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Archive for December, 2009

Bad Parking and Screenwriting Dec 24

“If a job is worth doing, it’s worth doing well.” – ProverbNot a Screenwriter

Holiday Hypothesis

Today I was out and about (or as my Canadian friends would say — “oat in a boat”), doing my usual last minute holiday shopping (God bless the inventor of gift certificates).

When I arrived back at my car, I noticed the person next to me had parked at a severely deranged angle1, effectively occupying space in two stalls. The person wasn’t attempting to prevent door dings — it was just a case of careless parking.

My first thought? “This person would never make it as a screenwriter.”

It’s All About Attitude

It occurred to me that there must be a correlation between bad parking and bad screenwriting.

As any screenwriter with a modicum of success will tell you, screenwriting is about striving for greatness. Taking great pride in what you do. Hollywood recycle bins are littered with scripts from writers who thought: “Ah it’s good enough.”

Making the Cut

Of the tens of thousands of spec screenplays written in 2009, only 436 spec scripts were circulated in Hollywood. Of that number, only 72 were sold — 72 out of possibly 50,000 scripts! That’s about 1 in 700.

To make the cut, your script has to be extraordinary. That means striving for perfection and never settling for a mediocre story beat, scene, punchline, hook, concept, title, structure, whatever. It means having that spark inside you that absolutely refuses to let your final draft be anything less than its best.

I believe that spark must be so great it suffuses who you are. It influences everything from your regular day job to the way you park your car. Essentially, any task that impacts others.

Conclusion

If “good enough” is still part of your vocabulary… If you could leave your car parked this way without thinking twice about it… I suspect screenwriting is not for you.

Time to sound off. Are there any screenwriters out there who are content to park like Stevie Wonder? Or does my hypothesis have merit?


  1. Note: The car shown in this post is not the same one that triggered my grand hypothesis. However, it is a fairly accurate representation.
Are your slug lines naked? Dec 23

What’s a slug line?

It’s another way of saying “shot heading” or “scene heading.”

What’s a naked slug line?

A naked slug line is a scene heading that has no direction below it — only dialogue. It’s considered bad form to jump directly into dialogue without first setting the scene.

There’s no minimum number of words that you must use for your scene description, but there should always be something written.

******

Here’s an example of BAD form:

INT. BRANDINE’S ICE CREAM SHACK – NIGHT

BRANDINE

What can I git fer you fellers?

And here’s an example of GOOD form:

INT. BRANDINE’S ICE CREAM SHACK – NIGHT

Two wide-eyed boys approach the counter.

BRANDINE

What can I git fer you fellers?

Quite often the temptation to use a naked slug line will spring up in the following situations:

  • When you’re jumping back and forth between quick action scenes that you’ve already established
  • When you’re using secondary scene headings
  • When you want to connect the dialogue from the previous scene to the dialogue of the new scene

In all these cases, resist the temptation to omit the scene description. Just throw in a few words. It’s proper form and won’t leave your slug lines looking so exposed.


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Script vs. Movie: ARMORED Dec 20

Script vs. MovieThis is the first in what may become a series of articles where I’ll take a look at an early version of a script and compare it to the resulting movie.

SPOILER ALERT! SPOILER ALERT! SPOILER ALERT! This article discusses everything from plot twists to the ending of the movie.

Today’s Battle: Armored

In the blue corner, the SCRIPT: Written by James V. Simpson (Feb. 5/07 version)

In the red corner, the MOVIE: Directed by Nimród Antal (Released 2009)

Quick Synopsis (courtesy of IMDB)

A newbie guard for an armored truck company is coerced by his veteran coworkers to steal a truck containing $42 million. But a wrinkle in their supposedly foolproof plan divides the group, leading to a potentially deadly resolution.

The Setup

ArmoredScript

  • The protagonist lives with his wife and his brother.
  • The brother is feeling the pressure over losing his house
  • The cops who stumble across the armored guards aren’t mentioned until the second act

Movie

  • The protagonist doesn’t have a wife. He just lives with his brother.
  • The brother is feeling the pressure over losing his house and having child protective services threatening to take Jimmy away.
  • There’s only one cop. You get to know him in the first act.

The added element of the wife doesn’t add anything to the script. In fact it’s a character that simply disappears after the first act. Without the wife, it makes Ty’s (the protagonist’s) job of raising his younger brother on his own, much more difficult. Which sets up the reasons he must participate in the heist much more believable.

Having just the one young cop also works well. You have more invested in the character as you get to know him earlier. You also empathize with him because he’s working on his own and still trying to do the right thing.

Edge: MOVIE

Characters

Script

  • I had a hard time distinguishing a number of the characters. Both in terms of individual dialogue and character traits. This was especially true for the characters Quinn and Palmer. In fact, there were many scenes where they were almost treated like one character. For example, on page 90 the phrase: “Quinn and Palmer [insert description here]” appears four times.

Movie

  • The characters are well distinguished. Quinn is an old codger with an accent. Baines is a hardened gun nut. Palmer is a bit of a religious freak, etc.

Edge: MOVIE

Believability

Script

  • One part, especially, left me scratching my head. Ty exits the armored vehicle through a trap door on the roof and then jumps up to a platform. Keep in mind that the bad guys are right behind the truck. There’s even a line: “All they have to do is look up and they’ll see him!” That type of suspense may work when a hero has no other choice, but it seemed really strange that Ty would put himself in that situation.
  • Both cops die — which is fine. But the older cop, who survives the longest, dies somewhat suddenly and unbelievably.

Movie

There were so many unbelievable moments in the movie that, quite honestly, ruined it for me. I was eager to read the script after seeing the movie, because all of these things smacked of director or producer tinkering. Boy was I right.

  • Wow, where to begin… Ty almost escapes from the warehouse in one of the two armored cars. Cochrane chases him down and then they somehow arrive back at the same location that they left from. This was a surefire sign that they were trying to keep the budget down — but it was completely unbelievable. (In the script, the chase lands everyone in a different location)
  • Palmer kills Dobbs with a small knife by stabbing him in the stomach. That only kills people right away in the movies. (In the script, Dobbs gets shot by Cochrane)
  • Ty takes great pains to exit the armored car (through the floor — which works better) without being seen, but then when he reaches the trap door in the roof of the warehouse, he lets it slam down, alerting the bad guys. (In the script, Cochrane figures out that Ty’s no longer in the armored truck because he hears Ty’s call over the other dead cop’s radio.)
  • When Palmer goes to investigate the sound and finds Ty trying to get a signal on the radio, instead of shooting Ty, he — I’m not kidding here — jumps off the roof and kills himself because he’s now suddenly distraught over killing his friend Dobbs (who he seemed to very easily kill moments before). (In the script, there is an excellent action chase sequence through the warehouse complex on foot with two guys chasing after Ty)
  • Ty tells his brother and the shot police officer whom he just rescued to “stay here” while he goes to get the police car. Why the hell would he do that? It was obviously a contrived set up to give Ty a mano y mano moment with the bad guy Cochrane. (In the script, the cop is dead and Ty takes his brother with him)
  • There’s a final chase sequence where Cochrane is in an armored car and chasing Ty (who is on foot) down a path. You know those scenes in the cartoons where all the character needs to do to avoid the falling tree is to jump off to the side? Yeah, it was like that. The path was flanked by low cement walls on either side that would make it easy to escape from the truck had Ty simply decided to hop over the wall.
  • To make matters worse, when Ty jumps into a pit to avoid the truck, Cochrane drives the truck off the edge into this pit (instead of calmly stopping his truck, pulling out his gun and shooting Ty). (In the script, there’s a hand-to-hand combat fight scene inside one of the armored trucks)
  • The cop, who appeared to be on death’s door, is bright eyed and bushy tailed once he gets to the hospital. He’s so alert, he’s even able to sit up and give the police a statement.

Edge: SCRIPT

Action and Plot

Script

  • There’s a nice sequence where a couple of the bad guys go after Ty when he escapes out of the top of the armored truck.
  • The sequences with the protagonist stuck in the armored car trying to figure out what to do, were quite realistic and comprehensible. Attaching a flare to a fire extinguisher and then using that to light the money on fire was very clever.
  • Ty puts a flare inside the money box to superheat it, along with his remaining ammunition and coins, effectively turning it into a bomb. It was easy to understand and worked really well.
  • Ty’s brother Jimmy (who’s a street tough 15 year old) fights to escape from one of the bad guys who is sent to apprehend him. He’s then cuffed with tie straps.

Movie

  • Only one guy goes after Ty, and as we learned above, commits suicide. (Seriously, WTF!)
  • Without any explanation, Ty sneaks out of the bottom of the armored truck (something he did a number of times I might add, without simply looking for a way to escape) then somehow blows up the hidden money with a flare. We never get to learn how he would actually cause the money bags to explode the way they did.
  • When the money box explodes, we have no idea how he rigged things up to explode. Sure we saw the flare, but it simply wasn’t comprehensible without knowing about the ammunition that was placed in the box as well.
  • We don’t see any fight scene with Jimmy and when he arrives back at the warehouse with the bad guys, he’s not in tie straps. This kid was a delinquent — it seemed too easy for the bad guy to manage him so easily by himself.

Edge: SCRIPT

The Ending

Script

  • Ashcroft, the boss at the armored company, turns out to be in on the heist.
  • The cop (both cops) die. One cop dies only moments after he was talking coherently and moving around.
  • The bad guy doesn’t die, he’s just left handcuffed to the armored car.
  • The final scene has Ty and his family moving — I guess he was forced to sell his house after all. Overall, it’s kind of a downer.

Movie

  • Ashcroft, is actually a good guy. These days it’s almost a bigger surprise to have a pivotal character actually be what he seems. That was a nice touch.
  • The cop survives — which works much better. It leaves the story on an up-ending, and makes the protagonist look more heroic.
  • True to Hollywood bad-guy-death form — the bad guy dies by falling into the pit inside his armored truck. (There are typically only two ways that Hollywood movie bad guys die — by falling or by fire. Think about it.)
  • In the final scene we learn that Ty will actually qualify for a reward (and therefore save his house and brother).

Edge: MOVIE

And the Winner is…

THE MOVIE!

While the script was definitely more believable, the movie had a stronger set up, more fleshed out characters and a much stronger ending. Ultimately though, the lack of believability of the movie means that the audience (and box office) is the real loser.

As well, there were too many scenes where the protagonist was simply left to wonder, “What should I do?” and wasn’t coming up with any suitable answers. You’re not going to see that in a comparable (and superior) movie in terms of format — Panic Room, with Jodie Foster.

Many of the elements of the script were changed for the better. Unfortunately, many things were also changed for the worse. That may help to explain the abysmal box office gross of the movie ($14,195,000 vs. $20,000,000 budget) according to Box Office Mojo.

Was this article helpful/interesting? Let me know if you’d like to see more Script vs. Movie battles.


Show Don’t Tell: The Revenge! Dec 18

Preamble

In a previous post, I discussed some of the concepts and examples behind the expression, “Show don’t tell.”

A picture says a thousand words — imagine how many words motion-pictures say. That’s why it’s a well-regarded rule to follow when writing your scenes.

But one should also be cautious of following rules blindly.

Adherence to the rule

A few weeks ago, I was visiting a screenwriters group in L.A. that is hosted by a local screenwriting guru. The guru, who I actually respect very much, was discussing Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (Amazon | IMDB). He made an offhand comment about how the script made some Hollywood Company’s “Wall of Shame.”

Apparently they have some type of algorithm which plots common script problems or something, and because it broke so many rules, it received an abysmal grade. Anyway, the guru was in sync with their assessment and remarked that the scene with the watch was terrible.

Never one to worry about looking stupid, I interrupted him with a question. Here’s how our conversation went:

TREVOR

I’m sorry, what exactly is wrong with the scene with the watch? It’s one of my favorite scenes.

GURU

What happens in the scene?

TREVOR

Uhhh... Christopher Walken’s character tells the--

GURU

He does what?

TREVOR

He tells--

GURU

He what?

TREVOR

Oh, I get it. He’s breaking the “show don’t tell” rule.

Some rules can be broken

I don’t know about you, but when I encounter a scene in a movie that really works, I focus on why the scene works — not what rules, if any, it’s breaking.

The watch scene from Pulp Fiction is one such example. It may break the rule of “show don’t tell,” but I feel there are several reasons why the scene works brilliantly:

1. He’s Telling Us A Compelling Story

Humans communicate and learn via stories. Ever since Grog told the one about how he killed the mighty mammoth with his bare hands, humans have been enjoying well told tales. It’s in our DNA.

So sure,  a story is by definition telling us something and not showing us the event, but it’s something we’re hardwired to be receptive to — especially when it’s delivered by a raconteur like Christopher Walken.

2. We’re experiencing the story from the protagonist’s point of view

In the watch scene, Captain Koons (Walken) talks almost directly at us (the camera). We’re meeting that character for the first time — just like the protagonist is. Tarantino does a fabulous job of putting us in the young boy’s shoes — feeling what it would be like to have this strange man come into our living room and tell us such a crazy story.

3. The story is a punchline

We get to find out why Butch (Bruce Willis) freaks out over the watch, and we learn this new information in a very humorous way. So in actuality, this scene *is* showing us the importance of the watch.

What would the alternative have been? There’s nothing Butch could have said that would have come close to the poignancy of actually experiencing that moment with Captain Koons.

4. We DEFINITELY don’t want to see what happened to the watch

Grimy men in a Hanoi pit shoving hiding a watch… Probably better left to to the imagination.

Summary

What the guru failed to realize, in my opinion, was that sometimes there’s no substitute for a well told story. In the right hands it can make us laugh, horrify/thrill us, advance the plot and develop a character.

How less powerful would Jaws (Amazon | IMDB) have been without Quint’s monologue about the ill-fated USS Indianapolis?

Or what about when Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) told Kay Adams (Diane Keaton) the story about Johnny Fontane in The Godfather (Amazon | IMDB): “My father made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.” It sets up the stakes and the world of the movie.

In another Tarantino classic, Reservoir Dogs (Amazon | IMDB), the telling of a story spanned several scenes and was used very effectively to reveal character and context.

While it’s important to follow the “show don’t tell” rule to eliminate expository scenes or on-the-nose dialogue, never lose sight of the goal — to entertain the audience. Sometimes that means knowing when to break the rules.

What’s your take? Do you have a favorite scene where a character is simply telling a story?


Category: Dialogue  | 6 Comments
11 Laws of Great Storytelling Dec 17

Jeffrey Hirschberg has written a great article discussing the 11 laws he believes are critical to your script’s success.

While it is impossible to have a foolproof formula, I have learned certain principles dramatically increase the probability of your story achieving a modicum of greatness.

  1. Assume everyone has A.D.D.
  2. Spend most of your time on the first ten pages of your script
  3. Write roles to attract movie stars
  4. Write economically
  5. Make sure every character has a unique voice
  6. Understand your audience
  7. Know your three-act structure
  8. Be aware of theme, and keep it consistent throughout the script
  9. Watch and re-watch successful movies similar to your story
  10. Know what your hero wants (the goal), what happens if he doesn’t get what he wants (the stakes), and who/what is preventing him from getting what he wants (the villain)
  11. Leave them wanting more

Will your script echo in eternity?

For a thorough discussion of each of these laws, complete with movie examples, I highly recommend reading the full article at TheStoryDepartment.com.


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