Posts Tagged ‘Your Screenplay Sucks!’

“I would have these script readings for Don’t Think Twice at my house to workshop the film script the way that I workshop my standup…and I would say at the beginning of the reading, ‘the script might be bad, but at the end, we’re all going to eat pizza.’”
Writer/Director Mike Birbiglia

In Mike Birbiglia’s podcast interview with Tim Ferriss he explains his writing process from gathering ideas to writing, and re-writing his screenplays. When writing he schedules three hours each morning to write in a coffee shop (but may write for five if the writing is flowing). He encourages writing in a trance where you don’t think consciously what you’re putting on the page.

Back at home he has a cork board wall full of 3″X5″ notes cards which has scene ideas, pieces of dialogue, and what he calls mind writing quotes. Inspirational sayings by well-known writers.

Here’s an edited version of his exchange with Ferriss about what he does after he has a draft completed:

Mike Birbiglia: I always urge screenwriters, or anyone who needs feedback on their work, to just invite people to something where you give them something, give them food, give them ice cream, give them pizza, and try and solicit their feedback. Because I think feedback is the most valuable thing you can have for your writing.

Tim Ferriss: Can you explain how you workshop the material? At what point do you invite your friends over and ply them with pizza? How rough is it when you give it to them?

Mike Birbiglia: Probably about two month in. I started writing [Don’t Think Twice] two years ago at the end of April, and then June 10 I had people over. I prefaced it by saving, “It might not be good”and “thanks for coming.” I had ten or 12 of those at my house. They ended up being some of the most fun parts of the process entirely. Because there’s really no stakes to showing your friends your work. It feels like there’s stakes—I was very nervous. But there’s something communal about it, there’s something fun about it.

Tim Ferriss: Do you do a table read? Do people take roles or do they all read in silence and give you feedback? How does it work?

Mike Birbiglia:I have them read it aloud. Like I’d have my assistant at the time Greg would read the screen directions and I would assign parts and I would highlight the script for people. We’d read it a loud, and then we’d eat pizza and just kind of talk about what it made us feel like. The director of my one person shows is this guy named Seth Barrish, this really brilliant theater director. He always does this thing dramaturgically—I will pitch him what my idea is and then he says back to me, “Well, what I get from that is this…” and it’s a non-judgmental way of interfacing with a collaborator. In other words, he reads the script and then says “Well, what I get from that is it’s a group of friends and one of them gets more successful than the others and they’re all trying to figure out what they’re doing with their lives.” If he says that back to me and I say, “Well, no, it’s more than that, it’s actually about this, this, this, and this.” And he says, “Well, that’s not what I got from it.” It’s actually helpful to the process. I think one of the most important things about the writing process is that people are getting what you’re intending.…What I’m doing essentially in my little shabby apartment in Brooklyn is basically what they’re doing on the hundred million dollar level in Hollywood. It’s “development” in Hollywood where they develop these screenplay for years and years and years with all of these executives giving notes. I don’t want executive giving notes to me, I want writers giving notes to me. And I want actors to give notes. I want collaborators who actually do the things I like and who I aspire to be like. And I invite over writers who are way better than me….We read it start to finish like a table read for a sitcom or a movie. And then at the end we kind of adjourn. Some fiery discussions start. A lot of people give their thoughts and they really conflict with other people’s thoughts. And those people fight with each other, and I listen to that. It’s really helpful.

Note: It helps, as in Birbiglia’s case, if some of your friends are Brian Koeppelman (Billions), Michael Weber (500 Days of Summer), and Phil Lord (The Lego Movie). But do what you can, where you are, with the friends you have.

P.S. This is the way that Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather) and Brad Bird (The Incredibles) also work, as I wrote in the 2009 post  The Francis Ford Coppola Way (Tip #29). And #86 on William Akers’ reasons why Your Screenplay Sucks! is you haven’t done a table read.

Scott W. Smith


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“Exposition is BORING unless it is in the context of some present dramatic tension or crisis. So start with an action that creates tension, then provide the exposition in terms of the present development.”
Writer/director Alexander Mackendrick
On Film-making

William M. Akers in Your Screenplay Sucks! points out a great example of creating tension then giving exposition from Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid when they’re working as payroll guards:

“Their boss gets shot and they hide behind some rocks. They end up in a face off, with Butch and Sundance holding pistols on a double handful of fearsome looking bandits. 

Butch Cassidy: Kid, there’s something I ought to tell you. I never shot anybody before.
Sundance Kid: One hell of a time to tell me!

A great way to reveal significant information, and, in a crowded theater, it got a gigantic laugh.”  

Related posts:

Cary Grant & Exposition (Tip # 38)
Screenwriting & Exposition (Tip #10)
Cody on Expo

Scott W. Smith

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Merry Christmas—50 weeks early. When I was driving through Nashville last November after a production I had lunch with William Akers (Your Screenplay Sucks!) and he told me about a video of Orson Welles doing a Q&A with students at USC back in 1981. I’d never seen or even heard of the video, so I figured it would be a great way to start 2014 by pulling a few quotes this week. (Below is the complete hour and a half video.)

“I never sit down and plan with a cinematographer. I had storyboards in [Citizen] Kane only because I was made to. I believe I’m the only director—that I know of—who does this particular thing, which is probably the worst way to go about it. I didn’t begin this way but I’ve developed this way. I light a set with a cameraman before I decide where anybody will go. And then when the set looks right to me I put the actors where I think they ought to be. I don’t put the actors in and then light the set—it’s the exact opposite. Because the set is all we have besides the actors and it ought to have a chance. The only way to give it a chance is to begin with it. That’s my theory anyway.”
Producer/director/writer/actor Orson Welles
At the 44:38 mark when asked about working with planning the look of The Trial (1962) with cinematographer Edmond Richard.

Welles wrote The Trial screenplay based on the 1925 uncompleted novel by Franz Kafka and the movie starred Anthony Perkins as a 30-year-old man arrested without knowing why. (A little Orwell, Orson, Obama mix with the novel 1984, a touch of the 2002 film Minority Report where you’re arrested before you commit a crime, and some 2013 news of NSA spying. Nothing new under the sun.

Now that Screenwriting from Iowa…and Other Unlikely Places enters this month into its seventh year I will be writing more filmmaking posts. Toying with a few other ideas to take things up a notch but welcome any ideas and suggestions readers have to make this a more helpful site for screenwriters and filmmakers. You can email me at info@scottwsmith.com. Best wishes on your screenwriting and filmmaking this year.

P.S. A little Anthony Perkins trivia; Like Fred Rogers, Perkins attended Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida. (Where I just happen to live.) If you’re looking for a quirky creative challenge today, write a scene where the star of the thriller Psycho and the star of children’s TV program Mr. Rogers Neighborhood are college roommates. Bonus points if you can do a mash-up video of the Hitchcock classic and the PBS show. Working title: It’s a Beautiful Day at the Bates Motel.

Related posts:
10 Cinematography Tips (Roger Deakins)
Screenwriting Quote #38
Stagecoach Revisited (2.0) Welles watched the John Ford classic 40 times while making Citizen Kane.

Scott W. Smith

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Today is my last day of spending a week in my old Florida stomping grounds. It’s been a mixture of business and pleasure. So between Disney World one day, the beach another day, I was rounding up equipment for a little video shoot. Somewhere along the way I realized that if I lived in Orlando it would be hard to write and blog on a daily basis. There are just a lot more distractions here than back home in Iowa.

Not to mention the hours I spent this week driving to and from various activities and duties. Last night I got a kick out of going to dinner at a Central Florida Romao’s Macaroni Grill and walking in and seeing several pieces of artwork on the walls by my friend and Cedar Falls-based artist Gary Kelley.

Several years ago I asked Kelley why he didn’t at some point in his career move to a big city. He joked that he was from Algona, Iowa (pop. 5,741) and Cedar Falls was the big city. Then he went on to tell me that he didn’t need to move to a big city because he had an agent in New York and it didn’t mater where he lived. It was the work that mattered.

Kelley further said that he liked living in an area which had a low cost of living and where he could drive to his studio in five minutes (unless he decided to walk). He said that the problem that artists often have in big cities is that just living is a full time job on top of being an artist.

Of course, living in smaller areas has a different set of problems. What’s that saying—”Every problem has a solution, every solution has a problem.” My point is the only way to create everyday is to limit your distractions. I’m sure most creatives in Orlando and L.A. aren’t going to both the beach and Disney World/Disneyland every week. You simply must find a way to limit your distractions and focus on the work at hand.

That all brings me back to the book Your Screenplay Sucks!

“Really, really good writers will write even if they are not paid for it. It’s a compulsion for them. And it feeds something in them that goes beyond the financial. You must be writing because if you don’t write, you’ll die.

…All artistic pursuits are about discipline. Margot Fonteyn. Julian Schnabel. Mick Jagger. Saul Bass. Ron Bass. Picasso. Donatella Versace.  Milton Cantiff. Worker bees every one. It’s about waking up earlier than the other guy and working harder than the other guy and caring enough to be professional about this craft you say you love.”
William M. Akers
Your Screenplay Sucks!
pages 244-245

(Of course, I should say that some artists can get quite a lot done working at the beach. Here’s a iPhone shot I took yesterday at Cape Canaveral of a sand sculpture.)

Related post: Screenwriter’s Work Ethic

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