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Craft & Career
Issue 15                                   Champion Lab Issue                                    November 24, 2010
Dear Writer,


Well, it's official.  I signed with Quill Driver (Linden Publishing) to write The Craft of Scene Writing: 14 Steps to a Better Screenplay.  Below is a reprint of the dialogue craft article from Issue 8 that helped me land the book deal. 


Enough about me.  My next few weeks are about the Champion Top 20 feature writers.  I am prepping to jump into 100 hours of teaching, so I am squeezing Issue 15 in before the holiday.  This is also your last chance to snag one of the two remaining seats in the non-weekend sessions and join us... as early as next week. 


My craft article is a light look at how old movies have shaped some of the more recent ones and, worst case, should give you some cool ideas for your Netflix queue.  And we announce the Champion shorts winners below.


I also wanted to try to point you toward some insight into the Amazon Studios contest.  I don't have time now to dig deeper, but there are several red flags that augur a train wreck.


Visit us on Facebook  and for all of the back issues of Craft & Career in one place, you can go here.


Thanks for being a subscriber.

Jim Mercurio 

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Jim Mercurio

Jim Mercurio 


Last year, I told my friend/client that I would create a crash-course in classic cinema for him, a list of movies he needed to have seen to be (in air quotes) a legitimate film lover.  Maybe we don't want to watch DW Griffith to see how his films influenced a movie like Crash but a little bit of Vertigo, Citizen Kane and Rashomon never hurt anyone. 

I never got around to making that list and lo and behold when he was interviewing for the UCLA Screenwriting MFA program, the first question the interviewer asked was "What's your favorite Kurosawa film?"  He gave the worst possible response.  He didn't have an answer.  I have seen Stray Dog, Seven Samurai, Yojimbo and most of Ran, but let me give you a hint: the answer to this question is always Rashomon.
Why?  Just because.
So let me give you a full-blown cheat-sheet.  You might not see how The Social Network riffs on Rashomon (Or Citizen Kane for that matter) or know why Disturbia was sued by the copyright holders of Rear Window (It's an homage=Officer, she said she was 18), but even if you don't make the deep-seated literary connection between The Hangover and Dude, Where's my Car?, this playful rant will connect the dots between some new school movies and some old school films and help to edumacate you. 


It's no coincidence that the writer of American Pie took the class at University of Michigan (for which I was a T.A. in a different year) where we STUDIED Porkies, Fast Times at Ridgmont High and, I swear, Animal House.  And if you glean no lesson here and aren't inspired to do some homework, well, then I have created an effective guise to talk about a random bunch of really cool movies.


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Jim Mercurio

Although dialogue seems in some ways contrary to structure, the way to improve it is often through the structure of your scenes. When you clarify the point of a scene, a character's intention and the exact subtext of an individual beat, you gain creative freedom.

How does specificity and narrowness translate into freedom? Well, once you know the intended subtext, then ANYTHING that can capture it is fair game. "F--- You" can mean "'I love you." "Sure" can mean "no way." "Laughing in someone's face" can eliminate the need for words and imply: "I think you are a joke."

But sometimes too much freedom is a bad thing. There may be thousands of lines that capture the subtext of the intended beat. Just because a line works, doesn't mean it's good enough. You have to ask yourself more questions: Is it in the character's voice? Is it even necessary? Is it incorporating/exploiting the setting and siuation?  And has the character pushed far enough?

This article started when Erik Bauer, my producing partner on Hard Scrambled, sent me a link to the last part of the opening sequence from Once Upon a Time in the West just to share his enthusiasm for a great cinematic moment. In the scene, three men (sent by antagonist Frank) wait at a train station to, ah, meet Charles Bronson's character, Man With A Harmonica. Frank doesn't know how he knows Harmonica, who has arranged to meet with him, but he knows he is going to be trouble. So Frank sends his henchmen, including Stony (the legendary Woody Strode) and Snaky (the blind-in-one-eye, Jack Elam), to kill him.

If you haven't watched the scene, go ahead and watch it now.  And if you have an important deadline today, I hope you don't have a DVD of the film on your shelf.

First of all, notice the characters get into position without any dialogue.  We already saw them "take over the station" in a systematic way, so we don't need a talky explanation.  Also, this makes the underling henchmen more active because they react to Snaky's gestures, which shows us how cohesive they are as a unit, i.e., how long they have worked together, how smart they are that they can respond to a look without any direction.  And, no, it's not a coincidence that I am going to discuss dialogue using a scene that has very little of it.  The first lesson writers should learn about dialogue is not to depend on it.  Film is a visual medium.  Look at how many of the beats in this scene rely on looks, nods, head tilts, eyes and body movement. 
The train approaches, suspense builds.  The three men are so on edge that when the train door opens, they "jump."  But it's a false alarm.  When the train starts to leave the station, Snaky assumes their prey is not there, so he gestures to his henchmen who come toward him, thereby giving up their strategic position.  They then mirror Snaky and turn away from the tracks.  This creates a nice opportunity for a crisp (and visual) turning point/reversal in the scene): at the moment they are least engaged is when we hear Harmonica's harmonica O.S. which causes the men to stop in their tracks.
And then in a perfectly orchestrated moment, like a curtain opening: the train exits the frame and Snaky turns.  When his hat moves the Bronson character Harmonica, who is playing the harmonica, is revealed on the other side of the tracks.  His exiting the train from the opposite side is motivated because it provides him with a  tactical advantage: the three gun men closed their ranks.  While blowing his harp, Harmonica surveys the situation.  He asks about (or for) Frank and Snaky responds:  
  Frank sent us.
Clearly, this is not what Harmonica was expecting.  So now the situation changes and the really important question for the character is am I safe?  He needs to know if these men are friends or enemies, whether or not his life is in danger.  

So imagine all of the on-the-nose lines of that could destroy this scene:  
Are you friends or enemies?   
I need to find out if you are going to kill me. 
Are you going to shoot me? 
Should I be worried? 
Are you going to shoot me or kiss me? (kidding) 
Laugh all you want at these atrocious lines, but ask yourself if you have equal disdain for EVERY on-the-nose line in a script?  Well, do ya?  You should.
We have to eliminate all of the on-the-nose responses, i.e., where the words are the exact subtext.  So let's imagine some lines that might capture that subtext?  Harmonica has spent some time surveying the scene, so let's use that somehow.  Could he look at Stony and say this line?
Hey, why are you so nervous?
There is some dramatic tension in calling a character out on his nervousness as a way to assess him.  Seeing and playing on characters' nerves is an essential part of this scene and in most classic shootouts.  However, this is a Western, not a Woody Allen or Eric Rohmer film.  In Westerns, men are laconic; they don't talk about emotions with such specificity.  So the voice and appropriateness for the genre is all wrong.  The word "nervous" ain't gonna cut it here, pardner.
We're really not close yet, but at least we are moving in the right direction.  We are starting to think about the situation, what Harmonica sees and how to avoid words or tacks that aren't within the voice of the character or genre.  What about this? 
It took three of you to run his errand?
Errand?  Meh.  Vague.  Too domestic.  How about one of these?
It took three of you to pick me up?  
Three of you came to pick me up?
Okay, it shows that he's smart and paying attention.  Posing it as a question allows for sarcasm or a challenge.  Not bad.  If I were to stick with this line of thought, I might even make it less on the nose and try to put it in terms of their world:
Three of you?  Didn't want to draw straws?  
Quite a welcoming party.  D'you all draw the short straw?
Not vomit-inducing.  We're probably a tweak and a polish away from advancing through the first round of most screenplay contests.  But now, let's look at the actual line:
You bring a horse for me?
Note that whatever spark of not-sucking there is in my imaginary lines, this captures the best of them.  Its intention is crystal clear: "You weren't planning on my leaving here, were you?"  It incorporates the iconography of Westerns and integrates the details of the setting.  It is based on Harmonica's observation (pretty smart guy, huh?), but without the neuroticism in its attention to the men's emotions ("You nervous?").  It just speaks to their intention.   
The line causes an immediate change in the situation.  Frank's men know for SURE that Harmonica understands what's going on.  This is a big deal.  For the bad guys, they have gone from "maybe we have the element of surprise in a fight for our life" to "now, we're down to only our three-to-one advantage."  Snaky's laughter is a combination of nervousness, bravado and malicious glee and the line that follows is implicitly a confession. But his unwavering confidence contributes to the more important goal of trying to rattle Harmonica and regain an edge: 
 Looks like... looks like we're shy one horse
If it's not clear that this line was meant to rattle Harmonica, it will be by the time we hear the follow-up line and  see the reaction to it.
This is a critical part of the scene and I am going to put it under a microscope.  From Harmonica's perspective, he now knows he is on the verge of a gunfight and his life is at stake.  Snaky made a comment that was meant to f--- with him by getting under his skin.  Does it succeed?  Let's see what the filmmakers (writers, director, actor) show us.
Bronson's character just shakes his head.  I love this for a million (okay, three or four) reasons.  First, it's a visual response, i.e., WITHOUT dialogue.  It's true to his character: a laconic man of few words. And from a craft standpoint, it creates suspense.  We await the follow-up or clarification.  Even if we don't understand the subtext of "No, you didn't rattle me (and possibly) I am not the one who is going to end up dead," we will after he delivers his next line:
You brought two too many.
If you can't revel in this line's awesomeness, then you are in the wrong Craft and Career.  On a superficial level, it's so cool and clever and kick-ass but there's something important going on underneath.   

Harmonica's line "You brought two too many" perfectly captures the subtext of the scene.  It's strong.  It's surprising.  And it pays off the horse references.  And all without saying, "No, you three are going to die."
But without the proper attention to the character's motivation, this line doesn't work.  Harmonica is outnumbered three-to-one with a bunch of guys who are confident in their ability to kill him.  He knows that he needs any edge he can get.  If he rattles them enough and gets under their skin, then this will affect whether he lives or dies. 
Notice that immediately after this line, the film cuts to Woody Strode's Stony character where  -- choose one of the following --
The smile slowly fades from his face.
His lips drop to a neutral expression
His smile droops.
He loses his smile
As a director or screenwriter, if you have the line "You brought two too many," you owe the audience a reaction shot or action description of the character losing confidence.  You follow-through on the line's effect on the other character, which simultaneously/retroactively demonstrates its deep-seated importance and intention.  Using only five words, Harmonica shakes the confidence of these hardened men so that he may have a better chance of killing them first and SURVIVING.
The clarity and importance of a scene's structure is what allows you to free up your creativity and choose ANYTHING for a line of dialogue.  Look at the strong, clear and important intention in each beat: 
Harmonica digs for information.  ("Frank?", I think.)
Snaky shuts him down.  ('Frank sent us.")
Harmonica calls them on it (tests, confirms, prods).   ("You bring a horse for me?")
Snaky intimidates and tries to crush him emotionally. ("Looks like... looks like we're shy one horse.")
Harmonica deflects/ignores/confuses.  (Shakes his head.)
Then armed with new information, Harmonica strikes back by scaring (and surprising?) the crap out of them.   ("You brought two too many.")
Stony is rattled.  
Harmonica capitalizes: kills them. (The shootout)
I don't have space here to nitpick the wording any deeper, but if you're not sure why "you brought two too many" is superior to "you brought too many horses", "you have more horses than you need", "you have two more horses than you need", and "you didn't bring a horse for me," then haul your butt to my class next week. 

Once you identify a given beat, imagine that swirling around in your brain are the thousands of lines that would satisfy the beat's intent.  Now group those lines into several subsets that satisfy these criteria:  
  • capture the intent/subtext accurately (99% of the time, succinctly)
  • are not on the nose
  • are in the voice of the character
  • are cool and surprising
  • are appropriate for the genre
  • incorporate the setting and details of the world.
The intersection of all of those subsets, i.e., the lines that are in all of the subset groups will create a very small group from which you will find the good lines of dialogue.  Another way of putting it is that your final line of dialogue must fulfill all of these criteria.  
Obviously, you won't use a calculator and a slide rule every time you write a line of dialogue.  My hope is that you go through these steps a few times and then internalize this process so that it becomes an instinctual tool.  Here's how you put it into use.  When working on your dialogue or your rewrite, answer these questions.
  1. What is the purpose of the line?
  2. Can I make it stronger?
  3. What are some lines that capture the SUBTEXT?
  4. Which of these lines are in the character's voice and feel right for the genre?
  5. Which of the remaining lines use (or can be modified to use) the setting and the specific knowledge that the characters have?
  6. Can the line play off the previous line of dialogue? (train-of-thought, metaphor, (like the horses here))
  7. Then when I have the line I like, can it be shortened?  And if the line's intention is made clear to the audience or character before it's even finished, how can I reconfigure or rewrite it so that the point becomes clear only on the final word?
You will have to wait for the book for more on dialogue and scene writing.  But if you made it this far, that means you better buy it next year.

Check out current discounts and updates on Jim's story analysis services here.



Citizen Kane:   I know, I know... everybody tells you to watch Citizen Kane like they tell you to eat your broccoli.  But here's the skinny: imagine this so-called broccoli is Haagen Daaz Vanilla Ice cream topped with fresh strawberries (substitute your fave dessert).  It's good.  And not hard to watch. It's fast, sexy, funny and  a completely human story told with more special effects than practically any movie of its time.  CFK is a thinly-veiled caricature of William Randolph Hearst and that's one of the reasons why you have to study this movie if you want to make a biopic.  Nelson Johnson, who wrote the book which is the basis for the HBO show Boardwalk Empire, worked with me on his own screenplay adaptation and we kept coming back to Citizen Kane for instruction on how to avoid the tragic flaw of most biopics: no throughline.  In writing a story based on a real person, you have to avoid the trap of "..and this happened and then this happened and then this happened."  I know that's what happened. I don't care.  What makes a movie like The Social Network work is that it has a Rosebud-level of clarity in its throughline.  And speaking of influences on The Social Network...

Rashomon: Honestly, The Social Network is more fun to watch but if you want to watch the Grand Daddy of all "what is the nature of truth?" movies, you have to watch Rashomon.  Its conceit has been used to horrible effect (The Accused) and to mediocre effect  (Courage Under Fire) and as inspiration for some of the best mainstream films of our generation (Memento).  Sometimes  writers  misunderstand what Rashomon does (Vantage Point) and think that restricting the narrative point of view works the same as embracing subjective points-of-view. If you are going to deal with unreliable narrators, multiple perspectives on the same event, the thematic issue (a la The Social Network) of what is really true, then the truth is... watch Rashomon.

500 Days of Non-linearity: Love him or hate him, I got one word to say: Annie Hall.  It holds up.  It might be my all-time favorite movie.  And my dream Hollywood assignment would be to write the remake of the Stanley Donen film Two for the Road that starred Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney.  Check out the way their five different cars establish the time period. And I love the way the passport is used as a "you complete me" prop.  Another classic influence on these sorts of stories is Pinter's play Betrayal (see Francois Ozon's 5x2) which is told in a handful of scenes revolving around a couple with the conceit that the scenes are in reverse chronological order.  Without these movies, no one makes 500 Days of Summer or the recent Sundance film Blue Valentine.  (And when you find out why the MPAA gave Valentine its NC-17 rating, stick out your tongue to protest.)

The Killing:  One last testament to non-linearity. One of Kubrick's first films, this is a heist film told in a fractured chronology.  The progenitor of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction.  I watched it recently and it holds up despite the fact that the jumps in time aren't as surprising as they would have been to an audience in the fifties.  Not to be too solipsistic but I think Kubrick made this movie so that I could have 50 years of support for my thesis that the way to break in to the industry is with modestly-budgeted genre films that have a cool hook.

Alter-Ego: I didn't see Youth in Revolt, but I do like Alter-Ego/Shadow/Doppelganger (or whatever you want to call them) stories like Fight Club where one actor plays the flip sides of the same person or one person is metaphorically bifurcated into two roles.  Luis Bunuel's That Obscure Object of Desire does a cool twist on this.  He has one character played by two different actresses; he just seamlessly interweaves them into one narrative.  There is some really interesting thematic potential with the elusive nature of personality or the fickleness of women (don't shoot the messenger) and I could see a commercial take on this gimmick.  Check it out.  Todd Haynes (I am not There) and Todd Solondz (Palindromes) definitely did. 

You know what?  This is fun, but I gotta throw a turkey in the oven.

I wanna figure out a way to mention Night of the Hunter, Amarcord, The Cincinnati Kid and Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, so here's what I will do.  I will post the rest of this filmic diatribe on the A-list blog.  Follow me on Facebook so you will know as soon as it posts. 

And if anyone ever asks you what your favorite Kurosawa film is, always say Rashomon.  And when they ask why,  tell them because it's his best film.  And when they ask you how you can be so sure that that's true, here's what you tell them: "Can anything ever be true?  What is truth?"

 Happy Thanksgiving!


DEC 20, 2009 -  FLASHBACK


Jim Mercurio

Half of the Champion top 20 writers who took the class and I met for dinner two Fridays ago, and the two classes got to meet each other. It was sort of our unofficial awards ceremony. I told them about the "pressure" I felt having to teach only the top students. What if my topics were too obvious? What if I bored them? What if they rebelled? Well, the good news is they didn't rebel (except for Mark).

I chose this handful of writers from more than 600 scripts. My contest is called Champion because I want to support these writers - champion them - right? Well, I was a little worried about how the next 24 hours of class was going to go when 12 of those hours were to be spent critiquing the work of the winners. I didn't want to send mixed messages. I loved these scripts and now it was time to roll up our sleeves and ponder improving them.

Often the answer to improving a scene comes in an instant. But once in a while we get stuck in sort of a grind. Maybe stuck is the wrong word because of its connotations. Sometimes we would immerse ourselves in a section of a writer's script and stubbornly stick with it. If you walked into our class at that exact moment, as an outsider, it might look like we were just spinning wheels. But we were getting real work done. I - or often we, as a group - would find a way to help the writer elevate the scene.

We got "immersed" like this once each on two of the winners' scripts, and both times the writers had eminent patience until we found solutions to subtle problems. One of the solutions came from thinking about the scene as an actor would. "Pushing someone away" is a really inactive, easy choice for an actor to make. It's much more interesting if the actor has something positive to fight for, like "I must make him understand my point of view before he leaves." This thought process came as a solution to both a drama and a comedy.

The reason we were able to do such awesome work together was because the writers stayed open-minded and didn't get defensive. They were open to suggestions from not only me but the other writers too. Ironically, maybe this is why they were there in the first place. I don't think I want to change the name from Champion Screenwriting Competition to "We-Gently-Break-Your-Script-Down-Before-We-Build-You-Back-Up Competition." It might capture a bit of what we do, but, unfortunately, the web domain isn't available.

Maybe there is a lesson for in there for all of us, but that's not what interests me this month. That's not what I want to close with. I want to congratulate all of the winners of the contest and thank the writers who showed up for the class. You have given me an incredible gift this year by allowing me to be part of your writing growth.


For a little more about last year's lab and one of its guests, check out the Champion Blog.



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The 2010 Champion Screenwriting Competition is proud to announce the winners of the Shorts categories.



The Device and the Operator by Cassandra Holroyd


A Simple Plea by Dean Watts

BEST SHORT SHORT (Less than three pages)

Aurora by Kristi L. Simkins


For a list of the top twenty features that are still vying for the $10,000 Grand Prize, check out the Champion Blog.


And special thanks to Kathryn Cottam, the Champion Competition Coordinator and reader extraordinaire.  She is helping me make this the coolest contest on the planet.

In This Issue
CRAFT: Back to the Old School
Dialogue: Beats of a Missing Horse
The Anti-Champion Screenwriting Competition?
Champion Corner: Shorts Winners
Amazon Studios Train Wreck

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The Amazon Studio Thing

Reality Check or Train Wreck?

I don't have time to research it thoroughly but I wanted to bring this to your attention ASAP because I believe just by entering this "contest," you are tying up the rights to your script for a year or maybe even more.  This might be a technicality that prevents you from entering your script into other contests and possibly from entering other contests with any of your scripts.

Here are links to opinions by John August and Craig Mazin.

If you form an opinion, share it with us in the Discussions Forum on A-List's Facebook Page.
Unless otherwise noted, all content is copyrighted by A-List Screenwriting, LLC or James P. Mercurio.