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Yep, it’s that time of year again, the Nicholl deadline, and you’re going crrrrrazzzzzyyyyy! Pulling out all the stops, making yourself a complete nuisance to friends and family to read your freakin’ script. Hitting the message boards at Trigger Street or Moviebytes…
It’s the annual screenwriter’s ritual, like salmon swimming upstream. The uptick in script evaluations here at Script Gods in the month of April is a direct result of contest season.
By now you know that May 1 is the Nicholl deadline this year. The cost for entry is $52. I suppose I could Google this, but…was it $52 last year? I seem to remember it being $35. And wasn’t the deadline May 15? Love the new clock that ticks down the deadline second by second, adding to the paranoia and frenzy to get that killer thriller or HANGOVER 3 wannabe in to the Nicholl Fellowship powers that be.
How many scripts came into Nicholl last year? 8,000? 10,000? Whatever the number, your odds are better than winning the lottery and for a mere 52 bucks, why not take the shot? Some folks take the same attitude with middling contests like Blue Cat or Final Draft or Slamdance or Page or….you get the picture. Multiply $50 by 10 or so contests, you have a definite investment in your career. And while submitting to all these contests is fine, they ain’t Nicholl. Not even the most money hungry contest runner would question who the Big Dog is here.
How do you know they’re the Big Dog?
#1: They don’t spam you. Aren’t you guys tired of getting spammed by these super-slick sites? I could name names but what’s the point? You get their email blasts too. Somehow you signed up for something and now, even hitting unsubscribe, you hear from them one, two or three times a week. From the smallest fish spamming me on LinkedIn, to the larger ones offering free advice on this or that but really baiting you in for online classes or screenwriting contests. Nicholl doesn’t need to spam you, and they don’t.
The middling contests? Never much bothered with them. That’s not to say folks like Slamdance or Final Draft or Page are scamsters, but what can they actually do for you? Ever hear a SINGLE memorable movie coming from there? Their claims to hook you up with industry insiders and jump start your career is music to your ears. Common sense says if something sounds too good, it probably is.
Nicholl, the Big Dog, doesn’t make outrageous claims. They don’t need to. When I finished with just a semifinal finish a few years ago, overnight I had 25 or so emails from managers, agents and production companies seeking out my script. There were some big fish in that list, including Jerry Bruckheimer Productions and Benderspink. These folks cherry pick the Nicholl list, sending out an email blast to the Semi winners on up for their new blood. And you wonder why they didn’t answer your query letter.
Nicholl Fellowship is a decent shot in the dark, and at $52, for a writer without contacts, I say why the hell not.
Two days left before the deadline.
Things will work out fine.
Win or lose, you’re a nice person, I’m sure.
Occasionally I’ll have a fiction student invade a film and video class. Their “head” is different. I’ll look at their screen description and see liberal use of adjectives and adverbs. Dense detail, terrific stuff. Because, in the fiction world, a novel can be 300 or 800 pages, they have the freedom to embellish not just description but dialogue. They can also throw in internal narration; put us right into the head of the character through WORDS. Looks great on the page.
Screenwriting isn’t about what’s on the page. Here’s where the disconnect comes in for fiction students… Film is a VISUAL medium. The juxtaposition of images is paramount. Words compliment the image, but they follow the image in importance. 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?
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?
I am an adverb and adjective hater. I admit it. Less is more.
Here’s a list of 1,001 adjectives, to be used in screen direction like this:
INT. ABBY’S APARTMENT- NIGHT
Amid the thundering din of lightning, Abby’s hissing cat Algernon moves from the window, down the long, twisting corridor and up the steep, curving staircase by the delicate, pink porcelain Ming vase away from the rude, deafening storm and toward his powder blue, freshly-cleaned, minty-smelling litter box.
INT. CLIVE’S APARTMENT- DAY
The gentle, happy-go-lucky, porcine, rolly-polly fatman Clive moves one last bite of food onto his fork, and toward his mouth-- a miniature, teeny-tiny, wafer thin mint.
Folks, I don’t care! I don’t care if the litter box is minty clean! Or that the staircase is curvy or the Ming vase is pink! Not unless it impacts story or character! Don’t think you impress the reader, either. You’re not. His tired eyes know what a fat man looks like. He doesn’t need the rolly-polly or porcine.. He gets it!
Less is more.
Same deal with adverbs. Let me demonstrate by borrowing from the list of S adverbs:
EXT. WILFRED’S HOUSE- MORNING
Solemnly closing his car trunk, Wiliford stealthily looks toward the swaying backyard elm. He walks slowly toward the sleepily standing mansion left to him in Father’s will. The hoot owl’s shrilly singing feels like no welcome at all. He sadly lifts his single bag, sheepishly moving toward the front door.
Walks slowly? C’mon! A 5th grader writes that, not someone who gets Finalist at Nicholl. Not someone who gets agency representation or has her script optioned. Pick your verbs well and you won’t need the damn adverb!
Try this: Before you send that script out, highlight every verb, go to thesaurus.com and find a stronger choice for each. Is that a pain in the ass? Sure it is! It’s also what differentiates you from the 50,000 others newbies writing scripts. Control what you can control. Verbs, you control them.
Be a adjective and adverb hater. It’ll make you a stronger writer, promise.
Every scene exists for a reason. When you outline what you’re doing is writing out the scenes that are essential to telling your story. Presumably, when you finish your outline, every scene exists for a purpose. You’re ready to write the movie.
Approach each new scene in this matter: What am I trying to do in the scene? Do it. What do I have to say? Say it. Get in late, get out early. Say what you have to in the scene, get done what has to get done, and move on. Fast, no fat, in and out of every scene.
Develop the cut instinct. Look to the dialogue you write in the first “discovery” draft. Look at it hard. What can go? Cut it. Does the scene still make sense? If the answer is yes, it stays cut. If you’ve left something out that has to go back in, then in it goes. That’s the true measure of what’s necessary: Does the scene makes sense without it.
Let’s try an experiment. I’ll give you a scene with 10 lines of dialogue, you cut it to five lines. Then we’ll take the five liner and cut it to two. Then we’ll take the scene with two lines of dialogue and see if we can do with zero lines. Ready?
INT. KITCHEN – NIGHT
BETTY, 40′s, full array of Betty Crocker crockery about her, chops at an onion. A raw meatloaf log lays in a fry pan. The clock behind her reads 2:04am--an odd time to be cooking meatloaf.
HARRY enters. 40′s, shirt tail out, rumpled sport shirt and suit, smelling of Guinness. He locks eyes with Betty.
Where were you?
The meeting ran long. I stopped off for a nightcap.
Pointing to the raw meatloaf...
You missed dinner.
I grabbed a burger at the bar.
I phoned at work. They said you were in conference with Melissa. Couldn’t be disturbed--
Betty...we’ve been through this. Melissa is a colleague. This is a professional relationship. I don’t know what you’re thinking about with this crazy jealousy of yours. I’ve been through it a thousand times. There’s just no reason. Don’t you trust me? You’re my wife, I love you.
Last week Thursday you got in at 2:14 in the morning. Friday it was 1:05. Tuesday it was 1 o’clock--
This is insane. I can’t deal with this--
YOU can deal with it?! I’m sitting here with a meatloaf waiting for you?! You and your special Melissa project! You think I believe you? You were running around on me last year with that little Starbucks cutie. Two years ago it was the Off-Off-Off Broadway actress. How long do you think I’m going to just stand around and--
Betty...I can’t handle this. We’ll talk about it tomorrow. Good night.
Awful stuff. Exposition, backstory, needless repetition. Let’s cut it, hone the same scene in five lines of dialogue. Should NOT be hard.
Harry looks at the raw meatloaf...
Betty...we’ve been through this. Melissa is a colleague. It’s a professional relationship. You’re my wife, I love you. I really can’t deal with--
You can deal with it?! I’m sitting here with meatloaf, waiting for you?!
Betty...we’ll talk about it tomorrow.
Still awful, but tighter. You don’t miss the lines cut because the intention of the scene hasn’t changed: Jealous wife confronts late-arriving husband. Cut out the backstory, the repetition, we lose nothing so out it goes. Now do it in two dialogue lines.
I phoned at work. They said you were in conference with Melissa. Couldn’t be disturbed.
Harry looks at the raw meatloaf, looks at his wife chopping the onion savagely. He slips out of the kitchen.
The purpose of the scene remains intact: Pissed-off wife confronting drunk–possibly cheating–husband. It’s a quarter the size it once was, but still isn’t sharp enough, still not quite enough THREAT to it. Let’s work it once more, and try it with zero dialogue.
HARRY enters. 40′s, shirt tail out, rumpled sport shirt and suit, smelling of Guinness.
Betty takes Ginsu knife to the onion, savagely slicing.
Harry looks at the raw meatloaf, then to his wife...
SLICE! Ginsu blade gleaming...
Harry locks eyes with his wife, her eyes not moving from his. She is crying.
WHACK! Another slice at the ballish vegetable...
WHACK WHACK WHACK! Ginsu blade savagely into the onion ball, cut into a thousand pieces.
Harry gulps, slipping out of the kitchen without a word, his eyes never leaving hers.
Ten lines gone, intention fully there, perhaps even clearer without the use of dialogue.
Always challenge your dialogue, every line of it.
Develop the cut instinct.
I don’t know why I’m writing about this.
The usual writer’s narcissism, of course. The exhibitionism, too. Hanging dirty laundry, calling it a life lesson.
I try to fight the good fight, hoping something in these pages will help your own journeys, but as the great writer once said, we all make that sad trip alone. The machinations are as follows…
TITLE CARD- EIGHT MONTHS EARLIER
I signed up with Linked In. Friend of a friend friended me. Got 3 email accounts, 2 Facebooks. But no Twitter. Constant communication is no friend of mine. My friend chided me about me preaching networking 24/7, so what the fuck, I signed up. Didn’t see much purpose of Linked In other than folks pushing their own agendas. I navigated carefully but within a month had 200+ friends. Mostly screenwriting folks. One of them turned out to be JG.
She sent me a message telling me her story. She had been an agent’s assistant with ICM back in the day. More recently, an agent at a “boutique” agency. She had just gone out of her own, forming a Management company. She had a sharp sense of the business. I was impressed with her aggressiveness and sense of humor. Very Type A. She was looking for writers. Well well, thought I, Linked In is good for something after all!
I replied to her message, asked her if she liked drama and black comedy (my “genre bands”). She said those would be lovely. I sent her some stuff, and she liked them. The calls between us became more frequent. She wanted to rep me. I was without representation and didn’t see a downside. She wasn’t asking for exclusivity on my material and the contract she faxed was legit. I signed it. Within a matter of weeks I had myself a manager.
The phone calls were popping now. 2 or 3X a week. We focused on two scripts, Crossroaders, a casino caper drama, and Skin Deep, a black comedy about a geek-turned-hunk changing his life through plastic surgery. JG thought the scripts were tight and would be going out with them immediately. She was heading to Cannes and might even be able to slip them into the hands of Producer X, Y or Z. She’d keep me informed. Cool.
TITLE CARD– WEEKS LATER
JG phoned. Told me Cannes war stories. Everybody–and she meant everybody–was looking for self-contained thrillers or Hangover-style comedies. She had a comedy of mine, but it was black comedy, not broad comedy…big difference. Best definition of the difference I ever heard was that black comedy makes the audience think. Hangover 2 doesn’t need to make you think. When a monkey sitting on a dude’s lap jerks off a Coke bottle, like the character says, “funny in any language.”
I would do JG a disservice to say she didn’t understand the difference in terms of trying to sell me (black comedies being harder in this brutal spec script environment to sell). Still, she was optimistic. She believed in the scripts, especially Crossroaders. She’d be sending that out in a week.
TITLE CARD– TWO WEEKS LATER
Crossroaders came back. She had given it to exactly two people…who had issues. One of the producers like it, with reservations. He wanted a rewrite up front. His option offer? Nothing, up front.
There’s nothing worse than seeing the person who reps you revealed as having no backbone. They walk into a meeting with X Y or Z with pure optimism for a script. Upon hearing reservations, they walk out with concerns. Then comes the call to you looking for revisions. Free revisions. Then comes the choice you, the writer, has to make.
Doing revisions for free is a completely subjective, your-call choice. There is no right or wrong. Like the great William Goldman once so famously said, “There are no rules.” The material we were discussing, Crossroaders, had been vetted for years before JG picked up the material. It was very close to being green-lit through the production company that produced Emma and Dead Poets Society. It had made Semifinals at Nicholl Fellowship. It’s my strongest piece, and didn’t need tweaking.
Least not for dollar zero.
I’d be perfectly happy to listen to producer notes, and to act on those notes, but not for dollar zero. They weren’t impressive. I always remember my ex-agent at William Morris telling a low-balling prodco, “it speaks to your level of commitment on the project.” Zero was offered, so draw your own conclusions on their commitment.
I was burned out too. It had been a long year at Columbia. I was looking forward to a five week break. I made a decision. I told JG I wouldn’t be doing any free rewrites, at least for that five week period. Afterwards I’d be recharged, maybe it could happen then.
JG was not happy.
What followed was a Type A phone call, and some Type A emails exchanged. And then…silence.
Strangely, I saw JG in New York a week or two after that. I was in New York and we had booked the meeting previously, so it happened. I walked into the meeting not knowing if I still had a Manager. I left the same way.
And I still don’t.
TITLE CARD- PRESENT DAY
Haven’t heard from JG in months though. The days of 2 and 3 phone calls a week are over.
I would feel worse if I hadn’t met her off freakin’ Linked In, or if she ever made me a penny. Like a few other reps I’ve had, it was sound and fury, signifying nothing.
I don’t know why I offered this up to you today. It’s just another wannabe life lesson from your Humble Narrator.
Shit happens. More often than not it’s not splashy or outrageous like on Entourage. Often it’s just silence, emails or texts no longer sent, phone calls stopped. You never know if the end is for the best…
Or if it’s the end at all.
We talked before the importance of character arcs. I’d like to illustrate a few more famous characters and their journeys. The hope is it helps you think about your own characters and their journeys. I mentioned in the last article that characters gotta change. Like every other screenwriting rule, this one can be broken. Let me be more specific: I recommend to you that your characters change during the course of the movie. There are famous examples where this doesn’t happen though:
Tony Montana is an animal on page 1 of Scarface. Straight-up criminal off the boat from Cuba. He takes a job at a taco stand but he’s got his eye on more. Life as the pursuit of more. His journey commences through the drug trade, through murder and mayhem and mountain of cocaine. He becomes a boss, rich beyond belief. Ironically, it’s only when he won’t kill a target that his empire comes under fire and he is taken down. When Tony Montana is killed, yeah, he might have a regret about killing his best friend and getting his sister killed, but his nature is essentially unchanged. He’s an animal. “Say goodnight to the bad guy!”
Maybe I’m wrong here but…does Kane really change? Here’s the quick synopsis from Wikipedia:
Flashbacks reveal that Kane’s childhood was spent in poverty in Colorado (his parents ran a boarding house), until the “world’s third largest gold mine” was discovered on the seemingly worthless property his mother had acquired. He is forced to leave his mother (Agnes Moorehead) when she sends him away to the East Coast of the U.S. to live with Thatcher, to be educated. After gaining full control over his possessions at the age of 25, Kane enters the newspaper business with sensationalized yellow journalism. He takes control of the newspaper, the New York Inquirer, and hires all the best journalists. His attempted rise to power is documented, including his manipulation of public opinion for the Spanish American War; his first marriage to Emily Monroe Norton (Ruth Warrick), a President’s niece; and his campaign for the office of governor of New York State, for which alternative newspaper headlines are created depending on the result.
Kane’s marriage disintegrates over the years, and he begins an affair with Susan Alexander. Both his wife and his opponent discover the affair, simultaneously ending his marriage and his political career. Kane marries his mistress, and forces her into an operatic career for which she has no talent or ambition. Kane finally allows her to abandon her singing career after she attempts suicide, but after a span of time spent in boredom and isolation in Xanadu, she ultimately leaves him.
Kane spends his last years building his vast estate and lives alone, interacting only with his staff. The butler recounts that Kane had said “Rosebud” after Susan left him, right after seeing a snow globe.
This film has been called the greatest American film of all time, perhaps the greatest film period. But I asked you: How does the man change? One could say he betrayed his roots of poverty. His last word, “Rosebud”, referring to the sled, to his happy childhood days despite the lack of money. His “idealistic early publishing days” are barely seen. The rest of it is Kane doing what his does best–accumulating power. No wonder this movie wasn’t sanctioned by William Randolph Heart. Wells brilliantly and relentlessly shows what the spoils of power bring.
A simple-minded gardener named Chance has spent all his life in the Washington D.C. house of an old man. When the man dies, Chance is put out on the street with no knowledge of the world except what he has learned from television. After a run in with a limousine, he ends up a guest of a woman (Eve) and her husband Ben, an influential but sickly businessman. Now called Chauncey Gardner, Chance becomes friend and confidante to Ben, and an unlikely political insider.
When they tell you characters have to change, ask them about this movie. The Peter Sellers character of Chauncey Gardener is one of his greatest roles for its restraint. Just as with Kane, same as with Tony Montana–The character doesn’t change, his circumstance does.
Same deal here. The doctor, played by Harrison Ford, loves his wife at the top of the movie. He loves her (in death) at the end. He’s essentially the same man. His journey, and the movie’s, is to prove his wife’s innocence. Sure, he makes discoveries about a former friend who betrayed him. He also puts his life on the line and jumps from Hoover Dam in his quest. Tommy Lee Jones, the FBI cop who stalks him, comes to realize this is an innocent man, but it’s not until 130 minutes of non-stop thriller action. The circumstances of plot change, not the doctor.