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So you’ve got an idea for a screenplay. You’re ready to write it but you’re not sure how to get started. It’s intimidating so you buy a couple screenwriting books, look in on a few of the 10,001 screenwriting websites and blogs, read the message boards on Black List or Done Deal Pro diligently, take a class, attend a seminar, maybe try a tutorial or a webinar, and of course pay consultants to tell you the best way to go about it. It won’t be easy and you’ve never done it and your head is spinning from all the advice already…
Folks, take a breath. And let’s step off…far from the maddening crowd.
If you’re at Idea Stage, here’s what you need to do: Play to your strength. As you sit here today you’ve got the idea for what the story might be. You’ve also got, most likely, some or all of the characters populating this world in your mind. Sit down now and write Character Biographies. This will be a page or two description of who each character will be. This will help develop the arcs of the characters–their journeys from Point A to Point Z–which will define the world you’re going to write. So let’s get organized and get going on this…
I want throw out of the concept of breaking down characters looking OUTSIDE-IN. What SEEMS to be reality vs. what IS reality.
People are not as they appear to be. There is a veneer, a front, a lie, a witches brew of ingrediants to any character. Complexity, by definition, means you’re pouring some badness into your good guys, and some goodness into your serial killers. Why is Hannibal Lecter so fascinating? Because the dude is suave, just before he munches on your face. Tony Montana might be a psycho drug-dealing killer, but when it comes time to blow up some kids during an assassination, he draws a line, which eventually gets him killed.
Draw your characters from the outside-in. Start with the biggest character, your protagonist. How does he/she appear to the world? Write that down. What does their life look like 24/7? Where are they during the course of the movie? Down on paper go all the locations. Who are the important people in their lives and how do we see them? Write it down. Now think about who they are on a deeper level…what does he/she love? What are they hiding? What are their wants and needs? Who or what is stopping them from attaining those needs? This leads to the antagonist, if there is one.
Remember that conflict can come from many sources. Sure, there’s man vs. man, but there’s also man vs. himself, man vs. nature, man vs. technology, etc. This isn’t brain surgery–I’ll give you three guesses on who the antagonist is in Twister.
Work the Antagonist now. Write down how they appear to the outside world, physically, economically, sociologically. What defines them? What is their world 24/7, the locations we’ll find them in? Now to the insides–what do they want that puts them in direct conflict with the protagonist?
Now move into the Secondary Characters. I like to think of subplot characters are tributary rivers moving into, and out of, the Mississippi river. Take a guess who the Mississippi is? Correct, the protagonist. All subplot characters exist to define and forward the journey of the Hero, your protagonist. Secondary characters might be on screen for less time but it doesn’t mean their journeys are ill defined. They, too, should have a beginning, middle, and end. They too should be broken down by how they appear to the world, and who they actually are, deep down.
Character biographies should absolutely have backstory information. The fact that something happened before the movie doesn’t mean it’s not important to understanding the character. Think about the Russell Crowe character in L.A. Confidential. The beating death of his mother by his father was utterly formative and instrumental to his character. It’s central to Crowe’s motivations, and it happened decades before the movie started. Feel free to take the character biography back as far you think you need.
Now that you’ve sketched out the characters with basic biographies, look at the character arcs. The A to Z journey of each character. Does the protagonist fundamentally change during the course of the movie? Inevitable change is crucial to the Hero’s Journey. Many a great movie doesn’t have resolution, but very few have POV characters whose worldview doesn’t change during the course of the movie.90+% of all movies have this fundamental protagonist change. Without it, what’s the point of the journey? Even worse, why am I dragging my ass out to a movie theater and paying $12 + parking to see your movie?
There are no absolutes in screenwriting. Sure, there are movies where characters don’t change. Tony Montana in Scarface, phenomenal character, starts out as a take-no-shit killing machine and ends that way, but look at what happens to his world. From Cuban political prison and dishwasher to international drug lord. That is a journey! Harrison Ford’s character in The Fugitive is a loving husband whose wife is murdered. He ends up as the same essentially good guy, a loving husband, internally little changed. But look at his journey in proving that…that’s the movie! Internally little changed, but his world, and ours, rocked.
So, write the character bios, inside-out approach. Then write the character arcs for the protagonist and antagonist, and the major secondary characters. A to Z journeys for each. Make sure that every subplot character is necessary. How do you know that? Secondary characters must advance story or protagonist’s journey. If they’re not pushing story or character, they’re gone.
So you’ve got your Principle and Secondary characters mapped out, with full A to Z journeys including all the locations of the movie. What now?
Make a sandwich. For each character visualize the scenes we’ll see them in during the course of the movie. Write them down. I do this individually, seeing each character clearly, writing down their movie’s journey, every scene. I work on the protagonist’s arc first, then move down to the secondary characters. Once you have all the character scenes, it’s a matter of folding the movie together, like a sandwich–figuring out what goes where.
Outlining the screenplay is where industries upon industries, books upon books, have been written. Organizing the movie in your mind. It’s why everyone and their Aunt Ethel has read SAVE THE CAT, or Syd Field or Robert McKee. This is the landscape of the guru, but honestly, it needn’t be complicated. You just have to get your arms around the thing.
Character bios are a great place to start.
Here at Script Gods I, your Humble Narrative, write every post with the firm understand that I don’t have all the answers. Want to invite disaster? Stand in front of a freshman class at Columbia College and pretend to have knowledge of something you don’t. Only takes one hand rising, and a voice behind it—“Ah, Mr. Peditto, that’s not actually true.”—credibility and class respect gone, blink of an eye. So, I never pretend to have all the answers. If I did, I’d be gone, lost on a southern Costa Rican beach right now.
All that is prologue to tell you that I’d like to give you at least a basic resource guide today, for the folks who are truly just getting started in screenwriting. You can Google most of these yourself, but I thought a few of my favorite resources compiled into one list might help.
So, starting at the top… you want to write a screenplay, yes? You’ll need software.
Let’s start with Final Draft.
Final Draft 9, by any analysis, is the industry standard. A great majority of professional writers use this program. There’s also an Ipad ap. Cost: $250. I won’t shill for Final Draft. I still use Final Draft 6 which allows me to read other FD 6 docs but not Final Draft 8 docs. Pure Microsoft strategy, you want to read FD 9, pay for the upgrade, to which I say f*&^ y)(! Fortunately everyone sends PDF’s now (when’s the last time you penetrated a hard copy with two “brads” and shipped it out? Despite the gouging, if you can afford it, use Final Draft.
Most Columbia College kids can’t afford it. The broke-ass industry standard is Celtx. It resembles Final Draft and is eminently functional. Aside from a few glitches (“orphans”—Character name with no dialogue) appear at the bottom of some pages, something Final Draft software doesn’t allow. Minor inconveniences for the $0 buck price.
Another good pay option software is from Movie Magic.
I’ve recently heard some good things about this program from Adobe.
There are many other options, of course, which can be found here. And, of course, there’s a Wiki for screenwriter software.
I won’t pretend to have read the thousands of screenwriting books out there. Can I tell you…you do need to, either. Don’t mortgage the house on screenwriting books, it’s simply not necessary (this coming from a guy with a book out there and another–Surviving Outside Hollywood–in the works). Let me give you four books and two websites to put on your list. Start with the websites:
Simply Scripts and Drew’s Script-O-Rama both have their charms. I started on Drew’s. It’s fascinating to read five different versions of Alien 3, everything from a First Draft to a William Gibson draft to one by David Twohy. You can see the history and development of each project in living, breathing terms. Ever run A movie while scrolling through the screenplay? I know, totally geeky thing, but it’s an education. From First Draft to Shooting scripts, most of your favorite movies are on Drew’s.
Simply Scripts has a huge archive too. Tons of movies scripts plus a bunch of unproduced scripts. What’s astounding, though, is the section on OSCAR SCRIPTS. Click that link and you’ll find every Academy Award screenplay for the last decade. Also, a link for Oscar movies going back to—shit you not—1933’s It Happened One Night. Astounding, and free.
Want to get better as a screenwriter? Film school is optional. Reading screenplays is not. That’s mandatory dues in your journey to learn the craft of a writer. Read screenplays, ok?
Of the four books I’d recommend, the Hollywood Creative Directory is the one you want when the script is done and you’re sending out to L.A. production companies. Sure, you can hit up IMDBpro for a free trial account for some of this info, but I’d say this is a worthwhile investment if you’re going the Old School route. Research who is selling movies in your genre, get the contact list and target them with a cold query (you’ll probably want to send a cold query to the bottom person on the list, not the CEO). They also have a Screenwriting-centric book, as well as others sub-categorized.
Format guides are all over the internet, maybe you can glean enough from these for free. If not, I like the compilation found at The Screenwriter’s Bible, a nice compendium by Dave Trottier.
Blake Snyder passed away in 2009. He left behind him one of the most influential books in the business, Save The Cat. His mission has seen been picked up by others and is quite the growth industry, as you can see here.
Probably the greatest book on structure I’ve ever read, The 21st Century Screenplay makes Syd Field’s Screenplay look like a comic book. If you’re considering non-linear structure for your next movie, this book is unparalleled.
A list of influential screenwriting books can be found here. Who’s giving me odds? Two years or less, the book I’m scratching out now will be on this list.
Plenty of Writer’s Groups online, but not plenty of worthwhile ones. Never, ever put up non-copyright pages on a writer’s forum. If it’s any good, it’s as good as gone. These forums are anonymous, why would you trust people you don’t know with your words?
That said, for straight information, some of these links and message boards are excellent. Let’s start with the website you want to go to for all things screenwriting contest: http://www.moviebytes.com/index.cfm
Moviebytes.com has an excellent breakdown of the most influential screenwriting contests, the deadlines for those contests, and general message boards. And yeah, Fred Mensch who runs the site, had the smarts to put up a column by your oh so humble narrator.
The best Links board on the internet is at Done Deal Pro. 200+ free sources. You want an alternate Film School education? Try to make your way through the learning on even half these sites.
Kevin Spacey is pretty fucking cool. He started Trigger Street long ago. God knows if he still has any involvement. This site has an excellent message board discussing industry trends, in addition to a very active labs area where you review people’s scripts, then upload yours for review. If your rating is high enough it will get posted to the site for “industry insiders” to check out. Other sites like Inktip and Blacklist promise similar services but I’m not shilling for them. Kevin Spacy, House Of Cards, rulz!
COPYRIGHT & REGISTRATION
Not being a lawyer I’m not going to pretend to tell you the difference between copyrighting your script and registering your script with the Writer’s Guild. A handy-dandy chart on the major differences can be found here:
I know plenty of writers who do both, copyright and register it. I know of no one who ever tried the famous Poor Man’s Copyright, where you mail a hardcopy of the script to yourself and the Postal mark on the package becomes your copyright. To save $35 bucks? Seriously, don’t even think about it. You just spent 3-6-9 months on this script, take the time to do it right. I’d copyright first. Then, if you want the extra protection, register it as well. The websites are here, and here.
Hope this helped.
It’s lazy summer time again for your humble narrator Peditto. I am “away from the office” in every conceivable way, but Good Reader, in the meanwhile, here are some tips from a guy who can flat out right. Tony Gilroy was recently interviewed by the BBC here, and came up with some incredibly common sense writing strategies. Coming from the guy who the the Bourne movies and Michael Clayton, I would probably break out my #2 pencil and take some notes. Observe…
I don’t think there is anything you can learn from courses or books. You have been watching movies since you were born. You have filled your life with narrative… and food. It’s already way down deep inside you.
Going to the movies, having something to say, having an imagination and the ambition to do it is really all that is required. You can learn how to do anything.
This is imaginative work – screenwriters make things up. Everything I have in my life is a result of making things up. There is one thing that you have to know that is a deal-breaker – human behavior.
The quality of your writing will be directly related to your understanding of human behavior. You need to become a journalist for the movie that is in your head. You need to report on it; every scene has to be real.
Big ideas don’t work. Start with a very small idea that you can build on.
With Bourne I never read any of the books; we started again. The very smallest thing with [Jason] Bourne was, “If I don’t know who I am and I don’t know where I’m from, perhaps I can identify who I am by what I know how to do.” We built a whole new world around that small idea.
You just start small, you build out and you move one step after the next and that’s how you write a Hollywood movie.
My father was a screenwriter but it’s not some pixie dust creative family thing. I learned from watching how hard he worked and learned about the tempo of a writer’s life – you have to live by your wits.
If you are living with someone who lives by their wits, it seems normal to you, it doesn’t scare you as much and you understand the rhythms of it.
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Casting is WAY important for your movie.
Casting the right actor could be 50-60% of eventual actor performance. Some say it counts 70-80%. Others venture it’s 90% of the battle.
Duh and duh.
The percentage doesn’t matter. Bottom line, the decisions made in casting will go a long way to deciding what the very success of your movie. Now here’s another duh:
The writer doesn’t make the final call. Not unless the writer happens to be the director and/or producer. Which is pretty much NEVER on a Studio movie, and RARELY on a 10mil+ budgeted Indie.
The casting priority pyramid parallels the final cut pyramid for Hollywood movies. Directors make final casting decisions. You, the writer, almost certainly won’t be in the loop on final casting decisions. Why would you be? You’ll be too busy running with your sandaled clay feet, making bricks for the same pyramid—without straw, Judah!—just where you belong.
Micro-budget, of course, changes the dynamic. Chances are good that if you’re a micro-budget writer you’re also either the director and/or producer. That means you’re not only in the room, but you might actually be the one deciding who gets hired. Yay!
With Jane Doe, we had a quarter million dollars, giving us Indie-level money that brought us a big-time New York casting agent, Marcia Shulman (who cast one of my fav movies of all time, A Christmas Story). She came in when my producer brother got the bright idea to leverage a powerful casting agent by promising a producer role (a strategy he used to get Paul Dano to act in his micro-budget film, Light And The Sufferer). We had 250K, a strong script, then Marcia came in giving us access to large agencies like Gersch, Paradigm, APA, which gave us access to actors like Calista Flockhart, Edie Falco, Adrienne Shelly, Joey Ragno, Elina Lowensohn, Vinny Pastore, and many more. Life is great when there’s Indie money. But what happens when you’ve got $35,000 total?
Choices happen. Up front, concerning casting, you’ll start with this: Name actor or not? You can write a two-day cameo that can be played by, most likely, a B-name actor who you will pay their rate. In doing so, they will loan their name to your movie. Paying them their rate for one or two days won’t bankrupt you and, possibly, they will take less $$ for a back-end participation. Point being, you will pay upfront $$ for a name that should help on the back end with film festivals and distributors. Doesn’t take a genius to know that name actors = sales. Your movie with no-name actors? Much dicier.
A not so well-known fact is that agents must inform their clients of any offer, which in turn increases your odds that the actor might actually read the script, which in turn increases your odds (from zero) that they might—yes, I know how much of a long shot it is—that they might be intrigued to take on your micro-budget for the pittance your offering up front if you juice-up back end profit participation. It’s worth a shot!
The other option: To not go the name actor route. While it’s true the vast majority of flicks that accepted into the Toronto Film Fest have name actors, plenty of micro-budget make Sundance every year that don’t. So, option 2 is saving that money you would give a name actor for a cameo role, keeping the money for production (our money’s on the screen, man!) or for your backend post-production costs (stop laughing but you are supposed to have at least the same amount as the production budget saved for post costs). Maybe you want to keep actor costs down, after all.
This leads to another decision: Even if you go no-names, you still need to decide if you’re going SAG or NON-SAG actors. There’s no one-size fits all advice I can give here. My situation in Chicago will not be yours in Omaha. While there isn’t much production money originating in Chicago, what there is is a stunning talent pool of actors. It begins in the drama schools of colleges like DePaul, Northwestern, Art Institute of Chicago, Columbia College. Add the astounding theater scene, 150+ theater companies producing regularly both Equity and Non-Equity. Throw in the five TV shows currently producing in town and you get the idea. Chicago is loaded. My odds of finding good NON-SAG actors goes through the roof here. How about your community? If you’re not drawing actors in New York or Los Angeles, who’s going to respond to that Craigslist ad? What are your options?
This is the reason you want to control micro-budget costs as script level. If you can limit the key actors to a limited number of days, it increases the chances you can make SAG low-budget $100-a-day offers to key actors.
With Chat, we considered making offers to a “name” actress for the role of Dr. Lauren. This is the juicy, bad-guy, Lady Liposuctionist From Hell doctor role. We scheduled her for two days so paying, say, $2000 per day was actually doable. The question was: Did we want that money for production contingencies, and/or for post costs, or for two days with a name-actress? We chose to go with a great local actress I teach with at Columbia, Cheryl Graeff, who pulled off some truly nasty work for that $100 a day.
We went SAG-minimum with six actors total. This is a large expense but only one of the characters, Falcon (Rush Pearson), needed to be paid for 15+ days. And the trade-off, what you put on the screen in terms of performance, cannot be overstated. Sure, you might get lucky with that Craigslist ad and grab yourself a fabulous free actress.
You also might not get lucky. And what’s that gonna look on the screen?
Making $100-a-day SAG offers opens you up to a whole different class of actor. You can post on Actor’s Access, Breakdown Express, make calls to local casting agents, put up notices at local acting schools, call local theaters, and yes, try Craigslist…
Which takes us to the moment of truth. The audition (next week).
You just wrote a 100 page movie. You want to submit it to a production company, or an agency, or a management company, or screenwriting contest.
You need to write a synopsis. No problem, it’s only a page. Wait a minute… you need to boil the whole 100 pages down into ONE page?
If you’re going after OPM (Other People’s Money) through the traditional L.A. sources they’re going to want a logline and synopsis. Even if you’re going the micro-budget route, you’ll need that synopsis for promotional materials, for the Kickstarter fundraising campaign, for potential investors on any level of movie-making. It’s simply expected.
The reason it’s expected is that folks are busy (insert: lazy). Why the hell would they want to read the 100 page script when they can read one page to make a decision on if they’re interested? This is the logic of the query letter. It’s also the logic of Sundance Labs, which makes a synopsis one of the key pieces of information in its application.
You’re not going to be able to get around it. You’ve got to learn how to write a synopsis. What’s it take to write one of these damn things? It takes a reductive mind. You have to come to terms with what your movie is ultimately about, to learn to boil your movie down. And don’t roll your eyes… To quote Glengarry Glen Ross—“You think I’m shitting you? I am not shitting you.”
Here’s how the thought process went with the synopsis for my micro-budget film CHAT. Step 1 was creating a one-pager for the Kickstarter campaign, which you can check out here. This is what I started with:
“CHAT is a unique look inside a fragmented mind…the mind of Falcon. Falcon is photophobic, unable to handle light as you or I would, making his universe an alien landscape. When his daughter goes missing in the world of online adult chat, he enlists the help of a cam model, Annie, and starts a quest that will lead him to break through his isolation. As they try to pull his daughter back from the brink, events lead to a strange twist that will change their world for keeps.”
This is the 90 page script boiled down into a paragraph. It’s the two-sentence logline expanded into a paragraph. Notice how the tone sticks with STORY. As opposed to the Director’s Statement, which I wrote to be more visceral, more visual:
“CHAT is a raw, harrowing look inside a deranged mind. Seen through Falcon’s distorted point-of-view, the film plunges the viewer into a Lynchian world of dizzying florescence, 15 watt light bulbs, latex cat-suits and liposuction. Nothing is as it seems to be. Disturbing characters appear and disappear. Time and characters fold back on themselves. Falcon is photophobic. Acute light disorder has made his world an alien landscape. Searching for his daughter who has disappeared shortly after going to work in Adult Chat, this is a world of glaring light and LCD screens, of isolation and loss of human connection. Falcon, looking out with red-rimmed, hyper-sensitive eyes, must look through his pixilated filter and try to pull his daughter back from the brink. A dark, contrasted palette punctuated by flashes of light and color will evocate the aura phase that haunts Falcon. Through this prism Falcon struggles with the reality of the situation– The reality-illusion culminating in the drone of XXX webcam chatter, echoes from cyberspace and the digital divide. CHAT is a daring and disturbing cinematic experiment that takes us inside the mind of a mentally-ill father for an unrelenting 90-minute ride. An inventive aural assault that suggests the gray middle zone between reality and a broken mind’s perception of it, a unique look inside a fragmented mind…the mind of Falcon.”
Understand that a synopsis isn’t a treatment. Defining our terms:
Let’s define our terms. Synopsis is not a treatment.
• 3rd person
• Present tense
• Observable behavior (nothing in the head “he thinks—decides—considers)
• Prose Paragraph format
• Limited Dialogue
Approximately 1 page of treatment per 10 pages of screenplay (this, a loose rule as evidenced by James Cameron’s 97 page Titanic treatment)
Think of a treatment as a prose paragraph beat sheet. Broad strokes, multiple pages.
• ONE page (the reason it’s often called a “one-sheet”)
• A pitch to read/sell the story
• Zero dialogue
• Zero secondary characters or subplots
• Zero backstory
• Hold to A-Story elements of protagonist and antagonist
Eventually, I expanded the CHAT synopsis from a single paragraph to a single page, looking like this:
“Opening his red-rimmed, bloodshot eyes is Falcon. Knocking a Xanax down with three cups of Espresso, he nervously dresses in a suit and tie, placing on powerful contact lenses and sunglasses. Stranger in a strange land, he enters a non-descript office building. Partial glimpses inside multiple rooms… Chat models in various states of undress, chatting into computer cameras, office cubicles made to look like bedrooms. This is an Adult Chat studio complex, and business is very good.
Falcon stands before Syd, a toad. Syd happens to own this adult chat complex. Falcon happens to have a daughter gone missing for a week. Her last contact– working here. Falcon wants answers but Syd, and his Ivy League partner, Geoffrey, offer precious little. Escorting him out, Falcon is told that one of the models, Annie, was a friend of his daughter, Mary Rose.
FLASHBACK. Syd and Annie welcome a new girl to the biz– Mary Rose. Annie will tutor her. Meanwhile Geoffrey pulls Syd aside. He tells Syd he’s tired of this business arrangement, that he’s carried Syd too long, he is buying him out and has the power to do so. Syd appears at the offices of Doctor Lauren, a Picasso with the liposuction needle. She bankrolled Syd’s venture into adult chat. With Syd being cut out, the money train will end for Doctor Lauren— which is unacceptable. She and her partners— some nasty types, including a goon ex-cop named Detective Csonka, demand the money flow continue. She concocts a murder plot.
BACK TO THE PRESENT, Falcon and Annie search for Mary Rose. Clues emerge. Annie discovers a book that was Mary Rose’s, and a gun… Falcon breaks into Dr. Lauren’s office and is discovered by Csonka, who tortures Falcon with a pair of Halogen mag lights. Falcon is knocked out and bloodied. Annie vows to confront Geoffrey the next day and if nothing comes of it, they will go to the police.
FLASHBACK. A woman in black latex catsuit leads Geoffrey on all fours by his silk Brooks Brothers tie down the fluorescent corridor. They enter the bathroom. Syd and Csonka move with guns from his office, taking positions outside the bathroom door. Syd about to go inside, but stops…looking to Csonka with freaked-out rat’s eyes… one more breath… and in he goes.
Opening his red-rimmed, bloodshot eyes is Falcon. Knocking a Xanax down with three cups of Espresso, he nervously dresses in a suit and tie, placing on powerful contact lenses and sunglasses. This is déjà vu. The same motions that opened the movie, Falcon with almost identical movements.
What follows will be the sound of police sirens, sure, but also the drone of adult webcam chat, echoing from cyberspace and the digital divide. The world will hear about what happened here, and it will become legend, for a news cycle or two, then forgotten. The world will go on, but the revelations will shake Falcon, Mary Rose, and us, to the core.”
Sure, writing a synopsis is a drag. It’s also a necessary evil. Because sooner or later you’re going to have to no—in your bones—what the damn story is.
The sooner the better.