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Posts Tagged ‘Terry Rossio’

“One of the classic rules of coincidence is that fate — if it must be present — should always favor the antagonist. If our hero has a gun on the villain and the hero’s gun jams, it’s called drama. If the villain has our hero dead in his sights, and the villain’s gun jams, it’s called a lousy cheat, a not-very-inventive way to sneak the hero out of his predicament.”
Screenwriter Terry Rossio (Shrek, Pirates of the Caribbean)
Wordplay/Column 14

And if you don’t believe Rossio, here’s a similar quote:

“Use coincidence to get characters into trouble, not out of trouble.”
Writer/director Alexander Mackendrick (Sweet Smell of Success)
On Filmmaking (edited by Paul Cronin)
page 41

Note: Both quotes pulled from the 2013 post Screenwriting & Coincidence 2.0.

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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“I think 10 bucks to escape to a different world is worth the 10 bucks.
Stuart Beattie

“No survivors? Then where do the stories come from, I wonder?”
Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp)

Though I was a lover of the Walt Disney World ride Pirates of the Caribbean since my childhood, when I originally heard they were making a movie based on the ride my first thought was, “Well, that’s not going to be any good.”  Pirates of the Caribbean, Curse of the Black Pearl (2003) ended up being nominated for five Oscars, earned over $650 million worldwide, and made the IMDB Top 250 listed tied with The Graduate, The Hustler, A Fistful of Dollars, Rope and Jurassic Park.

Empire Magazine’s list of The 100 Greatest Movie Characters named pirate Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) as #8—just behind The Dude (Jeff Bridges in The Big Lebowski) and Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford). To date, the Pirates franchise of four films has a box office gross of  just over $3.7 billion. And as the word billion resonates in your head, you may be surprised to learn that the seeds of that franchise came from college students in Corvallis, Oregon. 

“Basically I was at Oregon State and I was hanging out with a friend and we were like, ‘Let’s write a movie.’ He’d never written a screenplay, but he liked that I was writing. I was like, ‘let’s do that–what’s a movie that hasn’t been done in a while?’ And we were thinking and thinking and suddenly we both said, ‘pirates.’ That hadn’t been done since Errol Flynn. And I end up writing this thing called Quest of the Caribbean, because I couldn’t use the actual Pirates of the Caribbean. But it had all the scenes from the [Disney] rides. The tongue in cheek Raiders of the Lost Ark version of pirates. And we sent that around town—got a lot of meetings, a lot of people interested, but it never ended up getting bought. And then years later I sold Collateral—this was in the period before it got made—and I submitted it again to Disney and  said, ‘Come on, you gotta do this.” And they said, “no, no, no—we’re actually working on our own now.” And so they had hired an in-house writer and he was doing a draft, but they wanted me to work on 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. So I was working on that and they were like, ‘We not happy with this draft [of Pirates] would you like a go of it?’ And I was like, ‘Well, I’ve been asking for 10 fucking years, yes please!’ So I went in—pitched and got the job. I did two drafts basically. The draft that got it going and got a draft to [Jerry] Bruckheimer and Johnny [Depp], and then [screenwriters] Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio came on.”
Screenwriter Stuart Beattie (Story credit on Pirates of the Caribbean, Curse of the Black Pearl, and character credit on the other Pirate films)
The Dialogue Interview: Learning from the Masters interview with Mike De Luca

Screenwriting from Oregon

Related post: Movie Cloning (Pirates) Ted Elliott talks about the movie The Prisoner of Zenda  (1937) as an inspiration.

Scott W. Smith

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“You’ll have a huge advantage if your concept contains irony.”
Carson Reeves
Scriptshadow

“The number one thing a good logline must have , the single most important element is: irony….Irony gets my attention. It’s what we who struggle with loglines like to call the hook, because that’s what it does. It hooks your interest.”
Blake Snyder
Save the Cat

“We teach best what we most need to learn.
And I sure hope this won’t come back to bite me on the ass.
Dramatic irony. What is it?
I got no clue — says the professional screenwriter.”
Terry Rossio
Wordplayer/Dramatic Irony

It’s hard to believe that I’ve written this blog on screenwriting for five and a half years and have never done a post specifically on irony. Probably out of fear of adding confusion to the subject of technically what is and isn’t irony. I think part of the confusion is words that have been used for centuries often have not only different meanings depending on the era, but sometimes even have contrary meanings.

For instances I’m told the word scan used to mean to examine throughly but when we say today that we “scanned the book” we tend to mean that we flipped through it quickly. So with that said I will dive into the territory of irony with the help of others in hopes that it will help you and your writing.

The word that I associate irony with the most is contrary—meaning the opposite. The example that jumps to my mind is in four-time Oscar-winner Rain Man when Charlie Babbitt (Tom Cruise)  has this exchange with his father’s lawyer, John Mooney, about being left out of the money portion of his father’s will:

Charlie: Disappointed? Why should I be disappointed? I got rose bushes didn’t I? I got a used car, didn’t I? This other guy, what’d you call him?

John Mooney: The beneficiary.

Charlie: Yeah him, he got $3,000,000 but he didn’t get the rose bushes. I got the rose bushes. I definitely got the rose bushes. Those are rose bushes!

That’s irony. Verbal irony. Charlie Babbitt is extremely disappointed that he got the rose bushes and a used car instead of $3 million. Now Babbitt is being sarcastic at the same time. But not all sarcasm is ironic, and not all irony is sarcastic.

“Irony is ‘a state of affairs that is the reverse of what was to be expected; a result opposite to and in mockery of the appropriate result.’ For instance, if a diabetic, on his way to buy insulin, is killed by a runaway truck, he is the victim of an accident. If the truck was delivering sugar, he is the victim of an oddly poetic coincidence. But if the truck was delivering insulin, ah! Then he is the victim of an irony.”
George Carlin
Brain Droppings

We don’t have George Carlin around anymore to split that difference between irony and coincidence, but it seems to be a perfect example of dramatic irony is in Back to the Future when the teenager Marty (Michael J. Fox) goes back to 1955 and tries to make sure his future mom and dad (then teenagers themselves) fall in love with each other and instead Marty’s mom starts to have a crush on him. That’s a little confusing if you’ve never seen the film—and you really should—but it’s a humorous result of  “the reverse of what was to be expected.” A good example of situational irony.  And at the same time that situation is full of conflict where the stakes are very high. (If Marty’s parents don’t fall in love and eventually get married and have kids, then Marty won’t exist.)

“Dialogue is a playground for dramatic irony… In PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: THE CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL, the British Commodore, Norrington, thinks that Jack Sparrow is the worst pirate he’s ever seen. Later, when Jack manages to steal Norrington’s fastest ship, his First Mate comments, ‘That’s got to be the best pirate I’ve ever seen.’ Not only is the First Mate complimenting Jack, but he’s using phrasing that nearly mimics Norrington’s insult… a fact not lost on Norrington, or the audience.
Screenwriter Terry Rossio (Co-writer of Pirate of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl)
Wordplayer/Dramatic Irony

“For a clown fish, he’s not that funny. ”
Bruce the shark in Finding Nemo

Charlie Chaplin understood irony when he wrote The Great Dictator and told the solution of having 3,000 workers planning to strike: “Have them all shot. I don’t want any of my workers dissatisfied.” Alfred Hitchcock understood the use of irony in Vertigo, Rear Window,  and Rope. But one of his most memorable uses of irony was from his Tv program Alfred Hitchcock Presents. In Lamb to the Slaughter (written by Roald Dahl) a police detective investigating a murder (and looking for the murder weapon) eats a lamb dinner prepared by the woman who used the lamb when it was frozen to kill her cheating husband.

“Irony is a fancy word for saying ‘the opposite of which is perceived.’ A priest who murders. A pianist who’s deaf. A clown who’s depressed. Audiences LOVE irony. Therefore you should try and incorporate it into your concept, characters and plot as much as possible! The most powerful king in the world is tasked with giving the most important speech in history…yet he can’t speak (The King’s Speech). Irony is your best friend. Use it whenever you can!”
Carson Reeves
Script Shadow Secrets

Now perhaps I’m confusing irony and coincidence (or perhaps just contrasting situations), but some other films that come to mind that use irony in the way that Blake Synder used the word irony—to mean “unexpected”:
Seabiscuit (A lazy horse becomes a champion)
Rocky
(A club boxer who loses his locker at the gym gets a shot at the title)
Jaws
(A sheriff from the city who is afraid of water must go into the ocean to battle a killer shark)
Erin Brockovich (An unemployed and uneducated woman jump-starts a lawsuit against a corporate giant)
Liar, Liar (A lawyer prone to lying must tell the truth for 24 hours)
Rudy (A small guy who never played high school football wants to play football at Notre Dame)
Miss Congeniality (A tomboy FBI agent must join a beauty pageant to catch the bad guys)
City Slicker (A guy from New York City joins a cattle drive in the west to find himself)
48 Hours (A cop needs the help of a criminal to catch the bad guys)
Babette’s Feast (
A servant of sorts wins the lottery and spends her winnings on a grand feast for a religious group dedicated to a austere lifestyle)
Pieces of April (
A young woman in an attempt to make ammends with her family decides to cook dinner only to have her stove not working on Thanksgiving day)

“At the beginning of [The Incredibles], Mr. Incredible gets sued for saving a person attempting suicide. He later goes through a mid-life crisis, when superheroes are often considered ageless. Also, superheroes are done in by their iconic capes (and after Edna’s escapade in cape-related deaths, Syndrome is killed after his cape is caught in an airplane turbine).”
Irony: The Secret to Pixar Plotting

It would seem that Pixar long ago figured out how to use irony. In fact, the ending of Toy Story 3 was one great unexpected ending.  There are few things as powerful (and rare) as a satisfying ironic ending.

P.S. The title Screenwriting from Iowa was always meant to be ironic. As in that’s the last place you’d expect to find people writing screenplays. And it’s also meant as a metaphor to connect with screenwriters from remote areas around the world. Ironically (am I using that word correctly?) I’ve been surprised that working screenwriters in Hollywood read these posts from time to time.

Related Posts:
Screenwriting the Pixar Way (Part 2)
Screenwriting & Contrasts (Tip #18)
The Perfect Logline
Insanely Great Endings

Scott W. Smith

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Since much of the story of JAWS takes place over the Fourth of July weekend, it seems fitting on this Fourth of July weekend that on today’s repost Saturday I at least touch on the classic summer blockbuster movie. If you don’t have time to read the whole post, I’ve since found what I believe is the definitive comment regarding using coincidence—and boiled down to just one sentence:

“Use coincidence to get characters into trouble, not out of trouble.”
Alexander Mackendrick
On Filmmaking (edited by Paul Cronin)
page 41

For those of you that want a little more to chew on, here’s the original post from September 9, 2008:

“Coincidence. It’s a screenwriter’s stock in trade. It lies at the very heart of storytelling; it’s been around even before Oedipus slept with his mother. It’s the essence of the ‘what if.’ Coincidence comes into play for inciting incidents, chance meetings, clever plot twists, surprising revelations. It’s a very necessary dramatic tool.”
Screenwriter Terry Rossio
Pirates of the Caribbean, The Lone Ranger 

“There’s nothing wrong with coincidence, per se. Almost every movie is going to have some incidents where one character just happens to be in the right place at the right time.”
Screenwriter John August
Big Fish

Last week I spent two days in a town I had never been before and both mornings went to the same Starbucks at different times in the morning. And both times the same person was standing behind me in line. What are the odds? It’s hard to miss that kind of coincidence. It made me think about how coincidence is used in screenwriting,

All of us have real stories of coincidence ranging from simple to complex. Things like hearing a song you haven’t heard in years playing on the radio at the same time on two different stations. Or like the time I got on a connecting standby flight in Dallas and ended up on the same flight as a guy I went to high school with who I hadn’t seen in years.

Coincidence is a part of life so we shouldn’t be surprised when coincidence is used in the movies. But if it’s not a law it should at least be a rule that coincidence not be used throughout your story unless you are writing a farce (Groundhog Day) or a story where coincidence is built into the story. For instance we expect Forrest Gump to bump shoulders with Elvis, John F. Kennedy and John Lennon. It’s part of the fun.

But since coincidence must be used to one degree or another it’s best if you don’t use them at important moments of your script.

Coincidence is best used in the first act and as early as possible. Sure it’s a coincidence that the swimmer in Jaws just happens to take a swim at feeding time. But something has to start the story. Inciting incidents are often a fitting place for coincidence.

The worst time to use coincidence is at the end of the film.  As Robert McKee writes in Story, “Never use coincidence to turn an ending. This is deus ex machina, the writer’s greatest sin.” A phrase from ancient Greek and Roman theater where a god would be lowered on stage to fix everything.

You will find coincidence abuse across every genre. Perhaps the biggest offender is romantic comedies as writers work to get two people together. Could there be a bigger coincidence (or heavy handed metaphor) than after a man’s wife dies to have him  and fall in love with the recipient (via heart-transplant) of his dead wife’s heart? Critics used words like gimmick, contrived, and  creepy to refer to the plot of Return to Me. Yet the quirky comedy did find a satisfied audience.

So you can overcome heavy-handed coincidence but it takes work to avoid. The real secret of using coincidence is to sneak it in where needed. Avoid using coincidence at key moments of the story.

Terry Rossio writes in his Wordplay Columns:

One of the classic rules of coincidence is that fate — if it must be present — should always favor the antagonist. If our hero has a gun on the villain and the hero’s gun jams, it’s called drama. If the villain has our hero dead in his sights, and the villain’s gun jams, it’s called a lousy cheat, a not-very-inventive way to sneak the hero out of his predicament.

When the audience rolls back their eyes and has one of those “you’ve-got-to be-kidding” moments you know that coincidence has been misused.

It’s best when the audience doesn’t even realize the coincidence. For instance in Mystic River the novelist and/or screenwriters start and end the movie with coincidence, but the story is so compelling it’s not a stumbling block. (Spoiler alert) Sean Penn’s daughter is killed the same night that his friend Tim Robbins kills a man — big coincidence. And Sean Penn kills Robbins thinking he killed his daughter the same night that detectives arrest the real killers of Penn’s daughter–another big coincidence.

Perhaps coincidence is like subtext, exposition and other tricks of the trade in that it can be handled well or poorly. The best way to handle coincidence in your scripts is to do so organically. For instance it is not just a coincidence that at the end of Jaws Roy Scheider has a gun and knows how to use it (he is the police chief) or that there is an oxygen tank on the boat. Those were built into the story.

Scheider is simply forced to go to the end of the line because he has run out of options. May you strive with the same diligence to fight off heavy-handed coincidence in your scripts.

Scott W. Smith

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Even though I’ve traveled to all 50 states in the U.S. and have been to every major city and most midsized cities, I’ve never been to Kalamazoo (metro pop. 326,589). I have been to Grand Rapids, Michigan and South Bend, Indiana— so I’ve been close. But did you know there’s been some big league talent from Kalamazoo? Hollywood talent.

Since this is a blog on screenwriting why don’t I start with one of the highest paid screenwriters in the history of motion pictures—Terry Rossio. Born right there in Kalamafrickin’zoo before he went on to pick up major checks for co-writing Shrek, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, and the upcoming The Lone Ranger.

Novelist Edna Ferber whose work made it to the big screen many times including Cimarron, Show Boat, and Giant  (which starred Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean)—yep, she was born in Kalamazoo.

McG who directed We Are Marshall and Terminator Salvation as well as executive producer on The O.C. and Check—born in Kalamazoo. Actor Tim Allen (Home Improvement) attended Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo where he majored in television production and worked as a DJ on the school radio station.

You can visit this IMDB link to see others in the film business with a connection to Kalamazoo, but perhaps the biggest name, highest achiever from Kalamazoo really does play in the big leagues.  That would be Derek Jeter who has played shortstop for the New York Yankees for the past 18 years. His list of accomplishments is astonishing; Rookie of the Year, American League MVP, All-Star Game MVP, World Series MVP, Golden Glove, and collector of five World Series rings. Recently he became just the 28th player in the history of baseball to cross the 3,000 hit plateau.

Jeter moved to Kalamazoo when he was four and played baseball at Kalamazoo Central High School where he was named USA Today’s High School Player of the Year his senior year in 1992. According to Wikipedia, when the Yankee’s were reluctant to draft Jeter because they thought he might take a scholarship to the University of Michigan, Yankee scout Dick Groch said, “The only place Derek Jeter is going is to Cooperstown.” And when Jeter’s career is over, he is in fact a sure bet to head to Copperstown, New York—home to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.

Once again proving that talent comes from everywhere.

P.S. According to the Kalamazoo Public Library, Kakamazoo appears to be a Native American word from the Potawatomi tribe and the word is generally believed to mean something like “boiling pot,” ‘where the water boils,” or “reflecting river.” The name of the village of Branson was changed to Kalamazoo in March 1836. A 1823 Atlas identifies the area as “Kikalemazo.”

Scott W. Smith

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Since yesterday I quoted Pirates of the Caribbean co-screenwriter Ted Elliot, I thought today would be fitting to quote the other half of that writing team Terry Rossio. Elliot & Rossio’s fifth Pirates script Pirates of the Caribbean: On Strange Tide will be released later this year. Rossio won an Oscar for co-writing Shrek (along with Elliot, Joe Stillman and Roger S.H. Schulman). Here’s part of the secret of his incredible 20 year run in Hollywood:

“We’ve never cared so much for dark, bleak, and cynical. Though the entire town here seems to think that’s what audiences want. And so dark, bleak and cynical screenplays get attention, and dark, bleak and cynical films get made. Fine. That leaves the top of the box office to us, and Steven Spielberg, and James Cameron, and David Koepp. What’s really going on is producers, writers, development executives, directors and actors are overly worried about looking not-cool. They fear ‘corny’ so profoundly they err on the side of long dark coats, neon lights, reflections in the water, smoke, blue lighting, black sunglasses, and sneering looks. They are so afraid of heartfelt they take refuge in dim and bleak and ugly. You’ve never seen anything as funny as a producer wax all excited about how they’re going to reinvent Superman, give him a costume of chain and black leather.”
Terry Rossio

That quote comes from the excellent website Wordplayer.com that was created by Rossio and Elliot to provide some of the best advise on screenwriting that you can find on the Internet.

And if you need something anti-dark, bleak and cynical today here’s Terry Rossio-related  video for you:

Scott W. Smith



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