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Posts Tagged ‘screenwriting’

“Prep is the movie you want to make. Production is the movie you think you’re making. And post is the movie you made.”
—Writer/director Christopher McQuarrie (Mission: Impossible—Fallout)
The Inside Pitch Facebook live interview with Christopher Lockhart
7/11/2020

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Today’s post actually uses more than twice as many letters in the title than in the definition of story according to one Oscar-winner:

“Story is an emotional journey. That’s all it is.”
Christopher McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects, Mission: Impossible—Fallout)
The Inside Pitch Facebook live interview with Christopher Lockhart
7/11/2020

Since McQuarrie has made seven films with Tom Cruise (including Valkyrie, Jack Reacher, and the upcoming Top Gun: Maverick) it’s worth repeating this  simplified version of story:

“Story is an emotional journey. That’s all it is.”
—Christopher McQuarrie

Related post:
40 Days of Emotions
Emotion—Emotion—Emotion
Screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie 
‘Move Me’ (advice from Christopher Lockhart)

Scott W. Smith

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The following question and answer is from the Creative Screenwriting magazine article
“Frank Darabont on The Green Mile” by Daniel Argent and Erik Bauer:

Q. When it came down to translating The Green Mile into a screenplay, how did you put it together? Did you work with paradigms, three-act structures, reverse structures?

Frank Darabont: I don’t think I’d know a paradigm if it came up and bit me. I don’t think in terms of three-act structures. I can’t tell you what’s going to happen in the third act, ‘cause I ain’t there yet. For me, writing is a much more organic process.

You sit down from page one and you try to experience the story as you go, and you try to make the most of the dramatic potential of the story. I generally have an idea where a story begins and I generally have an idea where a story ends.

Believe me, there are plenty of screenplays I never wrote because I could never figure out where the damn thing was going. Why bother starting then? I tend to know certain signposts along the way, and I start working toward the first signpost. And once I’m there I know that off in the distance is the next signpost, and I have to get to that.

All the structural elements flow from walking down that path, and from what the characters are telling me. That’s not to say the more organized method is wrong. Whatever works for the writer is what the writer ought to do. Left to my own devices, it’s an organic process.

In adaptation you have a leg up, because if the material is good at least you know what those signposts are.

 

 

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“Originality is just undetected plagiarism.”
—Anonymous
(Some version of this quote is attributed to William Ralph Inge, Mark Twain, Herbert Paul, Paul Chatfield, Katharine Fullerton Gerould, and others.)

“I steal from every single movie ever made. I love it—if my work has anything it’s that I’m taking this from this and that from that and mixing them together….I steal from everything. Great artists steal, they don’t do homages.”
Two-time Oscar wining screenwriter Quentin Tarantino
Empire, November 1994

Screen Shot 2020-06-25 at 10.47.13 AM

The Adrenaline shot scene from Pulp Fiction is one of the most iconic scenes in the history of cinema.

Quentin Tarantino and Roger Avary won an Oscar for the screenplay of the 1994 film, and it catapulted Tarantino to international fame as a writer/director. Film critic Roger Ebert remembers that when Tarantino went to the Cannes for Reservoir Dogs he was just glad to be there, but said of Tarantino when he went back with Pulp Fiction that ” the whole top floor of the Carlton has been roped off for him.”

And in his 1994 review of Pulp Fiction Ebert wrote that it “situations are inventive and original” and pointed out the scene where John Travolta and John Stolz argue over who is going to plunge the adrenaline-filled syringe into Uma Thurman’s heart: “YOU brought her here, YOU stick in the needle! When I bring an O.D. to YOUR house, I’LL stick in the needle!”

I don’t know who first detected the origin of that scene, but I just discovered it last week when I stumbled on the 1978 documentary American Boy: A Profile of – Steven Prince directed by Martin Scorsese. The Criterion Channel profile of Steven Prince calls him a “former drug addict, road manager for Neil Diamond, and actor who played the gun salesman in Taxi Driver. Here’s one of the many unusual situations he recounted:

“I managed to get a lot of medical supplies, medical equipment that you didn’t normally have. Like we had oxygen. We had an electronic stethoscope that gave you a tape readout so you could tell how many heartbeats. We had Adrenaline shots . . . the kind of shots to bring you through when you OD. And this girl once OD’d on us. And she was out, man. And it was myself and her boyfriend. And her heartbeat was dropping down. And we got everything out, oxygen, and nothing was working. And he looks at me and says, well, you’re gonna have to give he an Adrenalin shot. And I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ I said, ‘You give it to her’ and he said, ‘I can‘t. It’s like a doctor working on someone in his own family.’ I said, ‘That’s bullshit, you’ve known her fucking two days.’ . . .  And he said, ‘No, I can’t do it.’ So we had the medical dictionary—you know how you give an Adrenaline shot? Okay, the Adrenalin needle’s about that big, and you’ve got to give it into the heart. And you have to put it in in a stabbing motion, and then plunge down on the thing. I got a Magic Marker, make a Magic Marker where her heart was, measured down, like, two to three ribs and measured in between there and I just went [motions stabbing the syringe down and injecting the Adrenaline] and she came back like that [snaps fingers].”
—Steven Prince

Might that look something like this?:

I wondered if someone had done a mashup of Steven Prince’s story and the Pulp Fiction scene—and the answer is, of course. (Found the video below on an 2017 IndieWire article by Jude Dry. Can’t believe it took me 26 years to hear that story.)

P.S. “We found adrenaline does not increase your chances of surviving without severe brain damage. In fact, of the survivors, twice as many have severe brain damage.”
— Dr. Gavin Perkins, professor of critical care medicine at the University of Warwick Medical School in England. Source 2018 WebMD article. 

Related post:
Stealing for Screenwriters (According to Paul Schrader) 
Stealing from Shakespeare 

Scott W. Smith 

 

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“We have to be on the outside so we can see things other people can’t see and tell those stories. Don’t follow. Set trends. Lead us. Tell your stories or help others to tell theirs in your ways. A culture needs its creative people to tell its story, to reflect itself, and to reflect what’s happening to us. To give us perspectives and images about who we are and where we’re going and where we might go. And without those reflections, without those stories, a culture dies. Or at least it gets shallow and meaningless and starts remaking movies from ten years ago because they’re too frightened to make anything original.”
–Screenwriter Richard LaGravenese (The Fisher King, Freedom Writers)
2011 Emerson College Commencement Address

Scott W. Smith

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“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. You can submit your script to contests, blah, blah, blah crap like that. For the real top-tier agents they just don’t care about contests or anything like that. I would recommend just working in the industry. Just by virtue of working in the industry you make contacts with people. If you keep talking to people you’ll find a way to get your script on the right desk. I was a [script] reader and I read at least a thousand scripts, and I’d say that out of those thousand scripts maybe twenty got made into movies, and maybe three or four were good movies. So it’s much easier to get your script read and it’s much easier even to get your script made into a movie then it is to write a really good script. So I would say 99% of your effort should go to writing a good script.  And my story is a testament to that. I spent a whole year—10 years—teaching myself how to write. It went to one [agent’s] desk basically and once it hit that desk though it was like the doors were flying open. They were going to send it to Spielberg, and to Robert Zemeckis, and Steven Soderbergh—once they find something they think they can do something with it’ll just go straight up. So as a writer you can only control what’s on the page. You can’t control what happens to your script after it gets out the door, so just try and focus on making the script as good as possible.”
Screenwriter Michael Arndt  (Little Miss Sunshine, Toy Story 3)
2007 talk at Cody’s Books

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In a day and age of $50,000+ a year film schools, you’ll be hard pressed to find a better 90 minutes of screenwriting advice than Michael Arndt (Little Miss Sunshine, Toy Story 3)—talking about insanely great endings. And this is totally free. (For years this talk was only rumored to exist, now you can link to it here. All you have to do is hit “Watch on Vimeo.”)

ARNDT’S RUBRIC FOR ENDINGS:

Bad = positive & predictable
Good = positive & surprising
Insanely Great = positive & surprising and meaningful

*Emotion is supercharged with meaning. Meaning = emotion.

Related post:
Insanely Great Endings 

Scott W. Smith

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This video by Toy Story 3 screenwriter Michael Arndt is one I return to often. It’s so well done. Just click on the “Watch on Vimeo” and enjoy.

 

 

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He had a home, love of a girl
But men get lost sometimes as years unfurl
New York Minute 
Written by Don Henley, Danny Kortchmar, and Jai Winding.

The original spark for The Fisher King (1991) was screenwriter  Richard LaGravenese seeing two men crossing Third Ave. in Manhatten late one night. It triggered in his mind a bond between a handsome man and one who was mentally challenged. Informed by the book He: Understanding Masculine Psychologythis excerpt from The Moment with Brain Koppelman podcast covers how LaGravenese developed his idea.

RICHARD LAGRAVENESE:  “[The Fisher King] was the first script I’d ever written by myself, so I didn’t know what I was doing in term of structure. So the first [draft] was a really dense version that was really pretentious and heavy-handed, and he was a cab driver-philosopher kind of guy. And he sees this homeless man and at some point takes him to Vegas because he realizes he can make from from him. And I saw this ad in the Times about a movie named Rain Man that was being made—and it was almost exactly the same story. So I threw it out and keep the two characters. 

Then I tried like a sitcomy version of it where the Jeff Bridges character was an heir to a rubber magnate and he had to marry off this cousin of his or else he wouldn’t get the inheritance. And that was a terrible version, and I threw that out. And I kept the character of the cousin which was Lydia. So I got one thing from that. 

And then the third draft of it, I was driving in the morning and listening to Howard Stern and I went “Oh!”—and that clicked in. And suddenly it started to build itself.

KOPPELMAN: And when did you come up with that idea, “A selfish person  who commits a selfless act”?

LADEAVENESE: It was around that part when I was listening to Howard Stern I decided [the Jeff Bridges character] was a shock jock.

Have you had an idea, started a screenplay, or actually finished a screenplay only to learn of a similar story to yours has been made? Of course you have—  join the club. My first screenplay was called Walk-On about a walk-on football player. I was told by several people in the mid-80s that they’d never heard of a walk-on football player and that it was a fresh concept, but sports stories don’t sell. Six or seven years latter Rudy got made. The story about a walk-on football player, and now considered one of the most popular sports films ever made.

The real lesson from LaGravenese is when he found out his original idea was basically Rain Man, he pivoted. He picked up the pieces (two characters) and wrote a new version. That idea failed, so he picked up the pieces and put them in his little red wagon and carried them to his third version of his script which not only got sold, produced, but brought him an Oscar-nomination.

P.S. And it was not only The Fisher King script that evolved over time,  Howard Stern has evolved from his shock jock persona from the ’80s. Here’s a video where he sets up Don Henley singing a melancholy version of Boys of Summer.  (You can put Henley’s albums in the bin marked Understanding Masculine Psychology.)

Scott W. Smith

 

 

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”EVERY SCENE MUST BE DRAMATIC. THAT MEANS: THE MAIN CHARACTER MUST HAVE A SIMPLE, STRAIGHTFORWARD, PRESSING NEED WHICH IMPELS HIM OR HER TO SHOW UP IN THE SCENE.”
—Playwright and screenwriter David Mamet (The Verdict)

“THE JOB OF THE DRAMATIST IS TO MAKE THE AUDIENCE WONDER WHAT HAPPENS NEXT. *NOT* TO EXPLAIN TO THEM WHAT JUST HAPPENED, OR TO*SUGGEST* TO THEM WHAT HAPPENS NEXT.”
—David Mamet

Note: I forget where and when I first read the memo from David Mamet to the writers of The Unit, but I know I wrote a post about it back in 2010 titled DAVID MAMET’S BOLD MEMO (?) 

The question mark was there because I could not confirm any sources where Mamet acknowledged that he actually wrote the leaked memo dated October 15, 2005. I did get an email after my post from a writer from The Unit confirming that it was indeed written and sent by Mamet. (But I can’t confirm that that writer was on The Unit.)

The mystery continues. But now that the now lengendary Mamet memo is 15 years old, I realized that there are many people who’ve probably not only never read the memo—but that don’t even know it exists. But here it is in its unvarnished and unedited glory. Yes, the original one I saw was ALL IN CAPS. (There were even some letters in bold, but I no longer have that version.)

TO THE WRITERS OF THE UNIT

GREETINGS.

AS WE LEARN HOW TO WRITE THIS SHOW, A RECURRING PROBLEM BECOMES CLEAR.

THE PROBLEM IS THIS: TO DIFFERENTIATE BETWEEN *DRAMA* AND NON-DRAMA. LET ME BREAK-IT-DOWN-NOW.

EVERYONE IN CREATION IS SCREAMING AT US TO MAKE THE SHOW CLEAR. WE ARE TASKED WITH, IT SEEMS, CRAMMING A SHITLOAD OF *INFORMATION* INTO A LITTLE BIT OF TIME.

OUR FRIENDS. THE PENGUINS, THINK THAT WE, THEREFORE, ARE EMPLOYED TO COMMUNICATE *INFORMATION* — AND, SO, AT TIMES, IT SEEMS TO US.

BUT NOTE:THE AUDIENCE WILL NOT TUNE IN TO WATCH INFORMATION. YOU WOULDN’T, I WOULDN’T. NO ONE WOULD OR WILL. THE AUDIENCE WILL ONLY TUNE IN AND STAY TUNED TO WATCH DRAMA.

QUESTION:WHAT IS DRAMA? DRAMA, AGAIN, IS THE QUEST OF THE HERO TO OVERCOME THOSE THINGS WHICH PREVENT HIM FROM ACHIEVING A SPECIFIC, *ACUTE* GOAL.

SO: WE, THE WRITERS, MUST ASK OURSELVES *OF EVERY SCENE* THESE THREE QUESTIONS.

1) WHO WANTS WHAT?
2) WHAT HAPPENS IF HER DON’T GET IT?
3) WHY NOW?

THE ANSWERS TO THESE QUESTIONS ARE LITMUS PAPER. APPLY THEM, AND THEIR ANSWER WILL TELL YOU IF THE SCENE IS DRAMATIC OR NOT.

IF THE SCENE IS NOT DRAMATICALLY WRITTEN, IT WILL NOT BE DRAMATICALLY ACTED.

THERE IS NO MAGIC FAIRY DUST WHICH WILL MAKE A BORING, USELESS, REDUNDANT, OR MERELY INFORMATIVE SCENE AFTER IT LEAVES YOUR TYPEWRITER. *YOU* THE WRITERS, ARE IN CHARGE OF MAKING SURE *EVERY* SCENE IS DRAMATIC.

THIS MEANS ALL THE “LITTLE” EXPOSITIONAL SCENES OF TWO PEOPLE TALKING ABOUT A THIRD. THIS BUSHWAH (AND WE ALL TEND TO WRITE IT ON THE FIRST DRAFT) IS LESS THAN USELESS, SHOULD IT FINALLY, GOD FORBID, GET FILMED.

IF THE SCENE BORES YOU WHEN YOU READ IT, REST ASSURED IT *WILL* BORE THE ACTORS, AND WILL, THEN, BORE THE AUDIENCE, AND WE’RE ALL GOING TO BE BACK IN THE BREADLINE.

SOMEONE HAS TO MAKE THE SCENE DRAMATIC. IT IS NOT THE ACTORS JOB (THE ACTORS JOB IS TO BE TRUTHFUL). IT IS NOT THE DIRECTORS JOB. HIS OR HER JOB IS TO FILM IT STRAIGHTFORWARDLY AND REMIND THE ACTORS TO TALK FAST. IT IS *YOUR* JOB.

EVERY SCENE MUST BE DRAMATIC. THAT MEANS: THE MAIN CHARACTER MUST HAVE A SIMPLE, STRAIGHTFORWARD, PRESSING NEED WHICH IMPELS HIM OR HER TO SHOW UP IN THE SCENE.

THIS NEED IS WHY THEY *CAME*. IT IS WHAT THE SCENE IS ABOUT. THEIR ATTEMPT TO GET THIS NEED MET *WILL* LEAD, AT THE END OF THE SCENE,TO *FAILURE* – THIS IS HOW THE SCENE IS *OVER*. IT, THIS FAILURE, WILL, THEN, OF NECESSITY, PROPEL US INTO THE *NEXT* SCENE.

ALL THESE ATTEMPTS, TAKEN TOGETHER, WILL, OVER THE COURSE OF THE EPISODE, CONSTITUTE THE *PLOT*.

ANY SCENE, THUS, WHICH DOES NOT BOTH ADVANCE THE PLOT, AND STANDALONE (THAT IS, DRAMATICALLY, BY ITSELF, ON ITS OWN MERITS) IS EITHER SUPERFLUOUS, OR INCORRECTLY WRITTEN.

YES BUT YES BUT YES BUT, YOU SAY: WHAT ABOUT THE NECESSITY OF WRITING IN ALL THAT “INFORMATION?”

AND I RESPOND “*FIGURE IT OUT*” ANY DICKHEAD WITH A BLUESUIT CAN BE (AND IS) TAUGHT TO SAY “MAKE IT CLEARER”, AND “I WANT TO KNOW MORE *ABOUT* HIM”.

WHEN YOU’VE MADE IT SO CLEAR THAT EVEN THIS BLUESUITED PENGUIN IS HAPPY, BOTH YOU AND HE OR SHE *WILL* BE OUT OF A JOB.

THE JOB OF THE DRAMATIST IS TO MAKE THE AUDIENCE WONDER WHAT HAPPENS NEXT. *NOT* TO EXPLAIN TO THEM WHAT JUST HAPPENED, OR TO*SUGGEST* TO THEM WHAT HAPPENS NEXT.

ANY DICKHEAD, AS ABOVE, CAN WRITE, “BUT, JIM, IF WE DON’T ASSASSINATE THE PRIME MINISTER IN THE NEXT SCENE, ALL EUROPE WILL BE ENGULFED IN FLAME”

WE ARE NOT GETTING PAID TO *REALIZE* THAT THE AUDIENCE NEEDS THIS INFORMATION TO UNDERSTAND THE NEXT SCENE, BUT TO FIGURE OUT HOW TO WRITE THE SCENE BEFORE US SUCH THAT THE AUDIENCE WILL BE INTERESTED IN WHAT HAPPENS NEXT.

YES BUT, YES BUT YES *BUT* YOU REITERATE.

AND I RESPOND *FIGURE IT OUT*.

*HOW* DOES ONE STRIKE THE BALANCE BETWEEN WITHHOLDING AND VOUCHSAFING INFORMATION? *THAT* IS THE ESSENTIAL TASK OF THE DRAMATIST. AND THE ABILITY TO *DO* THAT IS WHAT SEPARATES YOU FROM THE LESSER SPECIES IN THEIR BLUE SUITS.

FIGURE IT OUT.

START, EVERY TIME, WITH THIS INVIOLABLE RULE: THE *SCENE MUST BE DRAMATIC*. it must start because the hero HAS A PROBLEM, AND IT MUST CULMINATE WITH THE HERO FINDING HIM OR HERSELF EITHER THWARTED OR EDUCATED THAT ANOTHER WAY EXISTS.

LOOK AT YOUR LOG LINES. ANY LOGLINE READING “BOB AND SUE DISCUSS…” IS NOT DESCRIBING A DRAMATIC SCENE.

PLEASE NOTE THAT OUR OUTLINES ARE, GENERALLY, SPECTACULAR. THE DRAMA FLOWS OUT BETWEEN THE OUTLINE AND THE FIRST DRAFT.

THINK LIKE A FILMMAKER RATHER THAN A FUNCTIONARY, BECAUSE, IN TRUTH, *YOU* ARE MAKING THE FILM. WHAT YOU WRITE, THEY WILL SHOOT.

HERE ARE THE DANGER SIGNALS. ANY TIME TWO CHARACTERS ARE TALKING ABOUT A THIRD, THE SCENE IS A CROCK OF SHIT.

ANY TIME ANY CHARACTER IS SAYING TO ANOTHER “AS YOU KNOW”, THAT IS, TELLING ANOTHER CHARACTER WHAT YOU, THE WRITER, NEED THE AUDIENCE TO KNOW, THE SCENE IS A CROCK OF SHIT.

DO *NOT* WRITE A CROCK OF SHIT. WRITE A RIPPING THREE, FOUR, SEVEN MINUTE SCENE WHICH MOVES THE STORY ALONG, AND YOU CAN, VERY SOON, BUY A HOUSE IN BEL AIR *AND* HIRE SOMEONE TO LIVE THERE FOR YOU.

REMEMBER YOU ARE WRITING FOR A VISUAL MEDIUM. *MOST* TELEVISION WRITING, OURS INCLUDED, SOUNDS LIKE *RADIO*. THE *CAMERA* CAN DO THE EXPLAINING FOR YOU. *LET* IT. WHAT ARE THE CHARACTERS *DOING* -*LITERALLY*. WHAT ARE THEY HANDLING, WHAT ARE THEY READING. WHAT ARE THEY WATCHING ON TELEVISION, WHAT ARE THEY *SEEING*.

IF YOU PRETEND THE CHARACTERS CANT SPEAK, AND WRITE A SILENT MOVIE, YOU WILL BE WRITING GREAT DRAMA.

IF YOU DEPRIVE YOURSELF OF THE CRUTCH OF NARRATION, EXPOSITION,INDEED, OF *SPEECH*. YOU WILL BE FORGED TO WORK IN A NEW MEDIUM – TELLING THE STORY IN PICTURES (ALSO KNOWN AS SCREENWRITING)

THIS IS A NEW SKILL. NO ONE DOES IT NATURALLY. YOU CAN TRAIN YOURSELVES TO DO IT, BUT YOU NEED TO *START*.

I CLOSE WITH THE ONE THOUGHT: LOOK AT THE *SCENE* AND ASK YOURSELF “IS IT DRAMATIC? IS IT *ESSENTIAL*? DOES IT ADVANCE THE PLOT?

ANSWER TRUTHFULLY.

IF THE ANSWER IS “NO” WRITE IT AGAIN OR THROW IT OUT. IF YOU’VE GOT ANY QUESTIONS, CALL ME UP.

LOVE, DAVE MAMET
SANTA MONICA 19 OCTO 05

(IT IS *NOT* YOUR RESPONSIBILITY TO KNOW THE ANSWERS, BUT IT IS YOUR, AND MY, RESPONSIBILITY TO KNOW AND TO *ASK THE RIGHT Questions* OVER AND OVER. UNTIL IT BECOMES SECOND NATURE. I BELIEVE THEY ARE LISTED ABOVE.)

—–
Now if Dennis Haysbert would just record that memo, it would cement Mamet’s legend for the next 100 years. Haysbert played Jonas Blane on The Unit. Some people  know Haysbert as the first black president on TV from the TV series 24. Others know him (and his deep voice) from All State insurance commercials.

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