Sunday, December 20, 2009

writing to music

I was thinking about Don's "No music with lyrics" rule. I find that music helps me a great deal. Generally I have just sort of a background stream of click-hop music playing. I've always been a fan of electronica and IDM in general - click hop sets a pace for me and is usually "background" enough that it doesn't take me out of the work.
This is what I'm talking about if you're unfamiliar with click hop. It sounds like tennis shoes in a dryer to some but I like it.

"rRan" by Pronto. Video by Michael Lascarides from Pronto on Vimeo.

But sometimes you need something that sets the mood. To this end I highly recommend soundtrack albums - the more emotional the movie or similarly tonal the better. I really liked the "Me And You And Everyone We Know" soundtrack because it's the sound I like and it has emotionally charged songs on it.
Every now and then I'll break the no lyrics rule and put on a specific song because the words have relevant meaning or the mood is just right. Usually though I put that on and take it off as soon as it's over. It's too hard to write dialogue when someone's talking to you.

Monday, December 14, 2009

don roos kitchen timer

I've been meaning to post this for a while now. It's a simple methodology that Don Roos came up with that helps him write. Timed appointment writing. I'm going to use it this week and see how it works for me. Here's the methodology he was kind enough to forward after a visit to my comedy workshop this year:


The principle of Kitchen Timer is that every writer deserves a definite and do-able way of being and feeling successful every day.

To do this, we learn to judge ourselves on behavior rather than content. (We leave content to our unconscious; experience will teach us to trust that.) We set up a goal for ourselves as writers which is easy, measurable, free of anxiety, and fail-proof, because everyone can sit, and an hour will always pass.

Here's how it works:

  • Buy a kitchen timer, one that goes to 60 minutes.
  • We decide on Monday how many hours of writing we will do Tuesday. When in doubt or under pressure or self-attack, we choose fewer hours rather than more. A good, strong beginning is one hour a day.
  • The Kitchen Timer Hour:
  • No phones. No listening to the machine to see who it is. We turn ringers off if possible. It is our life; we are entitled to one hour without interruption, particularly from loved ones. We ask for their support. "I was on an hour" is something they learn to understand. But they will not respect it unless we do first.
  • No music with words, unless it's a language we don't understand.
  • No internet, absolutely.
  • No reading.
  • No "desk re-design/landscaping", no pencil-sharpening.
  • Immediately upon beginning the hour, we open two documents: our journal, and the project we are working on. If we don't have a project we're actively working on, we just open our journal.
  • An hour consists of TIME SPENT keeping our writing appointment. We don't have to write at all, if we are happy to stare at the screen. Nor do we have to write a single word on our current project; we may spend the entire hour writing in our journal. Anything we write in our journal is fine; ideas for future projects, complaints about loved ones, even "I hate writing" typed four hundred times.
  • When we wish or if we wish, we pop over to the current project document and write for as long as we like. When we get tired or want a break, we pop back to the journal.
  • The point is, when disgust or fatigue with the current project arises, we don't take a break by getting up from our desk. We take a break by returning to the comforting arms of our journal, until that in turn bores us. Then we are ready to write on our project again, and so on. We use our boredom in this way.
  • IT IS ALWAYS OKAY TO WRITE EXCLUSIVELY IN OUR JOURNAL. In practice it will rarely occur that we spend the full hour in our journal, but it's fine, good, and right that we do when we feel like it. It is just as good a writing day as one spent entirely in our current project.
  • It is infinitely better to write fewer hours every day, than many hours one day and none the next. If we have a crowded weekend, we choose a half-hour as our time, put in that time, and go on with our day. We are always trying to minimize our resistance, and beginning an hour on Monday after two days off is a challenge.
  • When the hour is up, we stop, even if we're in the middle of a sentence. If we have scheduled another hour, we give ourselves a break before beginning again -- to read, eat, go on errands. We are not trying to create a cocoon we must stay in between hours; the "I'm sorry I can't see anyone or leave my house, I'm on a deadline" method. Rather, inside the hour is the inviolate time.
  • If we fail to make our hours for the day, we have probably scheduled too many. Four hours a day is an enormous amount of time spent in this manner, for example. If on Wednesday we planned to write three hours and didn't make it, we subtract the time we didn't write from our schedule for the next day. If we fail to make a one-hour commitment, we make a one-hour or a half-hour appointment for the next day. WE REALIZE WE CANNOT MAKE UP HOURS, and that continuing to fail to meet our commitment will result in the extinguishing of our voice.
  • When we have fulfilled our commitment, we make sure we credit ourselves for doing so. We have satisfied our obligation to ourselves, and the rest of the day is ours to do with as we wish.
  • A word about content: This may seem to be all about form, but the knowledge that we have satisfied our commitment to ourselves, the freedom from anxiety and resistance, and the stilling of that hectoring voice inside of us which used to yell at us that we weren't writing enough -- all this opens us up creatively.

Good luck!

Saturday, December 12, 2009

when writers attack

I went to an event at the WGA today that far exceeded my expectations. It was a directing workshop for WGA members featuring Billy Ray, Scott Frank and Gary Ross. It was amazing. I've always been a big fan of these writers and their work as directors has been some of the most visually stunning from scribes who've made the leap into the director's chair. Anyhow, the point of today's workshop (the first of many) is to teach writers how to direct so that we can infiltrate and subvert the DGA. I'm not kidding. I sat in between Winnie Holzman and Howard Rodman - there were plenty of well knowns in attendance. So here, without further comment, my copious notes:

Working with Actors
Scott Frank moderated this section. His credits are numerous but of particular interest to this discussion is The Lookout. It's an incredible little film that is as emotional as it is intimate - Frank achieved this through his close work with the cast. It was one of the earlier films Joseph Gordon Levitt did just before becoming the big name that he is now.
  • Make your actors feel safe. Make sure that they know that you are not going to let them look bad. Each actor is different and they all have different insecurities. It's your job to figure this out and give them what they need in order to perform. Directors have been fired from movies because the MOVIE STAR is uncomfortable. Every day you have to go in and find out what they need. Spend time in their dressing room or trailer and talk. Not all will need this but some will. As a director, be prepared to be "married" to your actor.
  • You have to reassure them "you're going to look great playing this amazing character."
  • Making an actor feel safe is important because it gives you a safe space to adjust their performance without freaking them out. They may not have the perspective you have, but if they trust you they'll do what you need them to do.
  • Actors love to discuss the story. If you can talk about your story (and this is why writers turned directors have an advantage) then you are in a good place. The thing is, you've got to know your story inside out. The "why" of every moment, every tiny little thing. If you've done your job as a writer, this will be easy.
  • You are not defending your script from the actor's interpretation. This is an intense collaboration and is all about making it better. If you can't see it changed then you do not want to direct.
  • If an actor says "who am I playing" or in some way suggests they don't understand who this character is you are in big trouble. It means it's not clear in the script (or not clear to them) get clear on this before you move on.
  • You can't fix it in post. Twenty years in the business, it's never worked. He has a house that he built off fees for writing voice over. "The Problem" must be fixed in the script.
  • Casting is a great way to practice working with actors. It has the side benefit of showing you the weaknesses in your dialogue. When you're in casting (or working with an actor in general) you are always a great audience. You have to find what was good and give praise for that. I liked how you did...XYZ.
  • Steven Soderbergh holds very casual rehearsals. His actors eat, they hang out, watch movies and talk about the script. It's not a hard working rehearsal schedule. He just wants to create esprit de corps.
  • Here's how you can spot a great performance: it makes you stop what you're doing and listen. You are mesmerized. If this happens in casting, cast this person. If it happens during a shoot, great! That's the take. If it's not happening... make it happen. The words need life.
  • Directors will take your call if you want to find out about their experience working with a certain actor.
  • The more concise or specific you can be giving direction, the better. You don't need a whole conversation about it, just remind them of where they are in the story.
  • Casting directors and the Studio Executives can help you get the right people for your story, but they can also have an agenda. We need THIS STAR to get financing or to "mean something overseas." This is about money. You have to speak their language and explain to them why the wrong choice will cost them money. Be prepared to walk away from a green light if you are going to have to make the movie with the wrong person.
  • Cast your actors and crew perfectly. Everyone there should understand the story and bring something to it that makes it even better. Find actors and crew who can educate you without being a jerk about it.
Directing the Script
Gary Ross was supposed to be talking about "developing" the script but since we were all WGA members he figured we'd all had enough development for a lifetime. True. I wish there were some simple answer to the question "when is a script ready?" The fact is, it's never ready. A script can be great but the reality is, movies happen through sheer force of will. Of course a great script doesn't hurt.
  • Be open to input that will solidify your vision. What you want is the better, fresher version of what you were trying to do.
  • You have to be flexible and collaborative and yet firm in your vision of the movie. It sounds contradictory, and it is. Think of it as harmonizing.
  • DO A TABLE READ of your screenplay. Get some actors, some pizza and make it happen. You'll learn a ton.
  • Moving from writer to director you have to detach yourself from the script. Directing is not about protecting the script, it's about protecting the baby. Doing what's best for the movie (not the script). Directing is not a defensive game, it is an offensive one.
  • The way you decide to shoot the movie affects the story. Instead of preparing a dry shot list, Ross writes an emotional roadmap that contains his shots but in descriptive languate the intention behind those shots. For example, from Seabiscuit, he describes a wide shot of a funeral with a tree anchoring one side of the frame. He wants it wide to give them their privacy and so that the distance lets us fill in with our imagination the devastation of the characters. For more on this DVD special features shows Ross going over his unique "shot list roadmap."
  • There's time in development to get your point of view down firm. Direct the movie in private (the roadmap) before you have to direct it in public.
  • If when shooting you're running out of time and something's gotta give, let it be lighting. Lighting is overrated. Don't be done in by what isn't important.
  • Only 10% of a director's job happens between Action and Cut. It's about the other things, casting, editing, prep. Don't overlook these areas. They're hugely important.
  • When you direct you're the host of the party, not the guest. You're trying to get your cast and crew to do that extra bit for you that they reserve for good hosts.
  • You don't have to know everything. You just have to be able to defend your script. So it better be fully cooked.
Managing your Film
Billy Ray wrote and directed Shattered Glass and Breach. He has a winning attitude that is frankly refreshing in what is often a cynical business. He described the harrowing events around shooting scene 202 of Shattered Glass - a 16 hour day that comprised a pivotal action sequence. At the end of the day they discovered all three cameras were underexposed. The footage was unusable. He took his cast and crew aside, explained the situation and said this was their opportunity to do it better. They rallied and pulled it off. The scene was better than what had been lost on the underexposed footage.

  • You can't whine or complain, you have to lead.
  • Take the blame for everything that goes wrong (I didn't supervise the cameras close enough - that's why the footage was underexposed) and deflect all the credit for everything that goes right (I have an amazing cast - production designer - etc.) You're going to get credit anyway.
  • You do not need to be the big dog.
  • That said, do not be self deprecating. You are the leader, you do not have to apologize for having the job. Listen to how the crew talks about other directors. Shake everyone's hand at the end of the day. Pay for coffee. This is simple stuff - all a way of saying "don't be an asshole." It's amazing how many directors don't get this - they think you have to be a screaming maniac - it's bullshit. People value good leadership and work harder for good leaders than they do tyrants.
  • Seek advice from other directors. It's understood that directors help out other directors. Mentorship is easy to make happen.
  • You need to be in the best physical shape of your life. You have to be prepared for something to hit you when you're at your weakest moment. If you're a runner, for example, finish with a sprint so you're in the habit of finishing strong. It's at the end of a shoot that something crazy happens - you have to be physically capable of overcoming it.
  • Hire people who do not create drama. There's no metal detector for crazy but if you can at all help it, avoid whiners and complainers. They're always a drag.
  • Anticipate that you will get calls from the studio. You know what they're about - they're about the problem. Have answers for them.
  • Manage the shooting schedule - be on the lookout for potential problems like big shots (moments) back to back or an actor having their big scene on the first day they arrive. Ask the crew questions about the schedule so that all departments can be informed of each other's needs.
  • Every night, after shooting, prep for the next day. Don't goof off, prep. Go over everything that night.
  • This sounds crazy but on a long day, change your socks at lunch. You'll get it.
  • You do not have to go to dailies.
  • Always ask yourself "How can I make it better?" You've got the script, lighting, camera, sound, music and performance in your toolbox. How can you make it better?
  • You know that the editing is going well when you're cutting good moments OUT of the film. This sounds counter-intuitive but what it means is that there's nothing bad left to cut, you're down to cutting good stuff.
  • Don't take the Film By credit. If you do Billy Ray will haunt you.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

simply scripts

I was in the library at AFI yesterday for a faculty meeting. We were discussing the recent ho-ha over the LA Times article and the impression it paints of AFI. The article focused on our criminal lack of air conditioning. Yes it is remarkable what will happen to a federally funded institution when a Republican is in office. Reagan and Bush 1 both cut back the institute's funding then with Clinton it turned around only to be re-cut by Bush 2. Now of course there's no funding for anything because the economy's in the toilet. Anyhow, smack dab in the middle of the meeting the head of the screenwriting department came in and announced that two recent AFI graduates were among the five selected for the Nicholls Fellowship - the most prestigious award given for screenwriting short of winning an Oscar. Imagine what we could accomplish if we had AC!

And on an unrelated note:
Here's a site that has a lot of current feature scripts.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

character notes

I went to the WGA Foundation panel discussion on Character this week. The panel was moderated by Dan Petrie Jr. and featured Dianne English, Bruce Joel Rubin and AFI's own Tom Rickman. I'm always a little iffy about these sorts of events because if the moderator doesn't do their job you're trapped in a conversation that may go nowhere for two hours. Be particularly wary of any panel discussion moderated by a celebrity. They just don't have the time to come up with insightful questions and they turn it over to Q&A at the first opportunity. Q&A never goes well as it's a chance for the crazy and the desperate to get some face time with the object of their personal obsession. Anyhow, long story short, Dan Petrie Jr. did an amazing job moderating the panel and the Q&A (while fully stocked with crazy/desperate questions) was not nearly as painful as it normally is. Here, with no further introduction, are the notes I took from that night.
  • Structure is a function of the behavior of the character. You can lay out all the structure you want, but it all comes from character. It's that question: what happens next.
  • Start your scene deeper into the scene than you thought. Repeated inforrmation is dull. Each scene should contain more and new information about your characters.
  • They are this and that. Contradictory information about your characters gives them depth and life. It is true that everyone we know contains contradictions in their personality. Your hero can't be all good and your villain can't be all bad.
  • Don't forget the theatricality - Good structure without character is mechanical and lifeless. Write big moments and scenes for your character. These are the kinds of moments that make an actor excited to play the part.
  • Have a character become someone you don't know. The good guy becoming the bad guy makes it much more interesting for the audience.
  • Build the anticipation before we see your character. This is particularly useful for your "bad guy" as you can create a mystique around them before we ever see them.
  • Characters come from self exploration. Writers of shallow characters are writing from off the top of their head. You, the writer, contain all aspects of the human experience within yourself - dig into that to find your character. Ask yourself, how are they like you? In the process of writing you are exposed to a massive level of self.
  • If as a writer you wind up not living a life you will not be able to draw on all that's out there in the world and you will not be able to write convincing characters and tell moving stories.
  • Do not base your characters on characters from other movies- you've got to bring more than that. Watch how people move. If we've seen it and heard it before we are not surprised. TV and movies are not research. Life is research.
  • Introduce a character with the weight that that character is going to have in the story. Small characters can be "COP 1" big characters must have a name, a life and a voice.
  • In the script be consistent with your name usage. Mrs. Peggy Winthrop, Peggy, Mrs. Winthrop, Peg. Pick one and stick with it - not all three (same goes for locations).
  • Characters who say what they mean are dull. Drama is getting to what they mean. Where are they hiding their truth? Do not have characters whose names all begin with the same letter. Glen Gary will lead to confusion.
  • Morris the explainer. Don't write the character who comes in and tells everybody what they need to know then disappears from the movie. This is sloppy and lame.
  • Let go of logic and predictability and be open to possibility.
  • Characters are self deluded. Slowly as you get toward the last act the truth your character has been avoiding comes out and bursts the bubble. The truth of self is revealed . Every story is the journey to truth. Getting to truth is what it's all about.

Monday, October 19, 2009

getting into the writers room

For any and all, an email forwarded to me:

Just wanted to invite you all to a great event next Monday, October 26...

Final Draft software, "Script" magazine, and Writers Boot Camp are hosting a series of FREE writing panels designed to help film and TV writers navigate Hollywood... and I'll be speaking on next week's TV panel, "Getting Into the Writers Room."

I'll be joined by four other AMAZING panelists...

• Rich Hatem (writer/producer: The Dead Zone, Mothman Prophecies, Supernatural)
• Jen Grisanti (former Spelling exec, now running Jen Grisanti Consultancy)
• Carole Kirschner (former VP at Amblin Ent. and CBS, now running the WGA Showrunners Program and CBS Writers Mentoring Program)
• Cary Okmin (head of Disney Online)

Here's some more info...

Getting in the Writers Room
Writing for television is challenging, and even more so now that shrinking budgets mean shrinking writing staffs and salaries. Learn from working television writers what the inroads to the writers room are today, and how you can find success in the changing television landscape.

Date: Monday, 10/26/2009
Time: 7:30 - 9:30
Location: Writers Boot Camp Headquarters, Bergamot Station Bldg. I, 2525 Michigan Ave , Santa Monica , 90404

Click HERE for more info and to RSVP:

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

web fest '09

Most web videos that go viral are of the unintentionally funny variety.

That said, my annual tradition of examining scripted webisodes for the comedy workshop continues. This year the fellows submitted dozens of webisodes for consideration. Here is a sampling of that list.

The Guild - S2 Episode 6
Drunk History

Lame webisodes that mysteriously garner attention. Why not you? We're desperate for content.

Want to try something different with marketing?
Paranormal Activity gets crowdsourcing right.

Monday, October 5, 2009

rooting interest

Lately I've been interested in how it is that good scripts successfully draw you into the story. I think it comes down to having a rooting interest in the plight of the main character. There are several components to this and it's important that they work together to achieve the desired effect. If your reader/audience does not root for the main character they will be alienated from the script. In a sense they will be fighting with it the whole time and by the end they will be frustrated.
I went to see Whip It last night and very much identified with or rooted for the main character. I went with my husband and he did not. The reasons why are less important - but suffice it to say we don't always see eye to eye on movies. I still remember sobbing during Synecdoche New York only to look over and see him literally snoring in his seat.
So what are the components of rooting interest?
1. We want what they want. That is to say they have a good plan that makes sense and we can see how it would be a good thing. In Whip It she wants to be a roller derby star. And why not? She's got a talent for it. Plus she LOVES IT. She's making friends, she's having fun, all of it seems like a good thing for her to be doing with her time.
2. We understand and identify with what the character is going through. In Whip It the main character is the oddball outcast in her small town. She doesn't fit in at school. She doesn't fit in at home with her mom and for sure she doesn't fit in to the pageant world her mom is trying to make her a part of. If you've never been an oddball then maybe you don't know what it feels like - and this may keep you from connecting with the story. Also, you may have been an oddball and have hated that part of your life - so again, this would not be the story for you. The question of identifying with your character plays into how marketable a film is. This is why executives routinely favor male point of view stories. They figure gals and gays can identify with anyone but men in that 18 - 24 demographic they desperately want are incapable of empathy for anyone but their own group. I couldn't disagree more, but that's an argument for another day.
3. It will help fix the damage in her life. Now this is a subtle an difficult area to get right. In Whip It the main character is on the edge of giving up. She is about to become the girl she is not. She could go along to get along. This is an act of defiance in a way that will help her establish her own unique identity. Over the weekend I read Legally Blonde to see how they handled this "damage" question. Elle Woods is kind of frivolous. Kind of. Okay, a lot. It's what we love about her but she's in danger of overlooking her real talents. Her mom can't understand why she'd go to law school, chiding "You were Miss Hawaiian Tropic! You're going to throw all that away on law school?" Even when she shows up at Harvard she's still frivolous. She doesn't take it seriously. She writes notes with a fuzzy pen in a pink journal. Eventually though, she hunkers down and does become serious. So much so that she wins the big case. The journey helps her fix the damage within herself. In both movies we can see how every scene "educates" the main character, teaching them the lessons they need to be a better, more complete person in life. In the process of educating the character you are also educating the audience. When you do so with cliche moments, refrigerator magnets as I like to say, you insult us. That is why these moments of education have to be insightful, fresh and true.
A great way to identify the components of rooting interest is to read a script and make note of them in the margin. I can't stress how important it is to read a script rather than watch a movie. Movies happen too quickly. You're caught up in other things when you watch them. Only by being slow and deliberate can you deconstruct these moments. You'll also find that reading a produced script is a delight compared to work that needs work. It lets you see what the script experience should be.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

on practice

I saw this last night and thought of you. It confirms something I've long held - yes, innate talent is important but persistence and devotion are just as, if not more important in getting you where you want to go as a writer. When I was a fellow at AFI there was a guy in my workshop who was by far more talented than all of us combined. The trouble was he would do anything to not write. He avoided the hell out of writing. I'm not sure why - but he did and... nothing happened. As in, no sale.
Writing is about sitting down and doing it. About failing, over and over and over until finally you figure out what works. Each morning I sit down to work and I welcome failure into the room. Make friends with it, get comfortable with it because you will always fail until you succeed. That is a fact of life and there's no use running from it.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

on the page podcast

I am so behind in my blogging! Where to even start? Since I last wrote we went to the sublime primetime event at the WGA theater. I think I'm going to have to swear off these sort of panel discussions unless I know the moderator is going to do their job. It's always a bad sign when they have a very in-demand celebrity as moderator because they do that thing where they skate by on charm but don't really do substantial research about the guests so that it just sort of devolves into a funny Q&A but not much more.
Right, so enough kvetching there. We're catching up on chapters 3, 4 and 5 of Elephant Bucks and I have to say they're the most useful so far. Of course you have to wade through the spec of Frazier that he uses as a sample but nevertheless it's quite good. Particularly how he illustrates the seven plot elements to develop your sit-com story. Chapter 5's example of a DETAILED outline is exactly what you all should be doing. As he says it's a chance to pre-write the script.
Last week's visit from Lisa Kudrow and Don Roos was fun. I particularly liked what each of them had to say but Lisa's point about how writers and actors should collaborate on story made a lot of sense. I think that writers have a tendency to see actors at "the other" but they're crucial partners in the creation process. Don's ideas about writing sympathetic stories for flawed people is pretty fascinating. It's tough act to pull off, but when he does it's amazing. Christina Ricci in the Opposite of Sex is a perfect example of this concept.
I wanted to put in a plug for a podcast I've been listening to called "On The Page." It has a horrible theme song so just fast forward past that part. It's by a script consultant, Pilar Arrrlll.... (can't remember her last name and I'm lazy. Hey, I tagged the link so...) There's lots to listen to here but in particular, episode 106 "Writing Half-Hour TV" is a must. So, I'm assigning it for next week.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

12 specs, piece of cake?

This week we read in Elephant Bucks how Sheldon Bull created a portfolio of 12 spec scripts in order to get his writing career started. I mentioned that when I was a fellow way back in ye-olde 2000, Mike Ellis said something that haunts me to this day, "There is always someone who is willing to work harder." What I'm getting at here is the serious amount of work required to do this... this writing thing... as a professional. As Mr. Bull points out it helps if you're a little obsessed. I do actually think it takes a lot of work to make it happen no matter if you're writing features or TV. One way you know you're in the right place is if the work doesn't feel like work. You may not spring out of bed excited to face the blank page, but you don't hate it. In fact, at times you even enjoy it. And maybe if you're really cooking you work extra because you're having fun. For TV it means knowing some shows. And seriously, you guys barely watch TV at all. I know how it is - I was like you, too at one point -- with an active social life and a meaningful pursuit of higher education. But soon, soon the call of Television will grow strong and you'll put down that copy of the latest Cormack McCarthy novel and do something good for your brain!
I've posted links to the pilot script of Arrested Development and How I Met Your Mother. The assignment this week is to write a 1 page character bio of the main character (Michael and Marshall respectively). You can speculate as much as you want so long as you can point to something in the script that supports that speculation. In fact - the deeper back into a character's life you can go, ie: page five hints at a childhood of isolation and rejection, the better.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

comedy: the well of sadness

Well the comedy workshop has kicked off another year. This week we went over the origins of single cam and multi cam shows, the 2 act structure, A & B story lines as well as character development. Quite a lot of territory to cover in one day. So naturally we'll delve into each of those topics in greater detail in the weeks to come. They're all general bits of information that by this point most writers have some grasp of - now it's all about strengthening that information.
To me, however, comedy comes from character. That is to say, you can understand the mechanics of a show, you can have air-tight plot, you can have jokes all over the place, but if you don't have deep meaningful characters, you have nothing.
The exercise for this past week was to read a 30 Rock script and go through scene by scene and look at the subtext for the Liz Lemon character. That is to say, what did we learn about her in every scene that was not ever explicitly said. Inferring from her actions and dialogue we could make all kinds of assumptions about her personality and even her history. In the script Liz has to negotiate Josh's annual contract. She doesn't want it to be a big confrontation and she even tips Josh off in a way that if he plays ball they can get through the negotiation with no fuss. Of course Josh being who he is betrays her. Betrayed she has to re-approach the negotiation and come after him in a way that was harder than if she had just entered into the meeting without pre-warning him. Angry she takes the negotiation to a personal place. When she has him over a barrel she makes him perform the "worm" as a part of the agreement. She humiliates him in a way that is kind of immature and unique to her character. One gets the feeling that she, at some point in her past, suffered such a humiliation at the hands of a high-school tormentor. This is the well of sadness. Those traumas and wounds in a character's story that make them who they are today. You have to give them this kind of depth so that they are real. And, knowing who they are we can make projections as to how they will behave in the future. Part of the fun of a sitcom is "what will they do next?" In fact, it's probably the main reason people watch these shows. Not for clever lines but rather that opportunity to see their "clever TV friend" react to a new and interesting situation that challenges their specific "damage." We talked about the endless well of sadness that is Michael Scott. God only knows what horrible things he suffered that made him this way. He is a wildly insecure and deeply lonely man. What makes it funny is he sees himself as a confident and popular boss, friend of everyone and hero to Dunder Mifflin. Michael Scott, so lacking in any kind of self esteem, allowed himself to remain in an abusive relationship for a year with Jan. He literally slept at the foot of the bed because she needed the space for herself. Wow. He's so sad we can't help but feel sorry for him. So this is the challenge for the term ahead; give your characters an equally rich back story in your script. Develop them, make them true, and above all love them.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

you are going to die!!!

Not because I'm writing about an Adam Sandler film I liked. This is, what, the third time it's happened? Spanglish and Punch-Drunk Love being the first two episodes of Sandler appreciation. No, you are going to die is the theme of Funny People and it is the primal of primals. It is at the core of every movie. From G-Force to Cold Souls, you are going to die motivates the characters as they move from Fade In to Fade Out. My screenwriting instructor, Allen Estrin, said in his "tricks of the trade" that the stakes of the story should be or at least feel like life and death to your main character. I think the more genuinely and deeply you can get your character to that place of introspection the more successful your script will be.
All those lessons about how precious our time is, how little we have, the urgency of taking THIS DAY and making the most of it. You know, the stuff of refrigerator magnets... he says, cynical as ever. And see, right there, that cynicism is not helping. It's not helping me on multiple levels. Let's just put it this way - I'm not the kind of person who dances at weddings and that, as it turns out, is a serious problem. Okay, so to get in touch with the "you are going to die" of your main character, take them for a walk in the park. Ask them about what they'll lose if they don't get what they want. Do you care? I mean really care? If they were someone you knew would you be worried? No? You don't care? Then I don't either. That thing they want, they've got to want it so bad. It's got to mean everything to them and have real stakes attached. Let's take the standard boy-meets girl. Who cares if boy loses girl forever? Well we do if you lay the right groundwork. "If he loses this girl he'll never grow up. Ten years from now he'll be in the shower in the fetal position screaming 'who the f**k am I?' And then he'll probably become an alcoholic. The end." All that and it's still a comedy - or not. But do you follow my point? This girl (in the boy meets girl scenario) is his LAST chance to get it right before IT'S TOO LATE. Now you have stakes.
In Funny People, it's not the girl. It's the goose-bumps-against-your-will Carpe Diem-ness of it all. He has to learn how to live. His disease is a manifestation of his not living. You've heard of Illness as Metaphor? This is it. It happens in real life, I've seen it; all those "stress related" illnesses. Adam Sandler has a rare and mysterious disease and it's his punishment for putting his time and energy into the wrong priorities. And like in real life, he has this near death experience, recovers and starts to slip into old habits. It's so true. I've almost died like three times now and I still don't dance at weddings. I don't even like children!

Sunday, June 21, 2009

the proposal - case study

This weekend the number one movie in America is The Proposal. Whenever a movie like this makes it to number one I like to go out and see it, preferably with an opening weekend audience. The reason is, I'm trying to understand the anatomy of a number one movie. Particularly one where I'm so turned off by the trailer and concept.
To get myself in the mood I listened to the Creative Screenwriting podcast interview with the writer Pete Chiarelli. The one thing that struck me about his interview was how he kept stressing the true emotional backstory of his two main characters. They were very much based on people he knew and understood. He based the Sandra Bullock character on people he knows from the intertainment industry (himself having been a development executive). She is more than just the "evil boss" she has a human side that slowly emerges over time. This "thawing out" is, I think, what brought the audience in. They want to see an emotional story and what better premise than the evil boss who learns to be human? This lesson, being human, has a life or death quality to it. Who will she be if she doesn't learn this lesson: lonely, bitter, angry, depleated. It is a kind of living death facing her. Heavy stuff, right? Yes, I'm still talking about The Proposal.
So this emotional story... in the case of this film comes second to the CLEAR AND OBVIOUS concept. You see the poster or the trailer you have no questions about this movie. What is it? Agressive boss forces her assistant to marry her so she can stay in the country. (Her character is from Canada.) How do you think it ends? They fall in love, of course. Everything you expect to see is in this movie but in a slightly different package than you expected. I think the clear and obvious concept is what got people to go see this.
The third component that makes this movie a hit is the chemistry between the actors playing the main characters. Now as a writer you can't really make this part happen. However, what you can do is write a role a star or stars will want to play. In this case the role was attractive and allowed both actors to look good, be noble, learn lessons, have moments, reveal vulnerabilities -- in short, the works. Lots of stuff for them to do and look good doing.
Before you think I've lost my mind, talking about The Proposal like it's The Seventh Seal or something, this movie is terrible. The script is lazy and sloppy. The characters speak the subtext at the drop of a hat. The set pieces are uninspired, unimaginative and insulting. And let me tell you the audience I saw it with was laughing like they'd never seen anything funnier or cuter in their lives. Are they stupid? No, just undescerning. This works in favor of mediocrity. I used to say "you can't fake mediocrity" meaning that you can try to write poorly in an effort to be commercial but it won't work unless you're truly mediocre. I've had a bit of a realization, though. What you can't fake is heart. This film, as bad as it is, has lots and lots of heart. Vulnerable woman needs love. She's desperate. She realizes she's forced this guy to LIE to his family, feels terrible and reverses course to save him. Not to mention him, he has noble ambitions, pursuit of a job editing LITERATURE. He LOVES his family and it pains him to hurt them. There's also a father who LOVES and misses his son, but is too wrapped up in control and approval to show it. Love, love, love and lots of heart. I didn't have to dig for this heart, it was there ladled on sloppy and thick. The genius of Peter Chiarelli is that as a development executive, he learned what people want: Heart, Characters, Clear and Obvious concept.
Now there's no reason a movie can't be good and have LOTS AND LOTS of heart. But make no mistake, as I've said before, heart is not an easy thing to do... Especially if you're all dead inside like me.

Monday, June 15, 2009

yesterday's news

Okay, so Brick (the movie) is a few years old now but the writer/director Rian Johnson has a site up where you can download the script with annotations and an illustrated novella (his original source material). If you're feeling ambitious or just wanting to kill some time it's worth checking out. I heard about all of this on the Creative Screenwriting Podcast interview with him in support of his new movie Brother's Bloom.
Speaking of Independent Film (and the death thereof), there are two movies you should check out this week if possible: Moon and Food Inc.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

the treatment podcast

I've gotten a lot out of KCRW's The Treatment podcast. It's a lot like the HLMS. Though you can't ask questions, you can download it and take it with you.

I found this interview with Russell Brand particularly inspiring.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

where have i seen this before?

Completely unrelated to writing, though helpful in understanding irony.

Here is the statue at the American Cemetery in Normandy France honoring war dead.
And here is a statue at the Americana Mall in Glendale honoring spending money.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

opportunity fellowships

My former student Gil McDonald put together a list of fellowships that he applied for. I have copied them below for your reference. I love these kinds of things- contests and the like. Even if you don't get them they force you to rethink your application materials (usually a script)

CBS Writers Mentoring Program:

The Writers Mentoring Program is not employment and there is no monetary compensation. It is, instead, a structured program of career development, support, and personal access to executives and decision-making processes, with the goal of preparing aspiring writers for later employment opportunities in television.

Each participant will be teamed with two different mentors.
  • One is a show mentor who is a senior-level writer on a current CBS drama or comedy series. This relationship builds over the course of the Program and is focused on helping the participant with creative feedback on their writing as well as help and advice on career goals.
  • The other is a CBS network or studio executive with whom they will meet on a regular basis, to discuss their work, get creative feedback on their material and get advice and support in furthering their career.
Once a week, participants will be invited to attend a small workshop-style meeting with various CBS show runners and other industry professionals. Speakers include executive producers, agents, managers, development and current executives and others. The purpose of these gatherings is for participants to gain a better understanding of how the business works from many different perspectives as well as creating the opportunity to make critical networking connections.

WB Writing Program:

For over 30 years, the Warner Bros. Television Writers’ Workshop has been the premier writing program for new writers looking to start and further their career in the world of television. The list of graduates who have gone on to do great things is long: Marc Cherry (Desperate Housewives), Greg Garcia (My Name Is Earl) and Felicia Henderson (Soul Food) to name a few. Every year, the Workshop selects up to 10 participants out of almost 1,000 submissions and exposes them to Warner Bros. Television’s top writers and executives, all with the ultimate goal of earning them a staff position on a Warner Bros.

ABC Disney Fellowship:

Fellows become employees of Disney | ABC Television Group and will be paid a weekly salary of $961.54 ($50,000.00 annualized) plus any applicable benefits for which they are eligible in accordance with the then-current Company benefits plans. The program is designed to expose aspiring writers to key executives, producers and literary representatives – all essential in the pursuit of a writing career. Additionally, while in the program, fellows have the opportunity to work one-on-one with a current programming or development executive to create spec scripts of series from the current broadcast season. The ultimate goal is to prepare and nurture the fellows for a writing career.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

heart attack

I've long had this upsetting theory that shows like Two And A Half Men and movies like Click work because they're mediocre. Like, maybe being crappy enough is the key. Is that the problem? But no, we've all written crappy scripts. That's not how it works. Plus, you can't fake mediocrity as I like to say. John Waters says, "I tried to sell out but nobody was buying."
I had drinks with an executive last week and I asked her about this. The Click phenomenon. What makes Click, click? She said it's heart. Heart being shorthand for deep emotional content. We go to movies to feel something. What she said is basically; it doesn't matter if the script is good or bad so long as it has heart. Curious. And the reality is heart is not easy to do. I've been writing for fifteen years, I've been teaching for five and heart is not easy to do. So... what does this mean? That Click isn't a bad movie? Sort of. It's not my thing. The concept feels vulgar and insulting to my intelligence. But I'm almost certain that if I watched it I'd feel something at the end. No, not rage, but that choked up feeling. How do I know? Because I watched the similarly retarded Ghost Town on an airplane, half paying attention, headphones askew, in a Xanax fog and at the end of that film I felt choked up by the resolution. WTF!? Ghost Town! I know!
The fact is, the writers of Ghost Town achieved the ever elusive heart. The fact that they had a clear marketable concept and perhaps a couple of major actors attached helped, but it's the heart of the thing that turns those red lights green.
So how do you get heart into your script? That is not an easy question to answer. It takes skill, craft, luck and an eye for emotional detail. It takes sensitivity, life experience, a willingness to suspend cynicism and world weary pretense. It takes effort and hard work won through trial and error. It will not be easy. Get to work!

Saturday, May 16, 2009

book report

I just got my copy of "Elephant Bucks" from Amazon. I haven't had a chance to read much of it yet, though it comes highly recommended.  It's by Sheldon Bull, a 30 year veteran of sit-com writing. It arrives at an interesting time; I was reading an article today about how TV is facing a crisis moment as Internet distribution takes off. Cable companies are demanding that studios not release their shows to the web but then if the studios don't, fans with time on their hands will. Bit of a Catch 22.
Anyone with eyes in their head can see what's coming; people want to watch what they want, when they want, on any platform possible. Resistance is futile.
All that to say, I actually think now is a great time to develop CHEAP content for television. Run a multi-cam show out of your living room for fun and profit.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

dressed in sheep's clothing

So this week we took a look at RAIN from 1932 based on the Somerset Maugham short story of the same name. It's funny, I had always viewed this as a pretty tense classic with exciting character details and an interesting message. Yeah, it's got a couple of big holes in it, namely Sadie's religious conversion and de-conversion happening in the blink of an eye. And the preacher character is two dimensional though probably historically accurate. Apparently though, not so much of a hit with the class. I'll admit to a stereotypical fascination with Ms. Crawford, though I am not currently in possession of any postcards or memorabilia. Mommy Dearest ran in heavy rotation on The Movie Channel in the 1980's and was my after-school viewing of choice. So there's that- I'm predisposed to like this film.
But my real reason for showing it was to focus on the antagonist. He has the qualities that a good antagonist should have in order to push your protagonist to a place of change.
First off, the antagonist has society on his side. He or she should be someone who is above reproach. In the conventional sense this means, bosses, tycoons, religious leaders, teacher, parents, kings, politicians of all sorts people in power. But it can also be queen bees of the high school (Mean Girls) or the top of a subculture (mob bosses, video game fanatics). Whoever they are, they're at the top of the food chain in their society and society says they are right.
Your antagonist should think they are the hero of the story. They're doing this for the greater good in their mind. And we should kind of, almost, sort of see their point. They're just trying to preserve the order of things. They may or may not be aware of their selfish reasons, but most likely the way they see it, the protagonist is the real threat. In some cases, like Rain, they believe they're taking their orders from God.
Your antagonist though, will have a fatal flaw; they're not pure of heart. This is what allows the hero to win. In romantic comedies the way this works is "the other guy" that the girl has fallen for generally just wants to get into her pants (or some other variation of exploitation). Our hero is pure of heart, he LOVES her and it is this pure love that allows him to win in the end. It is the lack of a pure heart that always leads your antagonist to see who they truly are and in that moment of realization they are weak and can be destroyed. In Training Day the Denzel Washington character visits the housing project he has terrorized for all these years only to discover that without his power the people no longer fear him. He is shown his true self and forced to flee. Vulnerable, he is trapped in a web he has spun himself, gunned down on his way to the airport. And this is an important detail; most likely your protagonist does not have to kill the antagonist; they only have to show them who they truly are. The antagonist, so horrified by their true identity will self destruct. As it is in Rain where the Preacher, after presumably raping Sadie, can't live with himself and wanders out into the ocean and cuts his own throat. Good times!

Saturday, May 9, 2009

home sweet home

This week we took a look at Junebug, a personal favorite but also a good example of what is known as the "Co-Protagonist." In Junebug Madeline (on the left) goes home to North Carolina with her husband. There she meets Ashley (on the right) and the two strike up a sort of unlikely friendship. The co-protagonist is the sort of character most often seen in "buddy pictures" and that could mean everything from "The Sure Thing" to "Lethal Weapon." The key role of your co-protagonist is to show the protagonist an alternate way. Up to this point the protagonist has been getting by with a malfunctioning sense of self or the world. In Madeline's case she's a somewhat career obsessed art dealer who has distant and breezy relationships with those around her. We get the sense that her family life was somewhat cold and that she's never had a deep love life up to this point. She's lukewarm on the idea of having children (which is fine - but for her it's more of an emotional issue in that she doesn't have the capacity for loving a child).
Ashley on the other hand, is not at all worldly or even all that well educated, but she knows love. She knows how to be a good friend. She knows how to treat people around her as "real" as opposed to Madeline who sees her husband's family in a distant and perhaps even ironic way. She views his brother as a child. His father as a potential artist for her gallery. One isn't sure what she makes of Ashely though I suppose she views her as tragic in some ways. As for the mom... Madeline knows that this woman can see right through her.
The co-protagonist is there to teach the main character lessons. They have in abundance what it is that the main character is lacking. Ashley teaches her (0r us) about being a good friend. She teaches her about being gracious and loving. She even teaches her in an indirect way about the importance of being there for one another. Madeline, in attempting to help her brother in law with a book report on Huckleberry Finn is given the opportunity to learn something; that she is not viewing her husband's family as real people. We're never told whether or not she learns these lessons. It's left very much up to us to decide what she knows. In the classic "independent cinema" fashion, it is the audience who learns if not the main character. In The Sure Thing (not a good film, by the way- I just saw it recently so it's a fresh example in my head) the co-protagonist changes the protagonist- she teaches him about the importance of Love as opposed to "the sure thing" meaning easy sex. It becomes something he values and needs by the end. The key to making your co-protagonist more than just a sidekick is to give them the keys needed to unlock your protagonist's deepest and most painful need.
Next week we'll go camping with Joan Crawford in 1932's "Rain."

Friday, May 1, 2009

carnitas flu

So after a somewhat busy couple of weeks I'm back. And look at what's broken out in the interim. I'm obsessed with the carnitas flu and how it's just moments away from turning everything into a dinner theater production of Stephen King's The Stand. But I shall endeavor to press on, here in my Tami-flu fortress.
This week we watched Sexy Beast. I had the class outline the script according to Blake Snyder's "Save the Cat" model which works for most movies as a way of understanding the components of the structure. What's interesting to me is the way that structure reveals the deeper meanings of a film. The essential interconnectedness of plot, character, and theme. As Snyder describes it, "we are building precision Swiss watches of emotion." Sexy Beast is of course a caper film that's light on caper and heavy on emotion. I think it's a good example of what we really care about when we see a movie: the stakes. Very few capers are actually interesting enough to hold our attention let alone our concern. In this film, they do away with the caper, relegating it to the second half of the film- and even then, the caper is not that hard to pull off. Sure they're breaking into the world's safest safe- but it's not much more than a night of tunneling. What the film is really about is a man protecting everything he's ever wanted: his family, his friends, the good life. Simple stuff, but that's why it works; it's primal. The main character Gal, retired from his life as a gangster, finds himself being pulled against his will into the world he never wanted to return to. What's at stake of course is not just his life, but the happiness of those around him. His wife, disgraced in their old world, has a chance at happiness with him in Spain but only if Gal can lay to rest, permanently, the ghosts of his past. Thematically this movie is all about dealing with the past once and for all. Nothing stays buried unless it's good and dead.
What I want to hammer home here are two simple ideas: first your character's stakes have to be clear and universal. I understand in a simple and practical way what it is that my character wants and what will happen if the don't get it. The more dire the consequences the better. Plus you have to be specific about what they want. So often I'll ask a writer what it is their character wants and I'll get back a laundry list of vague complaints; she's the kind of person who has always achieved perfection but now she has to let go of that in order to forgive her brother because there was this time when they were kids... and on it goes. Secondly, you structure your movie around this want. You show how it evolves, what it means, what happens if it doesn't work out. Everything. 95 to 100% of your movie should be about THIS ONE THING: what your main character wants. Tangents, when they happen, should be brief and rare. The more tangential the less we care about your film. Why? Because we feel adrift and and keep asking, "what does this have to do with anything?"
So that's it for this week. Next week we'll be looking at "Junebug." I've been having a bit of a Celia Weston film festival lately. She's amazing in "Observe and Report" plus I just saw her in "Joshua" last night (which is a fantastic "children are evil" thriller). For Junebug we'll be looking at the specific steps a character needs to take from start to finish in order to have a complete and satisfying arc.

Monday, April 6, 2009

when cycle projects attack

My current students are in the midst of putting the finishing touches on their thesis scripts. Oh this time of year, so fraught with anxiety. There is this notion that a thesis short will make or break your career. This is rarely the case. And yet... Last night I went to a super rare screening of "The Beaver Trilogy" at the Mandrake bar in Culver City. It's not what you think. The Beaver Trilogy refers to a series of films made in 1979, 1981 and 1985 by Trent Harris that focus on Groovin' Gary and his talent show in Beaver Utah. The first film is a documentary while the second and third installments were made years later.
There's quite a legend surrounding this film. It is mysteriously unavailable on DVD, most likely due to song licensing issues much like the film Superstar. When I started watching part 2, featuring a very young, and then unknown Sean Penn I immediately recognized the steps to the AFI Library building in the film's opening shot. This had the look and feel of a cycle project. And indeed it is! Part 3, as it turns out is a thesis project based on the cycle project.
The trilogy was passed around for years on VHS and known only to a handful of underground film enthusiasts. In 2001 the trilogy screened at Sundance to a packed house. Groovin' Gary was in the audience and received the standing ovation he had long been waiting for.
I'm pretty sure that parts 2 & 3 are available at the AFI library. They're certainly worth checking out. It's not the most genius film but it's kind of fascinating to watch the revision process happen in successive drafts of the film. The "documentary" has far less dramatic conflict than the cycle project and subsequent thesis film. It's part of that whole "reality is no excuse for poor drama" thing. But at the same time, I think I liked the documentary the best. What's interesting is how in reality no one has a problem with Groovin' Gary dressing up and singing as Olivia Newton John. It's in the fictionalized versions that he's met with so much resistance. It sort of reminded me of Larz and the Real Girl in that the hardest part of the story to accept is that the town goes along with it. Maybe we are not as intolerant as pop culture would make us seem.
Part 1.

Part 2.

Part 3.

Monday, March 30, 2009

sympathy for the devil

This week I had the class take a look at The Honeymoon Killers. I rarely assign B movies for study because it tends to backfire. I used to have my classes watch Freeway every year until I assigned it to a class and they universally hated it. I get it- it is graduate school, we're supposed to be looking at good films. Anyhow, The Honeymoon Killers is a deeply flawed film but it has remarkable characters you won't find anywhere else. It's loosely based on a true story about a couple who would scam lonely women of a certain age out of their money. Eventually they were pushed to murder the victims of their scam leading to their tragic end.
There are few cinematic monsters like Martha. I think what makes her such a compelling character is the fact that she's so sympathetic. Here are the facts: She's an overweight nurse, hated by those who work under her. She sees women her age getting married left and right yet she's un-loved. Her mother is overbearing and manipulative. She writes to the Lonely Hearts Club to find a relationship and is rewarded with an introduction to a scam artist, Ray. At her core she just wants love- anyone can identify with that. It's just that she has to compromise everything to get it. Still though, she figures it's the best she can do. And in his own way Ray actually does love her- as much as a sociopath can love.
Whether your character is an outcast or the most popular girl in school, we grow to love them when you reveal their most painful vulnerabilities. This is where we understand their humanity and are able to identify with them no matter how alien their life is to our own.
A movie I saw recently, Hunger, directed by the visual artist Steve McQueen (not the dead actor but the artist who just won the Camera d'Or) is a similar study of a group of unlikeable people. It is about the 1981 hunger strike lead by IRA member Bobby Sands. McQueen disposes of the usual historical context that one normally sees in bio-pics. He starts the movie following a prison guard who is as complex and flawed as the prisoners he is "guarding." It's a movie where everyone has blood on their hands and there is no "good guy" to root for. The result is emotionally alienating in terms of character but valuable in terms of understanding the cause and effect of violence and political supression. Viewed through the lense of 9/11 the actions of the characters both British and Irish are revealed as utterly pointless, resulting in an ever escalating one-up-manship that can lead only to death. The film reminded me of Sarah Silverman's joke about how she can't understand the politics of Israel and Palestine. She says, "it's like yams hating sweet potatoes... They're both pushy and brown."
So there's no movie for the next two weeks. It's spring break at AFI. I will, however, be back next week with an entry about dialog. Until then...

Thursday, March 19, 2009

10 tools

So last night I went to a directing workshop at Film Independent. Whenever I go to these things I always feel like a big loser for the first thirty minutes. Like here I am, leaning hard on forty, trying to reinvent myself as a director. Oh god, the shame. And inevitably there are freaky people in the room just reinforcing the idea that "I'm too old/lazy to go back to school for real so I'll waste time and money at these little workshops in a vain attempts to convince myself that all my dreams are in fact not dead... when really they are." I dunno, there was this lady in her sixties with severe plastic surgery face, some LA-Ground-Zero guys with "that hair" and $300 "lady-jeans." Plus a mouth breather who knocked over three glasses of water on three separate occasions. I was like, just get a sippie cup and be done with it, dude. But there were also about 40 other perfectly normal people so the freak to normal ratio was fairly low. But enough about my neurosis. The workshop was great. I can always tell when a workshop is going well because I start thinking about my project and I get ideas that I have to write down that instant. Two sets of notes; the notes on the workshop and the notes on what I have to change in my script.
Without further ado, Adrienne Weiss' Ten Essential Tools for Getting Great Performances.
  1. Create Trust. Adrienne said that this tool was a recent addition because it never occured to her that she needed to teach it. In her experience a lot of directors fail to form a bond with their actors. You have to love your actors and go into the process of working with them fully trusting that they can get the performance you want. She says, always relate to your actor like a loving parent with the attitude, "they can do it." In addition to this you want to ask them lots of questions. Get to know them personally if they're open like that. Or, if not, talk to them about their process. When reviewing their performance she says diagnose before you prescribe. That is to say, approach the adjustments to their performance as a conversation. "What were you going for here?" or "I notice you've made a choice to do X here. Tell me about that." or "At this point in the story your character needs to be doing X and here's why..." Communication with your actor needs to be as clean and misunderstanding free as possible. Give them space to explain their position. If you love something that they've done in a scene, be general about your praise. Don't point out specific body movements, gestures, etc. They'll try to keep hitting that mark and it will make the moment less organic. Where you want to be specific is about trouble spots. When talking about "trouble" remember, you're the captain and your authority allows the actors to relax and do their job- they know you're steering the ship.
  2. Compelling given circumstances. These are the facts that are pressing on a character and pushing them into action. What this means is you may need to remind your actors of the backstory. You're there as that extra bit of memory just in case the actor hasn't fully connected with the character's circumstances. Simple adjustments here can yeild big results. For example, an actor may play a scene completely different if they understand that their character is coming from a place of sympathy rather than frustration. If you explain the given circumstances "they've been in this guys shoes before and know what he's going through" it changes the outcome. When going over the given circumstances it's important that you express it in a way that connects to the emotion of what you're saying. Don't give a flat bullet point list of the circumstances, be their "bad friend" encouraging them to take action and jump into that conflict; "Yeah, he did all this to you and you're not going to take it! You're better than that! Go kick his ass!"
  3. Personalization. Seems fairly straight forward. The simplest way to do this is ask the actor, "have you ever been in a situation like this?" If they say yes, great. If they say nothen you're going to have to work more to remove the block that's keeping them from connecting emotionally to the text. Start by doing a character interview. Ask them, as the character, how they feel about the situation. See if you can't help them find a connection.
  4. Contrary Expectations. I love this idea. As the "bad friend" lie to them about the expected outcome of a scene. You've both read it. You both know that at the end of this scene she is going to dump him, but you lie to him. Tell him that he's fixed the damage she can't stand about him. He's chased after her and prooven himself to her. She's totally going to take you back and you'll be great. Give your actor that pep talk and then send him into the scene where he gets dumped. His response will come from a place of contrary expectations and as a result be that much more alive.
  5. Objective. Simple stuff here. What is the actor's goal in the scene. What do I want the other person to say or do? It has to be concrete and observable in the room. I want them to say "yes." I want them to leave me alone. I want them to come with me. That sort of thing. When your actor has a clear objective all of their actions come from that objective. Even when they're listening to the other character they're listening with an agenda.
  6. So that... This is the character thinking about the future. Their objective "I want him to come with me" so that... This is why your character is doing what they're doing in a larger sense. It should be something that they are conscience of. For example: I want him to come with me (objective) so that I can show him the evidence that will solve the case.
  7. Emotional Action. Your actor may need to know what emotional actions they are taking to make the other character feel a certain way in order to get what they want. For example, your actor may be trying to make the other person feel guilty, or sad, or angry so that X results. The actor may need to try several emotional actions in order to get the result they are looking for. This is manipulation at its best. Adrienne suggests taking time to look at how much emotional manipulation you engage in on a day to day basis as a way of understanding how this works.
  8. Pinch and Ouch. This is a simple cause and effect relationship. If your actor isn't giving you the response you want, the trouble may not lie with them- it may be with their scene partner or partners. For example; the break up scene... your actor's being dumped by his girlfriend. He seems really flat about it. Or maybe he's angry when he should be happy. He might have a set of notions about the scene that you can't talk him out of. Adjust the other actor. You want a bigger reaction out of him? Get her to really lay into him. She needs to give him a bigger pinch to get that bigger ouch you're looking for.
  9. Thought Bridge. It sounds like Scientology, doesn't it? I walked my body-thetans across the thought bridge of my tone scale. Actually what this is about is helping your actor make a connection to the turning point in a scene. Maybe they're rushing past the big emotional A-ha moment. You could simply tell them to take their time with it. But if that's not working then you need to walk them across the bridge. Examine the subtext, "she's telling you that you've never acted like a man, you're still a child and in your heart you know this is true. You also know at this moment exactly what you have to do." Whenever the subtext of the movie comes to the surface you have a turning point, a moment of greatest truth. Don't rush past these moments of truth, underline them to make sure they are seen.
  10. Details. The novice director gives only details when directing. "When she says this to you, you've always hoped someone would say this." Now you can give details for sure, but only if you're sure you have the strong foundations underneath. You don't want to over do it with details, otherwise your actor is spinning plates, trying to hit all these specific things. Details should just be little bits that come from the organic facts of the story.
Afterward she did a scene from Moonstruck with two actors and put these principals into use. She got the scene to go from zero to 60 in a reasonable amount of time. It wasn't the performance of a lifetime but it was enough to see how they worked in a practical setting.

I'm probably going to take Adrienne's workshop in May. It's $725 and limited to ten people and requires an interview to get in. My hope is that at that price it will limit the number of freaks sort of like how the $14 ticket price and assigned seating at the Arclight keeps out the riff-raff. Yes, little bundles of money burnt up to keep my dreams alive.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

i've got something for your face!

As my writing instructor at AFI used to say, "Yearning equals earning." What he meant by that was if you show characters who are obsessed, who have deeply felt yearnings for someone or something (their plot goal) then you have a movie with great potential for earnings.
This week we took a look at the documentary Crazy Love for the purpose of studying character. It has all the classic details of a conventional narrative film (somebody wants something very badly; Burt's desire for Linda. It's almost impossible for him to get it; she's engaged to someone else, he's married- plus it gets worse when he hires thugs to throw acid in her face. In the end he gets what he wants; Burt and Linda have been married since the mid-seventies.) What sets this film apart though are the characters. Burt and Linda are unlike any conventional characters we know, and as such they're unforgettable. Normally I'd talk about the tricks the writer used to create these characters but in this case they are their own creation. Nevertheless we can break them down into specific traits that can be applied to your characters.

  • An underdog with a tragic past who makes the most of his present
  • Driven by a passion that exceeds logic and reason
  • Admits when he makes mistakes, breaks the rules
  • Aware of his crazy actions and unable to stop himself
  • Has initiative and ingenuity
  • Is charming when he gets what he wants
  • Is a real threat when denied what he needs

  • An underdog with a tragic past who makes the most of her present
  • Aware of her talents and abilities but does not abuse them (her youth, beauty and charm)
  • Takes adventure when it is offered, not one to shy away from life
  • Takes the moral high ground when confronted with betrayal
  • Lives life in defiance of her attacker as best she can
  • Finds overwhelming compassion and forgiveness for the unforgivable
  • Cutting insight and sense of humor
If you set out to write a fictional story about a man who throws acid in the face of his ex-girlfriend only to end up marrying her fifteen years later you might struggle with the plausibility issue. A documentary obviously does not have this problem. In fiction we have to believe in the characters first and foremost. Everything else hangs from that. I feel you can solve any plausibility problem in terms of plot so long as you've done the work of making your characters real. That doesn't just mean a well drawn character will work in any situation. Your characters have to be perfect for that situation.

When I start out to write a new script I begin by asking myself, why does this character have to go on this journey? From that question comes a set of character traits and flaws that they will explore and repair over the course of the story.

For our class I had my students watch the film then write a 1 to 3 page scene based on Burt and Linda. It could present any moment before, during or after the story in the film. The results were uniformly terrific. The reason, in my opinion, is that when you really know who your characters are your writing becomes more life like and dynamic. I encourage writers when struggling with a character's identity to try a couple of tricks. First go through your address book and see if there's anyone from real life you can base this character on. If not, go through IMDB and look at characters and actors. Sometimes having an actor in mind makes it easier to write. Either way, having that solid foundation in reality will make the process of writing for your characters easier and hopefully yeild a better script.

I'm going to a Film Independent seminar tonight; ten tricks for getting great performances from actors. I should have my notes posted tonight or tomorrow.

Next week we'll be taking a look at unsympathetic main characters in our analysis of The Honeymoon Killers.