|Dear Writer, |
Welcome to Issue #14 of Craft & Career where we bring you updates on the Champion Competition as well as the first chance to sign up for our December classes.
I am finishing post-production on a film I directed so I am still in "director" mode so my craft article shows the way writers and directors solve different problems with the same understanding of story principles.
In my career column, I look not at the high-concept movie playing in the theaters, but rather at the four trailers that precede it to show the imminence of a "hook" in the modern Hollywood screenwriting landscape.
In the Champion Corner, we announce the Quarterfinalists and have a few offers exclusive to Quarterfinalists and entrants. One of them is our new Champion Coverage service which allows entrants to receive detailed notes from our Champion readers. Those who originally entered the coverage category receive a $50 discount.
Also, sign up for a spot in one of the December classes before I open them up to the public. There are discounts for entrants and quarterfinalists.
For you newcomers, check out our Facebook
page for links to all of the past issues and in depth articles on Exploitation of Concept, Dialogue, Film Analysis and much more.
DECEMBER CLASSES IN LOS ANGELES
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Friday night is Awards Dinner
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Click the above link for more information, too.Every writer's scenes will be read by professional actors. Read testimonials from last year's classes.
The classes will be in the heart of Hollywood. If you are coming from out of town, you can take the Flyaway from the airport to Union Station for $6 and then take a 15-minutes subway trip to Hollywood and Vine for less than $2. There are several $50ish/night hotels along the Subway line.Check out the details or sign up below.See you in December!
CRAFT: GONE, REDUNDANCY, GONE
One definition of intelligence is the ability to find the similarities between things that seem dissimilar. I read that somewhere. Or maybe I made it up to justify why I use Bruce Springsteen songs to inform screenwriting or, in the first Craft & Career, taught exploitation of concept by pondering the plight of a horny manatee. (Read it or don't ask.)
I had breakfast with a talented writer friend who was a former development executive. We split a waffle covered in fruit. Her last bite had a piece of waffle and a piece of fruit that were exactly the same size, and I thought to myself, "Here is a person who 'gets' story." She had planned and maneuvered things so that the ending paid off.
Does the fact that I see "story" everywhere make me "intelligent" or crazy? Stick around and find out.
SPACE: THE ILLUSTRATIVE FRONTIER
I will touch on a directing problem that involved presenting a space in the most interesting way. At first it might seem like this has nothing to do with the screenwriter's responsibility but I will show you how the storytelling principles used to improve a shot are the same ones you can use to improve your scenes, action, description and even structure.
To read more
I went to see The Last Exorcism, a low budget horror film that begins as a fake documentary following a former preacher on his last exorcism because he wants to reveal that it's all a hoax. As the situation gets more dangerous, the concept bends and we see the behind the scenes a bit more: the crew and their internal conflict about their role in the events. However, in the third act, the concept bends too far and breaks: full blown sound design and music come in, and then, out of the blue, random glitches that allow the filmmakers to pretty much edit the film's finale any way they want.
But this article about high-concept movies, or movies with a hook, is not a craft column. It's about your career. Last year, when I looked at the current spec market in depth, I suggested that writers should focus on modestly budgeted specs with interesting hooks. Well, this article is sort of going to write itself. Not only is The Last Exorcism an example of this, but the four trailers before the movie were an implicit essay in defense of my thesis.
Those trailers were: Unstoppable, The Virginity Hit, Saw 3D and Buried. You can click on the title to watch the trailer.
Unstoppable - This is the Denzel Washington runaway train movie. This was the only movie with a huge budget. It's a studio movie with a pretty crisp concept, the heroes struggle to stop an out of control train. It seems pretty silly and I guess if I could think of two hours of things they could do to stop it, I would be selling commercial scripts in Hollywood. But someone somewhere has figured out how to stretch a simple concept like this into two hours. Can you?
Saw 3D - Hmm? Franchise, sequel. The most crisp horror concept since Nightmare on Elm Street? And in 3D.
The Virginity Hit - This is that super low budget teen comedy but with the first-person camera conceit that these kids are trying to document the chase and culmination of a boy's quest to get laid. Once again, the story is been-there/done-that but the concept adds a twist. And another twist is that it's written by the same guys, Andrew Gurland and Huck Botko who wrote The Last Exorcism. Their previous and next films also involve some aspect of a "film within a film." Maybe they are one-trick, or, rather, one-camera, ponies, but the trick has worked pretty well for them. They are writing Funhouse 3-D for Eli Roth to direct. I know the movie tanked at the box office but it's definitely an interesting take on a tired genre.
Buried - I mentioned this in last year's article. The film is set entirely in a coffin. WTF, right? Exactly. Write a script that can be made on a soundstage the size of your uncle's garage and see where it takes you. Once Ryan Reynolds was on board, the movie was a done deal.
I am sure there are some other conclusions to draw here, but the last two movies above and The Last Exorcism are well within the paradigm that I am talking about. In fact, they are probably even smaller. And let's not even talk about Catfish and Monsters. Don't write a movie that only a studio can make on a tentpole budget, and, if you have it in you, consider the story not only the story but how you are going to tell it. If you can tell a decent story with a great hook and exploit its concept, you are going to open more doors than if you write something arrow-straight with better execution.
And, don't shoot the messenger.
WHAT PART OF "JOIN ME IN HOLLYWOOD THIS DECEMBER" DON'T YOU UNDERSTAND?
Whether you want to try for our new coverage service (from our contest readers), sign up for a class of check out the Quarterfinalist list, you have come to the right place.
Without further ado, here is the Quarterfinalist list for the 2010 Champion Screenwriting Competition. If you want to learn more about the new Champion Coverage Service, scroll down or click here.
HOW TO SIGN UP FOR A CLASS NOW!
A-List Immersion, the secular version of the Champion Lab, (12/8-12/10 in Hollywood) is open to anyone and everyone.
The Champion Labs (4-day version is 11/30-12/3, 3-day version is 12/4-12/6) are open exclusively to 2010 Champion Quarterfinalists until the end of the month. We will add a session from 12/13-12/15 if necessary.
"Seeing a movie - or better yet, your own script - through Jim's eyes is like playing a round of golf with Arnold Palmer. Moves you never imagined are revealed, and techniques you thought you knew cold are plumbed to greater depths."
- John Dummer, one of last year's winners
The top 20 feature writers win a spot in a class of their choice, but you can guarantee a spot by buying it now. We will announce the top 20 near the end of the month. If your script advances, you will receive a full refund.
When you check out with PayPal, please include current email address, the class you are taking and the name of the script that qualifies you for the discount. Price will increase in November.
CHOOSE YOUR DISCOUNT!
SALE PRICE: $399
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PRICE FOR 2010 ENTRANTS: $299
For A-List Immersion or either Champion Lab
PRICE FOR 2010 QUARTERFINALISTS: $199
For A-List Immersion or either Champion Lab
NEW CHAMPION COVERAGE SERVICE
Exclusively for Champion Entrants
Several entrants in our coverage category asked if we would make our readers available for additional feedback. So we did. Now, Champion offers its entrants detailed notes on their scripts from one of our awesome readers.
If you entered the Coverage Category, you can receive additional notes from your original reader for a discounted price of $250.
Entrants who did not use the coverage service or who did and would like feedback from a different reader pay $300.
Simply send a PDF of your screenplay and Paypal payment to email@example.com.
Email Jim or the contest with any questions or problems.
GONE, REDUNDANCY, GONE
The line above shows our first draft attempt of moving through space. This shot represented about 15-20 seconds of a thriller where characters who are trapped in an enclosed area use a flashlight and a video camera to explore and try to find a way out.
Here is what we are seeing in the order that we see it.
C - Creepy elevator shaft with a half-open door. It's not evident that it's a dead end until you are close and can see the empty shaft.
B - A room that was full of rubbish, a dead end.
A - Another room filled with rubbish. It was more visually audacious in its clutter and it had a strange high ceiling with rafters and other zig-zaggy features.
The two blob-shaped things in the big room - Some cool set design clutter.
The first approach was to see the elevator shaft (C) and then peer into the first room (B), move along the wall, peer into the second room (A) and then turn around and leave the space. After the first run-through, the DP said "I am not feeling it." (Notice that in the real world, critiques often don't come with proposed solutions.) Assuming we won't use any edits (cuts), let's see how we can introduce and explore this space in a more interesting way?
First of all, the two rooms A and B were similar, so we want to avoid repetition and get through them quickly. We decided that we could get the gist of the room B without actually entering it. And if we didn't linger there, we could go into the room A and revel for a few seconds in the full glory of its clutter. Showing the room B in its entirety made the second room (B) a bit more anti-climactic and redundant. Baby steps? Yes. But steps in the right direction.
I might lose a lot of you here by going into esoteric theory here, but there is a term for this concept where we strive to reveal things (space, beats) in a surprising, non-redundant and forward-moving fashion. What we are trying to create is a scene or movie that, in very technical terms, is... and write this down... "Not boring."
So, to put this new idea into action...the camera move along the flat wall is very much not "not boring." It's about as exciting as watching paint dry, yet sadly the wall didn't even have paint. We decided to tweak the move between the rooms by turning to catch the clutter in the main room which added a bit of visual variety. We hold on that as long as possible until we are ready to dolly/pan around and enter the doorway of room A. This adds a few seconds to the shot but gives us more variety and visuals.
Here is the improved move:
We also added a quick tilt up to reveal the cool ceiling in room A before we exit. After this, the characters would assume this space was a dead end and return from where they came. Although the shot is not perfect, we have improved it. There is more escalation (even if moderate), less dead space, more surprises and visual variety.
Notice that when they turn to leave, there is nothing new to reveal since they have already walked through this space. As they walk out, they are pointing toward the elevator shaft. Too bad the characters and the audience have already seen it, right? Yeah. But did we have to? Did they have to?
Rudolf Arnheim, who wrote the first film theory book I ever read, Film as Art, has a deceptively simple yet brilliant definition of why/how film or any other medium becomes art: because the artist can use the tools of the medium to represent something differently than how it appears in reality. We chose to show the elevator first because it was the first thing in the space. But Arnheim empowers us to lie. Or to rebel. We can say, screw geography! We can decide how and when to reveal something.
For example, have the characters rush into the space toward the doorway of room B and pass the elevator (C) without noticing it. This move into the space has the question, "Is that a doorway and does it lead out?" hanging over it which can carry the shot for a few seconds. We continue around the curved path as in our last shot, but notice what happens when we turn to leave room A.
The simple question of "what's that?" (regarding the elevator) looms for the 4-5 second move from A to C. What the hell is that? A door? A double door? An elevator door? When we get close we can see that the shaft goes down thirty feet and represents the most visually interesting representations of "dead end." In this final version of the shot, we don't have to endure the several seconds of redundancy and nothingness with which the last shot ended.
Consider the first and last shots. Which one is more interesting? Which one has more of an escalation or build?
- Empty elevator shaft which leads nowhere
- Creepy room, dead end
- Blank Wall
- Creepier room, dead end
- Pointless walk through familiar space
- Creepy room, assume a dead end
- Visually interesting stuff
- Creepier room with some surprisingly interesting stuff, a dead end
- A walk toward a mystery...what is that?
- Elevator shaft...which is open...which leads nowhere. Definitely a dead end.
This was a "simple" 10-15 second move through existing space on a location. We're not expecting a life-changing epiphany or escalation but a director must strive to reveal space and the story in the most captivating way. Let's look at how this idea of ordering things so that they escalate and avoid redundancy is applicable to your script.
CH-CH-CH-CH-CHANGES...TURN TO FACE THE STRAIN
Scenes can only sustain interest as long as you can keep them, well, interesting. You have to be constantly adding new "stuff" to surprise the audience and the characters. If a scene outlasts its "interesting stuff," sometimes the answer is to shorten it. Sometimes, the answer is to add additional elements. But let's ponder a third choice: shuffling the order of the existing elements to allow for more variety, conflict and surprise.
Let's consider a scene where a woman walks into a room where she finds her boyfriend and -BAM!- incriminating evidence of some sort. To keep things simple, let's say that he has pictures of her in an embarrassing situation. (Hey, you went there, not me.) In this initial draft, she walks in and immediately sees the pictures spread out on a counter or desk. It's good that she has something to react to, but there might be a downside to revealing the photos so soon.
The existence of the photos is one of the biggest turning points in the scene, and if you blow it now, where can you go from there? Is there a way to make the revelation of the photos a discovery that happens later in the scene? Let's try. The woman walks in and the boyfriend is doing something with the photos (visible to us) and then he has to take action to prevent her from discovering what he is doing. Would he stuff them in a bag? Move away from them? Rip them up? Intercept her in the middle of the room?
Do you see how this change creates additional curiosity and conflict? The woman might wonder "Why are you so jumpy?" Or she sees that he is hiding something. Maybe this spurs a conversation about trust. He may even dig a deeper hole for himself by lying. You also have the opportunity for some physical conflict by letting her try to wriggle past him to see what is "over there." The actress will love that she gets to play both "before" and "after" the revelation as opposed to coming in and immediately having to play only the "after" reaction.
We have power in our choice of when to reveal information not only to the characters but the viewer as well.
In the current discussion of this scene, we, as the audience, knew what he was hiding. What if we were to see things from her perspective, a limited point-of-view: she walks in and sees him doing something that is a mystery to both her and us? Now, we are more engaged in her struggle to discover what's going on. We have added an element of mystery to the scene. This isn't necessarily a better choice, but it's an option.
See how the second and third sequences have more revelations and discoveries for the characters and/or viewer. The first version would seem static if it had the same length as the other versions.
She walks in and immediately sees something that we see too
(Delay the revelation for the character)
She walks in
Boyfriend acts strange to conceal what he is doing (that we see)
She has to maneuver by him literally or figuratively to discover it
(Delay the revelation for the character and the audience)
She walks in
Boyfriend acts strange to conceal something (that we don't see)
She has to maneuver by him literally or figuratively to discover it while we wonder what it is
When she does discover what it is, it's a surprise for us too
Notice that when we were struggling to use space effectively, our goal was to gain maximum impact from the existing elements. If you mix the same ingredients in a different order, you can come up with a completely different recipe. (Note to self: you are not like a writer who is skilled in writing in metaphor or simile.) If a scene has three or four elements, consider there are several permutations in which they can unfold.
NEW WORD ORDER
There are two reasons I don't have elaborate lessons in my classes on writing action description. First of all, it's sort of bores me. I don't teach prose. I teach storytelling and screenwriting. Secondly, many of the problems with action description in scripts would be solved by simply adhering to solid story principles. I would rather spend an hour talking about the relationship between the purpose of action description and story than four hours on a Strunk & White-inspired snoozefest.
And remember, you can always hire a proofreader when you are done.
Today I am going to think of action description almost like short film clips that we have to edit together. We have to pick an in point and out point and then we must put them in order such that each new "clip" advances the story. We aren't copy editors, today. We are film editors.
Consider this action description that opens a scene:
The rain pours over the field. There are puddles everywhere.
And then one of these two lines:
Our hero traipses through a puddle.
Our hero traipses through the muddy field.
Approaching this from the prose side, we might have disdain for the use of a passive verb like "are" and we might have some issues with brevity, but we can also attack this from a storytelling perspective. Let's look at the essence of these sentences with each of the second lines:
Rain on field
When you boil it down to the beats and think in terms of "What am I seeing?" and "Is it new?" you can see things clearly. There is something wrong with this action description. Both examples have redundancy. The first one repeats "puddle" and the second one repeats "field."
If you're building a progression and the next step stalls, then you need to change something. Although puddles are visually interesting, they are not much of an escalation from a wet field. So let's use the puddle simultaneously with the introduction of our hero.
The rain pours over the field.
Our hero traipses through a puddle.
But you know what? There is an implicit redundancy that we need to consider. Let's think about the slug line as a story element too. Didn't the slug line just tell us that we are in a field? Probably. And if so, we have the idea, image and word "field" two times in a row very close to each other. We don't want that. (Why? Check out WWTBD? for the answer.) So how about this rewrite:
The rain pours down.
Our hero traipses through a puddle.
See, how action description is also filmmaking: you are taking these little clips and putting them together, like a film editor does, for maximum impact.
Following these exact same principles can lead you to your own style that can work. Consider this rewrite:
A black boot lands in a puddle. SPLASH!
Hero wipes the mud from his glasses to reveal eyes full of determination. He trudges on.
Does this violate any of the principles we are discussing? When someone asks me about adopting a Shane Black style, the answer is always the same. Can that style tell the story? Does the action description effectively move things along? And does it do it with the same efficiency as a more standard style? Three "yesses" and you have your answer.
Here is an example where attention to detail can allow you to elevate proofreading to storytelling. We worked on a scene years ago in a workshop where a guy wakes up to discover he is pregnant. He then walks to the mirror where he sees it clearly.
My first reaction was that the walk to the mirror was unnecessary but the writer fought for its inclusion. But boil it down to its essence:
Wake up, feel and see something is wrong...bulge
Walk to mirror
See that your are pregnant
Is walking an escalation? Not really. If it were dark and he had to go to a light switch, to move things from "feeling" to "seeing," then that might work. But that's not what was going on. The writer said, "In her head, it was funny." But as it is now, it's just walking. I closed my eyes for a second to see the scene in my head. I said, I think you want: "He waddles to the mirror." She did. It allows for a middle beat that escalates and some humor and fits in with the scene and story concept.
There are other ways to look at this issue. Action Description 101 will tell you to pick specific verbs but Jim's Storytelling 401 (otherwise known as the first two days of the Champion Lab) tells you that you have to either cut "walks to the mirror" or improve it until it provides us with something new.
For more about the how the line between prose/proofreading and storytelling blurs, check out my article, The Good, The Bad and The Final Polish.
I hope this didn't make your head spin. And it if did, let me use that to misspell a segue ...
Variety, surprise and escalation are part of our implicit oath as storytellers. This entire principle of avoiding redundancy and striving for clear change is the essence of great storytelling. It's the essence of the "sequence method" of structuring screenplays. It's the essence of a killer ending. It's how great actors break down their scenes. And the same principle trickles down to the choice of a verb/movement in a sentence of action description.
Look at the essence of your story elements and ask yourself does each one move forward? If not, can I cut it? Can I tweak it to give it momentum? Can I take a "given" in the scene and let it become a discovery? Can I withhold a piece of information from a character to create a surprise revelation? Can I withhold it from the audience? Can I give the character or the audience an extra piece of information that will add suspense or conflict?
Often, the answer is in what you have already written. Shuffle the elements to explore if there is a stronger way to use them. Think like an editor. (Remember, editing is the only craft original to film.) By embracing this struggle to labor over the perfect order in which to reveal your story elements, you are taking a major step toward improving the craft of all of the areas of your screenwriting.
Jim Mercurio directed his second feature film this Summer and recently got a book deal to write the first-ever book on Scene Writing for screenwriters. He was ranked as one of the country's top story analysts in the last two surveys by Creative Screenwriting. If you are reading these columns, you are doing some of the work yourself, so mention this article and receive a $25 discount on any of his services that you sign up for this month.
What Would the Boss Do?
AGAIN AGAIN AND AGAIN
Let me be, for once, unequivocal.
"Thunder Road" is Bruce Springsteen's best song. And I may even agree with the University of Pennsylvania's public radio station WXPN that declared it the best song of all time.
It has been covered by lots of bands including Counting Crows, Cowboy Junkies, Melissa Etheridge and Tori Amos. In addition, this line inspired Jay Cock's inception of Gangs of New York:
Don't waste your summer praying in vain for a savior to rise from these streets.
A few people I know, yours truly included, have had their peripatetic life journey kicked off by the song's final words:
It's a town full of losers and I am pulling out of here to win.
The line simultaneously encompasses two of rock music's classic themes: anger/rebellion AND hope/love.
And other lines seem to hold up just fine:
Show a little faith there's magic in the night.
Not too shabby, right?
After 35 years of singing the song, Bruce has only ever changed one word. Early in the song, the narrator makes a plea to his girl, Mary, to take a chance and go with him on this "ride." He begs:
Don't turn me home again I just can't face myself alone again.
Sometimes Bruce drops the first "again" and other times he replaces the second one with "any more."
It's not a rigid by-rote decision. James Mangold and I were talking about Bruce's songwriting when I interviewed him years ago for Creative Screenwriting. We discussed the repetition in Bruce's song which Mangold featured in Copland, "Stolen Car" which opens with this line:
I met a little girl and we settled down in a little house out on the edge of town
We got married and swore we'd never part and little by little we drifted from each other's heart.
Here, the repetition has intention and, take my word for it, it holds up. Or don't, and listen for yourself.
But in "Thunder Road," he just can't let it go. As a master of craft, he won't let the words coexist so closely without purpose.
Since this issue's craft lesson is about redundancy, I won't beat a dead horse and be redundant over and over again, again and again any more.
and The T-Word: Theme
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