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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.
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.