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Almost touched bottom on 2015’s best screenwriting articles and websites. Almost! Here’s a mixed bag of links I’m having trouble categorizing, but which are definitely worthy of attention. Hopefully these help in the Quixotian journey of getting your vision out there. Vamos!
Vulgar fellow, but it’s true, there are a ton of worthwhile podcasts out there. The real question is how to find time to listen to them all. Some are quite well know, some less so…
Start here, with this mega-master list provided by Go Into The Story.
Compare that to this master list, provided by Screenwriting Spark.
The Inside Pitch is advice given by Christopher Lockhart, a story editor at William Morris Endeavor. Great listen for new writers looking for pitching tips and to learn how agencies judge your script. Basically all the stuff you never get in a rejection letter.
Geek’s Guide To The Galaxy talks with an impressive list of directors and writers, produced by Wired.com. Among the Season Six notables here is Alex Gardland, director of Ex Machina, and Terry Tachell, co-writer of District 9 and Chappie.
The standard setter for screenwriting podcasts is Scriptnotes, found on the John August blog. At this writing there are 218 podcasts available. Recent topics include Blood, Boobs, and Bullcrap and Diary Of A First Time Director.
If you can’t afford film school and want a basic breakdown of Who’s Who on a film set, check out this fun article by Filmmaker Magazine. It’s educational, but a bit irreverent. For instance:
Personnel includes: Gaffer, Best Boy Electric, Electricians, Generator Operator.
Responsibilities: Under instruction of the DP and Gaffer, setting all the lights and running all electrical cable, including “work lights” and equipment power for other departments.
Join this department if you like: The art of lighting, the thrill of being asked every single morning to find power for the coffee maker.
Greatest thrill: The possibility of daily electrocution.
Personnel includes: Script Supervisor.
Responsibilities: Breaking down the script, managing the continuity of blocking, props, makeup and costumes, tracking the progress of the production through the pages of the script.
Join this department if you like: Being a department of one, always being right.
Perk: Gets to sit in a chair all day.”
Somehow both the school I graduated from, and teach at, are on this list provided by Hollywood Reporter. Ithaca College snuck onto the list at #25(Class of 19–, baby!) and Columbia College- Chicago landed at #16. Top 8 are all in New York or California, all but UCLA are $40,000+ per year, with NYU and USC pushing $50,000. The debate on the necessity of film school will have to be left for another day. I will say this…attending Ithaca College, I paid $6,000 a year, $24,000 for FOUR years. That’s currently what tuition runs for ONE year at Columbia College, and we’re “reasonable!” You’re about to assume a lifetime of debt….why?
Back to Go Into The Story (yeah, I’m doing a full post on this site which is #1 for me). Scott Myers has again compiled a unique list, this time of Twitter rants. I try to care about Twitter, I really do. But with only time for one post a week, it’s no wonder I have just a few hundred followers. Obviously I have no time to track down the best Twitter screenwriting accounts, so I appreciate Scott and his merry band of researchers putting this list together. Great advice for writers of all experience levels. Here’s a small taste of a “rant” by Gary Graham who worked at the Studio level on a pair of scripts, which he talks about here:
“despite my best efforts, i could not get the script into anyone’s hands who wanted it. so i wrote another.
more attempts to connect with managers failed. so i wrote another. a western. spent months and months on it.
with a connection i had in the industry, we tried to get it in front of people. realized no one wants to make a western.
as this was happening, i was working simultaneously on a documentary to make ends meet. two years on this film with a billionaire…
…who was really into it, etc. once we were finished shooting, that billionaire brought in his son in law and they kicked me off the film.
with no job i started working at apple. mainly because 5th avenue is 24 hours. so i could continue to write in the day, work late at night.
so long hours of a) working a day job. b) writing my ass off.
i wrote yet another script, a monster movie that takes place aboard a subway train. small, contained horror. had a few bites on that one.
Some days I wanted to toss that script in the garbage. I couldn’t crack it. I was so frustrated. And my day job was grinding me.
But I kept at it. And a few things happened to me. Mainly, I fell in love with my characters. And it was personal in some way.
I’m writing about a guy who feels isolated and alone. Who feels he’s lost his fucking soul.
And here I am working a job at Apple that I could have gotten when I was 19. And I have an MFA from Columbia.
It was an incredibly difficult time of self reflection. What the hell am i doing with my life?”
Being as Taxi Driver is my favorite movie you’ll understand why I’m enthusiastic about this awesome Paul Schrader website. The guy created Travis Bickle! Until an Oculus device brings virtual reality to a place where I can go INTO Travis’ head, I’ll settle for this collection of writings from the man himself, who says of this collection: “The following articles and reviews are listed chronologically and without comment. Some are youthful, some are wrongheaded, some are pretty good.”
One of many that catch my eye is a 1976 interview with Film Comment about the making of Taxi Driver:
“We were all young enough to want to do something that will last. DeNiro told me, when we were talking about whether the film would make any money, that he felt it was a film people would be watching fifty years from now, and that whether everybody watched it next year wasn’t important. That’s how we came to it, and that’s why we didn’t make any compromises; we figured if we’re going to compromise on money, we’re certainly not going to compromise on anything else.”
Good as it gets!
“Working as a screenwriter, I always thought that ‘Film is a collaborative business’ only constituted half of the actual phrase. From a screenwriter’s point-of-view, the correct rendering should be ‘Film is a collaborative business: bend over.”–David Mamet
I had a chance to work with two of David Mamet’s favorite actors, Jack Wallace and J.J Johnston. When they talked, I could hear Mamet– his cadences, his f-bombs, the stylized speed. How many writers have a “school” based on them? Shane Black? Tarantino? Pinter?
Let’s get this out of the way: I’m a groupie, sure. I’m a Chicago playwright living in this town for 25 years–who else compares? David Mamet is not just the greatest playwright of his era, he is the greatest writer to come out of Chicago in my lifetime (yeah, that takes us back to the Kennedy era).
44 IMDB writing credits, a bunch of them adaptations of his own plays (Oleanna, Edmond, American Buffalo, Sexual Perversity In Chicago, Glengarry Glen Ross). There are his screenplays too (House Of Cards, The Untouchables, The Verdict, Wag The Dog)…classic stuff in so many of these, like this speech from Glengarry, which isn’t even found in the play version, and which I could certainly recite word-for-word from memory.
Or this snippet between Alan Arkin and Ed Harris. Listen to the speed of this, the unfinished thoughts, the overlapping dialogue, the stylization. This isn’t realistic dialogue, it’s the approximation of realistic dialogue. “What can you do? If you do not have the godamn leads…”
We could pick classic riffs from Mamet’s work all day long. Being as our focus is writing, let’s find a couple sources you might have missed. The first is a famous five year-old memo to his writing staff on the TV show The Unit. I’d recommend reading it in full, but here are a couple samples. This is a Master Class, Drama 101:
“QUESTION:WHAT IS DRAMA? DRAMA, AGAIN, IS THE QUEST OF THE HERO TO OVERCOME THOSE THINGS WHICH PREVENT HIM FROM ACHIEVING A SPECIFIC, ACUTE GOAL.
SO: WE, THE WRITERS, MUST ASK OURSELVES OF EVERY SCENE THESE THREE QUESTIONS.
1) WHO WANTS WHAT?
2) WHAT HAPPENS IF HER DON’T GET IT?
3) WHY NOW?
THE ANSWERS TO THESE QUESTIONS ARE LITMUS PAPER. APPLY THEM, AND THEIR ANSWER WILL TELL YOU IF THE SCENE IS DRAMATIC OR NOT.
IF THE SCENE IS NOT DRAMATICALLY WRITTEN, IT WILL NOT BE DRAMATICALLY ACTED.
THERE IS NO MAGIC FAIRY DUST WHICH WILL MAKE A BORING, USELESS, REDUNDANT, OR MERELY INFORMATIVE SCENE AFTER IT LEAVES YOUR TYPEWRITER. YOU THE WRITERS, ARE IN CHARGE OF MAKING SURE EVERY SCENE IS DRAMATIC.
THIS MEANS ALL THE “LITTLE” EXPOSITIONAL SCENES OF TWO PEOPLE TALKING ABOUT A THIRD. THIS BUSHWAH (AND WE ALL TEND TO WRITE IT ON THE FIRST DRAFT) IS LESS THAN USELESS, SHOULD IT FINALLY, GOD FORBID, GET FILMED.
IF THE SCENE BORES YOU WHEN YOU READ IT, REST ASSURED IT WILL BORE THE ACTORS, AND WILL, THEN, BORE THE AUDIENCE, AND WE’RE ALL GOING TO BE BACK IN THE BREADLINE.
SOMEONE HAS TO MAKE THE SCENE DRAMATIC. IT IS NOT THE ACTORS JOB (THE ACTORS JOB IS TO BE TRUTHFUL). IT IS NOT THE DIRECTORS JOB. HIS OR HER JOB IS TO FILM IT STRAIGHTFORWARDLY AND REMIND THE ACTORS TO TALK FAST. IT IS YOUR JOB.”
The caps are Mamet’s. You might be saying– yeah, so what, tell me something new. The beauty here is the simplicity. The paragraph that stays with me is Person 1 + Person 2 talking about Person 3 DOES NOT equal drama. How many of these expositional scenes have you written, Good Reader? Me? A ton.
Further down is this tidbit:
“IF YOU PRETEND THE CHARACTERS CANT SPEAK, AND WRITE A SILENT MOVIE, YOU WILL BE WRITING GREAT DRAMA.
IF YOU DEPRIVE YOURSELF OF THE CRUTCH OF NARRATION, EXPOSITION,INDEED, OF SPEECH. YOU WILL BE FORGED TO WORK IN A NEW MEDIUM – TELLING THE STORY IN PICTURES (ALSO KNOWN AS SCREENWRITING)
THIS IS A NEW SKILL. NO ONE DOES IT NATURALLY. YOU CAN TRAIN YOURSELVES TO DO IT, BUT YOU NEED TO START.
I CLOSE WITH THE ONE THOUGHT: LOOK AT THE SCENE AND ASK YOURSELF “IS IT DRAMATIC? IS IT ESSENTIAL? DOES IT ADVANCE THE PLOT?”
Don’t be fooled about this 2002 article in the New York Times, it’s as valid as ever. The genius here is Mamet’s relating music to writing, a direct correlation. Here’s a taste:
“People say the great genius of Nat Cole was his ability to accompany himself on the piano, that he understood that most delicate and intricate duet and its demand for spaciousness, for elegance. ”We hear it anyway.”
This is the genius of Bach, and the overwhelming demand of dramaturgy — this understanding, or its lack, divides those who can write from those who can really write: how much can one remove, and still have the composition be intelligible?
Chekhov removed the plot. Pinter, elaborating, removed the history, the narration; Beckett, the characterization. We hear it anyway.
It is in our nature to elaborate, estimate, predict — to run before the event. This is the meaning of consciousness; anything else is instinct. Bach allows us to run before, and his resolutions, as per Aristotle, are as inevitable (as they must be, given the strictures of Western compositional form) and surprising as his elaborate genius. We are thus delighted and instructed, as per Freud, in a nonverbal way, as to the varieties of perception, possibility, completion — we are made better. Our consciousness, listening to Bach, has been rewarded, refreshed, chastised, soothed — in Bach and Sophocles both, the burden of consciousness has momentarily been laid down.
Both legitimate modern drama (Pirandello, Ionesco) and the trash of performance art build on the revelation that omission is a form of creation — that we hear the third anyway — that the audience will supply the plot.”
We hear it anyway!
Damn right we do. Never forget that actors fill in the gaps with body language, with a look or glance, with how they enter a room, how they phrase a word that you can’t possibly describe on the page. You don’t want to kill the reader with exposition. You don’t want to kill subtext.
Give the audience some credit.
We get it.
We’ll hear it anyway.
David Mamet, what a racer!
Who is the most adapted writer of all-time? Give me your top 3 before I tell you… who would it be?
Writing this in October 2015, our #1 is, of course, The Bard…
IMDB has William Shakespeare for 1,098 adaptations! This includes 379 feature films, and 16 projects in development in 2015-16 based on his work. How now, Horatio, what you think on it?! Check out this breakdown beautifully put together by Slate Magazine of the most adapted writers…
Top 10 by the numbers are as follows:
1. William Shakespeare (1089 as of October 2015)
2. Anton Chekhov (320)
3. Charles Dickens (300)
4. Alexandre Dumas (243)
5. Edgar Allan Poe (240)
6. Robert Louis Stevenson (225)
7. Arthur Conan Doyle (220)
8. Hans Christian Andersen (217)
9. Edgar Wallace (214)
10. The Brothers Grimm (212)
How about modern writers? Who would you guess is #1? By modern, let’s confine ourselves to born in the 20th Century onward. What modern writer has the most adapted movies to their credit? Helpful hint: He’s still living…
11. Molière (208)
12. O. Henry (201)
13. Oscar Wilde (181)
14. Fyodor Dostoevsky (177)
15. Leo Tolstoy (154)
16. Victor Hugo (150)
17. Jules Verne (143)
t18. Stephen King (127)
t18. Georges Simenon (127)
20. Agatha Christie (126)
Hell yeah, Stephen King!
Not sure when the Slate list was put together but King, tied for 18th here, has actually moved up the hit parade. IMDB has him at this writing at 199 credits. This puts him ahead of Leo Tolstoy and Victor Hugo. And, while we’re at it, he’s got more movie credits than Earnest Hemingway (73) and F. Scott Fitzgerald (63) combined!
It might be instructive, and telling of our times, that Stan Lee at 111 credits and Bob Kane, creator of Batman at 121 credits, have Sophocles (65) and Euripides (55) beat by a mile.
Ask a freshman class at Columbia College film school who Sophocles is and you’ll get 16 blank faces. Ask about the latest Batman project and they’ll be able to tell you about every aspect of the pre-production of Batman vs. Superman: Dawn Of Justice. I have to stop myself from asking how many have heard of Katherine Hepburn. Will even half of them raise their hands?
I’m planning on doing a series about writers and their history in the movies. Nelson Algren, one of the best novelists ever out of Chicago, had a notorious history with film adaptations of his work. It was recently on display in the documentary Algren, made by Michael Caplan, a fellow Columbia College teacher. Nelson’s infamous dealings with Otto Preminger on The Man With The Golden Arm are the stuff of legend. As was his lousy poker playing, which, rumor had it, had him practically give away the rights to his second adaptation, Walk On The Wild Side.
I leave you today with the credit sequence from that movie, created by Saul Bass, to the music of Elmer Bernstein. It is a work of genius…
…though the folks at PETA might disagree.
OK, one last time to the well with the Script Magazine archives. Hopefully the previous samplings helped you. I’ve given this info before, but here is the full list of contributor blogs, a wealth of knowledge to be found. My own blog for them is here.
Shoot me, but I never heard of a “pitch deck” before reading this fine article by Martin Shapiro. Yeah yeah I know, you can’t even get “into the room” to pitch, so why should you worry? Because, Good Reader, there WILL come a day when you need to pitch. So, you’ll need this skill at some point. I actually like the notion of putting together a presentation like this as a primer to writing the thing. The better you see it, the better you write and pitch it. This article should help. Here’s a piece:
“How do startup Internet companies in Silicon Valley convince venture capitalists (VCs) to give them millions in seed capital?
It usually starts with a pitch deck, which is basically a PowerPoint presentation. Pitch decks are essential fundraising tools for startup companies today, whether a founder is after $500,000 or $20 million. Most of the big-name web apps like Mint and Foursquare started out small with a bright, young founder who put together a PowerPoint slideshow to explain their product and business model, and then showed it to VCs and angel investors.
Since each movie project you create is essentially a new product that requires substantial financing to develop and manufacture, I say why not utilize the same powerful sales tool that entrepreneurs in other industries use and adapt it to raising money for your movie or television production.”
Fuck no, I’m not giving it away! Stop tap dancing, Mr. Producer… stop giving me 10 reasons why it’s better if you run with my script than not. Explain why it is you’re not paying me for the ten months of work I put into writing it.
One of the few memories that remain from my days at William Morris is the image of my agent Bill Contardi negotiating an option agreement with a prospective producer. The producer came at us with a lowball figure and Bill told him, “it speaks to your level of commitment to the project.” If you feel passionate about my script, fucking show me. Money talks. What’s it say about my value to you when you ask me to sign a one-dollar option?
Don’t believe me? Try this ass-kicking article from Bill Boyles on the subject. Here’s a sample:
“Often the producer will attempt to get himself entwined into the very fabric of the screenplay. They make suggestions of changes in the script. They offer a line or two of dialogue, whatever. Now, even after the option has expired, they can have an effect on your script’s chain of title. They can attempt to lay partial claim to the script, and even if their claim is relatively weak, no production company wants to enter into a option/purchase on a script that does not maintain a clean chain of title.
You must realize that there is a perishable value to your screenplay that is partially protected by a fair option fee. The older the script gets, and the more submissions it has, the less salable it becomes.
The producer is not just optioning your screenplay, they are consuming years of its life expectancy and that alone is worth compensation.”
While we’re talking about producers, here’s a basic A to Z list of producer titles and responsibilities. If you missed film school, this is a must-read from Christopher Schiller. Here’s a sample:
“As writers, you will eventually meet and need to deal with Producers. (You may even become one yourself.) Just who are these people, what are their responsibilities, how much power do they really wield, and how should you treat them and be treated by them? The answer to those questions, as with nearly everything else dealt with in these columns, is “It depends…”
Producers can come in many different shapes and sizes, many levels of power and notoriety. Telling the big wigs from the wanna-bes and the pretenders from the powerful takes practice, a little knowledge and observation. Titles and how they are defined and interpreted vary substantially. A particular producer’s responsibilities and prestige are not always apparent on first blush. Getting and maintaining a clear understanding of just who is positioned where in the production hierarchy will help settle the confusion that often accompanies a writer’s dealings with producers of all ilk.
In most instances a title used in this industry clearly identifies the job of the person holding it. The Camera Operator operates the camera. Make-up people are in charge of make-up. The prop master controls the props. But there are some titles that defy easy application. That’s a case with the title producer and all its variations. In one sense a producer produces. But what does producing really mean? There are nearly as many applicable definitions as there are people claiming the title.
The word “producer” or some variant appears in a huge diversity of forms in the industry, most of which have some association with a production job that could be at least loosely tied to what we could call “producing.” They range from the straight forward to hopelessly vague and touch on every base in-between. A wholly inadequate list starts with just plain Producers, Executive Producers, Assistant Producers, Associate Producers, Co-Producers, Line Producers, Unit Producers, Production Coordinators, Assistant to the Producers, and on and on.”
I thought this flick would be Marvel Universe fluff. What a revelation, I liked a movie that grossed close to 800 million. Very interested to hear the genesis of how this happened and–ask and ye shall receive–here’s a Script Magazine interview with the writer Nicole Perlman. What would that be like, to have a written a flick that might make Broadway and a theme park ride? Find out here.
A sample: “Let’s talk about the now defunct Marvel Studios writers program. How was the program set up and what was your experience there like?
Perlman: Well, within the writers program at Marvel they had half a dozen properties that were by no means guaranteed that they were going to make it into a movie, but they were considering them. So they brought in five writers to be on campus. We each had an office and we were allowed to choose what projects we wanted, and even though they knew that science was my bent, I think there was a little bit of surprise when I chose Guardians of the Galaxy, which was such an unheard of property, and also because there were other titles on that sheet that were more family-friendly. So I was like no, I’m going for the one with Rocket Raccoon. That was how that came to be.
Why did the program shut down?
Perlman: I think the reason behind that is because they’re already making two movies a year right now and they’ll be making three eventually. They just don’t have a lot of room for some of these lesser-known properties. I think they’ll definitely start exploring those as time goes by, but having five scripts a year, projects that they’re really not going to have time to develop, I think they realized that they had too much to work with.
Let’s jump into Guardians of the Galaxy. You chose this property to work on. It was something that was completely unfamiliar to you. Did you have any knowledge of any of the Marvel Comics characters before going into this?
Perlman: I wasn’t really familiar with the Marvel Cinematic Universe or any of the comic books. So I was coming to it very fresh, which, in a way, I think I underestimated when I first started working there. I underestimated how much you really need to start developing in order to understand the history of all these characters. The first eight weeks I was there, all I was doing was reading comic books and binders and binders of color printouts that I was taking home and leafing through and reading. I had a lot of catching up to do because the stories have a huge history and all these characters have been around for decades. So it was important to get to know where they were coming from. Even though I did end up rebooting Peter Quill’s backstory a fair amount, it was good to know the original origin story for him.
This from the guy who wrote Confessions of an Eclair-Eater…
From the guy who hasn’t wedged into a size 38 in 15 years…
Who walked out on Benjamin Button for Paul Blart, Mall Cop…
I like fat guys…they make me laugh. Fat guy humor has been around forever, unlike the YouTube superstars humor of watching people react to video games. Fatty Arbuckle over Pew-Die-Pie. Oh hell yeah….
This blog has a tendency to over-preach life lessons. Hey, if you wanna put a fat guy in your flick, I’ll probably buy a ticket. Doesn’t seem like fat guys stay that way for long, even John Goodman is losing weight these days.
So let’s celebrate Fat Cinema, in all its wiggly glory. I’ll keep it vaguely chronological…