Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Character vs. Story

Howdy bloggers,
I'm back again with my version of the cinematic experience. Today's topic is one that I hear bandied about everywhere: do you start with a story or with a character.

As usual there is no answer, only the way you are most comfortable. As a sw developer I come across a similar conundrum when designing software. Do you concentrate on the man page(character) or the interaction between all of the pages(story).

I myself usually come up with a story and then find a character that can cause as much conflict and drama in that situation as possible.

My first and most beloved spec is a good example. I wanted a dramatic story about a girl who wants to graduate college a virgin. So I said how can I make this character?

I decided she would be very sheltered, almost "clueless." She would also have a party spirit, so immediately we have two antagonists, one who tries the "turn your head" method and one who doesn't believe she could be so innocent when she dances like a stripper.

Another story involves a young kid who daydreams a lot. It's a comedy so I figured we'd give him a real "daydream."

A basic logline is usually enough to flesh out your protag and that's what I do. I brainstorm a bunch of story ideas and then start to research the topic to find the best protag, or perhaps I should say "personality-type."

I also tend to use the "high-concept" path where I think of a topic that would be exciting and interesting to most people. I have a few at this point and they are coming together. The story skeleton almost always give me the path to the best character type, though I admittedly don't do a full "what's in their refrigerator" character map.

I usually let my sequences guide me from the story skeleton and basic character actions to the widening of the personality. If you pick the right character, you will definitely have too much material with which to torture your protag.

Of course, every piece of writing has to be taken with "YOUR" particular grain of salt as what works for others may not work for you. For example, I "appropriated" the use of large index cards from Rossio\Elliott but probably use them totally differently.

I have looked at the sequence method but ended up making it more granular( up to 60 sequences rather than 8). It usually works out pretty good as I am zooming through several specs right now, with the hopes of an assignment that will give me my first credit, WGA-sig or not. But I digress...

So just like always your mileage may vary so you have to find the voice that suits you especially since different genres, though basically structured the same, have different necessities for advancing the story.

For example only a dark comedy can effectively use violence, just as there are not going to be many poignant speeches in an action movie or sex scenes are usually not acceptable in Rom Coms.

Someone in the BlogoSphere mentioned that comedy is all situations but I'd extend that to all genres as situations and reactions are what make a story move. Plot-driven stories usually involve actions by the antag while character-driven stories usually involve actions by the protag so looking at Die Hard, the bad guy always does something to sweep McClane into action, but in Shawshank Andy's actions are what caused the antags (especially the "sisters") to act.

I'm not really a firm believer in every "rule" but some are just a part of the cinematic experience and should be adhered to.

Well, my fantasy comedy awaits so I think we'll call it here and hope it's worth something to someone as I've obtained a wealth of useful info from folks here. I always say that screenwriters are the most helpful professionals followed closely by software developers.

So see ya in the movies and don't forget:

Keep Writing as Writing is the Revealing of the Soul

Friday, August 24, 2007

Logistics, Location and Logic

Hello again,

We're on track with our current specs so i thought I'd rant a little about the titled references.

What does it mean? It's probably the most important things for new writers to consider when starting new specs. I mean, for your first spec you should limit locations, which eases logistical problems and thereby is logical.

I have read specs at various places where the stories take place in exotic locations, like mountaintops and islands off the coast of Japan. Unrealistic unless you are a prodigy.

I mean it's one thing to submit to contests where they are not considering production but whatever the hell they look at. I have heard stories of people who won several contests and can't get their calls returned or even arrested.

The first thing is BUDGET, BUDGET and finally BUDGET. Movies like Evan Almighty and Stardust faced the budget wall in that they have made money but have yet to recoup the total costs. Sure it's great to have explosions and cross-country car chases but someone has to pay for all of that stuff so LEAVE IT OUT. Go for the small movie. Show you can write characters and dialog rather than sweeping descriptions that may never happen because there is no place with a waterfall next to town.

Of course, you can say what do you know? That wold be a good question as I know very little - wait I mean I haven't sold anything yet - but then I don't sell movies, I make them. I'm probably the guy who would turn down lots of money for the ability to do MY movie, not some producer's or other writer's movie. There are a few that I consider "sellable" but they're all comedies, horror and action. Thrillers and dramas are what I want to be known for and would not accept ANY AMOUNT OF MONEY for them unless I have a deal like the Writing Partners with Fox.

If all goes well with a playwright I came across, I could end up with a small credit in the next few months. That would be great as I want to start small and work my way up. Then if my first movie flops, I didn't lose someone millions of dollars. But then I hope it just makes a few bucks to cover costs.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Character Juxtaposition

Howdy again,
We're back with a new post. This time we're talking about character juxtaposition. What's that you say? Simple it's a method for getting the most out of your antagonists. When I create a character\story the first thing I do is map out the protag's outward personality. Inward personality traits very rarely show up around others.

For example I have a character that doesn't appreciate when guys only hit on her so I gave her an antag that can't and won't take no for an answer.

Or if you have a protag that doesn't like children surround him by children.

The protag cant swim, the antag kidnaps him to a boat in the middle of the Pacific.

And so on.

It's the best way I've found to create conflict.

The next thing I usually do is intro a functional or support character who does take no for an answer and then flip flop interactions between the two.

This also adds conflict as the functional character will be in opposition to whatever the antag does.

This also works with the other supporting characters. Everyone needs their own personality so one support maybe more shy or less aggressive; more experienced or less worldly; more open or less social.

A lot of teachers recommend letting the character determine the story and I wholeheartedly agree. Some people may call it character-driven but I call it "character-centrism." When the story or plot points take precedence, characters are more likely to be dry, just reacting to the plot and not driving the story with their personality.

I'm of the opinion that plot-driven stories end up "boy gets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back" because of the "non-use" of personality.

As an example I have a spec where a guy follows the protag to college and instead of them having some horrible falling otu I chose to have her goal be "inconsistent" with his and he finds that he assumed too much and has to change his plan. Then I pulled a fast one and put him together with the "more open" support.

Another thing I noticed with plot-driven stories is that people tend to wreck their apartments out of anger from "being an asshole" to the love interest. It happens all to much which is why you have a dearth of action stories where no characters are developed to balance out the crappy plot-driven dramas and thrillers.

More writers should be willing to sacrifice box office to write something substantive. With practice it becomes possible to include those "character moments." Myself, I feel that it is better to have ten people see something different. That means that those ten people may converse and try to see what the other sees. After all, repeat viewers are what you want.

But that also means researching your protag to line them up with the demographic they represent. If you get the demographic with the character people outside the demo will be interested enough to see what the fuss is about. The key is no fear. Let your characters live and breathe, but don't make the mistake of letting them "decide" what they say or do.

Rather let them get themselves into the positions that CAUSE plot points and twists.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

The Art of the Scene Transition

Howdy writers,
It's a twofer today. I watched an amazing movie last night that justifies my psychosis involving the aforementioned. The movie was Hoffa, with Jack Nicholson Danny DeVito and Armand Assante. It got a nod for Cinematography and should have, even though it also got two Razzies for Actor and Director.

To watch closely you can see that every scene exits and enters with an image or sound that maps them together. This is the first thing I do when writing a movie so I feel good that David Mamet uses the technique.

My first spec uses it diligently and is the main thread that ties the action together. Well all of my specs use it and it seems to provide a more seamless look at the sequences. It also makes it a little more sublime as it has stumped pro readers.

By stumped I mean they flowed through the movie and missed a few things that were placed in. Truthfully, after I rewrote with their notes and sent it back, it still hid things just under the surface with dialog and images. That was what it was supposed to do as it has a total of four, count em, four antagonists intro'd at various points throughout Act II.

But every sequence flowed from the following one with things like a radio playing, a video camera, a pair of sneakers, people drinking champagne, and more than anything characters looking into mirrors.

My favorite transition comes after the main antag was defeated. The characters are cleaning up a mess and find a hat. The hat is tossed into the air towards a trash can and when it comes down it's a cap for graduation and the hero is fulfilling her inner desire.

Some others that I liked were ones that linked scenes with studying. Like one transition has the hero stacking books after a tutoring session and then the main relationship character says "Put those books away" in the next scene.

Some of my favorite ones are scenes where one person goes down steps in one scenes and back up in another. It implies the passage of time or the perhaps the emotional state of the character in the two scenes.

I also have one transition where the supporting love interest (unrequited though it maybe) has a frown in one scene and a smile in the next and they define the tone of the scenes.

From what I've read in the 100 or so specs I have gone through at this point, this is a hard thing to do and it's not something that you can do after the story. It has to be written into the story.

I even do it with non-dramatic stories. It seems to add a bit of, what's the word, ambiance to the entire movie. I think it also helps keep the audience from losing their place. Some people do a good job with the dialog and situation but it would be so much better with an image, whether in contrast or comparison.

I wish I could find more examples of it but they seem to be few and far between. There was another recent movie that had one good transition using the protag's face. It was The Covenant. Not the greatest movie but it was interesting enough to watch, mainly because of a scene where a character says "Harry Potter can kiss my ass..."

But speak of the devil, I'm working from home today and I'm kind of watching "The Lake House" with Keanu and Sandra. It tends to move between a mailbox and an apartment for each sequence. The technique seems more prevalent in dramatic cinema but I am definitely using it for action and comedy as it's different in a standard way.

Most good writers could probably find an image that can be carried across sequences (not scenes as those should be chronological) and probably even an auditory cue or two.

Give it a try.

How far to walk?

Howdy folks,
We're taking a break from our action\adventure to talk abotu something that most of us probably don't think about. As the title implies we're talking about characters walking while deliver dialog.

You'd probably wonder how that is important but if you think about it distance can make or break a scene. If your characters have two minutes of dialog but only walk for one minute the scene is long. If your characters have one minute of dialog but two minutes of walking it's now too short.

I just hit this exact problem with a script and found that clever editing and filming will allow five minutes of dialog to last for a cross-country trip. A good example is "Little Miss Sunshine" which had them going a long way but the movie was only 2 hours long including hotel stops and the like.

I've also come to the conclusion that green screen can be used for this kind of thing though it still requires the same editing to insert the background correctly.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Negatively Impacting Social Traits

Howdy bloggers,

What does that title mean you say? Well it's my definition of a character flaw. Of course as usual I'm totally going against the grain but at least in this case I have at least a well-known author who passively agrees that a flaw doesn't need to be a terrible internal conflict, it could just be a trait that would serve you well in one instance but be a hindrance in another.

The example the aforementioned author - Dr Linda Seger - wrote about was that she was from a small town and the values and mores she considered important would likely be a problem in say West Hollywood.

My favorite example of this occurs in the movie "RV," starring Robin Williams. In the movie Robin's character takes his wife and family on an RV trip to cover up his having to cancel his vacation.

Along the way they meet the Gornickies, a nice enough family but with living in a bus and home-schooling most people would stay far far away from them. Their light demeanor and wholesome folk singing would be pretty much frowned upon in the average trailer park full of tattooed temptresses and under-achieving rockers.

Another good example that I think of is both Red and Brooks who were institutionalized and all of the things that made them "big men" in prison will hardly serve them well in a world where people don't need cigarettes are books delivered or even solemn companionship.

In Brooks' case his traits wouldn't allow him to succeed, but with Red his friendship with Andy forced him to keep a promise else he would have been hanging from the ceiling also.

Another good one from a non-produced movie is a character I created named Ascha, a sheltered young virgin who dances like a stripper. Now of course in high school, where everyone knew her over-protective brother, no one wold dare say or try anything, but in college - where casual sex on alcohol and drug use are the norm - her friendly wholesome attitude will lead to trouble as people expect her dancing to reflect her lifestyle. It doesn't and she quickly finds out that there are those who can only see external personality traits and not internal.

Another really good example is North Country, in which Charlize Theron plays a woman who wants to stand up for herself in a place where it is not accepted. She goes through hell as soon as she makes note of the total abuse of women in the mine. Of course her negatively impacting social trait can be described as a "single mother." (She must be a slut)

When looking at modern movies, several come to mind, beginning with "Clueless" where Alicia Silverstone is a virgin who doesn't now a guy is gay or what a "bent one" is. In her sheltered environment she is a "queen" but throw her into a party college and her "wholesome" traits would definitely be mislabeled.

Jaw Breaker is another where the new girl wants to fit in with Rose McGowan's crew but finds she is not quite "vicious" enough.

That's not to say that being an asshole can't be exploited as a "flaw" or even an angry person who doesn't mix well with others (As Good As It Gets).

I'm actually working on a Rom Com where the hero is insecure about women exceeding his level of achievement and acts to maintain his "superior position" however he must; moral or immoral, legal or illegal.

A trait like that can be totally destroyed by a woman already his equal and only concerned about getting the job done. It ought to be interesting. Of course we throw in the boss who wants to teach him a lesson and voila, instant 90 minute drama.

At any rate I've been promising to post this for awhile but the original draft got lost when Google Pages crashed or something. So here it is in all its glory. I think it's important to remember that no one really knows what will be interesting to the masses but the re-telling of stories is starting to get rather lackluster as is evidenced by the bad numbers from "The Invasion" and several other remakes.

As writers we have to push the envelope, as something like the Matrix blew away all comers for a franchise. I'd love to create a franchise like that but I'd be happier with 20 small movies that movies critics stand up and say, "What the hell was that?"

It was interesting but I didn't get....

To do that nowadays, you have to find your pop culture voice.

Of course I don't believe in the exploitation of various groups for laughs but then I also write heroes who don't smoke so maybe that's my "flaw." I just have to be positive. Most of the time. Sure I have a movie that could end up NC-17 if I'm not careful but it is a real story about a real person whose "egotistic traits" cause her many problems as she is reluctant to take advice from anyone.

For more examples of this just find movies that are "fish out of water" tales. Most of those have a hero whose flaw is just being different from the majority of their social or cultural group.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

When do you start a new script?

We're back again. This is the first tiem we've posted twice in a day but I just had an epiphany - or maybe it's a hangover LOL. Kidding. I kid.

This post concerns when you should start a new script. Should you force yourself to work on one at a time or should you let the wind blow to the scenes you want to write today?

The hell if I know. I haven't gotten a year into this yet so I guess I can find out the answer as others do. Right now I am working on a fantasy comedy and as I was working on a logistical issue (getting everyone in a middle school), I just had the feeling i should work on another film that is serious in nature and rather uhhh, how should I say, sexual.

So should we start something new when the current one has issues or is sailing smoothly or is tempting you to end it all?

Again, I don't know but I do know that when I work on two different genres I seem fresher when I go from one to the other. Don't know why. Maybe it's because I can clear my mind of one but not feel guilty for letting writing time pass without any pages.

So I guess the ultimate answer is:

Whenever you want. Just don't write until you have an outline or sequence map.

And remember:

Keep writing as writing is the revealing of the soul.

To pitch or not to pitch

Howdy writers, wrongers, and all in between,

This post as the title says tries to ask\answer the question, do you pitch something you haven't finished?

It's a tough question, I'd say and is totally p to the discretion of the screenwriter. No one is going to hate you if you say:

"I'm working on a great idea that... It's not done yet but I love it so far. It's about..."

I see everyday on Done Deal Pro that many of the sales are for pitches. I, for example, have one spec finished, two in various states of completion and about ten that are sequenced and have all of the characters defined.

Sure it's better to have them written but being able to come up with ideas is just as important as having 10 finished scripts. besides, if you write ten scripts, the shelf life will be different than if you concentrate on selling some of them before piling up a bunch more.

This is of my course my humble opinion and should in no way encourage anyone to approach a pitch fest or the like with unfinished work, but you never know if someone maybe interested if you don't pitch it.

A good example is a prodco that I queried for one script. They were willng to read it so I asked about ones that weren't done.

The answer was:
"Send the loglines and I'll let you know which ones may interest us."

Funny enough the ones that I thought were my strongest concepts and most complete stories were the ones that garnered interest. I should be sending them out by mid-September, around the time I should hear about the first script.

My fingers and toes are crossed on that one as it is my baby.

One reader thought that so much was going on they may have missed something. Of course that was what I was going for. I mean if a viewer mentions something they noticed but you didn't, there is more incentive to actually see the movie again to try and catch that part.

I guess having one protag for each year of college is a lot but all of the subplots revolve around the desires of the protag - as they should.

I personally am looking for an apartment in LA right now so that I can take a day off every two weeks and hawk scripts. I carry my first one in my bag at all times and soon hopefully I'll need a bigger bag.

Even contemplating this takes huge balls so I say go for it. Every chance you get. No Fear. They can only say no. True the pitch works better for an established writer but a new writer with a good sense of a good story can at least et a meeting.

For me it would be much worse to have scripts or ideas in any form that I didn't push than to have an exec say:

"Come back when it's done. It sounds intriguing. Here's my assistant's email."

or even:

"We don't look at unfinished work from unknown writers. What do you have completed OTHER than that?"

At that point your newness may pay off as you say, "though my completed body of work leaves a little to be desired, I did get through three drafts in under two months and have the others sequenced and researched. could I possibly initiate a query upon completion?"

I mean, you have to be as open and excited about your work as possible or no one else will. I hear from lots of paid writers that enthusiasm and positivity will get you farther than three scripts and a bad attitude about criticism or notes.

I actually would love the opportunity to discuss possible changes and their ramifications with an exec.

So to make a long story short, do your best Carlton Fisk impression and get out there. Execs are waiting to hear from you.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Cinematic Excellence

This is a post inspired by the MernitMan over at Living The Rom Com. he really made me miss the old days where women actually had to act and men had to be honorable.

I really need to watch more of those types of movies. I get sick of the silly dramatic conversations that consist of guys calling each other names for 10 minutes at a time.

A laugh or a tear are perhaps the most powerful images. With a furrowed brow or the raising and lowering of a head coming in a close second.

More emotion can be packed into that than C4 in a trashcan.

I also long for better scene transitions that allow for a seamless look at different parts of a story.

I just wrote something that utilizes wardrobe and hair styles to show change rather than speeches about how a character changes.

I did add some more conflict to it to appease the reviewer gods, but I think I did an excellent job with imagery and sub-plots. Most sub-plots tend to be some back story connection between the protag and antag but I think that's a cop-out. Who cares if they killed each other's dog.

What about the buddy and the love interest? Do they interact? Give them a few scenes - hey hey can talk about the protag. Most movies rely too much on "conflict" and not enough on the human condition; the differences between five friends, the similarities between people we love and the people we hate, how psychological trauma(death of a loved one) is more powerful than external forces(death threats), etc.

I found in this movie that the use of dreams work really well to abstract a person's reaction to action. My most fervent desire is to make people stop and think, "What just happened?" They'll think about it until they figure it out or ask someone to see it and tell them what they thought.

I have never produced a movie myself but have you ever found yourself knowing what the next line would be? A strange feeling that. Does it mean the movie is bad or good or perhaps that you have found your calling?

Who knows, but I love to play games with images. I'm working on a comedy where I figured a way to introduce all of the main characters in the same scene, but they don't see it. I'm really happy with it.

I know that "fluff pays" but substance lasts.

Another thing I try to do when writing is finding parallel characters and arcs. In my favorite unproduced script, I parallel three different guys and how each of them influences a different reaction by the protag. I also use a parallel between two secret societies on different sides of the protag, though it also looks at how all men, in one way or another, want to possess women.

I don't use a lot of "conflict amongst friends" as a way to add drama - what the hell are the antags for?

In South of La Brea (my baby) I actually managed 4 antags through sub-plots at different times. I guess the first thing is like they say "write what you know."

But back to Mernit's post, I know what he means about the armchair reviewers who just want to see explosions and friends arguing for half the movie and making up for the other half.

As a screenwriter, I find it difficult to critique other writers, especially those that are selling movies, but I will critique a movie after I see it. not to say how good or bad it was but whether or not it had memorable images or dialog.

One from SOLB that I love is after a long day the protag sits in the car, exhales and looks to the sky, hands on the steering wheel. To me it evokes worry and strength.

Anyway, here's to cinematic excellence in all its forms and to Antonioni and Bergman, pioneers both.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Just my luck

This is a short post that I just had to make. Recently I was working in Melville NY and though I wanted to stay (why I don't know - oh yeah it was an office full of T&A) I ended up getting a new assignment in midtown Manhattan (yes the land of beat up jeans).

The first day I came to work I was a few days from receiving my first license of Final Draft (yes I have two) and to my surprise the heavens opened and pouring through was what looked to be the HQ of my favorite company - get ready for it - Price Waterhouse Cooper.

Yes that's right I walk right by the very building where the Oscar Awards are tallied. I wonder if that's a sign? I don't know but I'm definitely writing more touching dramas now.