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“Alan Smithee was an official pseudonym used by film directors who wish to disown a project, coined in 1968.”- Wikipedia
I’ve bemoaned Jane Doe way too often here on Script Gods. It’s the single feature-film I directed, a doomed movie project that somehow ended up making a couple million bucks and landing on Entertainment Tonight and in a shitload of video stores. The pity is, it didn’t have to be doomed.
The source material was a strong play I’d written, A Fire Was Burning Over The Dumpling House One Chinese New Year. When I say strong material, that is a statement backed by scientific methodology. Empirical evidence. Three productions, months upon months of live audiences, a bunch of audience members teary-eyed nightly upon lights up. This would indicate, yeah, the piece was strong.
So what went wrong and why should you care?
As usual here at Script Gods, I’m happy to pull down my pants and reveal my own fuckups if it benefits the common good. Do-as-I-say-not-as-I-did, knowing what not to do being as valuable as knowing what to do, when you make your own micro-budget film is a film school in itself.
I recently dusted off the set notes I kept during that May of 1996, when we shot this relic. I almost became Allen Smithee, wanting to distance myself from the stink. In the end I did kept my name on it, but if you don’t want this to happen to you, Good Reader, learn the warning signs:
We need to shoot inside a taxi. My instinct is to grab one and pay the cabbie for a couple hours of time. Producers say no, unacceptable, so they pay three times the price to get a professional “movie taxi” brought in. It takes long minutes to load off the flatbed. They try to start it up and it doesn’t start. Try again. Nothing. Pop the trunk. Aha… Dead battery. 90 minutes later producers hail a cab and pay the driver for a couple hours of time. We lose nearly two hours of shooting time which translates into cut dialogue in two scenes and the butchering of a third, cutting it out altogether. Trust your instincts. And if you need a cab, check the damn battery.
This one’s on me. My friend, Rich Cotovsky, paid his way to Atlantic City to be in the movie. I wanted to spend time with Rich so during a break shooting on the Boardwalk, we cut loose and ducked into the Sands Hotel to shoot some dice. Came out about 30 minutes later, nobody even noticed I was gone! Check that… the AD rolled over and asked where I’d gone. I said I felt like shooting some dice, so… “Director is with camera or actors, Paul” she mumbled. Alas, she was so right…
Any good writer knows, nothing is as it seems. You misjudge the people you’re working with. This is not to attack producers, by the by. I’ve had terrific experiences with producers. I’ve also had experiences like on Jane Doe. Be very, very careful who is producing your movie. It might be the single-most important decision you make. On Jane Doe, the producer responsibility was dually split between my father and brother, who raised half the funds, and Unapix Entertainment, who came in for the other half. We had a good initial relationship but their trust and hands-off approach lasted only about two days into shooting.
Then multiple producers landed on set and starting giving orders one would traditionally consider in the director’s domain. Like dictating specific cuts in scenes, or full scenes we wouldn’t be shooting. Or cutting the single-line role of an actor friend who came three hours to be in the movie, who was promised a part, and to save a hundred bucks, wanting to cut him. “He can’t be in this scene.” “He will be.” It only escalated from here…
Bringing me into an office to face a daily inquisition; signing papers for petty expenses with no clue where those hundreds of dollars were going; wanting me to fire people they had issue with and I had none; reading the first Press Release to find my name, the director/writer, had been misspelled (Perditto), omitting my brother (Producer/Lead actor) and father (Exec Producer); hearing through the grapevine plans of a hip-hop soundtrack but never once being consulted or even asked for my opinion. This is how you go from “I’m here to help you, Paul. Anything you need!” to “You should be on your knees thanking me! I’m saving this movie!” Good Reader, for pity’s sake, be careful who you get into bed with!
Four AD’s in 18 days? Seriously? For a first-time director? Not ideal. Or the Line Producer and Locations guy never talking so we schedule a Sunday shoot at Steel Pier to discover that Steel Pier closed on Sundays. And we don’t find that out until 20 people descend on a locked gate? Not ideal. Or the Casting Agent promising The Baroness, our Transvestite #2, the role of Transvestite #1. Shooting paused as The Baroness calls her agent to sort out the discrepancy, threatening to walk. Someone in Art Department jamming a bagel in a toaster to create smoke for a deli scene and starts a small fire. Hanging a lighting grid over a bathtub where your two lead actors will be getting into a bath tub and will likely die a swift death should it break free of its gaffers tape or WHATEVER THE FUCK you’re hanging it with! Not hiring a stunt coordinator which directly leads to a radio flying into Calista Flockhart’s head, she reaching up to her hair and pulling out a handful of blood. Not ideal.
Toshiaki Ozawa (Toshie) and I ended up on poor terms. It saddened me. I was the first one to admit my limitations as a film director but I had a responsibility. My old man had anted up $90,000 dollars to this enterprise and I was going to get this film in the can no matter what. There are AD directors and DP directors—those that will “make their day” at the expense of the film’s look, vs. those that will give the DP as much time as necessary to light the shot, making the schedule second to the shot. The key, obviously, is to find the happy middle where you’re making your day and shooting everything you’re supposed to, while coming away with the best possible coverage and film look, making both the DP and AD happy. That didn’t happen with Jane Doe.
I pushed Toshie, but he was fully capable of pushing back. “Do you want me to go, Paul? And you can shoot it.” The producers nearly swallowed their tongues. Toshie was given addition powers behind my back, ending up having final say on camera coverage, how many takes, camera angles, etc. I wouldn’t have minded ceding that power, but not with threats and back room handshakes.
‘Paul treats me like a dog,” Toshie told my brother. Meaning relentless driving him to the next shot. Toshie, I apolgized then, and do here again. It was only to get the movie in the can. Which leads us to the next red flag…
Upon further review it was estimated we’d need 20 days to shoot this movie with script requirements, actors, and production needs. The initial estimate was 11 days. If you’re thinking that’s a hellava discrepancy, you’d be right! The first budget was a complete joke. Fantasyland. When it came time to shoot, we were on pace to run out of money by Day 11, about halfway through the script. The Unapix producers gave enough cash to shoot 18 days, not a second more. Great! Got an extra 7 days budget.
But… not so great… we really did need 20 days to shoot it as is. No problem, two days of script would have to be cut. And if Paul was unable to do so or unwilling, it would be done for him.
I don’t blame Unapix for this. They didn’t create the first Fantasyland budget/schedule. Sooooo much of the tension that followed flowed from this miscalculation. If there’s one takeaway from this post, it’s this: Get the BEST possible person you can to run the budget and schedule numbers. Crunch those numbers so you KNOW it’s doable for the money and time you have committed. Do this, or prepare to loosen the dogs of war.
The last tell that you’re on your way to becoming Allen Smithee?
True story. I opened a fortune cookie the night before our first day of production. It said: Beware of crooked trees from straight roots.
In the perpetual quest to get your script discovered—optioned—sold, the Unknown Screenwriter is in constant war with the very first level of filters, The Reader. The power of the reader in L.A. can be left for debate for another day. I have never called for a Death To Readers like Terry Rossio (Pirates Of The Caribbean)once did on his Wordplayer site. But one thing’s for sure—they are the ubiquitous gatekeepers of the Hollywood system, the cloned Imperial Stormtroopers that the noble broke-ass screenwriter must battle, foot soldiers that the Dark Lords actually in power use to filter the product coming at them. And yeah—I use the word purposely–product. Because, for the far greater portion, the job of the Reader is to reject you.
I’m interested in the mind of the reader. I’m intrigued by what it takes to get this lady to say YES to my script. I’m wondering why they say no so often, what their motivations and opinions are, and if there’s a way to manipulate a game that’s already manipulated for and by them. Meaning: To take back control of the process. I need to get my script PAST these folks, to the people with the folding money, to the power plays, to their bosses.
So, how the f^%$ do I go about doing that?
We’ve talked ad naseum on Script Gods on how to avoid these Judges of your work. Strategy 1: Don’t Need Their Bosses Money in the first place. By writing a Micro-Budget script producible by Kickstarter financing, made for $30,000 and distributed along digital platforms, I no longer need the approval of the Dark Lords, let alone they’re just-out-of-film-school Imperial Guard. Talk about revolution—don’t need your boss’ money, don’t need your recommendation, Jake…I’m just gonna go out and do it.
Same goes for making a $3,000 short film that gets into South by Southwest and bags you a manager. Or creating a web series with 100,000+ hits that puts you on an agent’s map. No query letters needed, no dusty Old School methods. They come to you. Say it with me like a hosanna: They come to you.
The only downside to this strategy is obvious. Not every story can be told for micro-budget money. So what happens when you have to play the L.A. game, play by their rules?
You get inside the head of your enemy, and find out what make it tick.
Click on the infographic at the top of the page. It’s from a reader who, like the Wikipedia elves, too the time to actually document in scientific detail the most unscientific discipline of evaluating screenplays. The methodology to this chart is something I’ve not seen before. Here before us is the empirical view into the mind of the Reader. Let’s seek for beating this fellow…
Looking at the far left, the first thing that stands is his sample size of 300 scripts, and his results. Of the 300 script, he outright rejected 203. He recommended only 8. In my experience as a craps dealer, I’m all about odds. It’s comforting to know up front that if you’re going the need-Hollywood-$$$-Old School method that you’re chances are about 100 to 1 in getting that spec script past the Reader. Ouch….
Digging deeper, we see some fairly predictable stats: Average page count: 107 pages. Male Hero-Male Villain was the most popular model with 137 scripts. Female Hero-Female Villain appeared in a mere 17 scripts. Male writers wrote 270 of the 300 scripts while women wrote only 22. You hear talk of the ageism and sexism in Hollywood, but you rarely get an objective number to back that up. Hmmm….
How about the genre you’re writing? What are readers looking at in Hollywood? Leading this reader’s list is HORROR with 49 scripts, followed by CRIME/GANGSTER at 41, THRILLER at 36, and BROAD COMEDY at 31. Bringing up the rear are BLACK COMEDY with 4 and WESTERNS with 2. Perhaps this explains why, if you’re like me and write black comedy not broad comedy, you can’t seem to gain traction with L.A. readers. It’s because unless you’re the Coen Brothers or Wes Anderson, the Dark Lords aren’t terribly interested in Black Comedy. Do know the movie you’re about to write, or are writing. If you need their money, know what the hell they’re buying.
Toward the middle of the infographic it gets really interesting, with the recurring problems that lead to rejection. What are the 292 scripts doing that don’t get this guy’s recommendation? Incredibly, he numbered them!
•Story Starts Too Late: 69 scripts
• No Conflict: 57
• Formulaic: 53
• Not Enough Story: 53
I often talk in my Columbia College classes about the first five pages being valuable real estate. This isn’t anything revelatory. You’ve got an objective and quite critical eye looking at your labor of love that took six months to write—why would it surprise you that you have very little time to make an impression. The format must be professional. The characters original. The premise smoking. No confusion on the POV character, who I’m supposed to be following. Clean, clipped writing style. Force the eye down the page, vertically. Only essentials for dialogue and action lines. Pick a killer Point Of Entry. The movie must begin there. Establish four things: The world, the tone, the key characters, the beginnings of conflict. And don’t forget: The reader has tired eyes. Poor baby, what can I get you for your recommendation, a pipe and slippers? In addition to the blood, sweat, and tears that it took to write the freakin’ thing!
A few more categories for rejection that stood out to me:
•Protagonist is a Standard Issue Hero: 39 scripts
• Characters are Stereotypes: 31
• Characters are Indistinguishable: 19
The first two categories here are pretty close to the same and are born from a guy who reads a TON of scripts being disappointed he has seen and seen the characters in your movie. Disconcerting, is it not, that 50,000+ screenplays a year are registered at the Writer’s Guild. In a world where everyone is writing a screenplay, how the f*&^ do you write a truly original character? This is a conversation better left for pure character discussion, but a good start might be to understand exactly what this reader calls “standard issue” and do just the reverse. Going against, sounds like a strategy to me.
•The story is too thin: 53 scripts
• The script’s questions are left unanswered: 29
• The plot unravels through contrivance: 28
• The script is tonally confused: 28
• The story is one big shrug: 17
Sure, if the objection isn’t about character, then it’s almost certainly about your story. To get by this tired pair of eyes, Good Unknown Screenwriter, you need to have enough story for a feature, to pay the damn thing off with absolute plausibility, and to lay it out on the page establishing the genre and tone from page 1, while blowing them away with an ending that in no way could have been anticipated, but that is absolutely inevitable, bringing Act 3’s re-order to Act 2’s chaos, changing the protagonist through the journey of the movie.
Crawl into the Reader’s mind awhile. Know thy enemy.
***Important note: On a recent trip to New York I was walking by 17th Street and saw the New York Film Academy. I had seen their ads on everything from buses and bus stops to the internet but I had no idea where they were located. I checked the place out and it was impressive. Solid teachers with actual movies made. Guest Speaker: Kevin Spacey?! Only one of my all-time favs. Looking at their online course listing, it’s a strong, diverse mix of programs. Check them out here.
Summer almost done. Time for a pallet-cleanser. This is a real-time journal written by my very own brother Chris Peditto as he directed his recent micro-budget film Light & The Sufferer for $50,000 bucks a couple years ago. This movie features Paul Dano from 12 Years A Slave and There Will Be Blood. I love his writing here for the visceral sense of what micro-budget filmmaking is about—the towering highs, the epic fails, the absurdity of watching your crew this close to walking because the Egg McMuffins never arrived for second meal post 12-hours of a grueling day. Anyone who has worked on a micro-budget film will recognize each stage of movie-making quickly. Anyone who hasn’t will be instructed. Part 1 this week, Part 2 next week. Vamonos!
First read through yesterday with the entire cast and all the department heads in the room. 25 people altogether. Quite a rush. 18 months of prep, four months of casting, everyone hunkered around a table at 14th street. I read screen direction and played soundtrack underneath at the same time to give everyone a feeling for the whole. Music and words married together beautifully. Now it’s time to lay it down. Off to the races tomorrow!
Started beautifully. Washington Square, gorgeous spring day. Working with a dozen extras we brought in, and a handful of people we wrangled on the spot. Hours of prep for first shot. As usual, storyboards go out the window when confronted with the reality of time, lack of enough grip/electrics help and a setting sun we’re trying to catch for magic hour, which is about 45 minutes in actuality. We race for dusk, me shouting out from the center fountain area through a harried series of takes, the sky looking stunning. Lana’s (the DP’s) filters making the deep blue sky bend and swirl beautifully. The walk/don’t walk sign over Paul Dano’s head translucent, blinking above him ghostly, the crew oohing and ahhing. Dano looking utterly enigmatic, the moment so much more than I ever expected.
We move on, racing as the sun starts to rise, do not get through the master shot from above, the crew feeling like they’ve busted their asses for nothing. Exhausted, I start packing up cable, helping the crew who are as frustrated as I. I finish up and walk back to the craft service table to a disaster: no hot second meal waiting, even though I asked for it. All there is instant oatmeal, which hasn’t even been made for them. MAJOR FUCKING MISCOMMUNICATION. The crew who’ve worked for 13 hours, going over the standard 12 without pay, quietly enraged. With indie crews it’s all about appreciation, or the lack thereof. When you bust your ass you want to be treated right. If you’re not, you feel resentful, especially if you’re deferring. When you go past 12 hours and there’s no second hot meal waiting—these people will walk. Finally I go running, literally, for egg sandwiches myself, not wanting to talk about why this fuck-up happened with my production staff, who themselves are overworked, exhausted. I return with the sandwiches, the crew appreciative, me apologizing, promising this will never happen again. Can you imagine ruining you film over $30 worth of egg sandwiches? Tomorrow is another day.
As we moved into an amazing Gramercy Park duplex, the day began with a mixed bag of emotions. Some excited about our new digs, other crew members still feeling resentful toward production, who were not on top of their needs the previous day. Petty stuff, you say? Get an indie crew unhappy and feeling unappreciated and it can ruin your film. We dive into the day. The plan, as always, changing based on the exigencies of the space. Lighting as always, taking longer than planned for. Lighting as always amazing when finally complete – cold blue and red and black, atmospheric, reeking of money and privilege. Millions of dollars of art decorating the walls. We dive in, the cast feeling their way through complex blocking and business – crack pipes, cigarettes, vials and gun all tossed onto table. Major interactions with the Creature in this space, among the most complex stuff in the film, that which will make us or break us. After establishing eye lines for actors, we dive in. The scene slowly taking shape, the pace picking up, the lines and business coming together. We finish the first of four major setups in the space with the creature POV shot. Lana popping in her most trippy filters yet: actors as seen through the Sufferer’s eyes bending and swirling surreally as they look into its eyes. I am ecstatic, knowing we have something very special.
We somehow manage to make up for lost time by consolidating two shots into one, but with the Creature blocking in the next major setup, we have to pack it in at 6am without doing a take. I am told in private by my AD that there were people who didn’t appreciate my request to clear set of non-essential crew, some crew feeling like they can’t do their work, so why should they even bother? I feel my blood
boil. It’s 6am and once again there is another crisis. My AD and I, who get along great, arguing at 6am over this. What more can I do? I walk off feeling exhilarated at having shot so much great footage, but worthless, tears, literally, in eyes at having once again failed to be attentive to my crew’s needs. I’ll apologize yet again for the misunderstanding tomorrow night. Start over and hope morale is high. I hand off the last six dollars in my pocket to the AD and costume designer to take a cab. Stagger home, my eyes literally closing with fatigue as I walk down 23rd street. Pick up my messages on getting home. The camera department has requested two lights, which will cost $400 dollars. What’s $400 dollars, you say? It’s $400 that doesn’t exist. I’m already over budget. So now I have to begin tomorrow with more let-downs. What can I do? We must finish with what we have. That is all there is.
Second day at Gramercy Park. It began frantically enough hours before my arrival on set with a phone call about complaints re: food. Demented producer/directors who want to get their movies made don’t give a shit about what’s served for dinner and what’s on the craft service table. I eat leftovers after everyone else has eaten, since I’m endlessly worried about money. This can be a major oversight, especially when your production crew is not giving them what they want, when you think they are. Hearing through the grapevine that this was the case, I personally intervened, calling in catering from my favorite Middle-Eastern place, spending a little more but knowing everyone will love the grub and their work and morale will improve. What a difference it made! On top of better eats, Jonathan Lethem came by to visit the set and give an interview. Overall, our best day yet. The duplex looking stunning, every angle fantastic, the architecture amazing, the lighting and colors moody and beautiful. Crew finally working well together, the cast doing amazing work. Hopped on the subway, got out thinking about the shots coming up tomorrow, how to get them all, the challenges of working on location, walked with my head down, pondering how the make the day ahead, how to economize coverage without compromising my shots, then looked up to realize I had walked nearly two blocks in the wrong direction on 23rd street. Tunnel vision.
The days blur. I thought last night was day 9, looked at the schedule and realized we shot day 9 two days ago. Sunlight confuses me. I live in a perpetual state of chasing the sun. Last night we filmed everything in the cab with the boys. Green screen shots of the Creature chasing them over the Manhattan Bridge and back to NYC from the airport. Neon signs reflecting through their faces as they drive to the bridge, metal beams on the lower level of the bridge slicing through their faces as they talk nervously. Really beautiful. Of course the sun beat us again. Did not have time to get the cabby’s shot, so we will have to add that onto the airport day and hope for the best! Now my sole focus is writing this new scene that bridges the brothers’ meeting in the park till they get to Don’s room. I know what I want to do with it, now I have to get it down on paper. Content under pressure!
“All photos © The Filmmakers, Inc.”
Hey, I admit it, it’s summer and writing this week’s blog didn’t quite make it to the top of the priority pyramid. Shoot me, but I’m outside actually NOT thinking of screenplays!
But, for you true screenwriting junkies, I didn’t want to leave you hanging, so here’s a killer post provided by entertainment lawyer Robert L. Seigel, which can be found here.
I’ll occasionally make light of entertainment lawyers due to my own checkered past, only a fool would say that with real money on the table they anything but indispensable and a requirement to do business. Take off the paper pirate hat, writers, leave the dreaming to the confines of your writer’s room, and arm yourself with a lawyer. Here’s why:
If a writer decides that he or she wants to write a script which is based upon pre-existing source material (as opposed to writing an original script) such as a book or a play, the writer should contact the copyright owner or administrator for such underlying work. In the case of a book, a writer should contact a book’s publisher subsidiary rights department. A representative in that department would be able to provide such information as whether the motion picture and/or television rights are available and whom to contact if such rights are available. A book’s rights are generally controlled by the book’s author or the author’s agent or attorney. In some cases generally involving beginning book authors, the publisher negotiates such rights on behalf of the author and the publisher, and the author share in the monies derived from granting such rights.
A writer contacted me several years ago and wanted me to read his adaptation of one of the James Bond novels which the Ian Fleming estate had commissioned a writer named John Gardner to write. I read the adaptation and told the writer that it was quite good; however, the script would be used a good sample of how the writer could adapt existing materials into a script. In terms of his adaptation, I informed the writer that if he did not contact the Ian Fleming estate or the Albert Brocolli family which has produced the James Bond franchise for the over forty years and secured the appropriate rights (or, at least, secure an option to purchase such rights), he was out of luck and would not develop the script any further into a motion picture.
A writing partnership is like a marriage and a collaboration agreement is the pre-nuptual agreement. The best time for a writing team to enter into a collaboration agreement is at the start of the relationship when hopes are high and the stakes are low. The longer a writing team waits to address issues concerning their collaboration, the greater the likelihood for misunderstandings and acrimony between the writers. The collaboration agreement would address such issues as who owns a script’s copyright, how are monies allocated and paid to the writers, how decisions are made whether to option or sell the rights to their script and how disagreements are resolved. In the best case scenario, once the writers sign the collaboration agreement, they can put it in a desk drawer and never have to look at it until an issue arises between the writers. The writers then can open the drawer and read the collaboration agreement as a guide and a reference concerning their contractual relationship.
If a writer has already written a script and has found someone who is interested in further developing the script with a view towards producing a film or television program based on the script, that person who is taking on the producer role will want the motion picture and/or television rights in and to the script. Since most producers have no or very limited funds to develop their projects, those producers will want to option the rights to the script rather than purchasing the rights to the script outright. By optioning the rights to the script, the producer is taking the script “off the market” so that he or she shall have the exclusive right to further develop the script and to seek possible cast and funding for the project. The producer may offer the writer a “no money” option even if the agreement states the option price is one dollar or some nominal amount. In an ideal world or one where the rules of the Writers Guild of America (“WGA”) apply, the option price would be ten percent of the purchase price for the script’s rights for a period of time ranging from six months to a year and a half with the possibility of such term being extended with another payment to the writer. In the non-studio world, a producer may option a script’s rights for some nominal amount for a year the right to extend such option by paying a nominal amount to the writer.
Producers generally need an initial one year option period with at least a possible renewal term of another year since it takes time for script rewrites and getting responses from possible cast representatives and funding sources. Why would a writer take his or her script out of the marketplace for no money for as long as three years? A writer has to judge whether a producer has the passion or belief in the property to work on it for what may be years to have a project produced and the experience and/or contacts to take the script to those sources that can finance the project. At best, it is a judgment call for a writer to make and will serve as the basis of any negotiations between a producer and the writer.
For the purposes of this article, let us assume that a writer is not a WGA member (or a “professional writer” as defined by the WGA) and that the producer is not a signatory to the WGA Basic Agreement. If the writer were a WGA member and the producer a WGA signatory, then such issues as compensation, credit, a writer’s right to rewrites and how a writer shall financially participate in a script’s ancillary rights would be covered by the WGA Basic Agreement. For the non-WGA member writer and the non-WGA signatory producer or a signatory producer negotiating with a non-WGA writer, almost all of the issues concerning the optioning and/or purchasing of a script’s rights are a matter of negotiation. A writer and his or her representative and a producer can use the WGA rules as a basis for their negotiations of such deal points as credit determination and compensation; however, absent the use of such WGA rules, neither party is bound to such rules and whatever a writer can receive in his or her agreement must be discussed and negotiated preferably by the writer’s agent or attorney with the producer.
One example of an issue which the parties should address is what happens if a producer cannot commence principal photography or complete production of a project after a certain period of time such as five or seven years after the producer acquired the script’s rights. If this issue is not addressed by the parties, the writer’s script could be left on the proverbial shelf to gather dust. Instead, the agreement could include a provision in which a writer could reacquire a script’s rights if the producer does not produce a project within a certain period of time. The writer may regain the rights automatically or subject to a lien in the sum of money which the producer paid the writer for the rights and possibly for the writer’s writing services. The producer generally does want the writer to set up the project elsewhere with the producer being out of pocket for his or development costs. How a writer deals with such a lien is a matter of negotiation between the parties. (The writer usually gets the producer or studio who wants to produce the project based on the writer’s script to repay such development expenses to the first producer who acquired such rights.)
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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.