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Craft & Career

Issue 9                                                                                                      March 31, 2010

Regular and Coverage Deadline: May 15
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Dear Writer,
Welcome to our ninth issue.  
A few issues ago, I looked at the biggest grossing movie of all time, Avatar, so I thought as a counterpoint, I would look at the lowest-grossing Best Picture Oscar winner of all time: The Hurt Locker.  As a screnwriting teacher, I can only talk about The Godfather and Chinatown for so long, right?  "Forget it, Jim, it's the oughts."
Rachel Ballon, Ph.D., a licensed psychotherapist as well as a script consultant and screenwriting professor, joins us this issue with Emotions 101.  Her article includes a few exercises to help you get in touch with your feeling so you can get in touch with the emotions of your characters.

Somehow on her way to a Ph.D. in Epidemioloy my wife found herself spending a year in a fiction MFA program.  She out-proses me any day of the week, so this issue I turned my What Would the Boss Do? column over to her.
I am getting some some degree envy this issue. Is this Craft & Career or Alphabet Soup?
And, keeping it all in family, the final installment in my Film Financing 100.5 series involves a fun story involving my 14-year-old stepson and a sit-n-go poker tournament.  What that has to do with film financing, you will find out.
In the Champion Corner, there is an interview with David Kohner Zuckerman, whose company Virtual Pitch Fest sponsors the Champion Screenwriting Competition: each of the top 20 feature writers this year receive 10 pitches from VPS.
Catch us on the A-List and Champion blogs. Plus, follow us on Twitter or become a Facebook fan to keep up to date with our announcements and play the A-List Quiz of the Week.
Jim Mercurio
Jim Mercurio 
When I first saw Hurt Locker, I liked it.  My initial thoughts/feelings were that it was a curious indie/Hollywood hybrid of sorts, but as I thought about it more... more specifically, it presented itself as more as a European film/American film hybrid.  It's like a European art film shot and paced in the style of the latter two Bourne films.  Not coincidentally, the DP Barry Ackroyd of The Hurt Locker also shot United 93, directed by Paul Greengrass (the director of those two Bourne films).
Along its paradigmatic axis, i.e. in its scene and sequences, The Hurt Locker looks and moves like a solid Hollywood movie.  It's fast, suspenseful, and the action is 'a cut above' in its coherence of space and narrative.  However, on a structural level it operates very differently from a Hollywood studio film. 
Hollywood movies are characterized by characters who have clear-cut and tangible objectives that drive them and, thus, drive the movie.  Stories without overarching goals, the kind we encounter in quite a few European films and existential American dramas, are a challenge, especially to inexperienced writers and directors.  It usually takes more seasoned storytelling chops to do them justice.  What replaces the goal in these films is the single-mindedness of the protagonist's desire (conscious or unconscious).  If you don't want to believe that it is Minnie Driver (the object of love) that Matt Damon is after in Good Will Hunting, then it is love itself.  A student disagreed so then I asked him to say the title aloud.  Eureka.  He's hunting good will.  Or we are hunting the good Will, the one that is capable of love.
I won't give it away, but Shutter Island is driven by a character's internal desire/goal, but it also creates clear-cut external goals, largely in order to give the audience what they want.  These shifting goals actually make the plot muddled and confusing for a lot of viewers.  However, if you look at it from the perspective of the character's innermost desire, you will clearly see his steadfast unflinching journey toward the fixed goal.
The Hurt Locker's through-line may be regarded on any of the following planes: 1) the internal desires/conflicts of the main characters; 2) the resulting external conflicts between the characters; 3) the broader universal implications of these conflicts (thematic revelations).  Sanborn and Eldridge have the goal of surviving and making it back home, but the protagonist has no overarching goal whatsoever.  He lets each arbitrary event completely engulf and engross him, fiercely focusing on his immediate goal - the task at hand (such as defusing a bomb). 
To make a story like this work, all sequences must lead to and interconnect through the central character, or the central theme, to create an overall unity.  Setting aside the through-line of goals for now, let's see how these sequences work together.

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 Rachel Ballon, Ph.D.
Rachel Ballon
"Only connect the prose and the passion, and both
will be exalted."  
             - E. M. Forster 
Emotions are the lifeblood of characters and of stories. Without emotional characters, you are just writing events, but you're not drawing your audience into your story. To be a successful writer, you want to create emotional characters so your audience will become involved with them. It's important for readers and viewers to become completely engrossed in the emotional world of your characters.

As a script consultant and writers' psychotherapist, I've analyzed thousands of scripts during the past 20 years where so much attention has been given to structure, plot points, turning points and the climax. These are an integral part of writing a good script. However, I've discovered that unless you are able to inject your characters with emotions, your script will be boring, your characters dull and your story won't work. 

The word emotion derives from the Latin emovere, which translates as: to excite, to move, to stir or to agitate. Emotions are what motivate your characters' actions in all stories, with the most basic emotions being the desire for security or self-preservation. Motivation always springs from some emotional need, such as the need for love, revenge, power, or the desire for control, fame, respect, or recognition.

As a modern writer, you must have a deep understanding of the emotional and psychological world of your characters. Your awareness of these worlds enables others to be sensitive to the unseen motivations of your characters and the multiple layers of their personality. When you create emotional characters, you always need to start with yourself because the characters in your stories are all part of you. There are riches within that many of you never access because of fear of revealing the true you and of being too exposed.

By going behind the façade of your characters, you'll write ones with real meaning and purpose. Submerged feelings, once emerged, will enrich your life as a writer and give your characters an emotional reality. You'll need to answer questions about your characters' emotional life such as: Is your character depressed? How does your main character emotionally relate to other characters? What is the emotional make-up of your major characters?

Emotions are energy and when you write emotional characters you are giving them energy and momentum to take action and to overcome obstacles, especially emotional conflicts. Writing stories gives you the opportunity to create characters with strong feelings and layers of emotional depth, because such stories come from a place of deep emotional truths inside of you.

You need to create characters who will involve and represent your passions, loves, hates, joys, sorrows, resentments, fears, and let your emotional characters shine through in the story. Many of you might say, "Well, that's obvious, every good writer knows that you need emotions in your characters and stories."

Even though this is true, you'd be surprised how many writers have no idea how to give their characters emotions. Why? Because they don't allow themselves to feel their own emotions. They remain distant and detached from their feelings and are unable to put them into their characters.

Are you one of those writers? Do you find it difficult to feel your feelings, let alone express them? If you don't express your emotions, no matter how great your plot or how complex your characters, your story will fail because you will be unable to create emotional characters that replicate human beings.

I'm going to show you how to approach your own emotions as well as your characters' emotions, but let's begin with you since you're the creator. One caution is that you don't write overly emotional stories, which are filled with false feelings and sentimental characters who are melodramatic and filled with exaggerated emotional responses. You want to create honest characters who allow room for your readers or viewers to connect with and project their own emotions onto them. It's important to work on your characters from the inside to discover what type of emotions are residing behind their smiling faces.

I once consulted with a man who was writing a novel about an older couple's love affair. His characters were stilted in their dialogue, flat in their feelings, and empty in their emotions. He wasn't able to put feelings into his characters, so I asked him to recall his own feelings when he was in love. Luckily, he was able to retrieve his emotions and began to inject them into his characters, who became so much richer and emotionally deep that he had to completely rewrite his novel.

What I learned from working with him was that until you can access your own emotions, you'll never be able to give emotions to your characters. By asking these same types of questions for yourself, you will eventually retrieve your emotional memories.
Part A:

Before you start to create your characters ask: "What do I want my characters to feel in this scene?" "What emotion do I want them to display?" "What would my characters feel in this particular situation?"
Do you have a clear vision of the emotional life you want for your characters?

Were you able to answer all of these questions? If yes, then you're well on the way to creating successful characters. Be sure to incorporate these questions so you'll know how your characters feel before you create them and this will enable you to succeed in putting emotions into your characters.

If you have no idea how to give your characters emotions, then start with yourself and your own emotions, exploring all the wonderful raw materials buried inside of you. Do you feel passionate about the story you're writing? Do you feel emotionally connected to your characters and their feelings? Do you know your character's emotional intention?

Avoid being too emotionally involved with your characters, which will prevent you from having the objectivity needed to create good characters. This has happened with writers I've consulted with who were writing about something too personal and too soon, like the death of their lover or their latest divorce. You need to have enough distance from an emotional event. Write about it at a later time when you're able to be less emotionally involved.

Part B:

What emotions do you want to express through your characters? Can you verbalize the emotions you want them to feel? Are these emotions ones that you're able to feel? Do you express your emotions? Can you readily identify them? It is imperative for you to answer these questions honestly, if you want to create emotional characters who ring true to your audience and succeed in drawing them into your writing.

Maybe some of you avoid tapping your inner feelings and resist getting in touch with your own emotions. If that's the case, your characters remain one-dimensional and stereotyped, preventing you from selling your writing. No matter how talented you are, until you're willing to express yourselves without fear and reveal what you feel, your characters will remain flat. The emotional spine of your character is like the spinal cord of the central nervous system that spreads out over the body and the story. If you can't release your emotions into your characters, they won't come to life.

The greatest characters are those who touch the feelings of the audience in different cultures and societies, withstanding the test of time. Emotional characters have emotional depth and allow the audience to experience empathy for them. If you can master the ability to reach inside and inject emotions into your characters, your writing, and yourself, then you will experience great success.
Sad, Bad, Mad, Glad  
"Feel the feeling..." - Charles Rumberg

Recently, I consulted with a writer who developed exciting plots for her scripts, but all of her characters were cold and unemotional. The problem was she was so removed from her feelings that she looked at me quizzically when I asked, "How did that make you feel?" Her writing dealt only with external conflicts and didn't include emotional relationships. Even though her plots and characters were filled with twists and turns, they lacked heart and spirit.

As we worked together, I discovered that she was totally detached from her emotions because as a child she was punished whenever she showed anger or sadness. She learned to survive in her family by not expressing any emotions and so she buried or repressed them.

So how can you successfully create emotional characters if you hide from your own emotions? First, you need to become acquainted with your own emotions starting with four basic, universal ones. Let's call this Emotions 101. If you have the same problem of not knowing what you're feeling, then this exercse can help you to identify your feelings. It's important that you understand this process, so you can build emotionally real characters.

The four basic emotions to start with are Sad, Bad, Mad, Glad. Every time you can't respond to "How did that make you feel?" choose one of these four emotions to help you focus on your feelings. "Does it make you feel "Sad?" "Bad?" "Mad?" "Glad?"

After doing this for a while, you'll soon begin to connect your feelings to these simple words, which I'll refer to as SBMG. This emotional process will elevate your writing to another level of competence as you begin to infuse your characters with these emotions, which are your authentic feelings. 
Part A:

When you are in a situation that brings up strong feelings, ask yourself: "What emotion am I feeling right now?" After you've identified your feelings by referring to the four basic emotions above, SBMG, recall a time when you've felt one of these emotions. Next write a separate scene using each emotion, SBMG, and writing from your senses of touch, taste, sound, sight and smell.

After you've written about all four separate emotions, read your scene aloud to someone. What feelings come up for you? Were you moved by what you've written? Do you understand the need for you to first feel the feeling before you put emotions into your characters?

Part B:

Now that you've completed writing about your own emotions from your personal experiences, it's time to write four individual scenes using these same four emotions for your fictional characters. When you create emotional characters who exhibit these strong feelings, you're letting the audience identify with them without telling them how to feel. When you write about how the characters feel, don't tell your readers the emotion, show it through their actions, dialogue and nonverbal expressions. For example, don't write, "Jane was feeling so mad, because her little brother didn't listen to her and was being bad." Instead show us Jane feeling mad by having her slam the door as she picks up the dirty clothes and toys he has thrown all over the room.

Through your character's actions and dialogue, reveal that he is SBMG without using those words. After you've finished writing four scenes with these emotions, read them. How do your characters reveal their emotions? Are you able to identify what they're feeling? Are they experiencing the same emotions you felt when you wrote about yourself? Is there truth to what they're feeling or does it seem false? Are your characters' emotions believable?

Remember, no matter how perfectly structured your writing, if you can't move your readers or viewers to laugh, cry, scream or tremble, you will not have succeeded in creating characters worth caring about and your story won't work. When you write feelings from your heart to your characters' heart, you'll tug at the heart of your audience.

Hailed "Doc Hollywood" by the "Los Angeles Times," Dr. Rachel Ballon is a licensed psychotherapist who works with both creative and business writers to help them achieve personal success. The author of several books, Rachel works as a script consultant in the US and Europe, and as a screenwriter with the major networks and studios. She has taught at the USC School of Cinema and Television and led workshops worldwide. Feel free to contact her.
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Film Financing 100.5
(Part 3 of 3)
Jim Mercurio
I was on the East Coast and took my stepson, Wilson, to the set of Ghosts Don't Exist, a low budget horror film that I executive produced.  We were shooting in the house of another of the EPs, Chris Cooley, the Pro Bowl tight end for the Washington Redskins.
This film wasn't my baby and even if it was, once the production begins, the ship sets sail, the director's the captain, the crew is, well, the crew and the producers might as well be Somali Pirates.  It's a certain-us-versus-them mentality that, as a producer, you let happen so that the crew can have a sense of camaraderie and unity.  Needlesss to say, we found some downtime.
Chris, his brother, Tanner, a producer, and Redskin tight end Todd Yoder asked if I wanted to slink off to Chris' poker room for a little $40 sit-n-go (a short six-person tournament where the top two positions win).  Well, they know me, so it wasn't  asking as much as it was pointing to the room, followed by my immediate salivating. 
We needed another player, so I asked my 14-year-old stepson if he wanted to play.  I told him it was a freeroll: that I would pay for his buy-in and we could split the winnings if he won.  Well, for some reason, he fought to pay with his own money.  And I let him. 
And I will tell you why.
In a minute ...

In the bonus material for Hard Scrambled, SEC-specialist John Cones, who has helped a kajillion filmmakers set up their LLCs and PPMs for low budget films' Regulation D offerings, offered a list of motivations people have to invest in movies.  Here are some of those with  added discussion by me:
To learn about the process: I gave this three-part article as a lecture once and a film lover came up afterwards and said, "I'd put 10k into a movie to learn more about filmmaking."   And he did.  There might even be a lesson in there about the soft-sell.  Ahem, insert smiley emoticon.
Support friends or family: If you are only raising a small amount of money, this is probably where you will start: the people who care about you and are willing to risk to help your career or growth.  Might as well get some positive reinforcement and the easiest yesses out there.
Vehicle for self as actor, director, writer: If you are a producer and you have a great script with some great no-name actors and you aren't interested in directing, how much would you pay a talented film student or someone who has made a handful of good shorts to take this on as  their first feature? If you, had, $75k for the budget?  Hmm, want a hint?  I think you could get an experienced Director of Photography for a few thousand dollars and I think you could get a  talented recent Cinematography MFA grad for two meals a day, i.e., no pay.  So does that help you find the director's fee?  It's sort of a trick question with a bit of a flip answer.  The answer is somewhere between zero and negative $20,000.  I am not pushing you to screw your crew, but I am making a point.  There are people who are as hungry as you are to make a film in one of the key roles.  If you are able to offer a person a role -- DP, lead actor, director or producer - that is as important to them as your role is to you, consider a literal or figurative partnership.  By pooling resources, you can increase your chance of making a film that you can be proud of and that meets the goals of you and your "partner." 
Glamour/Because it's cool: Notice the special spelling of "glamour."  
Appear in movie: Sometimes just the thrill and novelty of being an extra in a film and the "water cooler"/"because it's cool" effect is worth two, three or ten thousand dollars to an individual who can spare it.
Movie Message: A client of mine wrote a script that took a hard stance on a very controversial topic (yes, one of the ones that just popped into your head) and his introductory letter to strangers contained a simple sentence about the script's stance, which opened several doors for him.  He was able to meet with several multi-millionaires whose only common ground with him was their shared value on this singular issue.  Does your movie have content which would attract allies of a certain ideology?
Help local economy: Maybe the fact that your production will create business for a neighborhood will be an incentive to some of the local business owners.  Also, there is a chance that if the film plays to a wide audience, it will create interest in the locale
Did you notice what's not on the list?  
To make money.
I called this article film financing 100.5 because it is an introductory primer for filmmakers who are raising money for the first time.  Most of us (I couldn't for three out of four of my features) can't put together a realistic argument for how our $80k or $120k film is going to make its investors rich. 
But if you listen to your investors, you are going to hear that they have other needs that the project can fulfill.  There is something that you can guarantee.
What is that?  Back to my story ...
I thought about whether or not it would be irresponsible to let Wilson play the mini-tournament with his own money. And I came to a conclusion that I wasn't sure of but an hour later was confirmed. 
Two players busted out early and it was down to the to NFL players (Chris and Todd), Wilson and me.  Wilson slow-played his pocket aces and trapped Chris for all of his chips which left three of us vying for the two spots that paid money.  I gambled on a coin-flip (a hand where I knew I was approximately 50-50 to win) with Yoder for all of my chips because no matter who won, I knew Wilson would then be in the money.  I lost.
Yoder played as hard as he could against Wilson, while I bit my tongue to avoid offering advice.  Yoder didn't give him one break.  It was a rite of passage of sorts for Wilson to compete for half an hour head-to-head against someone who played with the competitiveness that made him a world class athlete and took him to the NFL.  Yoder eventually won while Wilson finished in second place and netted $40.

Wilson and Todd Yoder

Wilson and Todd Yoder
Second and First Place
I would have let Wilson pay $40 for tickets to see Wicked or to see a Redskins game.  I let him blow a hundred bucks in New York City any way he wanted.  He has teenager-appropriate admiration for his sports heroes and got to slow-play pocket aces to knock one of those heroes, Chris Cooley, out of the tournament. Even if he had lost, his $40 was exchanged for a chance to be fully vested in an awesome experience that he will remember for a lifetime.
Wilson had to put up $40.  But your rich Uncle Charlie who spends 10k a year on Redskins Box seats... how much would he have paid so schmooze with his sports heroes? 
Even if you don't have famous actors or sports stars, you are creating an intense cauldron of synergy that allows for amazing opportunities.  Your low budget movie with mom-and-pop-level investments can still guarantee investors something very important and meaningful. An experience.
For our investors, it was a chance to help local filmmakers along with the affiliation of their local sports hero.  For others, it might be a cool reason to go to a film festival (in Europe, at a ski resort or in a cool city like New York, LA or Chicago?).  For some, it will be a chance for them or their business to be in the local paper or on the local news.  For others, it will be to lend a meaningful hand to you (their brother, daughter, nephew or Godson).  For some, it will be a cool story to discuss at the water cooler or post on Facebook.
It's painful for me to spend time on a movie set when I am not intimately involved with the production.  But for industry outsiders, that can be the reward in and of itself.  I once curried a $10,000 favor from a factory owner in exchange for allowing him to bring his grandkids on the set to meet actress Lori Petty. 
As a producer, when you approach an investor, you must also be a storyteller.  I am not talking about being a B.S. artist.  You have to pay attention and figure out what part of the story they want to be theirs. Then you have to be creative and find a way that the your filmmaking process can create that story and experience.
Jim Mercurio
There seems to be a pattern in the film: a long 15-minute nail-biter action set piece sequence is followed/preceded by a shorter character-based interlude.  If you want to argue that I misplaced a three-minute chunk here or there, go for it.  Note that every segment I call a sequence of more than ten pages has at least two or three strands of action and usually a clear-cut midpoint that offers a change/surprise of some sort.  So, if I label a 16-page segment a sequence, that doesn't necessarily mean you can justify allotting 14 pages in your next romcom to the "new boyfriend gets to meet her zany work friends."  Are we clear on that?
Let's dissect this puppy.
The movie begins with an epigraph over black:

 "The rush of battle is often a potent and lethal addiction
 for war is a drug."
        - Chris Hedges


The opening image is a POV of a bomb robot on its way to a bomb.  A cool image!  I actually wonder if there is an additional meaning that could be exploited here: the fact that the main character SEEMS to be likewise forward-charging and devoid of emotion.  (Note: if that was the writer's intention, a well-placed, "Dude, you're a machine" could have brought that meaning home.)

We meet J.T. Sanborn, the "type-A jock...cocky...think Muhammad Ali with a rifle."

We also meet Owen Eldridge, "the youngest of the group, impressionable, vulnerable..."

At 4:50, the mid-point of the sequence, the wheels on the bot break and complicate the situation.  This forces the Thompson character, the team leader of the EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal), aka bomb squad, to put on "The Suit."

We learn about EOD procedures, the blast radius (the 'kill' zone), the limitations of the suit and that the suit is never the first choice.
Sanborn is a careful guy, watchful and protective of his group.  But events unravel too rapidly, and the situation spins out of control.  Moments after Eldridge spots an enemy character with a detonator, but is unable to get a clear shot on him, the bomb explodes and kills Thompson.

Sanborn puts Thompson's dog tags away in white box in a mortuary warehouse.

It is time to meet our hero, Sergeant First Class William James.  In his introduction, he is smoking a cigarette to blasting heavy metal music; his hands never stop fidgeting.  In the script, there is the all too familiar character intro "cheat": "... seems markedly self-absorbed ... after so many years down range, racking up kills and disarming bombs ... lost some of the ability and  most of the need to connect to other people."
Three minutes into the sequence, a new bomb situation comes up.  This is still part of James's introduction as we get to see his way of doing things, and the sequence builds in revealing steps before he even gets to the bomb.

Unlike Thompson, James goes right to the suit.  He wants to be in the thick of things.  He audaciously sets off a few smoke bombs to cover himself from the enemy, but thus also reduces his visibility to Sanborn, whose job it is to watch and protect him.  Right from the start, James defiantly isolates himself from enemies and friends alike, complicating the situation and creating conflict.

There is an intense three-minute scene that involves a cab that bolts into the middle of the street next to the defusing site.  James pulls a gun and literally plays a game of chicken: his suit and gun versus the cab.  He eventually shoots the window out and forces the cabbie to retreat and surrender.

James gets to the bomb 13 minutes into this sequence at 23:00.  His methods are so specific to him, that this may be considered a separate sequence in and of itself.  This section is a big chunk of time to be occupied by one "strand" of story, and you might even break it down into two sequences.  This sequence is a handy reminder that to keep the audience's interest for close to twenty minutes you need some twists and turns.  Note the separate strands: introduction to the protagonist, his daredevil approach, the standoff with the cabbie and the defusing of the bomb.

The defusing of the bomb is a taut vibrant four-minute scene that demonstrates to us how James thinks, thrills us with his virtuoso moves and quirks and then caps it off with a compelling character moment - the adrenaline-fueled "game of chicken" - where he shows off the blasting cap (proof that he defused the bomb) to the guy ready to detonate it.

Disgruntled, Sanborn calls him on his recklessness: "it's my job to keep you safe."
Eldridge zones out playing video games; he is an emotional mess.  His psychologist/counselor friend Cambridge (the name suggests a book-smart, not street-smart, guy) tries to console him.  Eldridge feels responsible for Thompson's death and is obsessed with death as such.
James has a cute moment where he buys some DVDs from a feisty young Iraqi kid named Beckham.

Sanborn confronts James again, this time more emphatically, about his methods. 

The character orchestration is now evident.  James has no fear; he is reckless and devoid of emotion in the face of mortal danger.  Emotionally, Eldridge is the polar opposite, almost entranced and immobilized by fear and prospect of death.  Sanborn is courageous, but disciplined and compliant; he exercises proper caution based on the established procedure and protocol.

Up next is a short sequence.  It can be seen as a buildup to their next gig or as part of it.

Once again, we have lengthy suspenseful scenes in a dangerous setting.  Having broken down dramas and comedies like Liar Liar, My Best Friend's Wedding and The Prestige, I find that crisp twists and turns come in increments closer to eight minutes in lengths.  Later, I will ponder some of the limitations to longer sequences from a thematic standpoint.  But remember how I mentioned 'European' structure in American scenes...

Bigelow does an amazing job in these action sequences in terms of layering and coordinating different planes of action.  The intense scene of James disarming the bomb also tracks Eldridge and Sanborn's struggle to control the environment.  James takes off his suit because he knows it is, in fact, not going to protect him.  Sanborn tries to control James and stop him after everyone has been evacuated, but James is too obsessed with the challenge of defusing the bomb.  The sequence has two strong changes/escalations/turning points when Sanborn identifies suspicious onlookers, yet James explicitly defies his orders and rips off the headset.

When James approaches Sanborn after defusing the bomb, Sanborn punches him and scowls: "Never turn your headset off again."  But, despite this act of self-assertion, it is clear that cautious and controlled Sanborn is not the one who has the upper hand.  A psychopath Colonel Reed (a possible future version of Sanborn?), who allows an insurgent to die, congratulates James on his audacity, refers to him as a 'Wildman' and celebrates his statistics, the number of bombs he has defused.

Reed asks him the best way to disarm a bomb and James replies, "The way you don't die."  This is one of the lingering questions in our minds as we watch the film.  Does he truly mean that?  Or does his need to stimulate himself by risking his life exceed his sense of self-preservation, making him in effect suicidal?

To James's Wildman, Sanborn's philosophy of controlled caution is nothing but defeatist.


Cambridge urges Eldridge to find positive sides and things to enjoy about his stay in Iraq: "Going to war is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.  It can be fun."  Apparently, I wasn't the only one who appreciated the line.  It's one of the few underlined passages in the script.  Ironically, he is more or less encouraging Eldridge to adopt some of James's perspective.  Although Eldridge does have some thing to learn from James, Cambridge's selling it to him is a bit too neatly packaged and naive.  That's why Eldridge challenges Cambridge to ride along with them sometime to better understand their world.

Another endearing exchange between Beckham and James follows.  Beckham asks him if the "bomb squad" is dangerous, "fun" and "gangster" and James says, "Yeah, I think so."

There is a huge explosion, but it is merely a training session in progress.  And, because it's not for real, James is totally bored, as is evident in his sitting down on the ground slumped against the truck, completely disinterested.  After a moment, he jumps up, says he left his gloves "down there" and drives the Humvee down to the blast site.  Is he messing with Sanborn or testing him?  Well...

Sanborn suggests to Eldridge the "what-if" of them "accidentally" detonating the charge to kill James.  He really tests him to see if he would be in on it.  His seriousness implies that he genuinely questions whether or not their own lives will one day be placed precariously in James's hands and endangered by his recklessness.

Here again we have a long action sequence, however, it is broken up into three little segments. 

- They approach and verify that a group of men is not hostile.

- They are under attack; a few minutes of standard shootout ensue.

- A sequence of stillness/waiting follows.  Sanborn is the sniper and James is spotting him and Eldridge.

This last section runs about five minutes and in it, James helps Eldridge clean bullets and gives him the courage and authority to make his own decision to kill an enemy sniper.  James also acts in support of Sanborn by getting him a drink, fixing the clip of bullets and talking him through his shots using binoculars.

We see that Cambridge's pep talk was BS but Eldridge can learn some things from James: to be courageous, independent and decisive.
Sanborn's removal of his helmet mirrors James' taking off the suit earlier.  He, too, can appear to throw caution to the wind when the situation calls for it.

If up until now we were questioning whether or not James's antics were based on ego or competitiveness, we see that they are not based on either.  Under pressure, in the rush of a battle, he is the exact warrior he has to be, completely ready and willing to serve and assist - embracing the more "boring" job - if the stakes are life and death.
After they shoot the last sniper, Sanborn says, I think we are done.   
They are drunk and in the middle of a spontaneous party celebrating their victory and their current harmony.

Eldridge commends James for being a warrior.  James commends him for doing well today.  When Eldridge admits he was scared, James says, "Everyone's a coward about something." 

Danger, Will Robinson, Danger!  Then...

Eldridge and Sanborn dig into James's possession and they find a box of "stuff that almost killed me": bomb parts and ... his wedding ring.  His divorced wife still lives in his house with their son.

Sanborn talks about how he is not ready for kids.

After they bond, they get into a silly fight that turns sour.  In their wrestling match, James actually gets on top of Sanborn and rides him like a bull.  Sanborn gets mad and pulls a knife on him.  It's not melodramatic, it feels like an appropriate way for these two guys to jockey for power.

Eldridge and James carry Sanborn back to his bed.

Alone in his bed, James puts on the mask to his suit and then, in another underlined passage in the script, he puts his helmet on "... so that is snaps down over his face and his entire head is sheathed in the protective metal."

In the script, this is one of the few instances of a "cut to" but the film itself fades out.


16 days left on their rotation.

After the midpoint in a goal-oriented movie, the stakes go up and there is an act of re-committing one's self to the goal at hand.  Yes, this movie is episodic in some sense, but the episodes have been building and they must take a dramatic turn soon.  They do very quickly in this next task, which, ironically, Eldridge calls "a standard mission".
Their mission is to gather some bomb-making materials in a bombed-out building.  This sequence is also divided into a few segments.  It starts with a few minutes of them creeping their way into the building, followed by them discovering bomb-making materials and evidence that insurgents were there recently.  But, instead of physical danger, the sequence takes a turn toward emotional danger.

 James discovers a dead boy who has a bomb sewn into his stomach.  James thinks it is Beckham.  He places C-4 on the dead body and then has a change of heart at the dead-center of this sequence (once again, an ersatz midpoint).   The script even has a bit of a "cheat" in italics: the war has finally reached him.  Instead, he takes the bomb out of the boy's body and carries him outside.

The other little thread that adds some humor and thematic intrigue is that Colonel Cambridge decides to come along to get some real war experience.  He comically tries to persuade some men to move their donkey cart.  The sequence culminates with a bomb blasting him into nothingness.

 Eldridge is freaked out and James consoles him. It's easier for him to console Eldridge than for to tend to his own feelings as we will see in the next sequence.

The sequence ends with a brief shot of him calling home to his wife.  His wife answers and it's a bit cliché the way he says nothing but she "just knows" it's him.

This segment masquerades as a plot-driven sequence, but is it?  On the surface, James's extracurricular quest seems legitimate and goal-oriented.  He wants to find Beckham's killer, so he forces a merchant to take him to the boy's house.  He finds a peaceful man and his wife, who throws a fit and runs him out of the house. 

He runs back toward the base and there is a funky "intellectual montage" where the film intercuts between him and a cow carcass.
There is a big ruckus as he has to stealthily re-enter his camp from outside. 

This sequence wasn't really about furthering the plot at all.  It was an episode willed into being by James's emotional revolt against the child's death and his need to make sense of it.  It externalizes the character's frustration over his inability to protect the boy (and his own son?) 
We also learn that not all things in his life can be solved by an act of bravery and a leap of faith.  There are looming injustices that cannot be tackled by adrenaline-fueled action.  But it is in the next sequence that we will find out if James has learned his lesson.


The trio arrives at the aftermath of an explosion where a huge building is on fire.  James eventually motivates the men to follow him and chase after the perpetrators.  The long sequence breaks down into a few distinct strands:

- 4 minutes of taking in the scenery: a page in the script becomes a four-minute wordless series of shots of the destruction and devastation that culminates in James pondering and making a decision.

- 3 minutes of James convincing the others to go: James believes that the bad guys are hiding "out there" in the dark and coerces Sanborn and Eldridge to accompany him in chasing after them.

- 5 minute action sequence: a well-shot, cleverly captured scene where the characters are disoriented and move forward like in a bad dream, out of sorts, frustrated and helpless.  Eldridge is shot and being dragged away.  Sanborn and James catch up to the bad guys and gun them down.  Eldridge is in excruciating pain, having been shot. 

- 2 minutes of consequences: in the bathroom, James looks at himself in the mirror.  Wearing full gear, he takes a shower to cleanse himself of blood and then drops to the floor and weeps.  He sees that Beckham is actually alive.  Then visits Eldridge, about to be taken up in a med-evac chopper, who responds to James's apology with: "... fuck you, Will.  Really, fuck you. Thanks for saving my life, but we didn't have to go out for trouble so you could get your adrenaline fix, you fucking war monger."

Note how the unconscious desires are driving this sequence. It is one character leading the others into a situation where their differences will clash and their flaws will manifest themselves.  Not only has he brought on the situation that got Eldridge shot, but seeing Beckham visibly befuddles him, throws off his understanding of himself and his motivations. 

I guess the questions that remain are:
Is he so reckless that he is dangerous to everyone else, not just himself?  Why is he doing this? Is this just recklessness?  Or is he addicted to risking his life, thereby perhaps seeking to fill a void within himself? 

We can see which ones are most important to the filmmakers by the questions that get answered in the next sequence.

We are thrown into the next random bomb squad situation in media res.  A body bomb is locked onto a local villager, but the interpreters on the scene immediately identify him as a family man who has children.  He is an innocent victim.

Sanborn tells James that the Eldridge situation is behind them, but that this is a suicide mission.  The script gives a little cheat to let us know how the writer wants us to take it: "Like a moth to the flame, this is what he does."  In the script, he goes directly to the guy.  But in the film, despite the interpreters' vehement vouching for the man's decency, James is circumspect in his approach.  He goes through protocol to ensure his safety before he will let his guard down.  It's not totally clear if this is supposed to be a new trait in him, something he has recently learned or something he is forcefully imposing upon himself in the aftermath of the Eldridge snafu. 

It is clear, however, that Sanborn has grown and adapted: he takes on more risks, or at least is more lenient and loyal to James, because for the first time in the movie, he is in the kill radius together with him.  At the point when the explosion is imminent and they need to leave immediately to make it to safety, Sanborn urges James to stop what he is doing and leave.  James tells him to go, and Sanborn does.  James gives it his best shot and stays a bit too long, but, when he realizes he has no chance of saving the guy, he apologizes and runs for his life and survives. 

Whether the capacity towards caution and self-preservation was there all along or is something he recently picked up from Sanborn or is merely propelled by Sanborn in this particular moment, he walks away to safety, albeit in the nick of time.  The question of whether he is suicidal or over the edge has been answered.  James's is not a complete blind obsession.

By now, Sanborn and James have resolved their differences, got on each other's wavelengths and truly bonded.  They may have incorporated a bit of each other into themselves and have definitely developed mutual loyalty and respect.  As we will see in a moment, they remain complete opposites in some regards even now, but they are more at peace with the fact.

The fact that the bomb victim was a father seems to resonate with Sanborn, as we will see in the next sequence.  And, since I started writing this article not knowing where it was going to take me, I realize, that I have more to say about this moment than will fit here today.  As a bonus craft article in next issue or a blog, I will discuss this moment in more depth to show how the fact that the victim was a dad could have been used more extensively.


This sequence includes a conversation with Sanborn, a three-and-a-half minute section at home and a quick few shots as he returns to a brand-new 365-day tour of duty.

After seeing the bomb-swaddled Iraqi father die, Sanborn is shook up and realizes that he wants to have a son, that he is done risking his life and wants out.  He becomes a foil character to James, which allows us to assume the opposite for James.  In vain, Sanborn tries to understand why James risks his life over and over.

JAMES: Do you know why I am the way I am?
SANBORN: No, I don't.

An amazing three-minute sequence follows that is pure cinema: grocery store, rows of doors; James overwhelmed by the legion of cereal boxes; he removes leaves from a gutter; the  beautiful simplicity of his ex-wife washing mushrooms, which leaves him cold. 

He then tells his son, basically, that he only loves one thing. 

Cut to: He is back in Iraq.  He walks off a plane.  Soon he's wearing the bomb suit and a grin and struts down the middle of some unknown road.
Well, I am happy to see that my initial assessment was fairly on-target.  There is a rhyme and reason to the seemingly arbitrary episodes.  Up till the mid-point, the crisp, if not totally original, character orchestration allows for the three guys to clash and bounce off of each other in an ever-escalating way.  The two sequences that follow - finding the dead boy and storming in on Beckham's parents - continue to expand our understanding of who James really is, pointing to his inner turmoil.

Coincidentally, a writer/author friend and I had a problem with the same area of the script, but for different reasons.  Although the sequence to Beckhams' parents stays on track in expressing the character's internal desire, it doesn't seem realistic, in my friend's opinion.  He had the same problem with the sequence, or mini-sequence, where they chase the bad guys into the night.  He thought there was no way that military soldiers would act as impulsively and haphazardly as these three.  In my assessments, I primarily focus on dramaturgy as opposed to veracity, but if you are writing a serious piece, such as this, that portends to capture gritty verisimilitude, you do have to mind your tone and make sure you do not take too many liberties lest you resort to Hollywood clichés.

I actually have a bigger issue with sequence 10, which culminates with Eldridge being shot.  I feel it is actually a bit of a non-sequitur in the chain of carefully linked sequences.  James's argument for embarking on this unsanctioned mission is vague, generic and unclear as to the driving motives.  He declares that there are bad guys out there and they are "laughing at us."  Sanborn's sensible rebuttal is "It's not our job."  And Eldridge conflicts with him after the fact with "fuck you... adrenaline junkie." 

I feel like the clash of ideas here is a regression.  This conflict is no different from what was playing out on page 40.  He likes ACTION.  Been there done that.  Is it risky?  Sure.  If their response showed that they picked up some other motive, then that would be a different story as this would allow for a deeper insight.  Now, whether or not you agree with me on this, stay with me for a second longer, for two reasons.

First of all, if you write a non-goal-oriented movie, this is exactly the kind of scrutiny under which you must put your scenes and sequences.  You are not going to be evaluating them by the linear cause-and-effect of a Hollywood blockbuster.  You have to be finely attuned to the inner life of the characters in the scene.  For instance, a major turning point in a non-goal-oriented story that I have written is that a character realizes a relationship has reached the serious love stage because her lover reads the newspaper in the other room.  In the next scene she is drunk at a party.  No story software is going to tell you that the next scene must be at a party.  But it unobtrusively and casually puts her in a setting which may reveal to us the essence of her conflict/insecurity: being open to love scares her so now she must anesthetize. 

That's why this form of storytelling is hard to wrangle and hard to track.  In an action movie, you might have a concrete task at hand, e.g. my character has to get across that guarded bridge.  I can generate a gripping sequence of actions and events that will lead him to his goal.  But in character-centered stories, you have to create a scene from absolute thin air that reflects that character's inner being.  And your scenes might all be gems dramatically, structurally and visually, but in the end what truly matters is how well they work to evoke that which lies beneath, to map out the inner landscape.  It is tricky to accomplish; it is trickier yet to make the execs "get" it.

Secondly, let's look at the subtle craft that might allow us to dig deeper and find out what is really driving James.  As I mentioned Eldridge and Sanborn's responses are a bit lax and generic. I do believe that James's lines could be tweaked, too.  However, what could really effectively expose James's intent - the nature of his "itch" - is a carefully gauged and revealing rebuttal from Sanborn or Eldridge.  One of them would have to be orchestrated as a character with great finesse so that he is able to sense or deduce James's unconscious motivation and then shed light on it with his response.  Consider the following possible motives driving James and appropriate responses that would call him on it and point us to the heart of the matter.
  • Like an addict, James is lying/rationalizing to get his "action fix" - response: "You're making shit up" or "That makes no sense"
  • James can't stand losing to the "bad guys" - response: "It's not a fucking game" or "There is no winning all of it"
  • If he wants to compensate for the suffering of the people at the site  -- response: "You can't save them" or "You can't be a hero"

There you have it.  Sanborn and I have just safely guided you through this lesson.

Next issue, I will be James.

James P. Mercurio, that is.  I will take the risk to explore in more depth why I think that sequence 10 is off-track and sequence 11 is underused.  I always tease my friend who has an Emmy for writing for Jeopardy because it's only a daytime Emmy.  And he teases me because I only have Oscar-nominated clients.  Well, next issue, I am going to play script consultant to this year's Oscar-winning script and suggest a way to improve it.  The worst that can happen is that you learn by watching me fail.  I just hope the bomb suit protects me.
Jim is accepting two or three new coaching or mentoring clients this year.  All of them will be invited to a free weeklong or three-day class near the end of the year.
The Worlds of Bruce Springsteen
My little sister's in the front seat with an ice cream cone
My ma's in the back seat sittin' all alone
As my pa steers her slow out of the lot for a test drive down Michigan Avenue
Now, my ma, she fingers her wedding band
And watches the salesman stare at my old man's hands
- "Used Cars," Bruce Springsteen

"The two men appeared out of nowhere, a few yards apart in the narrow, moonlit lane.  For a second they stood quite still, wands directed at each other's chests; then, recognizing each other, they stowed their wands beneath their cloaks and started walking briskly in the same direction."
- Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, J.K. Rowling
What do Bruce Springsteen and J.K. Rowling have in common? Aside from their riches (a bit of which has been contributed by my household), they both use words to create rich imaginative expanses, places where we want to go and stay, full of complex, willful characters desperately trying to accomplish something. We totally believe in a London where dementors swoop down from the sky to suck out someone's soul, because that place has been so convincingly drawn down to the small details of the candied frogs available on the Hogwarts express.  Bruce doesn't have hundreds of pages to describe his settings, but he utilizes the tools he does have to quickly immerse us in specific, wondrous places.
Not all of Bruce's songs build these elaborate canvases. But for me, it is the one thing he can do that sets him apart from other songwriters. I know some people admire his story structure and the thematic resonance in his lyrics, but the places and people he describes in certain songs makes his art unique. He has the ability to put you on a bustling 57th street in New York City or on some Jersey corner with a guy trying hard to be somebody.  He combines voice, character, and music, along with a specific sense of place and pulls us in.  In "Meeting Across the River," the main narrator starts out with: 
Hey Eddie can you lend me a few bucks,
And tonight can you get us a ride
Gotta make it through the tunnel,
Got a meeting with a man on the other side
The music is quiet but tense and Bruce's voice is guttural and desperate, conveying false bravado and all the nuances of this small-time hood.  It's probably the most overlooked song on his seminal Born to Run album, but I'd argue it's the one with the best setting and most memorable character. In those three minutes and sixteen seconds, Bruce gives us a guy trying hard to be somebody, trying to take his shot at the big time, but he and Eddie aren't really criminals, they have to stuff something in their pockets so "it'll look like you're carrying a friend."  All this guy wants is to have something go right for him, so his girl will see that he wasn't "just talking" and then he can "go out walking."  We can see this guy with slicked back hair, sitting on the front stoop of a row house in Northern Jersey, trying to convince his friend to go along with his plans. We can almost smell the industrial, urban grit and hear the drone of airplanes landing at Newark.  We know where we are, we know who this guy is, and we know what he wants.  Not bad for less time than it takes to microwave some popcorn.
I think Bruce has gotten better with age.  While "Meeting" hits you at a visceral level, there aren't many layers of meaning in the lyrics.  But Bruce has done a few albums of sparse, narration songs, like Nebraska, The Ghost of Tom Joad and Devils and Dust and I think he's learned some things along the way.  A song on his 2007 album, Magic, creates another world but also portrays a complex set of emotions. "Girls in Their Summer Clothes" follows a middle-aged man as he walks to dinner.  Not an earth-shattering event.  But one which Bruce fills with not only small beautiful details, but telling ones as well:
Frankie's diner, an old friend on the edge of town
The neon sign spinning round
Like a cross over the lost and found
We know this man is lonely, that she left and "cut me like a knife" but we can see in the imagery that Bruce chooses that this man is searching for connections, whether it is in waitress pouring his usual coffee or the titular women that he encounters on his way to the diner.  The music is fun and light, the sound of hope and possibilities.  Again, in this song, we can see this slightly balding guy with his Members Only jacket, walking down the street in a small town in late May as women are just starting to wear their sandals and their sundresses and it's a little cool but there's that promise of summer and warmth.  And warmth not just in the temperature, but maybe also in this guy's life, as he's ready to try again:
Love's a fool's dance
And I ain't got much sense
But I still got my feet 
These worlds that Bruce creates, whether they are dark and desperate, or light and redemptive, are full, with details that provide much information about a character and their motivations.  Bruce demonstrates how details serve narrative and characterization by very quickly giving us a sense of who these people are and what they value.  All we need in "Meeting" is "change your shirt, 'cause tonight we got style" to know these are guys trying to rise above their current station, that they value money and the power it brings.  All we need in "Girls" is "just a glance, down here on magic street" to know that this guy is ready for something, that he is no longer closed off and is willing to open himself up again to the mystifying ways of women.  When you only have a few minutes, you have to make every line count.  And Bruce has created masterpieces in this short form, a wizard who casts his spell with his words and music and keeps us enthralled.
Tell me a little bit about your background in the industry.  Are you working on any projects now? 
I have a background in writing, development, and producing.  Now I mostly produce.  My latest film Strictly Sexual has become the number-one-watched movie on www.hulu.com, which is the web's most popular site for viewing films, and I have several other credits including Hallmark Channel's All I Want for Christmas.  I am currently developing many projects, among them A Canoli for Nona, which is sort of like My Big Fat Greek Wedding with Sicilians and Idiot Boys, which is a cross between Catcher in the Rye and Jackass!
How did the idea for VirtualPitchFest come to you?
The initial idea for VPF came from a colleague of mine named Katie Coyle about five years ago.  We both agreed that writers were having to pay tons of money to participate in live pitch fests, and we wanted to come up with a way to make things less costly. Live events are expensive because not only are there pitch fees (averaging around $25 per five-minute pitch), but there are travel and lodging expenses, as well as writing conference fees.  And with live pitch fests, you aren't assured of a response, which is what we absolutely guarantee.  Our fees are $10 or less per pitch.  
How did you get the industry pros to sign on?  Were they reluctant at first?  What do they get out of it?  What kind of feedback have they given you since the launch of the site?  
We get our pros for three main reasons: they are always looking for the next great script and/or writer, we pay them a small gratuity which helps them with their coffee money, and we have a terrific Pro coordinator named Nevada Grey who's always there to help them with anything they need.  We have received excellent feedback from our participating pros.  I think they love VPF in part because it's easy and fun to use, and because writers can pitch them directly via the site.  
What have members said about their experience? What is your most exciting success story? 
I believe most of our writers are repeat clients, and we've received amazing feedback from them.  Many of our clients have made script deals and/or received representation through the site, which is very telling and rewarding for all of us at VPF.  The most exciting success story for me personally was when ScriptCoach client Shamim Sarif had two of her movies in theaters in 2008, The World Unseen and I Can't Think Straight.  
What advice do you have for screenwriter ready to Pitch?
The best advice I have for screenwriters is to make sure you have a sound script before pitching it.  We feel the number one mistake writers make is pitching and/or sending their scripts out before they're ready. Once you're pretty sure you have a script that's good, then I say go for it.  If you can, get it out there...and while you're waiting, begin writing another script.  I believe in the old saying "Do your best and then leave the results to God."

Are you planning any changes/improvements to the site? How many more pros do you expect to add this year?
We are planning on upgrading the site by year's end...and we think it's going to be great! We are very excited. So far we've added about 25 Pros this year, including The Gersh Agency, Participant Media, Untitled Entertainment, Raffaella Productions, A Bigger Boat and Michael De Luca Productions.
If you were to pitch VirtualPitchFest , who would you target be and what would be your logline?
Our target is all writers who need access to Hollywood's producers, managers and agents.  Our mini-pitch is that VPF enables screenwriters to pitch online to Hollywood pros with the assurance of a response.  Pitches are sent via query letters through personal accounts and responded back to within five days.  We now have over 270 participating companies, including major studios, prodcos and agencies. Some of our Big Players include Warner Bros., New Line Cinema, United Talent Agency, Benderspink, Mandeville Films, and New Regency.  So far, hundreds of screenwriters have received script requests through VPF, many of which have resulted in representation or script deals! 
Thanks for your time, David.

You are very welcome. I enjoy this. Thank you. 

Champion Screenwriting Competition's more than $40,000 in prizes is made possible because of the generous support of its sponsors: Virtual Pitch Fest, Julie Marsh, Truby's Writers Studio, The Writers Store, Rhona Berens, Ph.D. and Its on the Grid.  We will feature another piece about the contest or our sponsors here next issue. 

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In This Issue
The Hurt Locker: Non-Goal-Oriented Movies
Rachel Ballon, Ph.D.
Film Financing 100.5
WWTBD? The Worlds of Bruce Springsteen
The Champion Corner: VPF
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