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Posts Tagged ‘WGA’

“I hate all kinds of writing.”
Larry David

Before Larry David created Seinfeld with Jerry Seinfeld, he failed to impress his parents or comedy club audiences with his comic genius:

I told my parents about wanting to be a comedian and my mother said, ‘You’re not funny, Larry. I’ve never heard you say anything funny.’ And my father backed her up, ‘She’s right, she’s right. You’re not funny. Why do you think you’re funny? You’re not funny.’ So, I started doing [stand up comedy] . . . but I was not all that successful. My therapist at the time said I wasn’t really temperamentally suited for it for the simple reason that if the audience didn’t laugh I would scream and curse them.

‘You stupid, f–king morons. You don’t know anything!’ I remember even walking the streets in New York looking for good spots to live in case I ever became homeless. I would mentally note them. Yeah, yeah, 44th between 5th and 6th. Good steam vent, there’s an overhang. I got to remember this. I bombed all the time. Got heckled unmercifully. People threw things at me. I wallowed in self-pity. ‘Why me? Why? Why can’t I do anything? I don’t understand. It’s not fair.’

“And then in 1988, Jerry Seinfeld asked me to develop a show with him. I’d never written a half hour before. I didn’t even know the format. The number of pages, I had no idea what I was doing.”
Larry David, creator of Curb Your Enthusiasm, Seinfeld 
2010 Paddy Chayefsky Laurel Award for Television acceptance speech
(H/T Speakola)

P.S. Larry David not only avoided being homeless, but today his net worth—thanks to the syndication deal of Seinfeld alone—is estimated in the mid-hundreds of millions of dollars.

Scott W. Smith

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On Wednesday A Quiet Place was back at the number one position for the day. And Box Office Mojo expects A Quiet Place to finish this weekend in the number #1 slot. Pretty remarkable given its a non-franchise film going into its third week in theaters.

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How do you create something these days that rises above all the noise competing for our entertainment time? All the broadcast and cable TV shows and Internet options? How do you get people to put down their video game controllers and actually go to a movie theater?

To use an old expression, “sometimes when people are shouting you have to whisper to be heard.” That’s what John Krasinski, Bryan Woods and Scott Beck did with A Quiet Place. 

In a WGA Q&A here’s how Woods and Beck explain how they developed A Quiet Place before Krasinski came on board to bring his sensibilities to the script and direction. (This is a lightly edited version of the Beck/Woods exchange.)

Scott Beck: We wrote a 15-page proof of concept just to see if this would work. Maybe this will read really boring but let’s try it.

Bryan Woods: It was a proof of concept in two ways. On some level, we thought we could make a short film out of it. But it ended up being more as writers, “What’s this thing going to look like on the page? How do you communicate motivation? How do you communicate backstory, intent, and what characters want without using dialogue? Is it going to be readable?”

Scott: One of the scripts that we studied was Walter Hill and David Giler had written a draft of Alien—it’s incredibly sparse. The writing is very specific and economical. Another recent example is Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler script. It’s like line of description, line of  description. It doesn’t really have traditional location slugs, it’s very visual how it’s written.  So we were kind of like, let’s screw all the rules of screenwriting and start putting images in this.  And we knew because this film would be very sound heavy we were like how do we convey that on the page? And there were pages where we’d literally have one word that was conveying how loud a sound would be. And we were playing with the font sizes. For instance, the quieter that a sound got or the quieter that character had to be we’d shrink the font size. 

Bryan: So we were gimmicky and we kind of hated ourselves for doing it. But we really wanted to make sure that producers, and eventually the studio, understood that this was going to be unlike any movie you’ve ever seen. We really wanted to communicate the silent film experience.

Scott: The very first draft that we’d written actually only had one line of dialogue. Like three words [of dialogue] in it entirely. It played really, really silently. But it was like 67 pages. So even when we had the script finalized, we were like what are people going to think of this? We’ve written a pilot script or something, right?

We now know audiences and critics think quite highly of the finished version.

Related posts:

Rules, Breaking Rules, No Rules
‘There are no rules’
There are no rules, but…

Scott W. Smith

 

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“Screenwriting is so hard. Anyone who’s ever done it or tried to do it learns very quickly how cruel it can be. It’s so dependent on things that are out of your control. I mean, the chemistry between actors, the director’s pacing, and all of a sudden you either look really good or really inept. The idea of creating something from a blank page is about a challenging as it gets. I have tremendous respect for someone that can create an original piece of material in screenplay form.”
Writer/Director James Gray (The Immigrant, We Own the Night)
WGA article by Dylan Callaghan

Related post:
Billy Wilder on Writing “(Writing) is blood, sweat, and tears, believe me.”—Wilder

Scott W. Smith

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“I have no daily process. I have trouble calling myself a writer. It was never a plan of mine. I learned to type in the Navy’s communication corps, learned Morse code and how to type at 100 words a minute (I never went to war). Typing was a skill I took advantage of. I like dialogue, exploring behavior. Behavior takes you everywhere – beyond imagination for a character. It runs you into other people’s behavior and so the battleground is set.”
Two-time Ocar-winning screenwriter Alvin Sargent
WGA Interview by Denis Faye  

Ordinary People (1980) won four Oscars including Best Picture and Alvin Sargent’s screenplay.  It’s a movie full of conflict, including this “battleground” scene on a golf course—that’s also a great example of sweeping emotional change that transpires in just two minutes:

P.S. Over the weekend Sargent turned 87 years old. Happy Birthday Alvin.

Related post:
Everything I Learned in Film School (Tip #1)
Screenwriting’s One Unbreakable Rule
Conflict: What? vs. How?

Scott W. Smith

 

 

 

 

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“By 1995 I was literally down to my last dollar. I called dad to ask for money, which was like pulling teeth. He wanted to know when I was going to get a real job. My car was stolen, so I was riding a bike. I thought I’d end up working in Starbuck’s.”
Screenwriter Ken Nolan

If you looked up screenwriter Ken Nolan on IMDB it’s possible you’d be underwhelmed. He has one lone feature film writing credit. But it’s a one big —Black Hawk Down. The 2001 film got solid reviews (74% at Rotten Tomatoes), made $172 million world-wide, and earned Nolan a WGA nomination.

But if you’re an inquisitive type you might ask,”Why does Ken Nolan have only one feature film writing credit?” Good question and I think the answer gives a nice mini-history of screenwriting in America.

Nolan was born in Detroit and grew up in Buffalo and Portland. He applied to UCLA Film School twice and was turned down twice. He ended up getting an English degree at the University of Oregon. While in school he wrote short stories and as soon as he graduated in 1990 he moved to LA. He got a job as an assistant at Richard Dreyfuss’s company and started to write scripts, “using Syd Field’s Screenwriter’s Workbook as my guide. ” By his own admission he learned to write by writing six bad scripts. His seventh script was sent out and some liked it, but no one liked it enough to buy it.

He read good scripts and bad scripts and decided to write his own version of a Die Hard/ Speed rip-off and sold it for $100,000. He had an agent and thought he was on his way,  but the film never got made. Then he wrote what he thought was a very commercial natural catastrophe script  but it didn’t sell putting him in a financial bind.

So if you’re keeping score:

1) Rejected from UCLA film school—twice
2) Writes seven scripts that don’t sell
3) Finally sells a script, but it doesn’t get produced
4) Next script doesn’t sell and he ends up broke

Inspired by an interview he read about Quentin Tarantino he decided to focus not on what he thought people wanted but on what he was interested in. He wrote a character driven script that sold for $600,000, but when a similar movie came out it killed the production of his script. But at least he had a little coin in the bank, right?

He then sold another script for $850,000 that also didn’t get made.

“I was starting to realize that I had a nice career, a car and could afford a house, but I had no movies made. I was very worried about my career.”
Ken Nolan

Through a little persistence by Nolan and his agent he landed on the Black Hawk Down project based on the book by Mark Bowden. He ended up writing a 60-page treatment and eight drafts over a year’s time before Ridley Scott was attached to direct. He did two more drafts before the project was green lit and eventually becoming his first credited (and to date, only) feature film credit.

And while other writers (including Steve Zallian) were brought on the project, Nolan retained sole screenwriting credit. In an interview with Alan Waldman for wga.org Nolan said of writing Black Hawk Down;

“One challenge was that Mark’s book had about 60 characters, so I had to figure out who our main characters were while maintaining the ensemble feeling and staying true to the story. Another challenge was that I had to track and balance several story lines, while eliminating others. I had to distill a book that dealt with the families of the servicemen who were killed, the political situation, the Somali side of the story and the repercussions after the venture. I thought that this movie should be about the soldiers only and put the viewers—to a greater degree than any movie in the past—into the boots of the soldiers and thrust the audience into modern urban warfare.

Jerry (Bruckheimer) kept hammering that we had to care about the characters, but I felt we had so much story to cover that we didn’t have time to develop characters. But as I went along in the drafts I realized it was important for the audience to care for the characters, lest it become a cold, distance movie that lacks gut punch. Mark’s book touches on the characters, but a big challenge was to invent the barracks scenes and hanging-around scenes before the battle, without making it seem expository or exploitative…Also the story is very confusing and complex, because, as I said, it is several stories. There’s the Delta Force capturing the bad guys story, the helicopter pilot crashing story, the two guys left on the corner story, the incredibly complicated lost Humvee column story, the General Garrison story at the joint operations center and what ties them together: the story of our Ranger Platoon who are the first on the scene of the first downed helicopter and who get pinned down there. So it was really hard to decide how much time to spend on each story and how to effectively weave them together. That took 11 drafts and 14 months of development.”

I imagine these days Nolan keeps busy working on various writing projects that, while not credited, I’m sure pay him quite well.

Scott W. Smith

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I thought Taken was quite a good film and I wondered how the screenwriters Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen worked as a pair. They come from different backgrounds. Kamen an American who is best known for writing The Karate Kid lives in New York and owns a winery in California. Besson the Frenchman who wrote The Transporter (with Kamen) grew up in places like Greece and Bulgaria because his parents were scuba instructors with Club Med.

Somewhere along the way the two met and now have worked together on several films. 

“Here’s how this works. Luc and I write scripts together. We conceptualize them together, then I write them, and then he does his Luc Besson things to them, then he goes off, and he produces them. So how Taken came about was Luc came to me and said, ‘I met this cop, and he told me this amazing story about an auction of women in a chateau outside of Paris; that they broke up this ring. I think this is amazing, so let’s make up a story.’ And then we made up the story of Taken.”
                                         Robert Mark Kamen
                                         WGA  Interview with Shira Gotsshalk

In that same interview Kamen offers this advice for those who want to be screenwriters, “Don’t read Variety. Don’t listen to gossip. Don’t live in L.A., and write. I write original screenplays every year besides the movies I get made, and I just put them away. Write what makes you excited, and if it makes you excited, and you’re any good  it will excite somebody else.”

 

Scott W. Smith
 


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“Everybody lives by selling something.”      Robert Louis Stevenson

“Tell stories! Great Speechifying = Great Storytelling. Period.”    Tom Peters

Stephanie Palmer’s Q&A on her book “Good in a Room” generated the second highest views to this site. (Right behind “The Juno-Iowa Connection” after Diablo Cody won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.) So I thought it would be worth exploring a little more in detail.

According to Stephanie (a former MGM executive):  “Good in a room” is a Hollywood term referring to creative people who excel pitching at high-stakes meeting. 

 

Outside of Hollywood being “good in a room” may be pitching an investor in your project. In advertising circles around the world it may be trying to get a client excited about your creative ideas.

Let’s not kid ourselves, public speaking is part of being good in a room. The thing that many people list as their #1 fear. If you’re a writer who pumps out great thoughts and people send you a check without you having to get out of your bathrobe then you can probably afford to skip learning to be a public speaker.

For everyone else it’s a great skill to learn. But can one to learn to be a good speaker? Some of the answers found in the post “Can Writing Be Taught?” apply here.

First speaking is like writing, the more you do it the better you will become. A friend who is a fitness instructor told me years ago that the key to staying is shape is, “It has to be a lifestyle.” The results aren’t pretty when we try to jog a mile after a year or two layoff. But how can you practice public speaking?

One of the best places to go to learn and practice public speaking is joining Toastmasters International. I moved to L.A. when I was 21 and the first thing I did was follow everyone’s advice and buy a Thomas Bros Road guide for LA and Orange counties. (I used to drive 30,000 miles a year in those days and those spiral bound detailed map books were gold. I imagine these days in an GPS/Mapquest age those books are less in demand.)

But the first thing I wish someone would have told me to do was to join Toastmasters. It took years of prompting in Tom Peters books before I finally visited a club Toastmasters meeting and then (after a couple of years on the sideline) to join. I now have been a member of a Toastmaster group for two years and it has been a wonderful experience and I recently received my Competent Communicator certificate for completing ten 5-10 minute talks.

Here’s what Peters’ writes in his book Brand you 50 (50 Ways to Transform Yourself):
Join Toastmasters. You are your own P.R. “Agency.” 

Building a local reputation is part and parcel of building Brand You. That means using any opportunity to…Tell Your Story.

 

Tame your (v-e-r-y natural!) fear of public speaking. There are doubtless lots of strategies for this. I am an unabashed Toastmaster fan. Toastmasters is a bit too structured for me, but that’s the smallest annoyance. It is the premier self-help organization  that has led hundreds of thousands to master Self-Presentation.

Toastmasters is a safe place to begin improving your speaking skills and with dues under $30. a year it’s one great investment. I am amazed to watch how people improve in just a couple of weeks. There are Toastmaster groups around the world…even in Iowa. There are probably several groups in your area that meet at all different times to fit into your schedule.

(Just learned from writer Lisa Klink’s blog that there is a Toastmaster flyer on display up at the WGA offices in Los Angeles. Could be an excellent networking opportunity for those in L.A.)

But Stephanie points out that being good in a room is more than just being a good speaker and pitching your ideas. It’s about building rapport. She says that in her experience as a studio executive the buyers are asking themselves if they want to spend a couple of years of their life working with you on a project.

“The Ultimate goal of ANY pitch is to establish an ongoing relationship with the person you are pitching…when I hear a two-minute pitch, I’m also checking out if this is the kind of person I’d like to do business with.”
Shelia Hanahan Taylor, Practical Pictures

Obviously your story must be solid but it helps if you’re likable as well. Stephanie lists three secrets for building rapport:

Secret 1: Allow yourself to really care about the other person and to be curious about who he or she is. Empathic interest creates trust.

Secret 2: Common ground cannot be faked or fudged. Rapport requires honesty.

Secret 3: The warmth that signifies true rapport is not something you can force. 

She unpacks these more in detail in her book so make sure you pick up a copy “Good in Room” and join Toastmasters as well. And embrace the fact that you are a salesperson. If you want to see a novice screenwriter be brilliant in a room find a DVD of the first season of Project Greenlight and watch how first time director Pete Jones does a master sales job on Ben Afflack, Matt Damon and Chris Moore as he pitched his story Stolen Summer which they did produce.

Where did Pete learn to be a salesman? He sold insurance in Chicago. (Always pushing for that Midwest angle, aren’t I?)

Speaking of Midwest angles —  in the latest Script Magazine (Vol. 14/Number 2) there is a photo of Kevin Costner from Field of Dreams.

Scott W. Smith

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“IS THIS HEAVEN?”

 

 

(That movie was filmed about an hour away from where I’m typing this blog and you can tour the Field of Dreams Movie Site from April through December.) Anyway, the photo of Costner in a baseball pitcher’s windup is in an article by Lee Zahavi-Jessup titled Perfect Pitch. It’s a solid article and a good read.

Zahavi-Jessup writes, “With a strong pitch, the writer is allowed an opportunity to display the brilliance, efficiency and creative prevalent in his 120-page screenplay in a focused and concise fashion.”  That takes practice.

I’ve also noticed online pitches starting to pop up and I don’t think that’s a trend that will fade away. I believe it will open the door for more writers outside LA to be able to pitch their stories. If all this seems too much to grasp remember the Milton Glazer quote, “Art is work.”

 

“A lot of the time it’s essential that you have some P.T. Barnum in your personality. That is, you have to know how to sell.

                                                        Andrew Marlow (screenwriter, Air Force One)

Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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