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Ah, to be the poet! On writing only those things that strike his fancy! Writing what resonates with him, period. If they get it they get it, if not, fuck ‘em!
Screenwriters don’t get that luxury. As Mamet told us long ago, “screenwriting is a collaborative business. Bend over.”
Seems to me a sign of maturity for a screenwriter is when he becomes aware, not just of what it is he wants to say, but of his audience and the marketplace.
William Faulkner and F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote novels that will be around 500 years from now. Yet they struggled in the Hollywood Studio system. Producing literary works under those conditions, under the thumbs of studio bosses who wrote those huge checks, whole different game.
Today it’s more about emerging technologies, emerging distribution markets, the democratization of cinema where everyone and their Uncle Al gets to make a movie. Warhol’s 15 Minutes Of Fame was never so close. Read the rest of this entry »
We talked previously about collaboration and the art of creative disagreement. That means finding collaborative partners who will not be yesmen, who will challenge you, and push the project to a new level.
I’ve been fortunate to have some wonderful collaborative relationships, both in theater and film. I started in theater writing plays for my brother Chris’ theater company, igLoo, in Chicago. Having a brother as a collaborator can be tricky, but early on my brother and I were seeing it the same. I would take it to script level and he brought it alive for me on the stage, directing or producing about a dozen of my plays. He was also producer/actor to my writer/director on Jane Doe. We’re Sicilian so people mistake our conversation for arguing. We will be screaming at each other and agreeing on a point. People don’t get it, but we do. Though it doesn’t always work out smoothly…
He recently asked me to co-write an adaptation he was working on, The End Of It All by Ed Gorman. It’s the story of a geeky high-school loser who gets into a traffic accident, has a revolutionary plastic surgery, and comes back to his high-school reunion looking like George Clooney. Complications ensue when he meets the woman he lusted after in school, and as she falls for him, he falls for her 18 year-old daughter. This leads to murder and various assorted nastiness. Chris had written a 55 page first draft. It needed fleshing out. He saw this as a neo-noir drama.
I saw it as preposterous. It could never play straight up as a drama. It was clearly a black comedy/thriller. It had a BLOOD SIMPLE feeling, maybe with a touch of FATAL ATTRACTION. I outlined the piece and got the ok to proceed from Chris (which he later denied). It is far better to work out the kinks in the outlining stage before you start writing the thing. Yes, it means more time up front but it pays off, back end. Outlining took a few weeks, writing it took no more than a month. It was vastly different from Chris’ draft. 90% of his dialogue was dropped. The genre, the tone, and world were changed. I called it Skin Deep. Remember now, these changes were exactly as outlined. The same outline that was approved by my brother Chris.
Chris read it and sent back an email. He was disappointed. To the max. He didn’t understand my take on it. Why had I abandoned the drama? I pointed out that his approval of my beat sheet. He didn’t remember the email (being the busy HBO producer he is) and just didn’t see my direction. Which made sense, being as he was seeing a drama and I was seeing a black comedy/thriller. When you can’t even agree about the genre with your collaborator… well, you’re pretty much fucked. He took a second pass at it. While I cut 90% of his stuff in Draft 2, he cut 90% of mine in Draft 3, changing the world back to his drama. Skin Deep and The End Of It All, both drafts, now sit, a terrific idea, shelved.
My brother and I had creative differences. Meaning he was seeing a pretty tree and I was seeing the fire plug with the dog pissing on it. Or I was seeing the tree and he was seeing…
You get the point. Doesn’t really matter who was “right”… or if there was a right… at all.
Recently I’ve worked more with Boris Wexler. Boris, co-writer of our book SURVIVING OUTSIDE HOLLYWOOD, is an ex-student who has come a long way very fast. Based in Chicago, he’s produced and directed multiple films, with budgets from $2,000 on up to $200,000. We’ve collaborated on three movies. The first was a short film called The Group inspired by a Saturday writing group I once led. Boris wrote the first draft, I wrote the revise. We shot it in two days and it was edited very quickly. The whole process may have taken a month. The collaboration was smooth.
Our second project was his semi-autobiographical feature, Roundabout American. I had helped him workshop his first draft (co-written by Thomas Elgin) for months. Boris worked on multiple levels, fundraising, budgeting, and writing the script. He needed some help and brought me in for a dialogue pump up. From my POV, this was an easy collaboration. This was a passion project for Boris, but I was essentially a mercenary, in and out in a month. I took the script from 124 pages to 85. I wrote dialogue for half the scenes in the movie. It was up to Boris to decide what he would use and what he wouldn’t. My credit was Additional Dialogue and I’d be paid deferred (yeah, right) when the movie made money (yeah, right). Another smooth collaboration.
The latest project was Chat, our 44K micro-budget feature which I’ve frequently talked about here at Script Gods. The collaboration is still unfolding. A rough sketch of roles was established early: Boris-Producer and Director. Paul-Producer and Writer. November, 2011 we started talking story. February, 2012 the script was outlined (a 15 page “beat sheet” sketched out). April, 2012 the first draft of the screenplay was finished (Boris with detailed story notes, me writing the script). August, 2012 (three drafts and thousands of note-filled emails later) the shooting script was finished. November, 2012, casting commenced. We “crewed” up. I wrote copy for our Kickstarter campaign and Boris shot and edited the pitch video. We were successfully funded 30 days later. March, 2013. Fully into pre-production. Script locked. April-May, 2013- Principle photography. Multiple production drafts (Blue-Green-Yellow). Changes to the “locked” White Draft necessitated by set conditions, actor improvisations or “director imperative” (meaning Boris, as director, with the ultimate power for what makes it to the screen or not, availing himself of that power).
By this point, 2+ years later, Boris and I know each other rather well. R a t h e r. I’m guessing poor Boris wishes he didn’t know how I’d react even before he sends me one of his dozens of emails. I’m predictably Southern Italian. That means generally loud, overly detailed (15 pages of single-spaced time code notes? When no one else even gives a page?) And, of course, I’m always right (ok, 95% right) warning Boris of the grave consequences should he not use every one of my notes.
Boris, God help me, is French. He groans when folks point that out. He also likes Chipotle, his golden retriever, cigarettes, and scuba diving in Asia. After two years with him on this project, I know A L L about the dude. And in all seriousness, the collaboration is, for my money, succeeding. We work well together because we are both workaholics, perfectionists, passionate, patient, pragmatic. Bottom line: Boris sees Chat much the same as I do. If he didn’t, we would never have gotten to this point. One of the two of us would have walked.
When we talk about micro-budget, we talk about making this movie not for the profit motive. Sure, money would be nice, but that’s not why you do it. You do it because of the level of control you have over the final product. You do it because the people you’re making the movie with see it being the same thing you do.
With Chat, Boris has the final cut power of a director. But he’s not a Dictator. He’s also pragmatic enough to gather opinions of an inner circle. Many times he’s reversed his initial instinct based a correspondence of opinions. This is his greatest strength. For me, I surrendered the ultimate final say of Chat because I trust Boris to make the right choice in the end, not succumb to power trip movie politics. He’s really a very sweet guy.
And now that you’re buttered up, Boris… can we p-l-e-a-s-e cut 90 seconds off the first five minutes of the Rough Cut?! You know I’m right. You KNOW it!
“Story is free.” –John August
With micro-budget filmmaking you need to lean on the written word to keep costs down. Think about costs at script level. Don’t wait until you get on set to try to save a dime. One of the ways to do this is to create strong sub-plot characters.
Think about tributaries out of the Mississippi river. Imagine your POV character, the protagonist, as the Mississippi. The smaller rivers flow into or out of the main river. They exist in and of themselves, having beginning and end points, but feed the main river and wouldn’t exist without it.
Same deal with sub-plot characters. They have full arcs, they need to change and grow, have wants and needs, should be multidimensional “gray” characters in of themselves. They are the B and C stories that exist only to further the journey of the A-story, the protagonist.
For low-budget Indie and micro-budget movies, there are other motives for writing in strong sub-plot characters and cameos. Cameo characters that can be scheduled for a single day. This allows for the potential of paying the day rate of a “name actor”. Why would you do that? Because a name actor can you help sell the project. It gives you cache with distributors. So, the question then becomes: Do you spend money on the name actor up front, and reap the reward on the back end? You certainly do not need names to make your micro-budget, but it should be in the discussion.
Great subplot characters attract great actors. We’ll talk about using SAG actors another time but for now, let’s look at a couple small characters I wrote for Jane Doe that had major impact on story, and brought us strong actors, even for a single-day’s pay.
Scheduled for one looooong day, three big dialogue scenes. Among the actors interested in this role or discussed were Paul Sorvino, Vic Argo, Dan Hedaya, and Peter Boyle. We ended up going with Joe Ragno (Shawshank Redemption) who was a great choice. His one day was the final one of the shoot, took 15+ hours, with the martini shot coming at dawn. He never complained once and delivered the goods.
The character was critical to the story but didn’t exist in the play (the movie’s source material) and was only added later. Here’s the last of the three scenes. Notice that the protagonist, Horace, says next to nothing. Let your cameo characters…go off. Big dialogue scenes and micro-budget were made for each other.
Read the rest of this entry »
FLASH BACK. 2001.
Get a call from Bill C., my agent at William Morris. “Might have something for you. It’s greenlit. They’re looking for a dialogue pump up.”
“Cool. What is it?”
“Interesting project. An elevator animates and starts killing people—“
“Wait… an elevator comes alive?”
“Yes. It’s set in a famous New York landmark. The death toll rises, they’re thinking terrorists. They seal off the elevator and—“
“This is black comedy, yes?”
“No no, they’re playing it straight action-horror. Working title is THE SHAFT.”
Paul sighs. His phone hasn’t rung via William Morris in three months. When it does, it’s for THE SHAFT.
“And when you heard of this project you thought of me?”
“I don’t know, Bill. It’s not exactly… I don’t know.”
“A company in the Netherlands put together financing. You’d spend two weeks in Amsterdam. We need to set up a meeting next week.”
“Sounds like shlock, man.”
Now it’s the agent who is silent. Then…
“You’re not interested?”
“Nah. Don’t think so.”
FLASH FORWARD. 2013.
Only in retrospect can we see our errors. Fortunately for you, Good Reader, you can look at the CONTINUAL DRUMBEAT OF FUCKUPS by yours truly, your humble narrator, and learn from these.
If back-in-the-day Peditto hadn’t been such an ignoramus, he might have realized a couple things. 1-Writer’s Guild guidelines make it clear that invention of the characters, scenes, and world are critical to get a Written By credit. A “dialogue pump up” meant polishing what they already had. It’s unlikely that I would have qualified for writing credit.
#2: What THE FUCK were you thinking back-in-the-day Pauly? The pretentions on this lad! Clearly we have the next Tennessee Williams here! Too much of an art-ist to want to even look at a project that is so obviously beneath him. Can you imagine what my agent was thinking when this conversation ended?
#3: Hey Genius, in the depths of your ignorance, perchance you didn’t realize that assignment work is where most of a writer’s income happens. Not in a studio making your deeply felt, semi-autobiographical period-piece about your Dad’s Cleveland bowling alley circa 1958. If you’re going the L.A. route, understand that movies about elevators that come alive are EXACTLY what they do! If this is beneath you, you might want to consider going back to poetry, your novella, or re-reading Proust.
#4: Turning down a two-week paid trip to Amsterdam? You’d think this kid had been puffing copious hash in the coffeehouses there already.
#5: Have you any idea how many screenwriters 1000X better than you have work anonymously-uncredited on crappy movies? Point being it isn’t that the movie was schlock. The point is that you can’t be clueless about the business side.
Look at the Writer’s Guild stats for working writers(from Script Magazine and Deadline Hollywood): In 2010, 360 “spec” (non-commissioned) scripts made the rounds in Hollywood. Just 62 sold. Out of roughly 10,500 Writer’s Guild members in 2010: 4,244 reported income overall. 1,615 reported income from a feature film. So, only 1,615 screenwriters who joined the WGA made any money in 2010.
Life Lesson 5438: Never turn down work. Ever.
Writing this post I did some research and—Jezus—they did end up making this thing. Two-time Oscar nominee Naomi Watts was in it, final title DOWN. IMDB profile and trailer are here.
SPOILERS! Yes, that’s in 16 font, folks. I don’t want to hear the whining of people who are a day late and a dollar short on their binge watching. I mean, how long are we supposed to wait for you to catch up? Hope this doesn’t spoil it, but… Rosebud? It’s a SLED!
Seriously, you know the greatness of a TV show when you have this level of fandom surrounding it. I was told that 8 of the Top 10 Pirate Bay torrents last week were the final episode of Breaking Bad (allright, so I wasn’t “told”). What do you make of this phenomenon? People talk in general terms of the originality of the story, or the look of the desert world, or the weekly murderous gore, or the great characters. Yeah, those are obvious. But let’s break it down. What about a great character like Walter White…what makes him great?
I’m like Walter White in very few ways, but one of them is a completely wonky dedication to detail. In this case, into the chemistry of character.
Most people don’t feel the need to break it down on such a level but a thorough examination is in order for you screenwriting and TV writers. Not to steal Vince Gilligan’s chops but…if you can steal Vince Gilligan’s chops, do it!
Walter White is an anti-hero. What’s that mean? It means he has heroic aspects to him, and non-heroic aspects. Yeah, duh! It means he’s…complicated. Complicated how? He’s…gray. Gray? Gray?! The fuck’s he talking about?
Character Arc: Point A: Walter White, high-school chemistry teacher, a mousy and soft-spoken fellow, has his world rocked by a cancer-diagnosis (Fate Knock #1). He doesn’t make much money and has nothing put away for his family. Walter’s primary motivation becomes the need to find money for his family, to provide for them after he’s gone. His brother-in-law, a DEA agent, casually mentions taking him along on a meth-lab bust, to spice up his dull life (Fate Knock #2). At the bust, he sees an ex-student (Jesse Pinkman) crawl out a window and fall two stories to escape the cops (Fate Knock #3). These are lynch pin moments. There is no story without them. If Walt doesn’t develop cancer, or doesn’t have a DEA agent for a brother-in-law who takes him for a ride to a meth lab, or doesn’t see Jesse tumble out that window… there is no Breaking Bad.
Character Arc: Point C: Walter is no dummy. He’s the smartest guy in any room he walks into. He puts two and two together, the $$ involved in methamphetamine production, his former student knows how to run a lab, and Walter the master of the chemistry of it. Stars in alignment. He gives Jesse every cent in he has in the world. Jesse buys an RV. They will drive it out to the desert and cook there. Walter is still rather mousy, almost an innocent. Almost. Because it’s here we see one of his great talents, if not his greatest. The man can LIE.What an amazing liar! He tells his wife all manner of BS to cover his late-night arrivals and early morning exits. This is where the complication ensues, the chemistry of the character. There is a nobility to Walter. He won’t tell his wife he’s got cancer. He’ll suffer in silence, risk his life dealing with meth-head gangbangers to raise money for his family. The Pilot starts and ends with a drug-deal going bad, he and Jessie this close to dying, Walter killing the meth-head gangstas instead. In this single hour alone, Walter White has come a loooong way from Point A, the high-school chem lab professor.