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Want a feel-good story? A story to give you some hope? A concrete example that it CAN happen if the stars align…
I was first made aware of Munger Road a few weeks ago. Several ex-Columbia students were involved in shooting this movie in the Chicago suburbs. They scraped together 30K+ and shot this digi-feature, editing it themselves, then setting out into the ridiculously crowded micro-budget marketplace trying to find a niche.
This is not a novel concept. In an era where Studios buy The Three Musketeers with Leonardo Da Vinci as the antagonist building a death-carrying zeppelin, it seems that nailing a Studio deal straight out of school would be as likely as winning the 14-state Powerball. The mini-major Independent scene isn’t much more appealing, distributors going under in the crap economy, pursuing a name star for months and years to get backing for that 1-5 million dollar budget. The answer–and the only realistic option–is the third road. Going micro-budget with a genre that could gain traction, find a niche, and stick around in this tough marketplace. Enter Munger Road…
They four-walled it at a dinky suburban theater (meaning they either paid for the screen for a week or worked out a percentage deal with the theater-owner). The movie made its budget back IN A WEEK! This, the beauty of the 30K movie. A lot easier to see that cash back than, say, the million-dollar independent release. Then came a 3-star Ebert review and a second week expansion from one screen to nine. I open up the Chicago Sun-Times in Week 3, Munger Road is playing a screen two blocks from the school, three in Chicago, total screens…32! The box office chart, courtesy of IMDB.pro, looks like this:
You don’t have to be a CPA from Princeton to know these kids stand to make some very nice money. Not to mention find agents, launching their careers into higher-budget projects, or finance about 10 more micro-budget ones. Low-budget horror works, and it doesn’t even have to be the two-run home-run like Blair Witch Project, or the grand slam that is Paranormal Activity. None of this is news to the boatloads of low-budget horror movie screenwriters rolling up on LA shores daily. Everyone wants their piece and it doesn’t always work out. The stars must align–quality of work, timing, connections, and straight up luck–all come into play.
But the point is: It can happen. This movie might not be around 100 years from now but it doesn’t have to be. In actuality, it doesn’t even have to be good. To have made it this far into theatrical release is the victory. Making some coin, paying for your next movie, getting on the board as movie-makers…that’s the victory. It can happen…
Tidings of great joy.
I’m a drag.
If you ever go to the movies with me, I apologize in advance. Why?
Obviously, standards shift depending on genre– if its Michael Clayton or Zombieland, Erin Brockovich or Airplane! More is expected from, say, a drama than a spoof comedy.
For dramas, real-world rules should be in place. If you write something that would never happen, it raises a red flag. If your audience can’t “buy” X Y or Z, you might lose them. Movies by their nature are a fantasy, yes, but if we’re not grounded in some sense of reality, then that’s all it is– the fantastical. Which is fine if you’re writing Donnie Darko, but not so fine if it’s Donnie Brasco.
If a bowling ball drops on the foot of a character in your drama, will it hurt? Real world laws have to count for something. Gravity applies.
Problem is, I get bothered even when not talking about 007 movies, Tarantino flicks, or graphic novel adaptations…
Am I the only one to wonder: A bucket of water? In that exact corner of the castle? Let’s see if I’ve got this right: Water is death for the Wicked Witch of the West. Being all powerful, you’d think she’d have left a general order for NO WATER ALLOWED in the castle. It also means she’s never taken a drink of water or a drink of anything in her entire life, or SHOWERED…but let that one go for now…
Did one of her Winged monkeys bring the water in, not comprehending her weakness? Maybe an ambitious Tower Guard plotting an overthrow? How all-powerful is she if she gets doused by a swish of water and her “beautiful wickedness” goes pure liquid?
See what I mean? I have a plausibility problem.
I revere this movie. One of the greatest noirs of all-time. Screenplay by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler. Book by James M. Cain. These are names that will be around a hundred years from now.
Doesn’t it bug you that Walter Neff (Fred McMurry) agrees to commit a murder with Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck)…after three scenes?
Scene 1: Phyllis’ House. Walter tries to sell her insurance, likes what he sees, makes a pass, she rebuffs his advance, they make a date for him to return when the husband is home.
Scene 2: Phyllis’ House. Husband absent, more sexual innuendo, Phyllis inquires about a 50K accidental death policy, Walter gets the intention, calls her on it, gets kicked out.
Scene 3: Walter’s apartment. Phyllis arrives late night, more sparring, more sexuality innuendo, Phyllis is miserable, teary, telling of her awful life. Walter, being the iconic film noir male, can’t lay off. He agrees to kill the husband.
One of the great movies of all time and I’ve got a problem with it? Sad indeed.
Kubrick is god. I’m only a flea at his heel, but even a flea has will…
You’re telling me there’s a secret society composed of dozens, if not hundreds of people. They wear cool masks and robes, have somber rules and rituals followed by outrageous orgies that end in torture or death for any who dare to reveal them and…
It’s all been kept a secret until Tom Cruise shows up?
Notice I’m not asking how–if we’re portraying a modern day world–it hasn’t been made public in some fashion, on Twitter or Facebook or YouTube–I’m just saying…hundreds of people at these events? Going on for years? And it takes Tom Cruise for it to leak out?
“It vexes me. It vexes me very much.”
Question: If he vexes you, why not just kill him? You’re CAESAR! Why would you care what the mob says?
Answer: Because there’s no movie if Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) rams a sword through Russel Crowe, reborn as Gladiator, when he discovers him. That discover happens at about the story’s mid-point. It if happened as it probably would in real life, there’s no movie.
Idiot, it’s NOT real life! It’s escape, it’s entertainment. It’s the magic of movies, that silver light. Suspension of disbelief. I get it. That’s why people pay $11 or more to sit in the dark for 90 minutes.
And yet, I can’t shut it off. Always questioning– motivation, logistics– such and such would never happen. My moviegoing friends ignore me, feed me popcorn and Snickers bars, anything to shut me up. It doesn’t work.
I have a plausibility problem.
That’s what you get. You spend six months on that spec screenplay and the reader at the agency-manager-prodco-contest is giving five lousy pages before he makes a judgement.
It’s an outrage! Blame it on Attention-Deficit-Disorder, the Twitterverse, the 24/7 news cycle…but guess what?
A good reader can recognize a poorly written script within five pages or less. Sometimes it can be seen on Page 1.
Here are a couple of traps to avoid:
“The Chow Chow sadly waddles up the plush scarlet-carpeted, serpentine-twisting rug, woefully stopping under the plumb Ming Dynasty vase, dumbly lifting his hind leg…”
You’re writing a screenplay, not the Great American novel. That means not killing the reader with purple prose. Just because you can write effective adjectives and adverbs doesn’t mean you should. When it comes to pumping up screen direction, ask yourself: Do I need it?
How do you know if you need it? Ask: How does it advance character or plot?
It’s Page 1 and you’ve got that Chow doing his business on the purple plush carpet. I know you’re going to be able to tell me how this advances the protagonist’s character, right?
This is not to say you can never use an adverb or adjective. You just have to pick your spots. If it’s a scene where a character grabs a coffee at Starbucks, as a reader, I really, really don’t care about the faux fireplace flame warming the caramel brulee latte drinkers. If, however, my protagonist has been estranged from his father for a decade, some extra detail about the scene where they reunite would be welcome.
See the difference? Be an adjective and adverb hater.
You want your screenplay to be a visual experience. You want the reader to see the movie in your mind. Using parenthetical beats and pauses looks clunky, mechanical. It takes me out of the read, out of the visualizing of your movie. Use ellipses instead. Those three dots are a time tested method to indicate pause.
“Abe Lincoln, I had no idea you were so obsessed with vampires…”
“Petey, bro, how many times can one dude see The Hangover 2?”
“Sheldon, I thought I told you to take the garbage out. Oh, and Sheldon, don’t forget, recycle!”
Are you using character names in dialogue too often? If so, you’ve got the name disease. This is a lazy writing habit. Did you use Petey’s name in dialogue three times on a single page? Cut some, or all of them. When you’re talking to someone in real life who you know, how often do you use their name?
Hayley is playing on the monkey bars.
Billy is swinging on the swing set.
Active verbs are more direct, more assertive, and ultimately easier on the reader’s eye.
Hayley plays on the monkey bars.
Billy swings on the swing set.
Ditch the passive writing. And while we’re talking verbs…
Jimmy slowly walks down the stairs.
Anyone can write that! Want your script to stand out? Do a full spell check and proofread, yes. While you’re at it, pink highlight EVERY VERB in your script. Are they strong, action verbs? Can you make them stronger? Challenge yourself. Pick better verbs.
Jimmy ambles-rambles-limps-saunters-wanders-stumbles-hobbles down the stairs.
Anything but walks slowly!
Lastly, and perhaps most important:
Please don’t make the reader guess on who they’re supposed to be following. Find your protagonist as soon as possible. Does that mean we have to see the protagonist in Page 1 Scene 1? Of course not. There are no absolutes, no always or never in screenwriting.
In general though, as a reader, I’ll take clarity over confusion. When you introduce seven named characters in the first five pages and make me guess who the story is about, it leaves me wondering. And if by page 10 I’m still wondering who the story is about, well, it’s not ideal.
Find your protagonist quickly.
This post is dedicated to the 80 degree weather here in Chicago that has me still in shorts into October. Read this, then get out into it!
Examine your process– how you write the script . Let’s say you’ve outlined your script. You’ve blocked out time and are coming at it with good energy. You barricade yourself in with a copy of Baudelaire’s Flowers of Evil, 18 bottles of Pabst Blue Ribbon or whatever it takes to get you rolling. The pages come out, but look like crap. What the $#@*! Why?! Remember this scene in Amadeus?
God speaking to you lately? It doesn’t happen. There are going to be so many rewrites, polishes, trims, tucks, cuts…the script in constant revision mode.
Don’t be a perfectionist. Don’t keep rewriting the same 30 pages.
I’ve seen good writers lose confidence this way. They can’t get the scene down, but they won’t let it go. You have to push forward. That’s the purpose of the rough “discovery” draft. Push forward, say everything you want to say in rough form. If, at the end, you’re looking at 140 pages, so what? You’ll know what needs to be done by the time you reach the end. Don’t censor yourself. Push out. Get the rough draft done, then refine.
I made a vow: “If I hear that voice over again, I’m walking.” There’s Kate Winslet approaching a playground: “Many times Mary would take her child to the playground.” Kate swings her kid in the swing. “She loved to swing her kid on the swing.” Kate looks to a gaggle of women chatting at the merry-go-round. “There would often be other mothers there gossiping.” Voice over, if used at all, should not describe what we’re seeing directly. Good voice over is indirect. It delves into the mind of a character for insights that are essential to the scene, insights we can’t see.
If you’re using voice over, please, examine the necessity of it. What’s your voice over adding that we can’t discover visually? This is not to say it can’t be done well. Road To Perdition, Goodfellas, American Pyscho, Forrest Gump all had voice over essential to the narrative.
This is low-hanging fruit.
Still found—for whatever reason– in Final Draft software under the “Transition” tab, CUT TO is a useless and redundant device. Why would I need CUT TO to indicate a new scene? A slugline, by definition, indicates a new scene.
I’ve heard the argument that they help visualize the movie, a hard cut looks different from a dissolve. That is a director/editor’s call, not the Spec Screenwriter. You want you script visual? Don’t slow the reader’s eye with 100+ pointless CUT TO’s. Dump ‘em.
Bouncing from FLASHBACK to PRESENT is not ideal. Like voice over, use FLASHBACKS if there’s no other way to tell the story.
Use FLASH TO’s for shorter time frames, to go into a character’s mind for a recollection or moment. FLASH TO’s appear in movies as five or ten second bursts of memory, as visions of the past, but are not flashbacks. You never leave the present moment; only go back in time inside the character’s mind, then return just as quickly to the present. Do not force the reader into reading the visual equivalent of ping-pong. If you can tell the story without any flashbacks, do it. Here’s a previous post with examples from The Incredible Hulk, The Fugitive and Lethal Weapon.
Three Oscar wins, dozens of awards and nominations around the globe. Great blood lines with the F. Scott Fitzgerald source material. Incredible effects, beautiful look to the film. Brave performances by Pitt and Cate Blanchett. What’s your problem with this one, genius? Why walk on it?
Because it booooored me!
2 ½ hours? Of what? Felt like I was trapped watching a slide show of Benjamin Button’s life. “In the 20’s I was…” “In the 40’s I was…” Structurally perfect sequences, but dull. I always feel a bit guilty telling folks I walked on Benjamin Button for…Paul Blart, Mall Cop! Truth be told, I’d do it again!
Craig Mazin is a lucky man. Many people spend a lifetime looking for their niche, their place in the world. This guy found his niche. In case you don’t recognize the name, from an online bio I found:
“Craig Mazin (born April 8, 1971) is an American screenwriter and director. He was born in 1971 in Brooklyn, New York, and graduated magna cum laude with a degree in psychology from Princeton University in 1992. He began his entertainment career in marketing; he was an executive with the Walt Disney Company in the mid-90s, responsible for writing and producing campaigns for studio films.
As a screenwriter, his credited work includes Senseless, RocketMan, Scary Movie 3, and Scary Movie 4. Other projects in development include the upcoming movie Opus, an animated collaboration with cartoonist Berkeley Breathed. He has worked almost exclusively for Dimension Films and Miramax Films since 2000.
He produced and directed (but did not write) the low-budget superhero film The Specials. Mazin wrote another superhero film spoof Superhero Movie.
In 2004, Mazin was elected to the board of directors of the Writers Guild of America, west. He did not seek re-election, and his term expired in September 2006. Mazin runs a website called The Artful Writer.”
Just two posts at The Artful Writer since November, 2010. Why, I wondered. Then I noticed…
He wrote The Hangover 2. Sold a ticket or two over Memorial Day…
I like no bullshit guys. Mazin doesn’t lie to you because he doesn’t need your money. I’ll miss The Artful Writer. Here are a couple tastes:
First, from a post about Professional Screenwriting Trends:(Mazin’s writing is italicized)
“This isn’t an article for everyone. But if you’re a working screenwriter in Hollywood right now, it’s an article for you. And if you’re hiring writers, it’s definitely for you.
Things are trending poorly.
Ask around. You can talk to baby writers, typical writers, A-listers, marquee names and practically any agent in the business…and you hear a lot of the same gripes. Since the double whammy of the strike and the economic collapse, the companies seem to have changed a number of business practices, and all at screenwriters’ expense.
I’m going to argue that these changes will ultimately be at their expense as well.
What’s happening out there?
The changes have come in three basic areas.
First, compensation seems to be down. You can still get your quote, but there’s a resistance to paying it, and bumps have become harder to negotiate, no matter how well-deserved they are. Some writers are being told that their quotes will not be honored.
Second, one-step deals are proliferating. At certain studios, they are the only option.
Third, the amount of work required to even get a job has expanded tremendously.
The question of quotes is easy enough to explain. Everyone’s stock price dropped, credit got tight, the DVD market began to soften, and the companies slashed costs. They haven’t just gone after writers. They’ve got after everyone. Directors, actors…even themselves. It’s hard to tell a man who is gnawing on his own foot that he’s eaten too much, but that’s the argument I’ll make in a bit. Similarly, one-step deals are an obvious hedge against the dreaded “we got the first draft and hated it so much we know that we’ll never like the next one but oh my God we have to pay for it anyway” syndrome. The third situation…the overpitching…is a further hedge. Why should the companies buy a blueprint for a house when they can walk into a model home, sleep in it for a night, and then decide if they want to buy?
I’ll tell you why.
All of these changes are shortsighted. All of these changes come with unintended consequences. And all of these changes aren’t going to get studios better writing. On the contrary. This stuff is going to backfire…”
From another great article, Screenwriting is Free…
I just got back today from the Austin Film Festival. I had a terrific time, spoke on a bunch of panels, met lots of people and had an all-around kickass time.
I want to talk to you. You go to screenwriting conferences because you want to be a professional. You want to sell a script. You’re a student. You want to learn.
Good for you. Listening to and questioning the people who do the job you want is a smart move.
What is NOT a smart move is listening to the people who DON’T do the job. And who are they? Oh, you know who they are. They’re selling books. They’re selling seminars. They’re “script consultants.” And for a small fee, or a medium fee, or a goddamned flat-out ridiculous fee, they’ll coach you right into the big leagues!
Horseshit. Let me say it loudly and clearly: IF THEY WERE ANY GOOD, THEY WOULD BE DOING WHAT I DO, NOT DOING WHAT THEY DO.
Dig? Simple rule of thumb: don’t spend a dime on a book, a lesson, a seminar or advice if the person selling DOESN’T HAVE A REAL MOVIE CREDIT.
Lastly, one of the best blog posts I’ve ever read, I Am Wasting Your Time:
I’m talking to you, the aspiring screenwriter. You haven’t sold anything, or maybe one thing a few years ago. Been a while since you cashed a real check for writing; maybe you never have.
But you know what you do have? A community. You have the scribosphere. It’s a rich, vibrant support group, where you can seek out information, inspiration and encouragement for your creative and professional ambitions.
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Let’s be real. It’s mostly a waste of time.
I’ve been to the places you go. Done Deal, the blogs, the forums…even my own are potentially ruinous for you.
When I started in this business in the early 90′s, we barely had email (and we tied an onion on our belts, which was the style at the time), much less all the stuff you whippersnappers have. If I had a question, you know who I asked?
The frickin’ sky. Then I curled up into a ball and fretted.
But mostly I just wrote.
And there, of course, is the problem. You’re all so saturated with discussions, analysis and interactions that many of you would rather talk about it than actually do it.
At their best, sites like mine offer you a chance to slip away from your work, maybe learn something…and maybe procrastinate for a bit in a relevant way. At their worst–and I’m afraid I see more “worst” than best–these sites are a trap. They function like some nightmarish barrel of crabs, where the ones on the bottom fight to make sure none of the others rise to the top. The inhabitants of the scribosphere are often jealous and petty, doling out horrendous and uninformed advice mostly to regulate their own fragile emotional states. “Do what I tell you. I know what I’m talking about!” types the man who is terribly frightened that he has absolutely no idea what the hell he’s talking about.
Everybody on the internet seems to know The Right Way. Everyone is ready to beat you about the head and neck with snark and attitude and smug superiority. Everybody seems to have perfected the art of “participating in a forum.”
But you know what 99.99999% of them haven’t figured out?
How the hell to be a professional screenwriter. A real, consistent, steadily-employed professional screenwriter.
So here’s the deal. Are you a real, consistent, steadily-employed professional screenwriter? You are? Good. Enjoy. Use the internet as you wish.
Are you an aspiring screenwriter who is completing drafts, getting your work out there, hustling for gigs and trying to perfect your craft? Good. Enjoy. Use the internet as you wish.
Are you a wannabe who is spending more time arguing, posing and socializing on the internet than you are actually writing?
It’s a trap. Retreat.
All the zeros you’re fighting with and winning points against and PM’ing with and snickering about? They last thing they want is for you to actually tune them out and write something. Because if you did, you might stop being an unaccomplished internet tough guy like them…
…and actually become a professional screenwriter.”
Craig, I aspire to your honesty. Keep taking no prisoners.