that the story has stopped at a certain scene merely because someone cut the film at that point.

Theoretically the end of a story cannot be altered without changing the story because the end should be implied in the beginning; but in one sense all endings are artificial. Life presents few moments, if any, when all a person’s hopes and aims are achieved and the ends of his and others’ affairs neatly tied up as a story ending demands. The ending, then, is merely a cutting off and a tidying up at the most satisfactory point. Finish the story as soon as possible after the ‘big’ scene, as soon as the main problem is solved, the difficulty overcome.”
Screenwriter Frances Marion
How to Write and Sell Film Stories (1937)
page 85

To reinforce knowing your ending before starting your screenplay, both Paul Schrader (First Reformed) and Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity) said recently that they can’t start writing their screenplay ideas unless they know their ending.

And if you’ve never seen it before, check out Oscar-winning screenwriter Michael Arndt’s video Endings: The Good, the Bad, and the Insanely Great.

Scott W. Smith

 

 

 

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“I had a wonderful teacher, Irwin Blacker, and he was feared by everyone at the school because he took a very interesting position. He gave you the screenplay form, which I hated so much, and if you made one mistake on the form, you flunked the class. His attitude was that the least you can learn is the form. ‘I can’t grade you on the content. I can’t tell you whether this is a better story for you to write than that, you know? And I can’t teach you how to write the content, but I can certainly demand that you do it in the proper form.’ He never talked about character arcs or anything like that; he simply talked about telling a good yarn, telling a good story. He said, ‘Do whatever you need to do. Be as radical and as outrageous as you can be. Take any kind of approach you want to take. Feel free to flash back, feel free to flash forward, feel free to flash back in the middle of a flashback. Feel free to use narration, all the tools are there for you to use.’ I used to tell a screenwriting class, ‘I could teach you all the basic techniques in fifteen minutes. After that, it’s up to you.’”
Screenwriter John Milius (Apocalypse Now )
Creative Screenwriting, March/April 2000

Related posts:

Screenwriting #142 (Irwin R. Blacker)
The Four Functions of Dialogue 
Screenwriting Quote #14 (Irwin R. Blacker)

Scott W. Smith

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John wanted to be a screenwriter. He was born to public school teachers in Longview, Texas and raised in Texas City, Texas. Eventually he earned an English degree from Baylor in Waco. Then after graduating from law school he became a lawyer in Houston.

What are the odds of John making it as a Hollywood screenwriter?

[Dramatic pause]

The odds are against him, right? Well, if you’ve seen The Blind Side, Saving Mr. Banks, The Rookie, or A Perfect World then you’ve seen movies where John from Texas (John Lee Hancock) is credited as writer and/or director.

In an interview with Craig Mazin on Scriptnotes, Episode 27 John unpacked how he made the initial transition from a lawyer/actor in Houston to Hollywood writer/director:

“I really fell in love with movies. Not when I was a kid, but when I was in college and I would go to movies a lot. And so I started thinking hard about kind of movie stories, and how they looked on the page, and — this was back in the days before you could walk into a bookstore and get, like, 17,000 books on how to write a screenplay.They didn’t exist. I mean, and you were lucky, you could — there was no online at that time.”

Hancock just turned 60-years-old so I’m guessing this was the late 70s or early 80s. Not only before the internet, but possibly even before Syd Fields’ book Screenwriting: The Foundations of Screenwriting was originally published in 1979.

So he found a place in the San Fernando Valley (probably Burbank) where he could order a few scripts. After learning the format of a screenplay he wrote his first script on the side while practicing law.

But even before tackling a feature script Hancock was studying acting with a teacher who had been a working actor in Los Angeles. It was there where he first started writing monologues and short scenes. Writing that provided “instant gratification.” (A similar experience that Tarantino had in acting classes. Read the post ‘The way I write’—Tarantino)

Hancock said that first feature script (“a story about a guy in his 20s in Houston, Texas who’s angst-ridden and doesn’t know what to do with his life”) was awful. But that “awful” script changed his life.

He sent it to the newly formed Sundance Institute that was doing a workshop in Austin with John Sayles and Bill Wittliff and others and Hancock thought that would be a great opportunity because he’d “never even met anybody who writes screenplays.” (To keep this in perspective he was probably in his mid-twenties at this time.)

“And I signed up, and it also had a thing that said you could — they were going to select, I think, eight screenwriters to go through an intensive four-day worship with Frank Daniel (who had been the head of Columbia Film School and USC).”

I don’t recall if Hancock says on that interview how he started to get traction and work in L.A. (or when he moved there), but that initial thrust began like many others—a desire to write, then writing a screenplay and sending it to some people, and that writing getting him some recognition and eventually leading to his becoming a working Hollywood screenwriting.

Hancock’s experiece in Houston is an echo of what Diablo Cody did in Minneapolis a decade ago and served as the inspiration for starting this blog. (Read the post Juno Has Another Baby). He may not happen everyday, but it happens.

P.S. Keep in mind that Hancock made that transition began over 30 years ago. If he were a lawyer in Houston today he might connect with some filmmakers in Austin, write something that gets on The Black List, or perhaps fund his own low-budget filmmaking. He would find a different path because times and opportunites change.

Related post:
The 99% Focus Rule (via screenwriter Michael Arndt)
Start Small…But Start Somewhere
Starting Small
Screenwriting from Texas

Scott W. Smith

 

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“Sometimes your convictions are the greatest stumbling blocks to fixing a story problem. It’s that thing that you’re certain of, that you don’t challenge — that you just know is right about a scene — that stops you from finding the inventive solution. It’s a good idea to have this general rule: challenge everything. Go through the problem scene step by step and consider the effect of doing the exact opposite of your story decisions.

“The audience will come to ‘know’ the character through their actions. When characters can make decisions that run counter to expectations, bringing immediate reversals into the story, that’s of immediate interest. (When Indiana Jones ties up Marion instead of releasing her [In Raiders of the Lost Ark], it’s a marvelous reversal, and we gain huge insights into Indy’s character by that one action.”
Screenwriters Terry Rossio & Ted Elliott (Pirates of the Caribbean)
Wordplay Columns/ Plot Devices

I couldn’t find the Indy/Marion scene online, but the classic opening of Raiders of the Lost Ark is a great reversal that goes from positive to negative.

And speaking of Rossio & Elliot, how about this reversal from their Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl script“You are without a doubt the worst pirate I’ve ever heard of” to “That’s got to be the best pirate I’ve ever seen.”

P.S. If you’re not familiar with Rossio & Elliot’s Wordplayer screenwriting columns you’re missing out on some of the best free screenwriting advice on the Internet—for almost 20 years!

Scott W. Smith

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“You think I’m crazy? You call me crazy, you think I’m crazy? You wanna see crazy?”
Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson)

About 25 years before Iron Man 3 made over a billion dollars at the box office its director/co-writer Shane Black had his first feature film (Lethal Weapon) produced. As part of a panel event sponsored by Scriptwriters Network Black explained how his cop script was influenced by westerns and monster movies.

“I would write a bunch of scenes because I had a sense of the shape and a feel of  a cop film that I like to watch, but gradually something emerged and that was the sense of a Frankenstein story. Sort of an urban western where the old gunslinger is this sort of this wounded Frankenstein who sits reliving the war, reliving the gun fights in his head. And everyone because they’re in sort of a lull, this sort of a gentrified suburban community now where we think in our society that the west is tamed and they can’t hurt us, that evil is somewhere else. But this guy, the gunslinger, knows better. Meanwhile they call him a baby killer and they shun him and they think he’s weird because his skills are so distasteful and horrible. But then violence comes to our classic community—our sweet little lullaby is broken. Then the city all goes out to the gunslinger basically and says, ‘look we hate you, we despise you, we think you’re crazy but we need you now because you’re the only one who knew the truth all along. Which is the west isn’t gentrified, it’s still wild. And now we’re fu#@ed because you’re the last guy who remembers how to handle this sort of thing so we need you.’  And that kind of gunslinger thing was what I set out really to do.”
Screenwriter Shane Black on writing Lethal Weapon
Writing the Hollywood Blockbuster

Related posts:
“Stagecoach” Revisited
Writing “Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid”
Living in the Wild West

Scott W. Smith

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