Saturday, June 28, 2008

Be Prepared: Why Screenwriters are like Scouts and Guides

I always have two things on my person: a Swiss army knife and a credit card. Because life is unpredictable like that, right? However, I recently received an urgent request for some documentation which I hadn’t updated because I assumed it wouldn’t be needed in the near future.

Wrong. Don’t assume. I was reminded that as a screenwriter it’s important to have other items at the ready besides tools for purchasing and opening cans of baked beans.

Items such as updated synopses and loglines of all your projects. Including the ones you pitched long ago and in which you think no one will ever be interested. Or practised pitches and most recent drafts of all your scripts. Not necessarily folded into tight packages and stuffed in between your switchblade and your plastic money, but ready-to-go, nevertheless.

Because you never know when The Call will come. And if you wait until the phone rings, you’re gong to have to rush, which means you’ll make mistakes. Which isn’t cool, because you often only get one chance.

It’s a bit like marketing: Smart marketers don’t wait until they have a warehouse full of dusty boxes to start thinking about how to position their product. They start way before that, so that by the time the boxes are delivered, the customers are already jostling outside on the street (or on the website).

In other words, you need to follow the boy scouts’ motto, and be prepared. Think ahead. You have no way of knowing what goes on in the minds of the people with the power to greenlight projects. Their priorities can change overnight. If they suddenly need something from you, pronto, it’s probably a good idea to be able to respond promptly and efficiently.

Anyway, I’m off to spend the rest of my weekend practising what I preach.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Why Writing Films Is Worth The Sweat

From time to time, especially in the wake of rejection or other news which requires one to take a deep breath, smash a few plates and avoid answering calls from your accountant, every screenwriter wonders: Why the hell am I still doing this?

Here’s a good way of answering that question: Read Mark Cousins wonderful article Movies Made Me in the latest issue of Prospect magazine. In this piece, he plots the influence movies have had on his and society’s opinions and habits in the past fifty or so years.

Cousins talks about how specific films helped form his sense of fashion, his knowledge of sexuality, his awareness of the larger world out there, and so on. But also how films have boosted national identities, challenged racial stereotypes and even managed to tell the truth about big emotions such as fear and loneliness.

Admittedly films can’t literally depict the horrors of war or slums (films don’t smell …), but they can certainly set trends, comment critically on social issues, raise uncomfortable questions and so on.

In my own little personal history, there have been many films which left a deep impression on me. Like George Lucas’s American Graffiti, which made me realize I was a teenager, or Kaos by the Taviani brothers which made me realize I should grow up, to name just a couple.

Someone sat down and wrote the scripts for those films. They sweated it out. They put those words in the actors’ mouths and conjured up the scenery and the drama within which these tales were told. They created these worlds and characters which moved me and changed me, and which became milestones in the narrative that is my past.

What a wonderful legacy!

That’s why writing films is worth the sweat.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

What Screenwriters Can Learn From Copywriters

In a recent newsletter, copywriting guru Gary Bencivenga summarizes the most important lessons he’s learned in his many years of copywriting. Unsurprisingly, there is a lot to learn for screenwriters there too, and I’ve taken the liberty of adapting some of his lessons to screenwriting for you here:

  1. The screenwriter is not the star. The more invisible you the writer are in your writing, the better. That’s not to say you shouldn’t develop your own unique voice. Obviously you must. But as soon as you try and show off with “clever wordsmithing,” you’re going to distract the reader and spoil the flow of the story. The reader wants to read about the characters, not about you.

  2. Research is the best cure for writer’s block. Not that any of us suffer from that ailment of course (we all have far too many ideas to write up, don’t we?). But let’s say, hypothetically, just for argument’s sake, you didn’t know how to proceed for some reason. According to Bencivenga, the best thing you can do is delve right into the material you’re writing about. Go out and collect heaps more information about your subject matter than you’ll ever possibly need. Interview people, read, get first-hand experience, etc., and before long the scenes will want to “… burst forth as if a dam is breaking.”

  3. Commit yourself to ongoing learning. The most successful A-list screenwriters read scripts and learn new tricks from each other every day. They never consider themselves to be finished learning, and neither should you. Keeping your mind open to new ideas and knowledge is a hugely important creative stimulus. So make a commitment to actively search out and study scripts and screenwriting manuals, to attend seminars, to see movies, and so on.

  4. Visualize what you’re writing. View it in your mind’s eye. You’re writing for the screen! What you write in the script has to make visual sense. The reader needs to be able to see what’s happening while they read.

I’m sure there’s lots more copywriters can teach screenwriters, not least of all about writing concisely and directly. But more about that some other time …

P.S. If you’re a fan of Judd Apatow, check out my latest post on Great Screenwriting, where I show how Knocked Up is a brilliant study in character-centred screenwriting!

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

How not to be a slave to your writing expectations

Some screenwriters waste a lot of time and energy complaining about the film industry not treating them fairly. Of course it can be a relief to let off steam after a disappointing meeting, a set of boorish notes or a rejection letter. However, if you examine the assumptions feeding these feelings, you just might find you’re causing yourself more grief than necessary.

In his inspiring article The Tyranny of Expectations, vipassana meditation teacher Phillip Moffitt invites people to reflect on how their conscious and unconscious expectations are the cause of shame, disappointment, feelings of inadequacy, and so on.

In the case of screenwriters, these expectations might range from what defines a “good” screenwriter, to what you expect in return for all the work you’ve put in, or how you expect a “typical producer” to behave, and so on.

It’s what you expect that determines how you feel about the outcome of any given event. And the last thing a screenwriter needs, as someone who lives by and for their creative work, is to feel agitated, anxious, needy and desperate because of debilitating expectations.

So what to do?

Here’s what:

Be brutally honest with yourself about what you expect, and how these expectations are stopping you enjoying the present. That sounds easier than it is. Because when you begin to dig deeper, beyond the big, obvious expectations, you inevitably encounter smaller, unrealistic expectations, which are causing all kinds of upsetting and frustrating experiences.

Be aware of the difference between expectations and possibilities and allow yourself to be open to possibilities rather than fixated on expectations. When you’re focused on noticing possibilities in the now, “… your well-being is not contingent on the future.”

Be aware to what extent you define yourself and your well-being in terms of your goals and plans. Because that’s all they are. If life takes you in another direction, there may be much more fulfilling possibilities waiting for you there. Letting go of a pre-conceived notion of what your life as a screenwriter should look like, can be immensely liberating!

And parenthetically, apart from this being sound advice for those of us suffering needlessly rather than writing, it’s actually also a wonderful way to think about your characters …

What do they expect, and how is that hampering them, stopping them from living a more fulfilling and rewarding life?

Something to focus your attention on next time you feel yourself slipping conveniently into the role of victimized and unrecognized artist …

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Why Writing Yourself Into a Corner Can Work Wonders

The Coen brothers are famous for claiming their writing method consists mainly of napping. Whether they actually spend most of their time asleep or not, there is another element to their methodology which is equally interesting and probably more constructive for most other screenwriters: They like to write problematic situations for which they have no ready solution and then see where that leads.

In William Preston Robertson and Tricia Cooke’s book about The Making of The Big Lebowski Ethan Coen talks about how he and brother Joel had the idea for a scene with a severed toe long before they knew whose toe it was going to be. He concedes, “ … that’s a way to work, painting yourself into a corner and then having to perform whatever contortions to get yourself out.”

Or in their movie The Hudsucker Proxy, where they created an even more extreme conundrum for themselves by starting out with the idea of the main character jumping off a building. “That stumped us for a while,” says Ethan, “and we had to resort to the ridiculous extreme of, you know, stopping time.”

I recently unintentionally discovered the benefits of this approach myself when I showed up for a script meeting, armed with a scene in which the main character finds himself stuck in a car with his leg in plaster, watching his granddaughter being kidnapped by a group of thugs.

My writing partner hit the roof. “You can’t do that! You’re writing him out of the action!!” To which I replied, “Well, what might he do, given the kind of character he is?”

And lo and behold, a couple of hours later we had not only nailed the sequence*, we also came up with a brilliant twist for the climax as an unexpected bonus! Which we would never have thought of if we’d plodded along in a more logical, motivational, plot-oriented search.

As with all “techniques,” this is just one of numerous ways to approach the search for intriguing scenes and twists. But it’s certainly one that can activate trains of thought and associations that would otherwise remain dormant.

And if the Coen brothers’ films are anything to go by, it’s certainly worth a try.

Go on, surprise yourself, put your character in an impossible situation and see what happens!

* The original scene in the car didn’t survive.