22 March 2014

We write movies because we love Christopher Walken

Okay maybe not just because of Chris Walken - we write for a myriad of reasons. But when it comes right to it, the below dance compilation encompasses it all.

Watch it. If you're in the movie business, you'll get it. You'll spot the movies, you'll remember the moments, you'll feel the drama, the laughter, the heat. You'll recall it all, the movie history and your own, watching in wonder and fear as a child, dreaming and striving as you grew older. You remember what those movies meant, what they were all about, what the writer tried to convey, how directors and actors brought it to silver screen life.

Sure, the dance compilation is nothing more than a glimpse. But, in a nutshell, it perfectly encapsulates why we are in this business. Our crazy love for film is the very same you see in every smirk, wave and step of the one and only Christopher Walken.

Need a spirit-lifter before you head into your next draft? Watch and rejoice.

15 March 2014

What is a larger-than-life character?

I can give you examples, but I can't give you a definition. All I'll try to do here is put some thoughts to paper ... because I believe that the term, larger-than-life, is massively overused.

Google it. You'll find things like "Larger-than-life describes a character that is legendary" and "A character is larger-than-life when the persona surpasses the person". You'll find examples with everything from real-life mentions like Winston Churchill to fictional ones like Rambo. I have a feeling that the term's been used and abused any old time anyone felt like hyping a person or character. Any character can be larger-than-life. But it's not who they are, it's what they do and the circumstances they do it in. And those two, action and circumstance, must be so large that we are awed by the scope and humbled by the comparison to our own lives.

I've seen the term used to describe the characters of American Hustle. Those characters are strong, the performances powerful. What they do and how they behave makes perfect sense in the context of who they are and the circumstances they're presented with. Great characters, but larger-than-life? I don't think so. What about the notion that all fictional characters are by definition larger-than-life? It's the idea film is "drama is real life without the boring bits" (I believe Hitchcock said that) and that because of the lack of boring bits everything automatically becomes larger-than-life. Not really, right?! There ARE larger-than-life characters. Let's look at a few examples:

  • Mahatma Gandhi: His actions, his choices, under those extraordinary circumstances, were beyond what people could fathom. It made him beyond what normal people could do, it made him unique and in story terms that clearly makes his character larger-than-life. 
  • T.E. Lawrence: Better known as "Lawrence of Arabia", he was thrown into the well known WWI Middle Eastern circumstances. In the film he makes choices that are beyond what anyone else would do and those around do indeed look at him as something more-than-human.
  • Jeremiah Johnson: The quiet little film by Sidney Pollack starring Robert Redford. The circumstances are extraordinary, his actions and choices beyond what anyone else could or would want to endure - Johnson becomes a legend in his own time, larger-than-life, indeed.
  • Katniss Everdeen: Again, the circumstances are extraordinary and so are her choices in The Hunger Games. The story is in fact very much about her struggle to come to grips with the larger-than-life character she becomes for the world around her. 

We could go on and on with characters based on real people, characters in classical drama, characters in pop culture. We'd agree on some and disagree on others.

In the end, as a screenwriter - should you create a story with the intent of writing a "larger-than-life" character? I think it'd be foolish. All you can do is what you're supposed to do with every story anyway - create the most uniquely vivid characters you can think up. Explore their greatest wants and deepest needs - and then confront them with the most terrifying obstacles. In the end, you'll have a story. In the end, your story is hopefully packed with vibrant characters like the ones in American Hustle. And, in the end, you just might discover that others begin to call your characters "larger-than-life".

When that happens, smile politely and move on to the next script.

02 March 2014

The beauty of the spec

Wow - hadn't written a spec in ... more than ten years! I've been lucky, I've been hired, I've been going from assignment to assignment, collaboration to collaboration ... but this most recent spec was both a necessary and beautiful experience.

Your spec, your time, your freedom.
When you get hired, your efforts will be based on any number of things: an original pitch, a newspaper article, a short, a novel, a rewrite, you name it. When you get hired, you sit down and agree on the basics with your collaborators. Rarely is it the pitch alone, more often an exposé - your employers want to know upfront what they're paying you for and what you'll be delivering.

All of that sets boundaries, frames that are hopefully clear to everyone. I love these frames. The best collaborations happen when everyone's on the same page. Every screenwriter is bound to fuck up the script in any of a gazillion wrong directions if the path isn't clear to begin with. Nothing worse than a producer looking at you, first draft in hand and saying, "this isn't what I thought we had agreed on." ... but while all of that hopefully effective collaboration allows for a great deal of creativity, you are bound.

Freedom ... I had almost forgotten what that was. Freedom is the spec script. Freedom is you and the blank page and no one but the characters talking to you about the story and where it wants to go. A good writer, of course, will do what he'd do when hired - even on a spec, you define your theme, you get to know your characters inside out, you commit to clear frames of world, story - you even commit to deadlines. The big difference is, you're not hired, it's just you, purely your own choice, every single turn, every single word, your choice ... Freedom.

If you've been lucky like me to get assignment after assignment - don't forget to take an occasional break for a spec. Don't pitch it, don't place it before you write it - just do it for yourself. My experience has been out of this world - utterly invigorating. Pure joy. But if you're a fresh writer, never been hired, then trust me when I tell you that, right at this very moment as a slave through your spec script, you are living screenwriting at its purest. Hard as it may feel, maddening as it may seem - make the most of this current freedom - enjoy it!

And then sometimes, sometimes, that spec script resonates with others. Best of all worlds. In my case, turns out that my agency likes the script and will start pitching it ... but whatever comes from this, I've had a few months of pure gold, in a world of my creation, in the company of imaginary friends who felt, and feel, as real as air I breathe. Bliss.

20 February 2014

About crowdfunding ... again!

I wrote about crowdfunding first in 2011 - back then, it was still a novelty for me. By now, especially as a young filmmaker, it's simply irresponsible to neglect this option.

With the right passion, you'll get that money.
As a fresh talent in film business it used to be tough to get seen, heard and read. Today there's so many options - aside from the physical ones (student networks, writer circles, seminars, workshops, conferences) - there's the web in all its glory (and time-sucking procrastinatory joys, too). Today building meaningful networks of people on the same level of experience, people you can grow with, is eminently doable. If you don't, that's your choice. But never say you were unable to.

The other hassle back then was backing. Old-fashioned crowdfunding meant asking friends and family to chip in a buck or two. It was a very limited option. Today's crowdfunding is a whole different ball game. I see it again and again - I browse through projects, countless projects - and I stop where I see someone's passion jumping out at me. If you love your project, if you have a passion for what you want to achieve, get it across to your future backers. All it takes is a camera and the guts to be authentic. Share what you care about, express why it's important to you ... and if the spark comes across, backers will start joining your cause.

The main sites I check into occasionally are Kickstarter, Indiegogo and Sponsume ... just take a look at Kickstarter's 2013 - it boggles the mind. 3 million people pledged 480 million dollars to Kickstarter projects - some of those people may be friends and family - but for the most part they're random people from across the globe, people who were attracted to your passion.

If you're starting out in film today, crowdfunding should be a no-brainer. Any chance you ever had of saying "I would have if I could have" is out the window. Today, you can. And if the backers don't come, ask yourself why. You'll learn, you'll improve and you'll try again - until the sparks fly and the money starts coming your way.

Another element of beauty, especially for young screenwriters, is that it forces you to collaborate right off the bat. You'll learn that being a recluse writer won't get you anywhere. But if you team up with a director and a producer, you may just get the funds you need. Another interesting side of this is that you may realize that you, the screenwriter, can be in the lead. A film is always a collaboration but, as scores of showrunners today show us, screenwriters can be leaders in the film world. Your first crowdfunded project just may open that door.

If you place a project, let me know. I'll gladly take a look! 

04 February 2014

Jump into the labs

The single most important moment in my writing career was at the very beginning - the moment a professional writer told me that my writing had something.

Get into the labs, get the internships, apply everywhere,
get on that journey and make something happen!
I've now been at it for 20 years and have been lucky to get commissions again and again. Looking back, two things mattered back then - 1) the passion to write no matter what and 2) the encouragement and empowerment from others. Let's face it, we can have all the stamina and discipline in the world - if no one ever gives us a pat on the back, if there's zero recognition along the way, that never-ending journey will, eventually, become too hard.

Recognition and empowerment was, for me, a semester at NYU where I meet that one professional writer, Dina Harris. She was there with clarity, expertise and encouragement. Another such external push was the first quarter-, semi- and finals at screenwriting competitions. Contests and labs - if you're start starting out on a career - look into them.

I've come across this excellent page at the UCLA Writer's Program - lots of good stuff there. From that page I've copied out the lab programs run by everyone from Disney to Sundance. This is your journey, apply. Whether you get in or not, it's part of your path. You'll learn along the way, you'll try again, things will happen. If I was at the newbie stage, if this was 20 years ago and I'd read this blog, I'd get my ass in gear and would apply to every single one of them.

Your career, your choice.

25 January 2014

Never toss anything

Whether you've been at it for a few years or a few decades - you've had tons of ideas already. Big ones, little ones - never toss anything.

Your ideas, your treasure.
Seems obvious, right? But you'd be surprised how many writers are an unstructured bunch who leave WAY too much to chance. That final sale or commission won't ever be 100% assured - all the more you need to keep track and control the things we can. One such thing we can control is the stuff our brain spews on a daily basis. Keeping notebooks? I'd hope so! But whether it's your standard Moleskine or just scraps of paper here and there - you should type them out, store them digitally and put them where you can find them when you need them.

We all have drawers filled with ideas. Sometimes those ideas are pure gold, sometimes there closer to tin. Still, whether those ideas stand the test of time or feel dated at some point - never toss anything (did I mention to never toss anything?). The greatest idea you've ever had may end up being a little character quirk in for an entirely different story. And the weakest idea just may fuse with something else and turn into that perfect pitch. I'm writing about this because I see it working again and again. Right now I'm working on a pitch for a TV thriller. I've revisited my treasure chest, rummaged and found. An idea led to another and now I'm well on my way to a very cool piece of work.

We are our worst enemies. The little man/woman inside our head nagging: "That ain't good enough, that ain't original enough, that ain't special enough." Screw that voice. Never hit delete - just put it somewhere, forget about it, move on. I guarantee you, one find day that crappy idea will be exactly what you need to deliver the goods.

Never - toss - anything. 

05 January 2014

Logline? Synopsis? Exposé? Treatment? Huh?

The questions regarding the various stepping stones on the way to a finished script keep coming up - and understandably so because there's really no single correct answer - but that, in fact, is a positive in the collaboration game.

Deliver exactly what they want.
I've been at this for twenty years and have dealt with both US and European markets. Over time, I've come to realize that you should never simply go with what you've done the previous time. Always ask the network, the producer, whomever, what exactly it is that they expect. I've had times when they asked for a treatment when in fact they wanted an expose - then of course there are different types of treatments, too!

The way I've handled it these past years is this > logline > synopsis > exposé > treatment > script.

  • A logline is a single sentence that describes your story. More about this here > 25 words to change your life
  • A synopsis, in my experience, has always been a one-pager that gives the whole story.
  • An exposé is the entire story in short - in my book that means anywhere between 3 and 10 pages
  • A treatment can be anywhere from 10 to 40 pages. More about this here > The treatment and why you need it
  • A script, especially from an unknown writer, should be somewhere between 100 and 110 pages long. Anything longer will diminish your chances of your script even getting read. More about this here > Your script's perfect length
All of the above are essentially supposed to shine because of the story to tell. So, ideally, don't try and hype anything - just tell the story, highlight the characters, their wants and needs, punch up the great twists and turns. The shorter forms, logline, synopsis and exposé are promises. Your promise to the reader that they'll get to read a very cool script.

In the end, remember that it's always a collaboration, and always a business. You want to avoid a) unnecessary work for yourself and b) an annoyed producer. So when they ask for something, confirm back to ensure you'll be sending them exactly what they expect. That way, assuming your story rocks, everybody's happy.

28 December 2013

Home sweet screenwriter's home

Great pic from the "Screenwriting in Iowa" blog. Honestly, as a screenwriter, don't you get a warm and fuzzy feeling looking at that? Doesn't it just make you want to be there?

The only thing better than being in that room full of stories is being in the thick of your own. So, enjoy reading everything from screenplays to novellas - then get back to writing.

Happy 2014 all - write, write, write!

Is there art in screenwriting?

How does art figure into the collaborative process of filmmaking in general and screenwriting in particular? What is art?

Here's a definition: "Art is the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power."

I've always argued that screenwriting is a craft, not an art. That what you craft in collaboration with others will one day stand on its own and will be seen on a big or small screen ... and then, one day, others may regard that crafted piece of work as art. I believe that Robert Bolt, David Lean and Sam Spiegel sat down to craft a film called Lawrence of Arabia, not to create a work of art. Did it end up being a work of art? I most certainly think so.

In a tweet, Ted Hope wrote "Cinema and art are all about the dialogue with the community. We must engage for it to come alive." His point's well taken from a filmmaker's point of view. Films are created for the sole purpose of getting people to experience the story on screen. And he's right to argue for engagement - films are far more likely to reach an audience if a strong level of engagement across the many available channels takes place ... all of that says "craft" to me. Craft is clear, craft is structured, craft is disciplined and organized - craft is what you need to become a long-distance working professional screenwriter.

So is there room for art in screenwriting? Isn't the very essence of collaboration art-squashing compromise? Don't common ground, audience expectations and budget considerations automatically push art into proven frames? We all know these dangers and we've all seen the formulas repeated time and time again. And yet, there is art in screenwriting. Art is core, art is creative spark, are is when you write with all the required discipline and then the muse takes you to unexpected places.

... and then, I guess, it is a director's and producer's art to recognize those moments and to courageously allow them to come alive on screen. Screenwriting is about the sheer power of creation, screenwriting is about the flights beyond anything anyone's ever dreamed of, screenwriting is about daring to go to all the darkest places, to live there and to return stronger to reveal the hidden truths. From those creative places it begins, with that material we craft our stories.

In the end - try not to think about art - it'll drive you nuts. Write with clarity and passion and think craft. Think about delivering your best work before the deadline hits you in the ass. That's all that matters.

08 December 2013

Why do we write movies?

Why? Because, as children, we lived them more than others did. We got sucked into those worlds, we became those worlds, those characters, those lives and those deaths.

And then we grew up. We watched more movies and those feelings, that intensity, didn't go away. We realized that there are actual people creating those magical hours. We realized that we could be those people, that we could be part of that world and if we hadn't already written before that realization, that's when we started. We wrote and wrote and wrote some more and we'll continue to write because of that magic. It's not because of the money, it's not because of the fame, it's not because of the Oscar - it's because we want to, we need to, create that magic, the incredible clarity of the moment.

Does reality ever wear us down - sure. But it can never stop us. Magic.

The image is taken from one of Billy Wilder's personal scripts

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