Craft & Career
Welcome to our second issue. "Mark as Unread," "Keep as New," or hit the "print" button ... because we have an entire magazine's worth of cool content for you - almost twice as much as last month's. Julie Marsh
, whose DVD on horror I directed, wrote a screenwriter's guide to Comic-Con (glossary included) and interviews Laura Harkcom, co-creator of the miniseries The Lost Room
and creator of the new comic book, We Kill Monsters
Maybe because Laura grew up in Pittsburgh, a few dozen miles from me, she and I hit it off immediately when we met in Los Angeles and have always had an effortless friendship. She is one of the most down-to-earth people you will meet in this industry or anywhere. David Gillis
offers Style Matters: 10 Common Mistakes. I call it Ten Things I Hate About You(r Format). If you like his advice, email him and tell him to do a column for us. More than 70,000 scripts are registered with the WGA each year. If David's ethos of efficiency were applied to each one, readers would save tens of thousands of hours - years of their lives.
Warning: My WWTBD? column is rated R for adult themes, adult activity (hopefully), and sexual elements, as well as sexual puns of attempted wit. I will let my craft topic for this issue be a surprise, but don't try to read it on your coffee break: it's a lot of material.
Remember, our newsletter is free and we're here every month. And you have a selfish reason to forward this to your friends. Once we hit 2,000 subscribers, we're going to give away a $999 seat to A-List: The Immersion to one lucky reader. And in case you missed it, check out our premiere issue here
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FILM ANALYSIS FOR SCREENWRITERS
(DEAD POETS SOCIETY)
by Jim Mercurio
Although I'm a screenwriter, much of my training - and my heart as a storyteller - is as a filmmaker. As a director, you learn how camerawork, including focal length, f-stop and focal distance, affects the presentation of space and can heighten a story's meaning. A director also learns how everything from casting to color to cinematography brings the story into sharper focus. A director has several more tools at his/her disposal than a screenwriter.
But here's a little trick: A screenwriter can steal from all of filmmaking's other disciplines - production design, cinematography, wardrobe, etc. - to become a better storyteller. Not only will your scripts be more cinematic and a better read, you will be in more control of what your film says and how it says it. So instead of mortgaging the house and going back to school to get your MFA in directing, just read on.
Dead Poets Society (1989) was directed by Peter Weir and written by Tom Schulman. It takes place in the late '50s at a fictitious, stuffy all-boys prep school called Welton Academy. In the story, several young students struggle with the pressures of conformity: family, successful siblings, the school's status as the best in America and post-World War II society. A passionate literature teacher, John Keating, enters their lives and tries to inspire them to carpe diem, or "seize the day": that is, use literature and poetry as inspiration to follow the passion in their hearts. As you will see, each character plays out the struggle between conformity and carpe diem in his own way.
Today, I analyze the opening nine-minute sequence from Dead Poets Society. I will be ultraspecific and detailed most of the time but, once in a while, I may "fast-forward" for the sake of space and time. I hope the analysis shows you some new ways to look at movies, but when I am done, I will point out techniques that we, as screenwriters, can take for our own craft.
To watch the opening sequence, click here.
with Jim Mercurio
"I had the privilege of attending Jim's (weeklong workshop) in LA in 2008. This was not just a class. It was a reconditioning of my creative mind. It was, for me, as well as the others who attended, a life-changing experience."
- Jill Wallace
To schedule a chat (no hard sell) or for
questions about the class, email Jim.
New York City - Nov. 7 - 11 - 4 Seats Left
Los Angeles - Dec. 7 - 11 - 3 Seats Left
INTERVIEW WITH LAURA HARKCOM
Story Consultant Julie Marsh catches up with Laura Harkcom, co-creator of SciFi Channel's original miniseries, The Lost Room, to discuss We Kill Monsters, a six-issue comic that was launched at ComiCon. Laura and her writing partner, Chris Leone, have six features that they have written for or sold to studios.
WE INTERVIEW WRITERS
Julie Marsh: What was your original creative process? Did you start out as a writer, or did you have some other creative aspiration when you were younger?
Laura Harkcom: Actually, I always wanted to be a writer, but then my first job I fell into accidentally and I did that for I guess about 5 or 6 years, before I went back to what I really wanted to do. From the time I was 5 or 6 I knew I wanted to write and I knew I wanted to write for television.
JM: Wow. What were your favorite shows when you were a kid?
LH: Shows I shouldn't have been watching as a kid: Saturday Night Live and Soap. Soap was my favorite TV show.
JM: So, comedy with sci-fi in it, huh?
LH: Oh, that's right. The alien abduction on Soap. I forgot about that!
JM: Was Soap hour-long or half-hour?
LH: Half-hour. And then movies. Agatha Christie movies and Charlie Chan movies. I loved mysteries.
JM: Oh, cool. It all makes sense with The Lost Room. Did you actually write a feature script for The Lost Room before it was adapted for television?
LH: We didn't. However, when we first sat down to write it, that's the way we approached it because we didn't know anything else. And as we started writing... just writing our ideas, we realized, if this were a movie, it would have to be a trilogy. It was just too much material. We realized this is really better suited for a TV show, but we had never done television, so we really had to educate ourselves. Then we did pitch it as television. We never did pitch it as a movie.
I've been an editor for more than 20 years - including 15 at The Boston Globe - and if there's one thing I've learned about writers (including myself) it's that they tend to make the same mistakes repeatedly. Work with a writer long enough and you become quite intimate with his or her foibles. Work with a lot of scribes in a particular field and you begin to see a larger pattern emerge, in which all of the writers - in our case screenwriters - make the same mistakes over and over. Why? I think for the most part it's the wolf-pack mentality. For example, if Joe and Jill and Jamal all italicize words in their scripts, it must be OK to do so.
One never italicizes anything in a script. And I mean never.
"Just what do you think you're doing, Dave?" you ask in your best HAL-like voice. "You just broke your own rule about italic. I'm afraid you can't do that."
Sure I can, and here's why: Style allows it - at least style for the sort of stuff I'm writing now.
Now by "style" I don't mean "a distinctive manner of expression" (Webster's Tenth Collegiate Dictionary) or, to put it more simply, a writer's way with words. By "style" I mean the rules that apply to a particular type of writing. It doesn't matter what sort. Sonnets, articles for medical journals, ad jingles: All writing must abide by certain rules, some esoteric to a certain field. Newswriting, for example, is largely governed by The Associated Press Stylebook, which every good journalist should memorize cover to cover. (Most don't, which is why yours truly found work as a copy editor for so many years.)
Some of you might be surprised to learn this, but screenwriting, too, has its own style - a set of rules governing what should and should not be done in a script (such as no italic - and, for that matter, no boldface). In fact, there are several good screenwriting stylebooks on the market. I prefer - and religiously use - The Hollywood Standard (hereafter THS) by Christopher Riley. Others include The Screenwriter's Bible (Trottier) and The Complete Screenwriter's Manual (Bowles, Mangravite, Zorn Jr.). Whatever your preference, buy a stylebook. Read it, learn it.
But as you surf over to Amazon to order one, you need to heed one big caveat: Despite Riley's title, there is no such standard in Hollywood. I'm sure that you'll find on the Internet any number of produced scripts that break every single rule in THS (as well as the other style guides). God knows I have, and I attribute this to the fact that there are no style mavens overseeing the editing of scripts (unlike a well-run newspaper, which has its own crack copy desk ... and yet all of those Page 3 corrections). You're either on your own, or you must turn to guys like me. (How's that for shameless self-promotion?)
So if what I just wrote is true - that there is no standard - why should you even care about style?
|THE SCREENWRITER'S GUIDE
by Julie Marsh
Comic-Con is a massive convention held annually at the San Diego Convention Center, open to the public, devoted to marketing and developing intellectual properties for the entertainment business. The event is Ground Zero for pop culture in America and you should make the trek to San Diego at least once, no matter how thin your geek credentials might otherwise be.
You missed this year's event, but it's not too early to start planning for 2010: Wednesday, July 21- Sunday, July 25.
More than 125,000 people attended Comic-Con International in 2009: From Batman to Bart Simpson and from their fans to their creators/license holders. The range of attendees boggles the mind of the first-time "Con" attendee. Creative professionals of all stripes can be found at the convention, from aspiring cartoonists and 70's TV stars hawking autographs, to film and TV execs trotting out A-List talent in an effort to strike a chord with the "super-fan" set.
The event features panels, showcases, classes and an enormous Exhibit Hall. Media categories include film, television, animation, web, video games, role playing games, art, all manner of toys and licensed merchandise and, of course, comic books. On-site events include major awards presentations, the CCI Independent Film Fest, the San Diego International Children's Film Festival, and four days of Anime.
Entering Comic-Con or Metropolis?
Mainstream entertainment is driven by intellectual properties on both the grand scale and at the niche level. Genre material dominates at Comic-Con, as it does at the box office, so if you want an efficient snap-shot of cutting-edge entertainment product and a first-hand look at the audience that makes it so, Comic-Con is the place to be. I attend annually and I advise my producing and writing clients to do the same, especially if they work with genre material. Here are ten reasons you should attend.
FILM ANALYSIS FOR SCREENWRITERS (Continued)
DEAD POETS SOCIETY
(*** Many Spoilers Ahead ***)
The opening image is a static shot of a mural that features adolescent males dressed in similar sport jackets of muted colors. Three boys are featured prominently. (Behind them are a group of slightly older and taller boys whose faces are obscured or incomplete.) The three boys look in different directions - one up, one down in a gaze of defeat, and one straight ahead - hinting at the different paths that some of the main characters will take:
Knox: He transcends the system, seizes the day to the point where he is kicked out.
Neil: He's crushed by the system, the absence of seizing the day.
Todd: He finds the balance, finding his voice as a writer, finds a bit of daring in himself
Two of the three featured boys on the mural have a fair amount of red - a color often associated with passion - in their outfits (one tie and one blazer), while the older kids have a miniscule amount - as though most if not all of their passion has been snuffed out. Now, the "rule of threes" states that it takes three things to make a pattern. So although I would tend to see the two layers of boys in the mural as a sort of family tree and the idea of lineage, the concept becomes explicit when the camera pulls out to a third layer of a live, much younger boy who wears a bright red hat. He stands before his mother, whose face is mostly OS as she fixes his hair and tells him to keep his shoulders back - telling him how to behave.
In the next shot a case is opened and a bagpipe assembled, which is intercut with a photographer, taking pictures of his sons (dressed by adults), who says, "Put your arm around your brother" - furthering the idea that adults want to pose kids, control them, mold them.
As the boys, dressed in their formal blue jackets, grab banners and line up behind the bagpiper, we see a wide shot of the mural, in which the painted image of the kids face a female character who seems to represent liberty or freedom. The boys walk into the main hall, carrying banners that proclaim the school's ethos: tradition, honor, discipline, excellence. The camera frames things in flat and often overly symmetrical compositions, with muted, bland colors.
At the start of the ceremony an old man takes a candle (the "light of knowledge") and lights a candle held by a young boy, who in turn lights the candle held by the boy next to him, and so on down the row. To these old men, knowledge is rational and tangible to the senses (not from intuition) and, like the image suggests, is passed down to the youths at the school.
Elder Headmaster Nolan, dressed in ceremonial garb, gives the introductions and immediately recalls the school's rich history, comparing this class to the first. Once again, the burden of responsibility to others' expectations, as well as the burden of the school's lineage, is firmly placed on the boys' shoulders. We also get brief glimpses of the main characters: Meeks, Knox, Charlie, Neil, and Neil's father.
Nolan then asks the students to stand and repeat the four virtues proclaimed on the banners. Todd doesn't comply, until his father urges him. (I'll discuss this three-second intro to Todd later.)
Fast-forward to end of the ceremony, as the headmaster meets the families on the way out: Todd and his parents approach Nolan.
TODD'S MOM: This is our youngest one, Todd.
NOLAN: You've got big some big shoes to fill.
Not a second is wasted in getting to the essence of this character and situation. The dialogue deftly handles the exposition that he has an older brother, and Nolan's response immediately puts the pressure on in a seemingly friendly way. And, just in case you didn't put together the notion of lineage and carrying on the tradition: Neil and his father, Mr. Perry, played by my friend, Kurtwood Smith, approach.
NOLAN (to Neil): We expect great things from you this year.
MR. PERRY: He won't disappoint.
NEIL: I'll do my best, sir.
Todd and Neil serve as foils for each other. They share a similar problem: the burden of expectation. At first it seems that Neil, an overachiever with a keen nurturing side, deals better with this pressure. But, in the end, he lets the pressure destroy him, while Todd stands on a table and begins to find his voice. (Charlie and Knox are like doppelgangers, too. To this day, after 10 or so viewings, I can barely tell them apart.)
Although Neil and Todd don't show their discomfort with this pressure, note that the next shots (transitions) show younger boys crying as their parents depart. The parents say things like "chin up" - once again, squelching any bit of raw emotion from them. The young kids' crying also represent the unexpressed sadness of the older boys.
Fast-forward to a dorm room where all of the boys meet Todd: Todd stands out as the only one not dressed in a uniform. Despite the story's ensemble nature, Todd has the strongest and most positive transformation, and he should be considered the protagonist (though one might argue that he and Neil are co-protagonists). The others accept him into their clique pretty quickly, but the light chiding revolves around the stellar achievements of his brother. Neil is completely in charge - sort of the ringleader and peacemaker - but he becomes nervous (stammers, voice cracks) when his father, Mr. Perry, enters and informs him that he will have to give up his assistant editor position on a school publication. Neil protests for a moment before his dad takes him outside:
MR. PERRY: Don't you ever dispute me in public you understand?
NEIL: Father, I wasn't disputing --
MR. PERRY: -- After you've finished medical school and you're on your own, you can do what you damn well please but until then, you do as I tell you. Is that clear?
NEIL: Yes, sir. I'm sorry.
MR. PERRY (softens): You know how much this means to your mother, don't you?
NEIL: Yes, sir.
And then, here is an example of craft that makes the script worthy of the Oscar it won. In response to his dad:
NEIL: You know me, always taking on too much.
This is a powerful line because it resonates with Neil's essence. He is a sensitive character who takes on so much emotionally that it overwhelms him. As a writer, you probably can't be this multilayered and specific until later drafts. Not until you really know your character can you sum him up so specifically in the beginning.
But remember: Lines of dialogue that are "loaded" - that is, meaningful, ominous, foreshadowing, double-entendre - must also work on very basic levels. Is the line in service to the story and conflict? Yes. He is trying to ease the tension and deflect his dad's anger. Is the line forced - does it sound more like the writer than the character? No. Is it a legitimate answer/excuse to why he takes on too many extracurricular activities? Yes.
After Mr. Perry leaves, the other boys come out and chide Neil for taking crap from his dad, but he reminds them that they all are too scared to stand up to their parents and their respective pressures. This is the clear ending of the first sequence.
Reminder: You can watch it or the entire movie here.
Immediately after the first sequence, there is a transitional montage. A clock chimes, and wide shots of the beautiful New England autumn trees represent time passing. At a minimum, it gives us a visual break from the interiors and a bit of a respite before jumping ahead. But the director gives us more than that. He includes several shots of flocking birds. This is a movie about whether individuals can break free from the expectations and conformity that different groups - friends, family, society, schools - put on them. Flocking, of course, is an example of an animal's instinct to act in concert with a large group. And in case you think the bird shots aren't deliberate, note that the loud bird sounds blend seamlessly into the noise of a hundred boys as, in the next shot, they swirl down a staircase while a teacher walks in the opposite direction of the crowd, cautioning them to slow down.
WHAT CAN WE LEARN FROM THIS?
Well, why not open with openings?
I can't emphasize enough how important introductory moments are. Not only do you need to pick a powerful opening image, sometimes you need to know what happens before the opening image. I told my class that they need to know how they are going to modify the Warner Bros. logo before their film. I was sort of kidding but then this week I watched Orphan
use the Warner Bros. logo to foreshadow one of its biggest twists.
In the opening image of the new Harry Potter Film, Dumbledore grabs Harry's arm to comfort him and then as the camera slowly moves around to behind them, we also see that he is not only comforting him but pushing him forward, foreshadowing the entire film ("Once again, I must ask too much of you, Harry"): Unfortunately, Harry must be pushed toward his coming-of-age in order for him to fulfill his destiny.
Look at the efficiency of the character intros in Dead Poets Society
. Todd and Neil are set up in similar ways-as foil characters-in their 2-3 line interactions with their parent and the headmaster. But even before that, in the brief glimpse of each in the ceremony, we learn about them. In the longshot of the boys standing and repeating the four pillars, on a big screen TV or larger format, you can see that Neil clearly has more merit patches/badges on his uniform than anyone else.
And in the three-second introductory shot of Todd where his dad urges him to stand, there is so much information. He is flanked on the left, right and from behind by navy blue blazers (school uniforms) which contrast with his sports jacket. He is immediately set up as the outsider, new to the school. And notice the magic in the moment when he is reluctant to stand up. It shows several things at once or at least raises the questions of what we should be looking for. He is shy and needs prodding, but also, we see his instinct to not do what everyone else is doing. We see the seeds of his early flawed self and his future evolved self (what Hauge calls identity and essence).
I know I read a lot into the opening images of DPS
. On a first viewing, an audience might not "get" all of that or all of the meaning and significance of your opening image. Likewise, you may not even be able to select the perfect opening image or character intro until your very last draft. But as a storyteller, it's your job to put it there. And to make sure it sums up or hints at what's to come.
I know lens selections and whether a camera zooms or dollies are not usually the concern of a screenwriter. But in DPS
, almost all of the details in that opening shot are within the realm of screenwriting: the similar jackets, the muted colors, the sparseness of red, the anonymous/faceless older boys in the background as well as the mother whose face was mostly offscreen. And the "PULL BACK TO REVEAL" the third layer, the live kid may even have inspired a small 3-4 word cheat about how the young kid is part of the cycle or that the picture represents a legacy or his future.
As a screenwriter, you need to pay attention to more than words and actions. Props, costumes, location, description of setting, wardrobe, contrasts or similarities of character or their dress, and even lighting can be part of your screenwriting toolkit. During your last draft of a scene, think a bit like a director and look for ways that you can layer in details, control the way the information is revealed, or create suspense by "directing" a bit on the page. Don't overdo it, but strive to create a dynamic script. This process will also help you discover details, nuances and character traits that were either missing or weren't being communicated effectively.
The skill of cinematic writing is an important one to develop. Sadly, it has often enabled a bad screen story to get better coverage, simply because the writing made the experience of the read so enjoyable. But you can use the skill for good. One way or another, if you want to make it to the A-list, cinematic writing, the ability to paint a visual picture in the reader's head, is a skill you need.
Look at the use of props, wardrobe, settings, etc, in Schulman's opening image in the script as well as some other excerpts from the first few minutes: On the left is a life-sized mural depicting a group of young school boys looking up adoringly at a woman who represents liberty. On the right is a mural showing young men gathered around an industrialist in a corporate boardroom. Between
the murals stands a boy.
Note: although the director Peter Weir discovered a different opening image, notice that the writer describes an opening image that visually sums up the central choice for each of the characters.
FOUR 16-YEAR-OLD Boys CARRY BANNERS.
Each boy is dressed in an archaic, turn-of-the-century outfit.
- - - - -
Todd is 16, good looking, but he seems beaten down, lacking confidence, unhappy. He wears a name tag and no Welton blazer. When the others stand, Todd's mother nudges him. Todd stands.
- - - - -
Whereas some boys have two or three achievement pins an the lapels of their coats, Neil has a huge cluster of them on the pocket of his jacket.
- - - - -
Todd continues to unpack. He unpacks a photo of his mother and father with their arms around an older boy who is obviously Todd's brother Jeffrey. Todd stands to one side, slightly apart from the family group.
Sometimes studying a completed film to see what the actors, director and all of the departments bring to the characters can help you see character orchestration more clearly. You can explore your theme more thoroughly by infusing the character with contrasting points-of-view. By using foil characters and doubles like Neil/Todd and Charlie/Knox and Keating/Nolan, you externalize and dramatize conflicts and don't have to rely on excessive dialogue or preachy speeches. Notice the lack of redundancy in how each of these individual characters has a slightly different take on "Carpe Diem." Charlie (Nawanda) - gets expelled from school, sucks the marrow out of life but "chokes on the bone", transcends the system (arguably, in a slightly negative way)
Knox - Charlie's foil, finds a balanced approach to using passion to pursue the girl he likes
Meeks - clings on too strong to the passion that he has to save himself and blame Keating. He finds a Joseph McCarthy kind of courage (or lack thereof)
Neil - when he is denied the chance to seize the day, the burden of living to others' demands makes him choose to do the exact opposite of seize the day: kill himself
Todd - Neil's foil, starts off as shy but by the end, finds his voice. He doesn't sacrifice himself by going against the scapegoating of Mr. Keating, but he is the first one to stand up and say, "Oh, Captain, My Captain"
is pretty coherent theme-wise. Early on, we see that each character is wrestling with their own version of "seize the day" and that the movie explores these different permutations. Understanding how theme works and knowing what theme beats (as opposed to story beats) you have to hit can also help you round out your script's emotional breadth. In the next issue, I am will include a quick follow up article (in addition to the regular craft article) that will use a scene from Dead Poets Society
to illustrate a type of scene that you must include to augment your theme.
If you have made it this far, click here
to get your reward. And if you want some homework, check out the two scenes
of Knox at the party and see if you can figure out why going after the girl and kissing her isn't Carpe Diem. In fact, it's the exact opposite. This will be the topic of next issue's bonus article.
For more about how thinking like a filmmaker can help you with your screenwriting craft, click here
Consider picking a movie that you like and want to learn from and breaking it down in a similar fashion. Seeing movies more - a lot more - than once is a key step in your growth as a writer. And if you can use that as an excuse to plunk down on your couch all weekend and watch a movie, you can thank me by writing a great script.
CAREER CORNER (Continued)
Julie Marsh: Can you tell me a little bit more about your background in development?
Laura Harkcom: Disney for a year, then Warner Bros. At Disney, I was at a division that no longer exists that made low budget animated features. We did A Goofy Movie. Then at Warner Bros., I was in the feature animation division.
JM: So that gave you a lot of experience with genre stuff.
JM: As a development executive, what were the most important lessons you learned about screenwriting?
LH: The most important lessons I learned as an executive were more about the life of a writer rather than the process itself -- the politics and how studios and producers interact with writers. Also, the way writers are regarded and treated in this industry.
JM: Was it a big surprise to you?
LH: Yeah, huge! Huge, because I naively thought, "Well, it all starts with the writer, so therefore that should be one of the most revered and respected positions." Boy, was I wrong! Did you see the announcement yesterday about the Television Academy? The Emmys are going to remove the writing awards from the television telecast.
LH: The Emmys!
LH: Yeah. It's going to be parked with the science awards. You know, the pre-taped stuff. That's crazy.
JM: That's amazing. More "star power" - I mean movie stars, I guess.
JM: You know there are actually people out there who think the actors make the lines up as they go.
LH: I know!
JM: When you developed the concept for We Kill Monsters, did it start out as a comic book idea?
LH: It did. And the very original idea was that [co-writer] Chris had come up with was the title. We just thought it was the funniest thing. It made us both crack up and I thought, in addition to being funny, you can see the entire thing just from the title. You get the tone. You know what it's about. Even from the cover image of the first issue that we use, you see the two characters. You just get everything from that title and then all the ideas just kind of snowballed from the title.
Partners: Chris Leone and Laura
JM: Are you guys developing that for another medium?
LH: Not right now, but we're certainly open to that. We just launched an intellectual property company to develop intellectual properties and branding across multiple platforms.
JM: Specifically for Monsters?
LH: We Kill Monsters is the first project to launch under that company, Monstrosity, but yeah, we want to develop a lot of material.
JM: And do you think of story ideas as intellectual properties? I guess from working in feature animation you were probably already in that place, huh?
LH: You know, not everything, but I would say that most of the ideas Chris and I tend to develop seem to lend themselves to franchises. They seem to be big, high-concept ideas that could be successful as a game, or as a comic book, or as a TV show. So not everything, but definitely most of the things we end up writing. Our brains just work that way, for some reason. Of the six scripts we've written and sold to studios, they're all feature scripts, but any of them could be living as a video game or a comic book. We started the intellectual property company so that we could exploit our ideas on multiple platforms instead of them just being one thing that may or may not get made.
JM: How is that going to change the way you deal with studios on future projects?
LH: In the respect that our company now owns the material instead of us as individuals, yes.
JM: So that means you need a bigger lawyer to negotiate the deals...
LH: [Laughs] Our same lawyers. Our wonderful attorneys, Jamie Feldman and Peter Grossman.
JM: But now it's business to business, instead of creative to business.
LH: Yeah. It's our company selling the material instead of us, as writers. And we'll be selling the rights as a movie, as a TV show, as a comic book, or as a video game. And we will retain those other rights, unless someone wants to buy those from us, as well.
JM: Once you have the initial concept, how do you decide on the right medium In which you think it should begin?
LH: Definitely which ever medium suits that story best. For We Kill Monsters, because it's episodic, it's something that could be a TV show. But for us, we really had a very specific idea -- with our artist, Brian Churilla -- of what we wanted the monsters to be. They're not vampires. They're not werewolves. They're monsters that we created. They're not horror movie monsters that people already know. We were concerned that if we tried to launch that in television, with budgets being the way they are, that we might not get to execute that the way we wanted. For us, a comic book was the best way to execute that idea. There's nothing limiting us making the monsters the way we wanted them to be and telling the story we wanted to tell.
JM: And were you both comic book readers?
LH: Chris has been since childhood, and I came to it kind of late when I was at Warner Bros. I was put in charge of the DC Comics projects. So I got a crash course in comics when I worked at Warner Bros. from the some of the best people -- people who ran DC, Jenette Kahn and Paul Levitz, so I got a great education in comics.
JM: I'd like to talk a little about why screenwriters and writers should be at Comic-Con. Did you go to Comic-Con for The Lost Room, too?
LH: We didn't actually, because we were in production on The Lost Room. But we went this year because we was introducing our book to the world at Comic-Con.
JM: So you're using it as a platform for launching. Can you talk a little bit about what you did? What was your goal? How did you prepare? And did you manage to accomplish everything you set out to do there?
LH: Sure.. We fortunately have a publisher, so our publisher was able to help us out a lot.
JM: Who's your publisher?
LH: Red 5. They are a new independent label, but very successful right out the gate. They've only been around a few of years, but they already won the Best New Publisher of the Year award.
JM: Was the business side of comics challenging? Or did your TV experience help?
LH: It's definitely a different business model. They're all different. One of the things we learned about was the lead time. We're doing a six-issue limited series, so we're in production on number six right now and our first issue was just published. But we have to be at this place now in order to have our sixth issue published in December. It's a fairly long lead time -- much further than television.
JM: Let's go back to Comic-Con.
LH: We prepared by talking to a lot of other people in the industry. Carr D'Angelo, who owns Earth 2 Comics in Sherman Oaks has been an amazing mentor to us, as far as "do's and don'ts" of navigating this world that's new to us.
JM: And how was ComicCon for you?
LH: It was great. It was very different being there as a seller as opposed to being there as a buyer or just there to oversee properties when I was a studio executive. We were working -- trying to sell our project the whole time. The whole trip was either doing publicity or meeting with people who were interested in the book.
JM: And who did those people tend to be?
LH: Studio executive or production executives - people who were scouting for material.
JM: And did you have a lot of meetings on site, or was it more about teeing up other meetings?
LH: Yeah, it was more about introductions and meet-and-greets. The people hadn't actually read the material. They were just seeing it for the first time there, or 99% were. It was about making the personal connection with them, getting the book into their hands, and setting up meetings for now, when we're all back in Los Angeles.
JM: And have you had good results from those initial contacts?
LH: There's definitely interest. We'll see what that translates into, but there's absolutely interest.
JM: And where did you make most of the contacts. The Floor, the parties? How did you guys work the Con?
LH: Well, actually both. Our company, Monstrosity, that we just launched - the intellectual property company - co-sponsored a party with Circle of Confusion and IDW.
JM: Oh, that was the party that sounded cool.
LH: Thank you. If I'd known you were there I would have invited you. So, yeah, at the party and then also at our booth. Just kind of being there, so that when people came and said, "Oooh, that book looks interesting," we could jump in and tell them about it.
JM: Do you have any business advice for screenwriters or television writers who might attend Comic Con and how they can get the most out of it?
LH: First of all, go there with a plan. Don't just go, because it's too overwhelming. There're too many people. There's too much to do. It takes an hour just to get across the Floor. Go with a plan, and also know that trying to meet with people or to have arranged meetings there is really hard because it's so crowded and it takes people so long to get anywhere. If the plan is to sell something, go with your property and make it as professional a presentation as possible. A lot of people will come with the proverbial idea sketched on a napkin and that's not going to cut it now.
JM: You want a pitch package?
LH: Yeah. You want a script and some art. It doesn't have to be all the art and it doesn't have to be colored, but at least penciled and inked, and then a plan for what the series is. The standard things that screen or television writers would do, too. Who's the target audience for this? What's the genre? What's the tone? Those kinds of things you want to lay out in an easily digestible way for whomever you're going to be pitching it to. And know that if you're going there to try to find a publisher or meet with a publisher, they're going to be really overwhelmed. There's so much going on and a lot of them would prefer that you submit to them either before or after Comic Con - actually probably after, because they are crazy-busy before, getting ready. You could maybe submit to them on-line or via e-mail or over the phone after Comic Con.
JM: Even if you plan on doing that, is it worthwhile to introduce yourself to them, to find them for a handshake meeting?
LH: Yeah, definitely, just to get a sense of them and for them to get a sense of who you are. Maybe not so much in the comic business, but in television for certain, so much of it is about personalities. You're making a business deal where you're going to be working with them for an extended period of time. Will these personalities click? So, certainly, it's very worth it to meet someone in person.
JM: As far as Comic-Con as an environment for that, how does it rate in terms of other things around town here and being able to find people and meet them?
LH: It's good and bad. Good in the respect that everyone has a booth there and you've got a map that says where everything is. The bad part of that is that people aren't at their booths 8 hours a day in a row. They're going to other meetings themselves, or taking breaks. So you should leave a card with your contact information on it and try to get the same from them so that you can and try to arrange a time to have an in-person meet and greet.
JM: That must be one of the benefits of having a collaborator. Somebody could work the room while the other one holds down the fort.
LH: Definitely. One of the best things about having a partner is the multi-tasking. Also, because he directs and I produce, we have those other skill sets that we bring to our projects.
JM: Is there anything else you want to say about Comic-Con?
LH: I will say I noticed last year and this year that I saw almost more people from Los Angeles in the film and TV industry, in San Diego, at Comic Con, than I saw doing the rounds and meetings at the studios and networks. So it's definitely a place to see those people and to put faces to names, even if it's only just the handshake introduction.
JM: I've always thought someone should print cards, like baseball cards, for the development executives with the picture, and with stats on the back.
LH: You know, now Facebook is kind of like that. Although, not everyone is on Facebook.
JM: Right. Or LinkedIn. Even if you don't have access to their profiles, you can at least get a picture. IMDBpro, too.
LH: Right. Actually, a great piece of advice Carr D'Angelo had given us, was to go to panels where you can see who people are, so that you can recognize them if you run into them in the lounge, or at the hotel where you're staying.
JM: And, you have something to talk to them about.
JM: Well, Laura, I want to thank you for taking the time to talk to us today.
LH: You're welcome! And thanks for taking an interest.
Julie Marsh is a Los Angeles-based independent story development consultant to writers and producers for film, television and the web. To learn more, visit her website.
STYLE MATTERS: 10 COMMON MISTAKES (continued)
Well, here are two very good reasons:
First, Hollywood is looking for any excuse to say "no" to your script, because it's easier - and safer - than saying "yes." Don't give anyone that excuse by making avoidable mistakes. An A-list screenwriter can break any rule he or she wants. Spec screenwriters like us can't - or do so at our own peril.
Second, style (the rules) begets style (that sometimes elusive "way with words"). If, for example, you don't know that in a screenplay you should always use the present tense of a verb and the active voice, and avoid pompous adjectives, you'll write monstrosities such as "He walked slowly past the high-speed air circulator" instead of "He trudges past the fan." Learning style will make you a better writer.
Enough haverin'. Here are the 10 most common mistakes (in no particular order) that I've seen screenwriters make in their scripts. Of course, one or two gaffes might not hurt your chances of success, but a script riddled with them will mark you as a rank amateur - and your uphill battle just gets steeper.
This is one of screenwriting's biggest workhorses - and one of the most misused. To make a proper dash, type a double hyphen. This method is a holdover from the days when scripts were created on those antiquated machines called "typewriters." You must place a space on either side. Note: Take care that a dash is not left hanging on a line by itself.
Another workhorse, equally misused. It's always three (not four, not two) periods or dots... and there's never a space before it (so that it's never left hanging by itself)... but always a space after it...
Double-space after each period. This is the standard, if only because it's more Reader-friendly. And as you must know, you want that Reader to love you.
Only certain words should be capitalized in scripts. That's because capitalization serves a specific function. A good stylebook can tell you what should - and should not - be capped, but until you buy one here's a general guide (based on the mistakes I see most people make):
1. Don't capitalize props.
2. Don't capitalize a character unless he or she speaks.
3. Cap all sounds and the things that make them. Don't cap sounds that an onscreen character makes. But if the sound happens offscreen, cap it.
Sadly, many of the scripts I edit suffer from what I call the "boy who cried wolf" syndrome. Writers cap words arbitrarily - as though doing SO somehow MAKES the writing PROFOUND. You see WHAT I mean? After awhile the words lose their intended emphasis.
Character names must be consistent throughout. If, for example, you introduce a GRUMPY OLD NURSE, the character name over her dialogue must be GRUMPY OLD NURSE each and every time - not GRUMPY NURSE or OLD NURSE or just NURSE.
Too many times a writer will introduce a generic character - someone without a proper name - then use the same generic name for a number of different characters. For example, a screenplay set in the business world. JAMES has a SECRETARY. His business rival, MARY, also has a SECRETARY, who's obviously not the same person as James's secretary (unless he or she is some sort of double agent). See the problem? The solution is to differentiate them as JAMES'S SECRETARY and MARY'S SECRETARY. Or give the poor old secretary a name, especially if he or she has a fairly substantial role.
If you do use a generic name, you must capitalize the first letter in each subsequent reference. Thus, if you introduce a GRUMPY OLD NURSE, he or she becomes Grumpy Old Nurse in all action (direction) thereafter.
Consistency also applies to shot (scene) headings. Once you've designated a place as JOE'S APARTMENT, you can't just call it APARTMENT later in the script. And never use an article - the, a, an - in a shot heading. Thus, don't write THE APARTMENT.
SHOT HEADINGS - THE SEQUEL
Too many times a writer forgets where he or she is. For example, we're told that we're INT. CAR, where Joe invariably "grips the wheel tightly as he speeds along." Then, without any warning, Joe "slams on the brakes, leaps from the car, and dashes into the house, where he throws open the fridge, grabs a pint of blood, and guzzles it." See the problem? We've just dashed past two missing shot headings: EXT. CAR and INT. KITCHEN. Watch where you're going, and tell us every step of the way.
Many style mavens take a minimalist approach to the time element in a shot heading - that is, whether it's DAY or NIGHT. I've joined that camp, too. Thus, once you've established the time (for example, DAY) you don't need to repeat it in each shot that takes place during the day. Just tell us when it changes to NIGHT.
David Gillis was a journalist for more than 20 years, including 15 as an editor on the Living/Arts and Business copy desks at The Boston Globe. He has written for newspapers and magazines nationwide. His screenplay The Gray Ghost won the Fantasy Genre Prize in the 2007 Screenwriting Expo Screenplay Competition. He offers several proofreading services for screenwriters.
So that means you don't need to tell us when it's DAWN, or MID MORNING, or AFTERNOON or MIDNIGHT, unless for some reason you require it for the story's sake. Even then, if MIDNIGHT is your witching hour - when the hero turns into a kumquat - a simple NIGHT will suffice. Besides, your action should show us that it's midnight, such as Big Ben tolling 12.
While we're at it, if you've done your job you don't need LATER, CONTINUOUS, or SAME. All of those time elements are assumed... unless you've reworked Memento in a multiverse where everyone speaks backward except on Tuesday. In that case you might want to help us along.
Most of the time a parenthetical isn't necessary. If you've done your work - which means rewriting your dialogue for the umpteenth time - then you don't need to tell us that Joe delivers the following line angrily: "I'm gonna kill you, you freakin' piece of offal." But if there is some doubt about how to say the line and thus do need a parenthetical, at least make sure that you've used it correctly. That means that it sits on its own properly indented line, below the character's name and above the dialogue to be spoken. And it's never placed after the dialogue. Again, a good stylebook has all of the rules. Among them: Don't cap the first letter.
No one uses CONT'D for a character who speaks twice or more in succession. Turn that off in Final Draft or Movie Magic. But don't turn off the MORE and CONT'D when dialogue breaks across two pages.
10 REASONS SCREENWRITERS SHOULD ATTEND COMIC-CON 2010 (Continued)
Network with peers:
Comic-Con is a non-linear, fairly non-hierarchical social environment, especially if you can get a Pro Pass. If you're effectively working the business side of your career, you'll undoubtedly find people you know going to Comic-Con. It's a great way to connect and reacquaint with peers who share your interests. Reach out to your network ahead of time so you can enlist their help and contacts, if you have specific goals for the weekend. Carpool, if you can, or ride the train together. On site, even though there are enough people to populate a town, it's a relatively small, high density town, compared to Los Angeles. I never fail to run into old friends, clients, classmates and former co-workers. Stay open to meeting new people and don't forget your business cards.
Check out the mini-major film showcases and CCI Independent festival to meet creative and production execs afterward from companies like Lionsgate, Focus, Summit, etc. and other folks with whom you'd like to take a meeting. Hit the parties off-site to meet the LA entertainment crowd, if you can get invites through your employers or your network. Another good way to get a few moments to actually talk to these pros is look for them wherever you go. They want to see panels, too, or may pause in the Industry Lounge. Research your Hit List carefully and mine IMDBPro for photographs of those you want to meet to put names with faces. Yes, it's stalker-ish, but Chaos = Opportunity, and Comic-Con is controlled chaos. I won't spill all the best secrets, but certain bars are more likely to host rogue creative types, especially those who maybe don't want to be there, but must to attend with their fat per diems. Buy them a drink.
Thrill in awe at the best in entertainment marketing money can buy. Companies pull out all the stops to wow this crowd, which is not easy. Giant installations and billboard-sized banners beckon from across the Floor. If you're prepping a pitch package, take some notes. If you're shopping for a publisher, you should always check out to see how they market and support their titles. Remember, you're not there with hat-in-hand just because you're trying to sell something. You're selecting collaborators and you should align yourself with partners that make sense for your project. From a marketing standpoint, it should be easy to tell if a comic book publisher is a company you want to be in business with from the moment you walk up to their booth. What kind of books do they publish? What genres and sub-genres are represented? How do they and how they market their product?
Listen to the experts:
For whatever reason, writers seem to get their due at Comic-Con more than they do on an average day in Burbank, especially writers and creators who are considered "Con Friendly." The written word is revered here and some of the most successful novelists, graphic novelists, game writers, and screenwriters, of our time are featured on panels. Naturally, science fiction and horror genres are best represented. Screenwriters are heavily featured and interesting development details are often disclosed.
Peddle your IP wares:
If you have an intellectual property in any medium that you want to pitch, you can make a hit list based on the panels and booths as soon as the schedule is posted online. The searchable schedule of events goes live in advance of the convention, so you can plan your weekend or day trip to connect with as many executives and peers as possible. I'm not saying you should attend Comic-Con to pitch tent pole movie ideas you have not written (which you really should not pitch at all, anywhere, unless you're, say, Zack Penn). Nor should you expect to hand someone your screenplay. Focus on making contacts for follow up AFTER the convention. If you're an author or you have a comic book you want to sell as a feature or TV show, you can certainly make great contacts at this event, if you work at it. Do come prepared with business cards and professional-looking one sheet pitch materials of copyrighted (only!) material. Business card, post card or buck slip-sized items are ideal. Don't be sloppy. You're in the slick marketing environment and anything amateur-ish will stick out like a sore thumb. Always ask for a business card. Don't expect the other guy to follow up for you.
Thank a legend:
Comic-Con is a pretty efficient place to actually meet the people who inspired you to become a writer in the first place, whether it's Orson Scott Card, Neil Gaiman, Joss Whedon or Ray effing Bradbury. Pay your respect.
Study the super-fan phenomenon:
The passion and fervor fans express for their favorite stories is edifying on many levels. You might think, "Wow these people are crazy," but on the other hand, their devotion imparts a high level of responsibility. Is your villain worthy? Will these people identify with your hero, or have you underestimated your audience? And what are the rewards of doing a good job at your craft?
Educate yourself about other sectors of the industry:
So, you've got a film degree, or two. What do you actually know about the business side of video games? What the hell is an MMO? How do graphic novels end up in Borders? Hundreds of panelists at the top of their careers can illuminate these questions for you and can help you up your game, maybe even find a sideline.
Survey potentially competing projects:
Comic-Con features many exclusive peeks at pilots and features not yet released. Are you polishing a spec pilot, or specing a Dexter episode you'd like to remain fresh past September? Get a look at the competition and at what the networks are telecasting from those pilot scripts you went to all the trouble to track down and read earlier this year. Adjust your tack accordingly.
Waiting for the Dexter Panel
Find a job:
This fluid, relaxed environment is great for job hunting if you want to be staffed for a creative position in one of the several industries represented at Comic-Con (and/or PR, marketing or advertising). If you successfully "Network with your Peers" and "Network Upward" you might just be in the right place at the right time. People want to work with people who share their interests. Comic-Con is a great, informal place to network, so make sure you can e-mail your resume from your phone, if the occasion arises.
Artists' Alley: Comic artists have stalls where they display and sell examples of their work. If you're writing a graphic novel and you're in the market for an artist, this is a good place to start looking for someone who would be a suitable match for your project.
The Floor: The main Exhibit Hall, a stadium-sized diorama of the entertainment market place and possibly the most over-stimulating environment on earth, where all the booths and merchandise are located. The layout is set up on a grid with addresses to locate specific vendors for making the rounds and for all your shopping needs. This is also where you will find the big installation pieces for the major companies, like the giant mecha prop from James Cameron's new film, Avatar, which Cameron previewed in Hall H on Thursday.
It's a Mecha Prop, of Course
Crossing to specific locations on the floor is another matter. The hall is often so packed, especially on Saturday, as to be unnavigatable. A lot of professionals attend only Thursday and Friday, if they can, to avoid the worst crowds. Expect the back of your shoes to get deflated repeatedly as you shuffle along with the crowds. Wednesday's Preview Night is worth it, if you can make it to the convention that early and want to spend time communing with the exhibits and vendors in relative peace.
Hall H: The largest of the non-exhibit convention halls where most of the major studio events are held in the 6,500 seat capacity theater (capacity is greater with standing room). Numerous giant screens hanging from the ceiling and allow for good seats in every part of the hall. That said, getting in for the most anticipated events is not easy and may require time-consuming "camping" in the hall, which means attending less interesting events before big panels to get good seats for the main events, since the halls are not cleared between panels. Also, expect long waits in theme park-like lines. Just remember that "H" stands for both "Huge" and "Hassle." You can often attend three panels in smaller venues for every one event you get to see in Hall H, so choose your battles wisely.
The Grid: The quick-reference, pull-out with one page for each day of the convention found in the back of the Event Guide booklet you get when you get your badges. You can also get daily updated versions in the Industry Lounge or at registration desks. Handy, considering the Event Guide itself is nearly 200 pages long.
Industry Lounge: Pro Pass and Press Pass holders' room with tables where you can find relative quiet, a space to work, meet up, plug in your laptop and breathe. It's like attending a wedding; there are a lot of people with whom you probably have something in common, but have never met, all seated at communal banquet tables. It's a friendly place and it's fairly easy to make or renew acquaintances. But, alas, without the open bar. However, courtesy beverages are usually available, though the coffee is often in short supply. The volunteers are quite helpful and you can get updated grids daily.
Kiddiecorp: I'm not sure why I was surprised to find that they actually have quality, professional child care on site, but they do. Not cheap, but good, at $11 an hour for infants and down from there as age increases. Pros can register multiple youths for free, so you can bring the family, and still conduct business, if you like.
Preview Night: On Wednesday night, four-day pass holders, Pros and Press get a sneak peek at the Exhibit Hall which can mean an early shot at limited and exclusive merchandise (read: Tweet-fodder and Ebay-ecstasy). This year, they screened premier previews of Warner Bros. television pilots, though this was only the second time ever that such an event was featured on Preview Night.
ProPass: If you have creative or producing credits on IMDB, or are published in some other media and can prove credits to the satisfaction of the nice people at ICC, you may attend the four-day event, plus Preview Night, for free. They even throw in an additional free adult pass and a number of youth passes. Visit the Professionals page of the website to find out if you qualify. Pro Registration line is separate from the regular attendee line, and usually starts from "D."
Weapons Check: In the event that you arrive costumed as Darth Maul, you need to check in with security to have them certify that your light saber is the non-working variety. Seriously, you are required to have your fake weapons checked if you want to carry them into the convention.
Imagine you are watching a disaster movie like 2012 or Armageddon, and in the first act they blow up New York City and the entire East Coast. And then in the second act they blow up half of Eastern Europe. Can the climactic set piece of destruction be wasting an abandoned building on the outskirts of Wichita that is empty save for the four stragglers who've hung around to chat after the end of their Weight Watchers meeting? No. And for the same reason, you can't start on your knees "tasting" and end with "tires being rotated." It's anticlimactic - a letdown. Plus, who needs another Bruce song about cars, right?
After a few months on the road in the mid-'90s, Bruce stumbled upon what the song was really about. As he said in the intro to the story that led in to the song: "I've been traveling around the country on this tour promoting cunnilingus." If this were a script, I would have told him to look at the opening image (verse): tasting. It was there all along. Put your money where your mouth is, Bruce. If the song was not just about sex but more specifically about cunnilingus, then as a story it didn't go (oxymoronically) all the way ... until he rewrote the final verse:
New final verse:
When push comes to shove and shove comes to push, I was Moses standing 'fore the burning bush
It starts with a cliché and then totally twists it into something new and surprising. It's a fun rhyme. And it's, uh, on topic. It pays off the "got down on your knees." In fact, it resonates with several thematically powerful ideas: passion, religion, fire, burning, beckoning, and two connotations of supplication. The passion and sex juxtapose with the awe and reverence of the religious imagery, taking all involved - the story, the storyteller, the audience - to a higher level, a revealing epiphany of the magnitude of the experience.
This, my friend, is a killer ending.
Subconsciously, Bruce began with what an opening image of your movie should be: something very specific. "On your knees and tasted" sums up perfectly what we can expect from this story. But on the first draft, he didn't nail it. The time he spent on the road with the song was the screenwriting equivalent of getting feedback from friends or professionals
or from hearing your script read aloud. It allowed him to perfect it.
That's how theme works. You get there with right- and left-brain techniques. Write your first draft and the uncensored right-brain process will lead you to a lot of great stuff. But then mine your draft for clues to what your script is really about. Before, during, or after your last draft you must become very explicit (or, like Bruce, be explicit about being explicit) and say: My story is about this. Say it aloud. Then use that clarity to rewrite your story and bring it into emotional and thematic coherence. Here's the song
What Would the Boss Do?
COMING UP WITH GOING DOWN
In the early '90s Bruce wrote a song called Red Headed Woman, inspired by his rivaling love and lust for his redheaded wife, Patti Scialfa. You can peruse the complete lyrics, but here is an excerpt from the dirty ditty brought to you by the gods of fair use.
Excerpt from opening verse:
Listen up, Stud, your life's been wasted until you've got down on your knees and tasted a red headed woman
Excerpt from middle verse:
Tight skirt, strawberry hair, tell me what you got, baby, waiting under there
Excerpt from final verse:
I don't know how many girls you have dated. But you haven't lived till you've had your tires rotated by a red headed woman
First things first: That final verse doesn't cut it as an ending. Bruce knew it. And let me tell you how I knew it.
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In one of my John Keating-inspired moments of teaching, I made my students write an outline for an original movie for a half hour.
When they were done, I made them fold it up and hand it to the person next to them.
I then instructed everyone to take the piece of paper in their hands and rip it to shreds.
They all got really mad.
But then I reminded them that that piece of paper wasn't the product. They were.
If you abandon a script, you know more about what doesn't work.
If your first script is a completely unmarketable sample, then be thankful that it allowed you to become a better writer.
If you are frustrated by the gap between where you are and where you want to be, remember that not everyone even sees their gap.
In Hollywood, readers are paid to say, "no" hundreds of times per year.
Someone doesn't like your script? So.
You can still write, can't you? Well, then write.
Remember, you are the product.