Monday, July 18, 2005

It's Just Storytelling

Does anyone else ever wonder if we’re making this whole screenwriting thing more complicated than it needs to be? In a world increasingly filled with screenwriting blogs, books, classes, magazines, and assorted “experts,” it sometimes seems to me that we are all losing sight of what good screenwriting (and movies for that matter) really boil down to – it’s just simple storytelling.

Lost in the labyrinth of formatting, character arcs, act and scene structure, is the fact that ultimately all that really matters is how good a story you are telling. I’m far from an expert, but the more screenplays you read that have actually sold, the more I think you realize that all that matters is that you tell an entertaining story – no matter how you tell it.

My hunch is that you could sell a handwritten screenplay on a yellow legal pad with random doodling in the margins if (and this is a big “if”) it told a great story. It might be a little more challenging to get it read than a perfectly formatted script, but if you managed to get it read and the story rocked, you would have no problem getting it sold.

Now I’m not suggesting we should all run out and get a stack of legal pads to write with, but rather that we make sure we don’t get distracted by the flood of screenwriting advice that suddenly seems to be everywhere these days. When push comes to shove, it doesn’t matter how you tell your story, but only that you have a truly great story to tell.

So my suggestion is for a moment to forget everything you’ve been taught, preached, or taken as the gospel and concentrate on just one thing – how good is your basic story? Is it good enough to sell if it was scribbled on a yellow legal pad?

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

What I Learned From: MEET THE FOCKERS

"Look, Little Jack was crying so I picked him up and gave him some hugs. Then I went into the kitchen to answer the phone and when I came back, he had let himself out of the playpen, put on Scarface and glued his hands to the rum bottle. Ok?"

Create Opposing Characters
It seems like a real basic concept, but Meet The Fockers seems like a great example to me of a film that really creates characters that are complete opposites in their belief systems and personalities and then just places them in situations that allows them to play off each other. The bulk of the humor in the movie comes from the interactions between Robert De Niro and Dustin Hoffman’s characters – whether on the football field, or dealing with their wives, or dealing with each other – it just places these two polar opposites in the same situation and the laughs come relatively easy.

Who’s the Main Character?
In Meet The Parents, it seemed pretty clear that Ben Still was the main character and his arc was basically that he had to learn to start lying. But in the sequel, it seems more like the character that changes the most is Robert De Niro’s character. He’s the one that has to change in the end to save the day much more so than Stiller. It’s interesting that Stiller may still theoretically be the protagonist, but it’s actually De Niro that goes through the bigger arc.

Set Pieces
Both Meet The Parents and Meet The Fockers have very clearly defined, elaborate, and memorable set pieces that really stand as the foundations for the film. There is also very little wasted information or stuff just thrown in as a gag – if you learn some bit of info early in the script, it is sure to resurface as part of a bigger storyline later on.

Sunday, July 03, 2005

QUICK HIT: Personal Screenwriters

The LA Times explores the role of "personal screenwriters" in Hollywood these days.

Saturday, July 02, 2005

What I Learned From: MR. & MRS. SMITH

“I guess that's what happens in the end, you start thinking about the beginning.”

The Importance of An Opening Scene
I went to see Mr. & Mrs. Smith with a healthy bit of skepticism. I figured it might be fun to look at, but could just as easily be awful. In retrospect, a bad opening scene might have lost me quick and I would have looked at the whole film differently - I was just as predisposed to hate the movie as I was to like it. But, I absolutely loved the first scene and thought it did a great job introducing the characters, setting up the story, hooking me into the film, and setting the tone. The amazing thing is it managed to do all this with nothing but dialogue between two people sitting on a couch – no crazy action sequence necessary.

The Role Of Dialogue In An Action Movie
There’s a tendency to think that the most important aspect of an action movie is the big action sequences, but I think what really made this movie work was the quality of the dialogue. The action sequences were great, but they were made even more fun thanks to the snappy dialogue. Plus, the film seemed to not be too full of itself and poked fun at its own action line cliché’s.

Parallel Storylines
It’s something of a writing shortcut I suppose and a template that doesn’t fit every story, but Mr. & Mrs. Smith is driven by parallel storylines. Since both of the main characters have similar external goals, and they are each basically each other’s antagonist, you wind up with a relatively simple plot that mirrors itself. One person reacts to the discovery of their spouse’s secret, then we see the other react. One person plots revenge, then the other does, etc. Very straight forward, but it works in this case.

Friday, July 01, 2005

This Week In Hollywood Development

Here's my (weekly?) take on what happened in the hallowed halls of studio development execs this week - the good, the bad, and the confusing.

Gamble of the Week: Emily Strange
Centers on a rail-thin 13-year-old whose clothes are as black as her hair and as dark as the tone of her adventures.

I think the look of Emily Strange is very cool and seems very Tim Burton-esque, but I don’t really think of it as being very mainstream and it’s tough to see how you turn a symbol into a film and make it work. There’s the potential for something really cool to come out of this, but it is just as likely to be a disaster or never even get made if they can’t nail down a solid story. Plus, even if it’s good, I’m not sure how big an audience there is for an animated goth chick. I have a hunch that the performance of Corpse Bride may have a big effect on the future of Emily Strange.

Sequel/Prequel of the Week: The Untouchables: Capone Rising
Centers on the young Al Capone, his arrival in Chicago and his rise to criminal kingpin.

Storywise, I’m even more interested in seeing Capone’s rise to power than I was to see Elliot Ness’ battles against him. That being said, the first Untouchables was fantastic so my hopes are high for this prequel. I assume that the Capone role will be one of the hottest up for grabs around town and it’s tough to imagine this film not doing well at the box office no matter how good it turns out to be.

Your Guess Is As Good As Mine Of the Week: Beggars Inc.
A Harvard Business School graduate can't make a living and decides to use his smarts to empower the panhandlers he sees lining the streets. He sets up a business using sophisticated methods that motivate panhandlers to give the public value for their money. The entrepreneur's scheme leads to a love triangle and a showdown with a rival.

This sounds intriguing though it also could be very tricky to pull off. From reading the logline I feel like I “get” the movie, and yet at the same time I feel like I have no clue what this will turn out to be.

Concept of the Week: Teacher of the Year
Two junior high school instructors compete in a brutal battle to take teacher of the year honors.

Just a solid high concept comedy. Easy to understand, easy to see where the humor is, easy to see the poster, easy to market, and should be easy to turn a nice profit. Ice Cube seems to be a sucker for a high concept comedy these days – i.e., Are We There Yet? and he’s an interesting choice to star in this film. I wonder if he will be cast opposite another “urban” actor or if they will go more mainstream with this film? Seems like it could work either way.

Saturday, June 25, 2005

What A Difference A Day Makes

Less than 24 hours ago, I had a broad concept, a rough four-paragraph synopsis, and no clue whether I should even bother attempting to tackle my Top Secret Comedy Project. But now...after actually putting in some serious work, I've got a solid story and characters mapped out, a fleshed out outline to write from, and the confidence to know that I can make this script work. It won't get finished this weekend obviously, but it will get started and then some.

The outline is done, let the writing begin. Not sure I've ever been so happy to set a progress bar at zero before. Now, the next question is how much can I move that bar today?


Put in a couple solid hours this morning on the Top Secret Comedy Project and I've got the outline just about finished. Shooting for an early afternoon completed outline and a late afternoon kickoff to the writing fiesta.

Revised Expectations

Ok, so three hours ago I dared to dream that I could potentially go from a four paragraph synopsis to a full first draft in a weekend. Three hours later, I know that ain't about to happen. Reality has sunk in like a brick.

However...I did make a ton of progress on a story/outline over the last three hours and I do think I'm on to something. And I think it's worth writing - if someone sells the same idea in the next week or so, fuck will still be worth it for the experience. And I'm still gonna try to pound out a lot of the script this weekend.

I figure I can get a completed outline done by about mid-day tomorrow and I'm gonna shoot for 30 pages on Saturday and 30 pages on Sunday. Can I get there? No idea, but I might as well aim high.

This will be my next script and I will finish it - no matter who sells what in the next few weeks. Sorry Chalk, but you are gonna have to go on the backburner for a couple weeks. It's the Top Secret Comedy Project's time to shine. Game on.

Friday, June 24, 2005

Decisions, Decisions...

Ok, I’ve got a dilemma.

Yesterday afternoon I came across an article that is begging to be turned into a high concept comedy – it’s a true story that is tailor made to be a four-quadrant, broad family comedy in the vein of Uncle Buck or Bringing Down The House. The concept is broad (and different from reality) enough that you would not need to option any particular rights, it would be fictional and that is not a problem in this case. It’s just a good, extremely commercial concept.

So after reading the article my producer instincts kicked in and I started to search around town for a writer to attach and go in and pitch the project to a studio ASAP. I figure that if I saw the article online (and it has appeared in several publications – one of which even mentioned that “movie producers” were circling the story), then it’s likely several other Hollywood vultures have as well.

An afternoon of feverish calls later, I basically came up empty in terms of finding a writer to attach. Everybody (or at least the everybody I know) is too busy or too bad at returning phone calls. I would love to write it myself, but nobody’s going to buy it as a pitch from me without any credits or previous sales to my name and my concern is that by the time I could finish writing it on spec, somebody else will have already sold it as a pitch.

That got to me thinking…I wonder how fast I could hammer out a spec from scratch? I wonder if I could finish a spec and get it to people before someone else sold it as a pitch? This is a dangerous head game to play with yourself - trust me.

So here I am on a Friday night at 9:00, trying to decide what to do. All I’ve got is a great concept, and a four-paragraph synopsis of what I think the movie could be. The question is…do I launch myself into a weekend writing marathon and see how much I can get done in 48 hours? Do I take my time and map out the script and just hope nobody sells it in the meantime, no matter how long it takes me? Do I backburner this concept for the moment and finish preparations to start writing my “Chalk” screenplay on Monday as planned?

And if I do go for it all this weekend, how much can I realistically get done? My guess is that if I could nail down a detailed outline tonight somehow, and if I can average five (very rough) pages an hour, and if I could log 18 hours of writing time over the next two days, I could actually come close to finishing a (very rough) draft of the script by the end of the weekend. But that sure sounds like a whole lot of ifs

What’s a guy to do?