Posts Tagged ‘screenwriting’

June 10th, 2011  Posted at   script consulting

Working with writers, both new and experienced, my goal is to help them make their script as strong as possible. This process involves on-going conversations about what works and what doesn’t and invariably results in suggestions designed to align the piece with the writer’s overall intentions. Sometimes this leads to suggesting changes a writer may not be inclined to make. Some well thought out resistance is expected from a writer it tells me you know your story. In fact part of your job as a writer is to take a note, filter it through your intentions and rewrite (or not) accordingly.

But during this process I’ve had writers resist further rewriting by saying, “Well isn’t this good enough? Whoever options my script will want to make further changes anyway,” “The concept is there so isn’t it ok if the rest of the script isn’t perfect?” and “All I really need is a strong first act, right?”

Yes, really, I’ve had these conversations.

While no writer wants to languish in the world of rewrites for too long the above excuses are just that – excuses to avoid doing the hard work of rewriting. Sometimes writers I work with get frustrated by how many drafts it takes to get a piece to work successfully. They want to give up and they find ways to validate why they should. I encourage them to hang in there and keep chiseling away at their script. Writing and rewriting is a marathon not a sprint. It takes time to develop characters, fine tune the structure and find your theme. Oftentimes it takes several drafts before you discover what your protagonist’s epiphany needs to be or what your story is really about.

But there are other reasons to keep plugging away chief among them: Your career as a screenwriter.

It’s true your piece will be rewritten when it’s optioned. But hopefully it’s you doing the rewriting. For example perhaps your script has a very solid, commercial idea at the core. A production company can see the marketing potential but the script itself isn’t as strong as it needs to be. So they’ll option or purchase it and immediately assign a different writer. Ok, great, you say, I need the dollars. And sure there’s always that. But there are two problems with this scenario – you may not end up with a credit and the completed movie may not resemble your vision at all. So while you’ve got a few more dollars in the bank you haven’t moved your career as a writer forward. Your only defense is a really well written script that shows your talent, voice and ability so that attaching someone else becomes unthinkable.

Another reason to stay attached to your script is so you have an opportunity to gain the experience of working with producers, directors and actors to develop your project. If you are cut out of the process at the option stage you don’t get this opportunity. You won’t see how a script changes with the input of the creative team. How the actor will interpret the role or finesse the dialogue. How a director’s vision will take your script to a whole new level. You won’t get to be on set to watch it all come together or screen dailies that will give you insight into your work. Not all writers get the chance to see their project through to filming and yes, in the current landscape this is becoming even harder to attain. But why lessen your chances with a script that’s not your best effort?

By not pushing yourself to go that extra mile and do the rewriting required to make your script the absolute best it can be you are only cheating yourself. No one said it was going to be easy but enough excuses! Write a great script so that you can move your career forward and get a credit you are proud of.

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.