Archive for the ‘screenwriting’ Category

June 23rd, 2012  Posted at   screenwriting, script consulting
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Three weeks ago I taught a class on Theme at the Great American Pitchfest. Three weeks ago? Why am I just posting about it now? The short answer is I’ve been busy with follow up! I met so many cool peeps – writers, fellow consultants, producers and directors and I’ve been connecting with them all post-fest.

And I’m not alone in this. Judging by the twitter conversations I follow many of  us who attended have been touching base and checking in. Several people who attended my class or who I met briefly in the halls of the Burbank Marriott have reached out as well. I also had a handful of clients attend and across the board the one thing they all commented on as being the most important aspect of the event was the other writers they met while waiting to pitch, grabbing coffee or attending a class.

Of course attendees would love to interest an executive in their work but for many the networking was invaluable. So often writers work in isolation so an event like this creates a wonderful opportunity to connect. Even for me!

The Great American Pitchfest is held annually (they’re in their 9th year) and offers writers an opportunity to  pitch their screenplays to executives. The day before the pitch event is an impressive roster of free, yes free!, classes on all aspects of screenwriting for TV and film. Consider attending next year!

 

May 23rd, 2012  Posted at   Character Development, screenwriting, script consulting
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Ok, I think pretty much everyone would agree that pitching is about as fun as sticking needles in your eyes! Alright there might be a handful of people who love it or have come to terms with it as a necessary evil but those who are new to pitching generally feel something akin to fear and loathing. Why? It’s hard! It’s very challenging to condense your 110 page script into a 1-2 minute pitch that is conversational, entertaining and contains just enough information to hook an executive.

But pitching is a fact of life for working screenwriters so it behooves you to get comfortable with an admittedly uncomfortable process that is only one step removed from speed dating. And we all know how fun that is! One way to get more comfortable is to practice. Obviously you should do this with your own script (over and over and over) but you can also practice using produced movies. For example how would you pitch The Descendants?

Using the 7 steps to a perfect pitch here’s one way the pitch could unfold…

• My script The Descendants is a drama set in Hawaii about Matt who’s emotionally awol and calls himself a backup parent to his two daughters. His life’s thrown into turmoil when his semi-estranged wife, Elizabeth, falls into a coma after a boating accident. The doctors tell him she’s not going to recover and he has to take her off life support. Matt tells his eldest daughter Alexandra this upsetting news and she reveals his wife was having an affair and planning on leaving him.

Now you’re into the most difficult part of your pitch what is essentially the second act of your story. What you’re trying to do here is hit the main turning points that show how your protagonist handles the problem they’re faced with. Think 2-3 beats that form the central spine of your story. For The Descendants it might be something like…

• Matt had no idea she was cheating on him. Sure they had their problems but this was not what he expected to hear. Once he recovers from the shock Matt decides he has to find her lover, Brian, and tell him she’s dying so that he can say goodbye. Brian is vacationing on Kauai with his family so Matt takes his girls, and Alexandra’s slacker friend Sid, and tracks him down. It takes some time for him to orchestrate a moment alone with Brian but he finally does. Turns out Brian wasn’t even in love with his wife and is in fact devoted to his family. This knocks the wind out of Matt’s sails, but job done, they return home.

From here you want to quickly wrap it up and get to how the story is resolved and what your protagonist learns.

• Back at the hospital they take Elizabeth off life support and everyone gathers to say goodbye. They’re interrupted by Brian’s wife, Julie, who drops by the hospital with flowers and tells Matt she forgives Elizabeth even though she destroyed their family. This helps Matt to forgive his wife as well and he says goodbye with a tender speech and a gentle kiss. Our story ends with Matt and his girls cuddled on the couch with a big bowl of popcorn and a movie and we see that they’ve been brought together by this tragedy.

Subplots

You’ll notice I didn’t touch on the subplot of the land rights issue at all. Pitches can get bogged down in subplots which are often confusing when telling just the bare bones of a story. For the purpose of your pitch, unless they are absolutely essential, you can leave your subplots out. If an executive asks for more you can touch on your subplot. If your subplot is truly integral to the main story then you’d want to set up the protagonist, goal and main problem before launching into the subplot. For The Descendants it might go something like this…

• Matt’s an emotional absent husband and father whose life is thrown into turmoil when his semi-estranged wife falls into a coma after a boating accident. Matt learns she will never wake up and her doctor tells him she needs to be taken off life support. He tells his eldest daughter, Alexandra, of her terminal prognosis and she reveals her mother was having an affair and planning on leaving him. Once Matt recovers from the shock he decides to find Elizabeth’s lover and give him a chance to say goodbye before he pulls the plug.

Now here’s the addition of the subplot:

• While this is going on Matt, who’s a lawyer, and the sole trustee of his family’s extensive land holdings, is trying to help his family find a buyer for their land which they are being forced to sell. As they settle on a buyer Matt learns that Brian, who’s a realtor, is the brother in-law of the man they are considering for the sale. If all goes forward Brian will stand to make a lot of money.

Once you’ve set up the main crux of the subplot you’re back to the main story beats and would return to the B-story once the main story has been resolved.

• Following Elizabeth’s funeral Matt’s extended family gathers to sign the papers for the sale of the land. Matt has a sudden change of heart and decides not to sell angering his relatives but bringing himself some much needed peace of mind.

Coming back to the subplot in this way shows that Matt has been transformed by the story events.

Spin your Story

Keep in mind that your pitch should “spin” the story not tell it beat by beat. While you want your pitch to accurately reflect your script (for example if your piece is a musical you’d want to state that up front and if it’s really a drama don’t feel you have to play up the comedy if it isn’t there) you can compress, delete, rearrange as needed. The idea here is to entice the executive into wanting to hear more and if this kind of story is in your executive’s wheelhouse (to quote George Clooney) they’ll hopefully ask for your script. So keep things light, fast paced and conversational.

In time pitching will get easier and you might even find you like it. Yes, really. And if you need some extra practice trying writing pitches for exisiting movies. It can help you to fine tune the skills you need to give a winning pitch.

May 23rd, 2012  Posted at   Character Development, screenwriting, script consulting
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In my two previous posts I talked about theme and how you can use your protagonist’s arc to clarify what your story is about. You can also use this arc as the spine for pitching your story.

Knowing how to pitch your script can be a challenge particularly deciding what’s essential information and what you can leave out. Everyone is different and it takes time to find your pitching “voice” but one way to approach it is by looking at the protagonist’s arc over the course of the story and using this as the spine of your pitch.

In general your pitch should include:

1. Title – Um, well, this obvious, right?

2. Genre – It’s ok to mix genres a little bit here but try to stay within generally accepted genres ie: comedy, comedy-drama, thriller, action-thriller. Not sure? Check out imdb.com to get an idea of the most common genres.

3. Hook – This is the one idea that makes your story unique. In The Artist this would be the fact that it’s a silent movie. If you don’t have one don’t worry – not all stories do.

4. Protagonist – One or two sentences that briefly summarize your main character. For example if you were pitching The Descendants you might say, “Matt is an emotionally awol, self described back-up parent.” Or if your story was Up you could describe Carl as a curmudgeonly recluse unable to connect with anyone since his wife died.

5. Goal – Clarify the protagonist’s main external goal. In The King’s Speech this is for Albert to overcome his stammer. Or for The Descendents it would be for Matt to find and confront his dying wife’s lover.

6. Problem/Obstacles – In many ways this is the crux of your pitch and also the most difficult. The challenge here is to know just how much detail to go into and how to succinctly describe the series of escalating problems your protagonist encounters. This is where it can be really helpful to know what your story is really about and how your protagonist grows over the course of the script.

What you’re looking for here are the main turning points of the second act. The beats that move your character forward externally and internally. The first of these is the main problem which generally falls around the end of the first act.

In The Descendants this is the fact that Elizabeth, who has to be taken off life support, was having an affair. With The Artist this is when George is proven wrong and talkies start to become popular. In Drive this is when Driver (Ryan Gosling) offers to help Standard (Oscar Isaac) and the robbery goes awry.

From here your pitch should include how your protagonist handles this problem(s). Think 3-4 beats that form the central spine of your story be sure to include the end of the second act turning point and the climax.

7.  Resolution – This is how the story ends. It shows how your protagonist solved their central problem and whether or not they achieved their goal. It also reveals what your protagonist has learned over the course of the script and is where the theme is mostly clearly articulated. In The Descendants this is  Matt’s tender speech to Elizabeth which shows us he’s finally able to reconcile her transgression and tell us that The Descendants is ultimately a story about forgiveness.

Spin Your Pitch

When giving your pitch you want to “spin” your story not tell it plot point by plot point. If this means you put the main events in a slightly different order, leave out a character or compress a subplot it’s all good. Succinct is always better so just stick to the key events that tell us what happens and what your story is about. The goal here is to link the main story beats together in such a way that it feels conversational and entertaining. Imagine you’re having a few drinks with your friends and telling them about this great movie you just saw. The pitch should entice the executive you’re pitching to to ask for more information and hopefully to see the script.

Pitching well takes practice, lots and lots of practice, and is an art form all of its own, but having a good sense of your character’s arc, epiphany and transformation can give you the framework you need to hit it out of the park. (Hey, at least I waited until the end to use such an obvious pun!)

May 22nd, 2012  Posted at   Character Development, screenwriting, script consulting
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Movies are about transformation. We want to see someone change. It’s the reason we are drawn to sit in a dark room and eat popcorn with a bunch of strangers. But this transformation has to have a larger meaning. This is where knowing what your story is about comes in. Without a clear theme your story doesn’t have the context it needs to truly affect the audience. But how do you establish the notoriously hard to pin down theme?

In my last post I talked about how the theme of a story can be articulated by what the protagonist learns. This means that we come to understand what the story is really about by seeing the protagonist experience a meaningful epiphany. In order to ensure your main character has a specific moment of realization we need to give them an emotionally compelling transformation which is a two step process.

First you need to give your protagonist a subconscious longing, need or desire that they are initially unaware of (reconcile loss, gain confidence, forgive). This becomes their internal goal. It’s why they want what they want. It tells us what is really motivating them to achieve their external goal and articulates what they really need (even though they don’t know it yet!).

The second part of developing the protagonist’s transformation is giving the protagonist an epiphany that makes the subconscious conscious. This is where they realize the flaw they must heal in order to be transformed. It’s this moment that tells us what the story is really about.

The King’s Speech does this beautifully:

• The opening scene at Wembley Stadium establishes Albert’s stammer and his considerable fear of public speaking. His subsequent visit to the doctor tells us his external goal is to overcome his speech impediment.

• Albert’s father, King George V (Michael Gambon), gives his annual Christmas broadcast and afterwards bullies Albert into trying the microphone reminding him he has to overcome his stammer sooner than later. This beat sets up Albert’s lack of confidence and roots his weak self esteem in his antagonistic relationship with his father.

We know that Albert’s subconscious inner goal is to feel worthy of being King and to do this he’s going to have to let go of his unattainable need for his father’s love and approval – the flaw that stands in the way of his self confidence.

• With his father’s words ringing in his ears Albert begins seeing Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) to address his stammer. During their sessions Albert resists discussing his past but as the story progresses and their friendship solidifies he reveals some of the more difficult moments of his childhood. These conversations nicely set up Albert’s growing awareness of the real cause of his stammer and ultimately his lack of confidence.

• King George V dies and Albert’s brother (Guy Pearce) inherits the throne becoming King Edward VIII. During a session with Logue Albert reveals his worry that Edward will abdicate and he’ll be forced to take over. Lionel assures him he has what it takes to be King which forces Albert to confront his lack of self worth head on. But Albert’s not yet willing to look at his insecurity and instead lashes out at Logue ridiculing his failed acting career.

• Their altercation causes a rift in their friendship that isn’t repaired until King Edward VIII does in fact abdicate and Albert is made King. Now, unable to avoid a future filled with public speaking obligations, Albert seeks out Logue and apologizes. Their reconciliation underscores an internal shift in Albert’s character and his acceptance of his fate shows the first glimmer of his willingness to confront his flaw and believe in himself.

• Albert and Logue prepare for Albert’s coronation at Westminster Abbey. While they do this the Archbishop of Canterbury (Derek Jacobi) investigates Logue’s credentials and in a climatic scene interrupts their preparations to tell Albert that Logue isn’t even a real doctor. The Archbishop’s shocking revelation proves Albert’s worst fear – he lacks judgment and has trusted someone he shouldn’t have. He is in fact not fit to be King.

• Albert again lashes out at Logue. But instead of backing down Logue helps him to see that he doesn’t need the Archbishop, his father or anyone else’s approval, including Logue’s, to be worthy of the crown – he just needs his own. This is Albert’s epiphany. He is now conscious of how his lack of self worth, instilled in him by his father and reinforced by his debilitating stammer, has held him back from embracing his role as King. This new awareness gives him the confidence he needs to accept the position with dignity. This moment tells us what the story is really about and articulates the theme of accepting yourself flaws and all.

• Albert’s newfound confidence and acceptance of his role as King is beautifully established in the final sequence when he confidently gives his wartime address. This sequence works as well as it does because we know how much Albert has grown over the course of the story. We have witnessed his transformation from being unable to speak to the crowd at Wembley to giving an inspiring radio broadcast that unites the people of Britain and earns their undying trust and respect.

If The King’s Speech was just about how King George VI overcame his stammer it wouldn’t engage us the way that it has. It’s his internal journey as he gains self confidence that keeps us hooked and ultimately moves us. Giving your protagonist a compelling emotional transformation is one of the best ways to not only fully engage your audience but ensure you tell a meaningful story with a clearly articulated theme.

May 20th, 2012  Posted at   Character Development, screenwriting, script consulting
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When I work with writers or evaluate pieces for the Sundance Lab, FIND and Screen Queensland one of the questions I often ask myself is, “What does it all mean?” A lot of the time once I’ve finished a script I can’t answer this question and am left searching for the point of the story. This is not what you want to happen. A story without a clear theme causes a reader to pass and leaves the audience wondering why they wasted their time. Once again so not what you want to happen.

But theme is notoriously difficult to nail down and often doesn’t reveal itself to the writer until they’ve written a draft or two. This is par for the course and it can take awhile to figure out what you want to say and why you’re writing this particular story. But at some point you need to make a decision about what your story is really about and make sure the theme is clear.

One way to tackle this is by careful plotting of the protagonist’s arc. How so? Well, what the protagonist learns by the end of the piece tells you what your story is really about.

• For example in The Descendants we’re drawn into the story to see if Matt (George Clooney) will track down and confront his dying wife’s lover Brian (Matthew Lillard) but we’re more connected to whether or not he will be able to reconcile her betrayal. His final speech to her shows us he’s been able to do this and tells us the story is about forgiveness.

• In The Artist we’re invested in the film to see if George (Jean Dujardin) will be able to revive his career but what we really want is for him to put aside his ego and embrace change. His decision to shoot a “talkie” with Peppy (Berenice Bejo) tells us he’s been able to do this and establishes the theme as the danger of hubris.

• For Win Win the conflict centers around Mike’s (Paul Giamatti) decision to have himself illegally appointed as his aging client’s (Burt Young) guardian moving him to a senior’s facility against his wishes. This creates a string of problems that invest us in our desire to see Mike come clean and right the situation. The fact that he does tells us the story is about the importance of honesty.

• During Midnight in Paris we’re drawn through the story to see Gil’s (Owen Wilson) magical travels in time but what we really want is for him to come to terms with his life in the present. When he turns down Adriana’s (Marion Cotillard) request to stay permanently in the 1890’s we know that he’s done this and that the theme of the story is that despite the allure of the past it’s better to accept the present.

• While watching The King’s Speech we want Albert (Colin Firth) to be able to speak in public without embarrassment but what we really want is for him to become more confident, come out from behind his father’s shadow and embrace his role as King. The fact that he eventually does this tells us the theme is learning to accept and believe in yourself.

• In Up were invested in the movie to see if Carl (Ed Asner) will make it to Paradise Falls but what we really want is for him to reconcile the death of his wife and befriend Russell (Jordan Nagai). When he finds Ellie’s note in his scrapbook and goes on to rescue Russell from Muntz (Christopher Plummer) we know that while the piece has been a fun adventure it’s really about overcoming loss, reaching out, and embracing life.

These examples show how you can use the protagonist’s arc, specifically their epiphany, to articulate what the story is really about. So in thinking about theme you can look to where you want your protagonist to go and how you want them to change over the course of the story. This will point you in the direction of your theme and make sure your story has a reason to be told.

May 29th, 2011  Posted at   screenwriting, script consulting
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I’ve often wondered what makes a successful writer. I’ve tossed around many attributes like talent and connections but the one thing I keep coming back to is productivity. A successful writer is one who writes. Who actually writes. Consistently.

For most trying to balance their everyday lives with a writing life can be difficult. But what’s perhaps even more difficult is learning to define and accept your own unique process for writing. Many screenwriting books will tell you to write everyday. Of course this is sage advice. But this isn’t really enough to help you define your process.

In my case I’ve found that it’s very difficult for me to jump right in and start writing. I need a whopping 30 minutes to get in the right mind set. This usually means answering e-mail, checking facebook and reading a blog or two. I use to get irritated with myself for not getting down to work as soon as I sat down at the computer but I’ve realized much like a dancer doing a warm up this is my warm up. I need it to be productive.

I’ve also realized that midway through a project I will invariably reach a point where I think everything I’ve written is completely half-baked. It’s like a mid-life crisis on paper. This has happened enough times now that I know that if I just keep working this feeling will eventually subside.

I’ve also had very good success with chunking down the process into one or two hour blocks. This means that I set a specific time period and for the duration I don’t check e-mail, quickly look up an actor’s name on IMDB, tweet, or call my dentist to set up an appointment. It’s amazing how much more productive I am when I just stay focused.

Another thing I do is work at night. Once again this is something I used to question because it seriously cuts into the amount of sleep I get. But for me I’ve come to see that sleep is overrated! I love working at night. It’s quiet, I can’t make any phone calls, there aren’t any facebook updates (well except from my friend visiting Thailand) and overall it’s much easier to stay focused on what I need to accomplish.

I know a writer who has to clean the house before she sits down to work – even if it takes close to an hour. I know another writer who can only write when fueled with coffee and music. Loud music. Usually something that relates to the piece he’s working on. I have a friend who’s a poet and she’s unable to work in the quiet of her apartment so she spends long hours at Starbucks nursing a single coffee and getting a ton of writing done.

I encourage you to think about your process – don’t judge it – just look to see if there’s a pattern. Perhaps the very thing that you think stands in your way might actually be part of what you need to do in order to be productive. We’re all unique in our process if you can define and accept yours you’ll undoubtedly be more productive. And of course keep writing. Every day. It’s still the surest way to finish your script!

August 4th, 2010  Posted at   screenwriting, script consultant, script consulting
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So what’s this thing called marketability and do I need to worry about it as I write?

As a script consultant this is a question I’ve been asked by writers many times and it’s a good one. The answer is yes, and um, well, no. How’s that for confusing? I’ll try to clarify…

Marketability (or commerciality) is a term used to describe a project’s viability in the marketplace. Key here is how likely it is to draw an audience. Anyone reading your script (from agents to production or distribution companies) will be taking a look at the piece with an eye to its marketability. If they determine that the project is unlikely to find an audience they probably won’t want to move forward with it. 

There’s a pretty straightforward bottom line at work here: if no one comes to see the movie then there’s no way to make money on it or recoup the investment in it. Makes sense right? It’s the same thing you’d ask yourself if you were an agent considering investing many hours of valuable time to sell the script or wondering if you should put up millions of dollars to make the movie.  

So if your project is going to gain momentum in the marketplace there needs to be some element of commercial viability.  Now you’re probably wondering how this is assessed. Well there are many, many factors that come into play here. Budget, cast, director, genre, and hook are just a few.

BUDGET. Is the piece low,  medium or high budget? Determining this is key because it dictates what other elements will be needed to ensure the piece finds an audience. For example a low budget indie made for a million dollars doesn’t need the cast required by a big budget studio piece. 

CAST. Will the script attract cast that are meaningful enough (ie: recognizable) to draw an audience? Grown Ups is a good example of this. While the script is pretty thin on story it’s done over 142 million at the box office and continues to draw an audience primarily because of the cast. Anyone reading the project in it’s initial stages would have seen the castability immediately.

DIRECTOR. Is the script strong enough to interest a director who will elevate the piece and increase the likelihood of it attracting an audience? The Hangover is an example of a script finding the perfect director (Todd Phillips) for the piece. In a different director’s hands it could have easily been an edgy art house film with a niche audience. Director appeal would have been apparent from the first read.

GENRE. In very general terms genre pieces, such as thrillers and action films, will attract a wide audience while dramas are traditionally more challenging because they often lack a clear, easy to market premise. If the script is a drama then the other elements (cast, director, budget, hook) become a bigger piece of the puzzle.  

HOOK.  This is an assessment of the script’s overall uniqueness and is the most important question to ask when thinking about marketability. Without a clear, original premise that can be used to market the piece you will likely face an uphill battle when trying to find representation, financing or distribution. Hurt Locker, The Hangover, and Up, all have highly original ideas which can be easily conveyed. Just take a look at their trailers or posters – the hook is easy to see. 

These are just a handful of the questions agents, development executives and production companies ask themselves when evaluating a script’s marketability.

So should you be thinking about any of this while you write?

This is where the no part comes in. I’ve found that scripts written solely with the marketplace in mind rarely work well. Good writing comes from your unique ideas and the way you see the world. It’s far more important to tell a story you want to tell with your original voice than it is to think about the marketplace.

Yet, that said, once you’ve written your piece it’s important to be able to stand back and honestly assess it’s marketability. This will help you to be realistic in your expectations. If you write a script about a young woman’s search for her AWOL father in the bitterly cold Ozark Mountain’s (Winter’s Bone  – a very good low budget film that’s done 4 million at the box office) know that it will probably find a smaller audience than Inception (soon to reach 200 million). And will therefore face some limitations when seeking a foothold in the marketplace. 

So first and foremost write the story you want to tell. Write it really, really well. Then take an honest look at it’s market potential and proceed with realistic expectations around how your piece will be received in the marketplace.

June 30th, 2010  Posted at   screenwriting, script consultant, script consulting

Writing a script is hard work. Writing a great script even harder. No one sets out to write a bad script so what does it take to write a good one? In my many years as a script consultant reading and developing material I can sum it up with:

A good script is a great idea well told.

So what’s a great idea?

A great idea is a compelling premise, an original hook, a central idea that we’ve never seen before.

Hurt Locker about a bomb squad in Iraq is a highly original idea. The Hangover about three guys who lose the groom on the eve of his wedding is another example. Lars and the Real Girl about a man who falls in love with a blow-up doll is a very unique concept. Even Little Miss Sunshine, which uses a pretty conventional road trip conceit, has an original idea at its core.

All of these are examples of scripts that are based on great ideas.

But it’s not enough to have a great idea. You have to tell your story well.

So what does this entail? Well many things but there are some building blocks that need to be in place.

Characters.

The story has to have a compelling protagonist with a clear goal that we care about them achieving.

Relationships.

The main character has to be in relationship with other characters who help or oppose their goal. They need to shed light on the protagonist and be engaged with them in a meaningful way.

Great dialogue.

Not expositional, on the nose or irrelevant. It has to define character not overshadow it.

Plot.

The plot has to be tension filled and move forward with urgency and suspense around the outcome. The climax has to be satisfying and relate to the protagonist’s overall goal. We should feel the main character has been transformed by the story events and that the overall piece has a satisfying, emotionally compelling arc.

Theme.

The script has to have a clear point of view and be about something specific. When the reader turns the last page or the audience leaves the theater they should know what you were trying to say even if your intention was simply to entertain.

While a lot of elements go into telling a story, if these building blocks are not in place chances are your story is not working as well as it can. And it’s probably not going to work successfully.

So what makes a good script?

A great idea well told.

June 23rd, 2010  Posted at   screenwriting, script consultant, script consulting

Do you remember working on group projects in college? Remember how hard it was to get everyone on the same page and to pull their weight. By the time a movie is screening in theaters several hundred people may have been involved in the process. No other art form is as collaborative as film and the potential problems, roadblocks and insurmountable crises are numerous when you have so many people working on a project together.

In my experience as a script consultant, involved in the very initial stages of development, and having worked in production and distribution the fact that any film makes it to the screen is an incredible achievement. 

The process goes something like this…

It all starts with the writer of course. An original story (or adaptation) has to be written. Assuming this is a spec (commissioned scripts follow a slightly different path but encounter the same uphill battle), the writer then has to get it to someone who can get the movie financed. This might be an agent or a manager who shows it to the studios or maybe the writer has hooked up with a producer who  takes it out to production and distribution companies.

Once a studio or production company likes the film (this could take years!) they need to put together the financing. In our ever-changing landscape of filmmaking this can be a very complicated process involving co-productions, soft money, private investment and pre-sales, among others. This is a Herculean task in itself and many well-written scripts are unable to find someone willing to put up money to make the film.

Once money to make the film is secured, the film starts casting and / or searching for a director. Another major hurdle here is casting which depends on an alchemy of finding the right talent, for the right money and a convergence of schedules. Same with the director. And let’s hope all these people have the same vision and don’t end up in jail on the first day of principal photography (don’t laugh it’s happened!).

So the film is cast and the perfect director is lined up. Now we have physical production where any number of things can go wrong. From location logistics to crew dynamics (more than one mutiny has been staged by unhappy below-the-line crew) but let’s assume everything comes together and the film is shot. Whether or not this happens within budget is worthy of its own post.

Then we’re into post-production (or into re-shoots if necessary). Many say the film is really made in the editing room and I’d agree. Visual effects, sounds effects, and music are added here.

So now we have a locked film and the marketing people work their magic to design materials to promote the film. Dollars significantly affect how successful the campaign will be but hopefully people will be drawn to the theater to see your movie.

So there you are on a Friday night, talking to your friend, munching on your Red Vines and waiting for the movie to start. It’s the end of a busy week and maybe you’re bitching about your boss or that co-worker you’ve got a crush on. The last thing you’re thinking about is the hundreds of people who have been passionately involved in making the film you’re about to watch.

For them making the film was likely an intense labor of love. There were probably tears, hugs, fights, disappointments, compromises, and celebrations. A decade may have passed since the writer wrote The End on the final draft. Yet somehow they all came together to craft the movie you’re about to see.

So as the curtain rises know that you’re about to witness a small miracle. The miracle of filmmaking.

June 16th, 2010  Posted at   screenwriting, script consultant, script consulting

As a script consultant, determining the theme of a script is one of the areas I often focus on with writers. Figuring out what your story is really about is essential to the success of your piece. Without a clear central idea, the script can easily lose its way and the audience is unlikely to connect to the film.

Focusing the theme of your script can be surprisingly difficult and there are many theories on what your theme should be. I’m a little more flexible on that front and look to the main character and their journey to define what the story is really about.

 One way to approach fine-tuning your theme is to look at your protagonist’s arc. Generally what your story is about is articulated by what the protagonist learns over the course of the piece.

With this in mind…

The first act defines the main character’s primary goal. Ideally they should have a conscious goal (external) and a subconscious goal (internal). For example in Up Carl’s conscious goal is to fulfill his and Ellie’s lifelong dream of getting to South America. Subconsciously he’s looking to reconcile his grief and the loss of his wife.

The end of the first act is a twist that complicates their goal and raises the question: will our protagonist achieve what they want?

As the story progresses through the second act the main character encounters escalating complications on the way to achieving their goal. The end of the second act is the protagonist’s lowest point, an all-is-lost moment where it seems they are not going to achieve their goals.

Still with me? Because this is where the theme is most clearly articulated…

The second act turning point forces the protagonist to look at why they haven’t achieved what they wanted and leads to an epiphany that tells us what the story is really about.

In Up the second act turning point is when Carl is forced to choose between saving his house, which Muntz has set on fire, and helping Russell rescue Kevin who has been taken by Muntz. Carl, unable to let go of his connection to Ellie, chooses his house and in doing so upsets Russell.

Carl retreats to the house and sadly looks through his scrapbook where he finds a note from Ellie thanking him for the adventure of their life together and encouraging him to go on a new one. This causes Carl to look at his situation from a new perspective. It’s Carl’s epiphany and the moment that tells us that, while the story is a fun adventure, it’s really about reconciling loss. Carl has actually achieved his subconscious goal.

This beat reinvigorates Carl and he goes off to look for Russell only to find he’s taken a handful of balloons and set off to rescue Kevin himself. Carl, having learned what he needed to learn, chooses to go after Russell. The climax is a do-or-die battle that tests Carl’s commitment to Russell.

The resolution of the piece shows Carl stepping up for Russell at the Boy Scout meeting and confirms that Carl has indeed reconciled the loss of Ellie and is willing to move on to the next adventure. Because Carl’s epiphany is so clear, and extremely moving, the piece resonates and it’s easy to see what the theme of the movie really is.

Looking at your protagonist’s arc, specifically their epiphany and emotional transformation, can be one way to see if your theme is being articulated clearly enough for it to have the emotional impact it should.

June 9th, 2010  Posted at   screenwriting, script consultant, script consulting

It’s the weekend. You’ve just spent 20 bucks on a movie and popcorn. As you leave the theater what’s the first thing you do?

If you’re like me you’ll turn to your girlfriend, buddy, husband or mother and ask them: what’d you think?

We’re all critics and usually have an opinion on the movies we see. Sometimes you may not know why you liked or didn’t like the film, you’ll just have a gut reaction. As writers it’s important to fine-tune our critical skills so we can better assess whether our material works or not. While movies are inherently subjective, in general, a well-told story that follows proper structure will connect to an audience.

So what does a successful movie, and therefore screenplay, need to have?

A Strong Protagonist with a Compelling Goal.

In Up Carl was so driven to pursue his and his wife’s lifelong goal of exploring the wilds of South America that he tied balloons to his house in order to get there.

Hurt Locker’s Sergeant William James disposes of life threatening explosives in war-torn Iraq.

In Little Miss Sunshine The Hoover’s are determined to get Olive to the pageant no matter what.

These are all incredibly powerful goals that we can easily get behind and become invested in for the duration of the movie.

Meaningful Conflict

Obstacles that stand in the way of our protagonist’s goal keep us hooked into the story to find out the outcome. We’re driven to find out if our hero will achieve their goal.

Russell complicates Carl’s goal at every turn as does Kevin, Muntz, the balloon-tethered house and of course Carl’s inner demons.

James faces one bomb after another, each one more difficult than the next, including a body bomb left inside a young boy and a human time bomb he’s unable to diffuse in time.

The Hoover’ face all sorts of complications on their quest, from a broken van to an untimely death.

An Emotional Transformation

We go to see movies because we want the experience of transformation. Even the most straightforward action films have the emotionally satisfying experience of good triumphing over bad. Without this element it’s unlikely we’ll connect to the film or find it satisfying.

In Up Carl fulfils his and his wife’s dream and is able to reconcile the loss, enabling him to return to his community a changed man.

James returns home and discovers that the only life he’s cut out for is military life and leaves his wife and infant son for another tour of duty.

And while we want Olive to get to the pageant what we really want is for her family to reconcile their differences. Which they do after Olive’s stunningly inappropriate performance.

These transformations all make for very satisfying movies and, while a film like Up has a happier ending than say Hurt Locker, both films resolve the central character’s goals and make for meaningful films.

Without a clear goal, meaningful obstacles and an emotionally satisfying resolution it’s unlikely you’ll connect to a movie. So the next time you leave the theater and you’re not sure why you did or didn’t like the movie you can ask yourself if it had these three essential elements: strong protagonist with a compelling goal, meaningful conflict and an emotional transformation. Chances are if you liked it these elements were there working in concert to tell a compelling, entertaining story.

June 2nd, 2010  Posted at   screenwriting, script consultant, script consulting

Sometimes it’s not until we look back that we can see how the events of our lives have led us to where we are and those seemingly inconsequential moments suddenly take on a whole new light.

As a script consultant that’s what I do when I work on your script. I look at each beat and connect the dots to see what the overall significance and meaning is. Like this:

True Story. At 8 years old I’d memorize the entire TV guide every week. If someone in the family wanted to know what was on they didn’t flip through the guide – they asked me. I always knew.

True Story. The movie Diva (1981) changed my life. My older sister, just back from college, dragged me to the subtitled French-language film. I asked so many questions in the first 10 minutes that she hissed at me to shut up and refused to clarify my confusion. So for the very first time I was forced to sit back and actually watch a movie. Breathtaking. Spellbinding. The music from Diva haunts me still.

True Story. While waitressing in Victoria, BC one of the regulars, a local TV/movie producer, asked me if I’d associate produce a telethon with him. I reminded him that while I was a struggling writer and artist I was really just a waitress. He didn’t care. I figured he wanted a date. But he didn’t. He really did want someone to work with him because his regular associate producer / talent coordinator was out of town. Timmy’s Telethon was 21 hours of live television broadcast throughout Vancouver Island every spring. OK, it was pretty hokey but we raised a bunch of money for kids and it kick started my career in film and television. If it wasn’t for Arthur Rabin I’d probably still be serving Margaritas and chicken wings to unruly college boys.

True Story. Sold everything I had to move to LA for a development job working with writer/director John Kent Harrison. That was just about 15 years ago. Dropped the desk job when I had my two kids but kept working in the part of movie making I like best. Screenwriting. Working with writers, directors and producers to develop material. Telling stories.

This is mine. I can help you tell yours.