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“Working as a screenwriter, I always thought that ‘Film is a collaborative business’ only constituted half of the actual phrase. From a screenwriter’s point-of-view, the correct rendering should be ‘Film is a collaborative business: bend over.”–David Mamet
I had a chance to work with two of David Mamet’s favorite actors, Jack Wallace and J.J Johnston. When they talked, I could hear Mamet– his cadences, his f-bombs, the stylized speed. How many writers have a “school” based on them? Shane Black? Tarantino? Pinter?
Let’s get this out of the way: I’m a groupie, sure. I’m a Chicago playwright living in this town for 25 years–who else compares? David Mamet is not just the greatest playwright of his era, he is the greatest writer to come out of Chicago in my lifetime (yeah, that takes us back to the Kennedy era).
44 IMDB writing credits, a bunch of them adaptations of his own plays (Oleanna, Edmond, American Buffalo, Sexual Perversity In Chicago, Glengarry Glen Ross). There are his screenplays too (House Of Cards, The Untouchables, The Verdict, Wag The Dog)…classic stuff in so many of these, like this speech from Glengarry, which isn’t even found in the play version, and which I could certainly recite word-for-word from memory.
Or this snippet between Alan Arkin and Ed Harris. Listen to the speed of this, the unfinished thoughts, the overlapping dialogue, the stylization. This isn’t realistic dialogue, it’s the approximation of realistic dialogue. “What can you do? If you do not have the godamn leads…”
We could pick classic riffs from Mamet’s work all day long. Being as our focus is writing, let’s find a couple sources you might have missed. The first is a famous five year-old memo to his writing staff on the TV show The Unit. I’d recommend reading it in full, but here are a couple samples. This is a Master Class, Drama 101:
“QUESTION:WHAT IS DRAMA? DRAMA, AGAIN, IS THE QUEST OF THE HERO TO OVERCOME THOSE THINGS WHICH PREVENT HIM FROM ACHIEVING A SPECIFIC, ACUTE GOAL.
SO: WE, THE WRITERS, MUST ASK OURSELVES OF EVERY SCENE THESE THREE QUESTIONS.
1) WHO WANTS WHAT?
2) WHAT HAPPENS IF HER DON’T GET IT?
3) WHY NOW?
THE ANSWERS TO THESE QUESTIONS ARE LITMUS PAPER. APPLY THEM, AND THEIR ANSWER WILL TELL YOU IF THE SCENE IS DRAMATIC OR NOT.
IF THE SCENE IS NOT DRAMATICALLY WRITTEN, IT WILL NOT BE DRAMATICALLY ACTED.
THERE IS NO MAGIC FAIRY DUST WHICH WILL MAKE A BORING, USELESS, REDUNDANT, OR MERELY INFORMATIVE SCENE AFTER IT LEAVES YOUR TYPEWRITER. YOU THE WRITERS, ARE IN CHARGE OF MAKING SURE EVERY SCENE IS DRAMATIC.
THIS MEANS ALL THE “LITTLE” EXPOSITIONAL SCENES OF TWO PEOPLE TALKING ABOUT A THIRD. THIS BUSHWAH (AND WE ALL TEND TO WRITE IT ON THE FIRST DRAFT) IS LESS THAN USELESS, SHOULD IT FINALLY, GOD FORBID, GET FILMED.
IF THE SCENE BORES YOU WHEN YOU READ IT, REST ASSURED IT WILL BORE THE ACTORS, AND WILL, THEN, BORE THE AUDIENCE, AND WE’RE ALL GOING TO BE BACK IN THE BREADLINE.
SOMEONE HAS TO MAKE THE SCENE DRAMATIC. IT IS NOT THE ACTORS JOB (THE ACTORS JOB IS TO BE TRUTHFUL). IT IS NOT THE DIRECTORS JOB. HIS OR HER JOB IS TO FILM IT STRAIGHTFORWARDLY AND REMIND THE ACTORS TO TALK FAST. IT IS YOUR JOB.”
The caps are Mamet’s. You might be saying– yeah, so what, tell me something new. The beauty here is the simplicity. The paragraph that stays with me is Person 1 + Person 2 talking about Person 3 DOES NOT equal drama. How many of these expositional scenes have you written, Good Reader? Me? A ton.
Further down is this tidbit:
“IF YOU PRETEND THE CHARACTERS CANT SPEAK, AND WRITE A SILENT MOVIE, YOU WILL BE WRITING GREAT DRAMA.
IF YOU DEPRIVE YOURSELF OF THE CRUTCH OF NARRATION, EXPOSITION,INDEED, OF SPEECH. YOU WILL BE FORGED TO WORK IN A NEW MEDIUM – TELLING THE STORY IN PICTURES (ALSO KNOWN AS SCREENWRITING)
THIS IS A NEW SKILL. NO ONE DOES IT NATURALLY. YOU CAN TRAIN YOURSELVES TO DO IT, BUT YOU NEED TO START.
I CLOSE WITH THE ONE THOUGHT: LOOK AT THE SCENE AND ASK YOURSELF “IS IT DRAMATIC? IS IT ESSENTIAL? DOES IT ADVANCE THE PLOT?”
Don’t be fooled about this 2002 article in the New York Times, it’s as valid as ever. The genius here is Mamet’s relating music to writing, a direct correlation. Here’s a taste:
“People say the great genius of Nat Cole was his ability to accompany himself on the piano, that he understood that most delicate and intricate duet and its demand for spaciousness, for elegance. ”We hear it anyway.”
This is the genius of Bach, and the overwhelming demand of dramaturgy — this understanding, or its lack, divides those who can write from those who can really write: how much can one remove, and still have the composition be intelligible?
Chekhov removed the plot. Pinter, elaborating, removed the history, the narration; Beckett, the characterization. We hear it anyway.
It is in our nature to elaborate, estimate, predict — to run before the event. This is the meaning of consciousness; anything else is instinct. Bach allows us to run before, and his resolutions, as per Aristotle, are as inevitable (as they must be, given the strictures of Western compositional form) and surprising as his elaborate genius. We are thus delighted and instructed, as per Freud, in a nonverbal way, as to the varieties of perception, possibility, completion — we are made better. Our consciousness, listening to Bach, has been rewarded, refreshed, chastised, soothed — in Bach and Sophocles both, the burden of consciousness has momentarily been laid down.
Both legitimate modern drama (Pirandello, Ionesco) and the trash of performance art build on the revelation that omission is a form of creation — that we hear the third anyway — that the audience will supply the plot.”
We hear it anyway!
Damn right we do. Never forget that actors fill in the gaps with body language, with a look or glance, with how they enter a room, how they phrase a word that you can’t possibly describe on the page. You don’t want to kill the reader with exposition. You don’t want to kill subtext.
Give the audience some credit.
We get it.
We’ll hear it anyway.
David Mamet, what a racer!
Who is the most adapted writer of all-time? Give me your top 3 before I tell you… who would it be?
Writing this in October 2015, our #1 is, of course, The Bard…
IMDB has William Shakespeare for 1,098 adaptations! This includes 379 feature films, and 16 projects in development in 2015-16 based on his work. How now, Horatio, what you think on it?! Check out this breakdown beautifully put together by Slate Magazine of the most adapted writers…
Top 10 by the numbers are as follows:
1. William Shakespeare (1089 as of October 2015)
2. Anton Chekhov (320)
3. Charles Dickens (300)
4. Alexandre Dumas (243)
5. Edgar Allan Poe (240)
6. Robert Louis Stevenson (225)
7. Arthur Conan Doyle (220)
8. Hans Christian Andersen (217)
9. Edgar Wallace (214)
10. The Brothers Grimm (212)
How about modern writers? Who would you guess is #1? By modern, let’s confine ourselves to born in the 20th Century onward. What modern writer has the most adapted movies to their credit? Helpful hint: He’s still living…
11. Molière (208)
12. O. Henry (201)
13. Oscar Wilde (181)
14. Fyodor Dostoevsky (177)
15. Leo Tolstoy (154)
16. Victor Hugo (150)
17. Jules Verne (143)
t18. Stephen King (127)
t18. Georges Simenon (127)
20. Agatha Christie (126)
Hell yeah, Stephen King!
Not sure when the Slate list was put together but King, tied for 18th here, has actually moved up the hit parade. IMDB has him at this writing at 199 credits. This puts him ahead of Leo Tolstoy and Victor Hugo. And, while we’re at it, he’s got more movie credits than Earnest Hemingway (73) and F. Scott Fitzgerald (63) combined!
It might be instructive, and telling of our times, that Stan Lee at 111 credits and Bob Kane, creator of Batman at 121 credits, have Sophocles (65) and Euripides (55) beat by a mile.
Ask a freshman class at Columbia College film school who Sophocles is and you’ll get 16 blank faces. Ask about the latest Batman project and they’ll be able to tell you about every aspect of the pre-production of Batman vs. Superman: Dawn Of Justice. I have to stop myself from asking how many have heard of Katherine Hepburn. Will even half of them raise their hands?
I’m planning on doing a series about writers and their history in the movies. Nelson Algren, one of the best novelists ever out of Chicago, had a notorious history with film adaptations of his work. It was recently on display in the documentary Algren, made by Michael Caplan, a fellow Columbia College teacher. Nelson’s infamous dealings with Otto Preminger on The Man With The Golden Arm are the stuff of legend. As was his lousy poker playing, which, rumor had it, had him practically give away the rights to his second adaptation, Walk On The Wild Side.
I leave you today with the credit sequence from that movie, created by Saul Bass, to the music of Elmer Bernstein. It is a work of genius…
…though the folks at PETA might disagree.
OK, one last time to the well with the Script Magazine archives. Hopefully the previous samplings helped you. I’ve given this info before, but here is the full list of contributor blogs, a wealth of knowledge to be found. My own blog for them is here.
Shoot me, but I never heard of a “pitch deck” before reading this fine article by Martin Shapiro. Yeah yeah I know, you can’t even get “into the room” to pitch, so why should you worry? Because, Good Reader, there WILL come a day when you need to pitch. So, you’ll need this skill at some point. I actually like the notion of putting together a presentation like this as a primer to writing the thing. The better you see it, the better you write and pitch it. This article should help. Here’s a piece:
“How do startup Internet companies in Silicon Valley convince venture capitalists (VCs) to give them millions in seed capital?
It usually starts with a pitch deck, which is basically a PowerPoint presentation. Pitch decks are essential fundraising tools for startup companies today, whether a founder is after $500,000 or $20 million. Most of the big-name web apps like Mint and Foursquare started out small with a bright, young founder who put together a PowerPoint slideshow to explain their product and business model, and then showed it to VCs and angel investors.
Since each movie project you create is essentially a new product that requires substantial financing to develop and manufacture, I say why not utilize the same powerful sales tool that entrepreneurs in other industries use and adapt it to raising money for your movie or television production.”
Fuck no, I’m not giving it away! Stop tap dancing, Mr. Producer… stop giving me 10 reasons why it’s better if you run with my script than not. Explain why it is you’re not paying me for the ten months of work I put into writing it.
One of the few memories that remain from my days at William Morris is the image of my agent Bill Contardi negotiating an option agreement with a prospective producer. The producer came at us with a lowball figure and Bill told him, “it speaks to your level of commitment to the project.” If you feel passionate about my script, fucking show me. Money talks. What’s it say about my value to you when you ask me to sign a one-dollar option?
Don’t believe me? Try this ass-kicking article from Bill Boyles on the subject. Here’s a sample:
“Often the producer will attempt to get himself entwined into the very fabric of the screenplay. They make suggestions of changes in the script. They offer a line or two of dialogue, whatever. Now, even after the option has expired, they can have an effect on your script’s chain of title. They can attempt to lay partial claim to the script, and even if their claim is relatively weak, no production company wants to enter into a option/purchase on a script that does not maintain a clean chain of title.
You must realize that there is a perishable value to your screenplay that is partially protected by a fair option fee. The older the script gets, and the more submissions it has, the less salable it becomes.
The producer is not just optioning your screenplay, they are consuming years of its life expectancy and that alone is worth compensation.”
While we’re talking about producers, here’s a basic A to Z list of producer titles and responsibilities. If you missed film school, this is a must-read from Christopher Schiller. Here’s a sample:
“As writers, you will eventually meet and need to deal with Producers. (You may even become one yourself.) Just who are these people, what are their responsibilities, how much power do they really wield, and how should you treat them and be treated by them? The answer to those questions, as with nearly everything else dealt with in these columns, is “It depends…”
Producers can come in many different shapes and sizes, many levels of power and notoriety. Telling the big wigs from the wanna-bes and the pretenders from the powerful takes practice, a little knowledge and observation. Titles and how they are defined and interpreted vary substantially. A particular producer’s responsibilities and prestige are not always apparent on first blush. Getting and maintaining a clear understanding of just who is positioned where in the production hierarchy will help settle the confusion that often accompanies a writer’s dealings with producers of all ilk.
In most instances a title used in this industry clearly identifies the job of the person holding it. The Camera Operator operates the camera. Make-up people are in charge of make-up. The prop master controls the props. But there are some titles that defy easy application. That’s a case with the title producer and all its variations. In one sense a producer produces. But what does producing really mean? There are nearly as many applicable definitions as there are people claiming the title.
The word “producer” or some variant appears in a huge diversity of forms in the industry, most of which have some association with a production job that could be at least loosely tied to what we could call “producing.” They range from the straight forward to hopelessly vague and touch on every base in-between. A wholly inadequate list starts with just plain Producers, Executive Producers, Assistant Producers, Associate Producers, Co-Producers, Line Producers, Unit Producers, Production Coordinators, Assistant to the Producers, and on and on.”
I thought this flick would be Marvel Universe fluff. What a revelation, I liked a movie that grossed close to 800 million. Very interested to hear the genesis of how this happened and–ask and ye shall receive–here’s a Script Magazine interview with the writer Nicole Perlman. What would that be like, to have a written a flick that might make Broadway and a theme park ride? Find out here.
A sample: “Let’s talk about the now defunct Marvel Studios writers program. How was the program set up and what was your experience there like?
Perlman: Well, within the writers program at Marvel they had half a dozen properties that were by no means guaranteed that they were going to make it into a movie, but they were considering them. So they brought in five writers to be on campus. We each had an office and we were allowed to choose what projects we wanted, and even though they knew that science was my bent, I think there was a little bit of surprise when I chose Guardians of the Galaxy, which was such an unheard of property, and also because there were other titles on that sheet that were more family-friendly. So I was like no, I’m going for the one with Rocket Raccoon. That was how that came to be.
Why did the program shut down?
Perlman: I think the reason behind that is because they’re already making two movies a year right now and they’ll be making three eventually. They just don’t have a lot of room for some of these lesser-known properties. I think they’ll definitely start exploring those as time goes by, but having five scripts a year, projects that they’re really not going to have time to develop, I think they realized that they had too much to work with.
Let’s jump into Guardians of the Galaxy. You chose this property to work on. It was something that was completely unfamiliar to you. Did you have any knowledge of any of the Marvel Comics characters before going into this?
Perlman: I wasn’t really familiar with the Marvel Cinematic Universe or any of the comic books. So I was coming to it very fresh, which, in a way, I think I underestimated when I first started working there. I underestimated how much you really need to start developing in order to understand the history of all these characters. The first eight weeks I was there, all I was doing was reading comic books and binders and binders of color printouts that I was taking home and leafing through and reading. I had a lot of catching up to do because the stories have a huge history and all these characters have been around for decades. So it was important to get to know where they were coming from. Even though I did end up rebooting Peter Quill’s backstory a fair amount, it was good to know the original origin story for him.
This from the guy who wrote Confessions of an Eclair-Eater…
From the guy who hasn’t wedged into a size 38 in 15 years…
Who walked out on Benjamin Button for Paul Blart, Mall Cop…
I like fat guys…they make me laugh. Fat guy humor has been around forever, unlike the YouTube superstars humor of watching people react to video games. Fatty Arbuckle over Pew-Die-Pie. Oh hell yeah….
This blog has a tendency to over-preach life lessons. Hey, if you wanna put a fat guy in your flick, I’ll probably buy a ticket. Doesn’t seem like fat guys stay that way for long, even John Goodman is losing weight these days.
So let’s celebrate Fat Cinema, in all its wiggly glory. I’ll keep it vaguely chronological…
OK, film school is in session…
Thanks to Simply Scripts for assembling The Writer’s Guild Top 101 Screenplays of all time. When you think about free screenplay resources, you think Drew’s Script-O-Rama, you think IMSDB. But Simply Scripts offers something in one click I don’t see on either of these. Go to Simply Scripts, hit the Oscar Scripts tab, and you’ll find this…
2014 Academy Award Nominated Films – The 87th Oscars
2013 Academy Award Nominated Films – The 86th Oscars
2012 Academy Award Nominated Films – The 85th Oscars
2011 Academy Award Nominated Films – The 84th Oscars
2010 Academy Award Nominated Films – The 83rd Oscars
2009 Academy Award Nominated Films – The 82st Oscars
2008 Academy Award Nominated Films – The 81st Oscars
2007 Academy Award Nominated Films – The 80th Oscars
2006 Academy Award Nominated Films – The 79th Oscars
2005 Academy Award Nominated Films – The 78th Oscars
2004 Academy Award Nominated Films – The 77th Oscars
2003 Academy Award Nominated Films – The 76th Oscars
2002 Academy Award Nominated Films – The 75th Oscars
2001 Academy Award Nominated Films – The 74th Oscars
2000 Academy Award Nominated Films – The 73rd Oscars
Yes, that’s every– or almost every– Oscar nominated screenplay, for free, at the click of a button… damn!
Back to the WGA’s Top 101 Screenplay list, here’s what we’ll do… I’ll pick my favorite scene from each movie, find the scene in the script, then put up the YouTube clip below it. Run the scene as you read the script, compare and contrast, check out the action lines, how the lines are laid out on the page, the dialogue changes (if any). It’s the best kind of school for screenwriters and a lot cheaper than paying the near $50,000 tuiton that USC charges these days.
INT. MARY IN SHOWER
Over the bar on which hangs the shower curtain, we can see
the bathroom door, not entirely closed. For a moment we watch
Mary as she washes and soaps herself.
There is still a small worry in her eyes, but generally she
looks somewhat relieved.
Now we see the bathroom door being pushed slowly open.
The noise of the shower drowns out any sound. The door is
then slowly and carefully closed.
And we see the shadow of a woman fall across the shower
curtain. Mary's back is turned to the curtain. The white
brightness of the bathroom is almost blinding.
Suddenly we see the hand reach up, grasp the shower curtain,
rip it aside.
MARY - ECU
As she turns in response to the feel and SOUND of the shower
curtain being torn aside. A look of pure horror erupts in
her face. A low terrible groan begins to rise up out of her
throat. A hand comes into the shot. The hand holds an enormous
bread knife. The flint of the blade shatters the screen to
an almost total, silver blankness.
An impression of a knife slashing, as if tearing at the very
screen, ripping the film. Over it the brief gulps of
screaming. And then silence. And then the dreadful thump as
Mary's body falls in the tub.
The blank whiteness, the blur of the shower water, the hand
pulling the shower curtain back. We catch one flicker of a
glimpse of the murderer. A woman, her face contorted with
madness, her head wild with hair, as if she were wearing a
fright-wig. And then we see only the curtain, closed across
the tub, and hear the rush of the shower water. Above the
shower-bar we see the bathroom door open again and after a
moment we HEAR the SOUND of the front door slamming.
You talked about Crisis as the ultimate
decision a character makes, but what if a
writer is attempting to create a story
where nothing much happens, where people
don't change, they don't have any
epiphanies. They struggle and are
frustrated and nothing is resolved. More
a reflection of the real world --
The real world? The real fucking world?
First of all, if you write a screenplay
without conflict or crisis, you'll bore
your audience to tears. Secondly:
Nothing happens in the real world? Are
you out of your fucking mind? People are
murdered every day! There's genocide and
war and corruption! Every fucking day
somewhere in the world somebody
sacrifices his life to save someone else!
Every fucking day someone somewhere makes
a conscious decision to destroy someone
else! People find love! People lose it,
for Christ's sake! A child watches her
mother beaten to death on the steps of a
church! Someone goes hungry! Somebody
else betrays his best friend for a woman!
If you can't find that stuff in life,
then you, my friend, don't know much
about life! And why the fuck are you
taking up my precious two hours with your
movie? I don't have any use for it! I
don't have any bloody use for it!
These are originals?
Yes, sir. He doesn't make copies.
INT. OLD SALIERI'S HOSPITAL ROOM - NIGHT - 1823
The old man faces the Priest.
Astounding! It was actually beyond
belief. These were first and only
drafts of music yet they showed no
corrections of any kind. Not one.
Do you realize what that meant?
Vogler stares at him.
He'd simply put down music already
finished in his head. Page after
page of it, as if he was just taking
dictation. And music finished as no
music is ever finished.
INT. SALIERI'S SALON - LATE AFTERNOON - 1780'S
CU, The manuscript in Mozart's handwriting. The music begins
to sound under the following:
OLD SALIERI (V.O.)
Displace one note and there would be
diminishment. Displace one phrase,
and the structure would fall. It was
clear to me. That sound I had heard
in the Archbishop's palace had been
no accident. Here again was the very
voice of God! I was staring through
the cage of those meticulous ink-
strokes at an absolute, inimitable
The music swells. What we now hear is an amazing collage of
great passages from Mozart's music, ravishing to Salieri and
to us. The Court Composer, oblivious to Constanze, who sits
happily chewing chestnuts, her mouth covered in sugar, walks
around and around his salon, reading the pages and dropping
them on the floor when he is done with them. We see his
agonized and wondering face: he shudders as if in a rough
and tumbling sea; he experiences the point where beauty and
great pain coalesce. More pages fall than he can read,
scattering across the floor in a white cascade, as he circles
Finally, we hear the tremendous Qui Tollis from the Mass in
C Minor. It seems to break over him like a wave and, unable
to bear any more of it, he slams the portfolio shut.
Instantly, the music breaks off, reverberating in his head.
He stands shaking, staring wildly. Constanze gets up,
Is it no good?
It is miraculous.
You carry a gun?
SPORT looks into TRAVIS' eyes, saying nothing: he realizes
the seriousness of the situation.
TRAVIS pulls his .38 Special and holds it on SPORT, pushing
him even further back against the wall.
Hey, mister, I don't know what's
going on here. This don't make any
Show it to me.
SPORT reluctantly pulls a .32 caliber pistol (a "purse gun")
from his pocket and holds it limply.
TRAVIS sticks his .38 into SPORT's gut and discharges it.
There is a muffled blast, followed by a muted scream of pain.
Now suck on that.
Agony and shock cross SPORT'S face as he slumps to the floor.
TRAVIS turns and walks away before SPORT even hits.
As TRAVIS walks away, SPORT can be seen struggling in the b.g.
TRAVIS, he gun slipped into his jacket, walks quickly up the
AROUND THE CORNER, TRAVIS walks into the darkened stairway
leading to IRIS' apartment.
As he walks up the stairs, TRAVIS pulls the .44 Magnum from
behind his back and transfers the .38 Special to his left
hand. He walks up the steps, a pistol dangling from each
AT THE TOP OF THE STAIRS, TRAVIS spots THE OLD MAN sitting
at the far end of the dark corridor. THE OLD MAN starts to
get up when TRAVIS discharges the mighty .44 at him. BLAAM!
The hallway reverberates with shock waves and gun powder.
THE OLD MAN staggers at the end of the corridor: his right
hand has been blown off at the forearm.
There is the sharp SOUND of a GUNSHOT behind TRAVIS: his
face grimaces in pain. A bullet has ripped through the left
side of his neck. Blood flows over his left shoulder.
TRAVIS' .44 flies into the air.
TRAVIS looks down the stairway: there SPORT lies choking in
a puddle of his own blood. He has struggled long enough to
fire one shot.
Falling, TRAVIS drills another .38 slug into SPORT's back
but SPORT is already dead.
TRAVIS slumps to his knees. Down the corridor THE OLD MAN
with a bloody stump is struggling toward him. TRAVIS turns
his .38 toward THE OLD MAN.
The door to No. 2 opens: IRIS' scream is heard in the b.g.
The bulky frame of the PRIVATE COP fills the doorway. His
blue shirt is open, in his hand hangs a .38 service revolver.
The PRIVATE COP raises his gun and shoots TRAVIS. TRAVIS,
blood gushing from his right shoulder, sinks to the floor.
His .38 clangs down the stairs.
THE OLD MAN grows closer. TRAVIS smashes his right arm
against the wall, miraculously, the small Colt .25 glides
down his forearm into his palm.
TRAVIS fills the PRIVATE COP's face full of bullet holes.
The PRIVATE COP, SCREAMING, crashes back into the room.