A Simple, But Important Note About Scriptwriting

Last week, on May 2nd, John August and Craig Mazin read some scripts as part of the Three Page Challenge. Their critiques give writers a good example of how to write and how to write well, touching on language usage, script format, dialogue, and description.

The first script, which is action based, is worthy of note. Craig comments on the choices that are made:

“There’s a choice that’s made here. There are times when  your action-description wants to be a character of itself and there are times when you want to impart things to your reader quickly and efficiently so they kind of get it”

Craig goes on to analyze the description of the introduction. It is here that he finds a problem: the author threw in statements that boil down to a pitch of the film.

“That’s not what screenplays do. So much of what we want when we read a screenplay is to discover; and I understand at some point you may need to clarify. First just lay it on me, and then let me discover it.”

This is an important point when it comes to writing. So many writers, especially young writers, feel the need to justify and explain themselves in the action and description instead of letting the story play and explain itself. To all the writers who ever bother to read this, please, do yourself a favor: just write the story. Don’t worry about explaining and justification, if you do your job, everything will become clear, or at least, give readers more questions that pull them further into the narrative than push them away. Just write, that’s all you have to do.


Welcome to Hollywood

Yesterday (May 9th), Scriptnotes did a live podcast with Rob McElhenney (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) and Rian Johnson (The Last Jedi), both writer-directors. Johnson, the director of Brick and Looper, talks about his career, in his 20’s doing commercial work for Disney on  “Bear in the Big Blue House”, the Jim Henson vehicle, before getting his break on Brick.

Craig Mazin, to Johnson- “There’s something about you though, a lot of people start out, they can’t quite get there…You get this big break to make your movie. But there are a couple of things you need to do, that maybe don’t feel right to you and you say: okay. You’ve always struck me as someone who would say: No I’ll just go back to the  Blue House.”

Johnson- “It’s not like I had written something that had huge commercial value…For a first time director it’s not like there are a lot of things that you are talking about”

This goes on for some time, but the basics of the conversation, and the reason why it is highlighted, is that success in Hollywood does not come from happenstance or following your dreams. It comes from skill and knowing the right people. No one cares about your dreams and what you want to do unless you find a way to make them care; and the only way you can make someone care is by being really good at what you do and finding the right promoters. There is a reason why the majority of people who are successful in the film industry are in their 30’s and 40’s because that’s when success starts to happen.

The last part of the podcast, the audience Q&A, is perhaps the most telling. Although McElhenney and Johnson are optimistic, Craig, possessing a certain degree of cynicism, and Dana Fox, a producer, director, and guest host of the live show, offer some realistic and practical advice for writers and creative people in general.

Craig, on dealing with rejection- “Where a lot of young writers go wrong is they cannot handle that emotional dissonance”

Dana- “If you have to have a job, like most people do when they are trying to get in this industry, save your good hours for writing”

Who we listen to in Hollywood in regards to the industry is important and different people, depending on their profession and personal beliefs, will tell different things that are “the keys to success”. The truth is there is no right or wrong way to do things, just as no outlook in regards to dreams and practical realism is bad. It all depends on how you go about doing things and the extremes that you take to get where you want to be.

The Treatment: “The Lost City of Z”

KCRW’s The Treatment hosted by Elvis Mitchell, talks with James Gray, the director of “The Lost City of Z” a biographical adventure film that tells the story of Percy Fawcett, a British explorer who searches for a lost city in the jungles of Brazil. Most of the talk deals with Gray dealing with the subject matter of “The Lost City of Z”, a book by David Grann, specifically with Fawcett’s personality.

“He describes Fawcett in a wonderful way, enigmatic, not able to navigate, as he puts it, the messy maze of race as he was both progressive but also deeply prejudiced. And I found those contradictions very interesting because it gets to the core of what we might call a person’s identity and their sense of self”

He goes on to say that this kind of conflict is what makes for good movie-watching; and he is right. The question then is, given these circumstances, specifically with the main character being both a “progressive” and a “prejudiced bigot”, how will the film perform in the box office?

First and foremost, The Lost City of Z is an adventure film, a genre that almost invariably does well provided that the acting and story are on par, and the visual effect,s when applicable, are decent; so it should not have a problem with most people. However, there are always going to be certain individuals who turn immediately (and often times unnecessarily) to politics with films of this nature, especially when the main character is a white Englishmen who is a prejudiced in Brazil. Some appropriate context of course, is required, for the people who will be potentially rise eyebrows at this, will not bother to read the book or even listen to James Gray’s intentions. If it sounds like a cynical statement, it is, and for good reason- because it happens all the time.

James Gray goes on, here are some of the highlights of his point.

“A lot of things go into making us who we are as a culture…ours would be the idea that you can pull yourself up by your bootstraps and all that…so if you are expressing the idea that is essentially the opposite of that, that the ability to change who you are and your destiny is very limited, it’s a terrifying idea…It is a very European idea.”

In a way, this is about perspective, for in all honesty, people outside of the United States do not care, at least as much, about such issues, and welcome the idea of predetermined destiny as a concept they are willing to accept, not because it is a form of indentured servitude, as some would believe, but because their ideas about the world and the way it works are different from America.

The Lost City of Z premieres on Friday, April 14th. The full podcast can be found at KCRW.com

Screenwriting and Psychology

On March 28th, last Tuesday, John August and Craig Mazin of Scriptnotes dug through the archives and granted us with one of their most requested podcast episodes: Psychotherapy with Dennis Palumbo. The episode discusses many issues that screenwriters often have- writer’s block, procrastination, dealing with partnerships- in a way that is both personal and telling in regards to what it takes to become from the mental perspective.

Palumbo: “What I find very quickly in working with a patient who is struggling with writer’s block is that the issues are bound up in their personal lives”

“I think writer’s block is very similar to the development steps we go through as people…I think when you’re blocked, you’re about to make a growth spurt in your work.”

This kind of thinking, which is discussed in the first fifteen minutes of the podcast, is important to understand because it looks at the actual process of screenwriting from the standpoint not of a writer, but as a person who coincidentally writes. John, Craig, and Palumbo go on to define the difference between writer’s block and procrastination, signifying writer’s block as related to a full on stop of work brought on by a generalizing fear of failure,  rejection, and the thought of being completely unable to write. Procrastination on the other hand, is related to a specific project, in which the writer is stuck but is able to move on and approach the problem differently, rather than complete paralysis from the craft altogether.

Understanding the human mind is just as important as understanding how to write a screenplay for a scriptwriter, for if writers are unable to take care of themselves than nothing will ever get done, no ideas will ever emerge and everything in film and television will remain the same. The full discussion can be viewed at the Scriptnotes podcast website, it is highly recommended for everyone, regardless of profession.


The World’s Most Expensive Episodic TV Show: The Franchise

The Business this week hosted James Mangold, the director and co-screenwriter of Logan, released earlier this month. He discusses one of the many problems that filmmakers face when dealing with studios, specifically, when a filmmaker is called upon to produce a franchise film: a loss of control.

The power of the filmmaker in a studio environment in regards to the franchise is almost nonexistent; and it goes all the way back to the structure of the franchise themselves. This is especially true with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, even more so with properties like X-Men, who are not technically under the umbrella of the MCU, being owned by Fox instead of Disney. Mangold makes the point:

“And I don’t think anybody with a human brain and ears and eyes is not starting to think that more is not more. And that adding more heroes, more characters, more effects, more sound…The fact is that the unspoken feeling is that this is a very weird trajectory we’re on. Less is coming back and the movies aren’t as good”

Of course Mangold is generalizing, he says as much. However this generalization makes a point that speaks to franchise structure.

“This is endemic. I think if you’re just going to use Marvel’s grosses and somehow use their movies to make them free of this kind of criticism that’s not fair….Outside of comic books, I’m talking about tent-pole movies in general, they’re not movies generally, they’re bloated exercises in two hour trailers for another movie they’re going to sell you in two years.”

There is of course a bright side to this, for Mangold does not deny that there are some good movies that emerge from the woodwork, referencing Guardians of the Galaxy  (2014) and Iron Man (2008) as being notable exceptions to the rule. The problem lies in what successful films such as these ultimately produce-repetition.

Mangold and host Kim Masters discuss a bit about the specifics of Logan, involving the desire to include a Marvel comic in the film, something that was ultimately denied by the studio resulting in the production of a fake comic book, and then proceeds to get to the treatment of studios when it comes to creative directors.

“The reality is that all you have to do is experience…what it feels like when you don’t have control of your movie”

This brings up an interesting point and speaks to the current studio system, but at the same time also speaks to Mangold and others like him, showcasing, almost entirely in subtext, the narcissism of filmmakers and creative artists. This narcissism is not entirely their fault nor it is necessary a bad thing (see the work of Spike Jonze’s Adaptation, 2002) as long as it has a direction. In the case of franchises that direction often leads to “soullessness” and repetition. If directors and others in the industry are allowed to be creative in the confines of mainstream Hollywood, the repetition will cease and the quality of franchises will ultimately improve. This will require, in the most extreme cases, a new brand of Hollywood, one that is based on mutual trust and respect between all parties. That day is unfortunately far off, but hopefully, as long as there are creators, there will be films worth seeing, some of them part of a franchise.

Scriptwriters and Social Media: Etiquette

Scriptnotes John August and Craig Mazin this week discuss whether or not screenwriters should use social media and how they should use it effectively. Craig makes the point that:

“On Twitter, people have to follow you. They have to choose to follow you.”

Craig goes on to give advice, tailored to writers, about how to use Twitter effectively. Some of his main points are:

  • Be clever
  • Be positively passionate
  • Promote sparingly and avoid “the walking billboard syndrome”. Craig notes that: “it is the worst way to use Twitter”
  • Don’t re-tweet other people’s promotions or praise.

Most of it comes down to online etiquette, basic rules of conduct that are normally used in every day life applied to the digital world; and this is worth mentioning for good reason. People, despite what others may think, do not respond to overt promotion, it is annoying and generally seen as a waste of time. This explains why so many people who talk to the industry  professionals tend to get shut out in given circumstances. The best way to get to know someone professionally, in some cases, is to know them personally. Does this work for everyone? Of course not. People are individuals and respond differently to content that is presented to them, so naturally the results, in theory, will be different each time.

Craig and John continue, talking about how to convey emotions through text.

Craig: “The things that I think tend to work well are honest expressions…If you are honest, and you are authentic, in the long run…you will be viewed positively. The worst of it is the lying. Humble bragging is not bad because it’s bragging, it’s bad because it’s false, because it’s manipulative”

“The counterpart to that is bravery complaining, it goes something like this: Some people clearly want me to believe that I’m not capable of telling this story but I am; I’m a writer. And I won’t be ignored….I don’t know anything other than this, that tweet was designed for people to say: we are behind you, you are amazing, don’t let anyone get you down…it helps no one but yourself.”

The issue that Craig presents is one that is all too common in the attitude of both the film industry and those currently studying film. So what does this ultimately mean for screenwriters who use technology? Be humble. Be clever. Talk to people as if they are people. If you do these things your online presence will improve and eventually start to grow.



The WGA Negotiations: The Setup

This week John August and Craig Mazin of Scriptnotes talk about the Writer’s Guild of America (WGA) negotiations. It is important to understand that the WGA is a union, which is a collective specialized entity organized to benefit the members providing minimums, pensions, and healthcare. While the debate about the relevancy of unions, given the numerous government regulations that exist, is a topic for another day, the issue of negotiation is something that is worth investigating.

“In order to work as a WGA screenwriter you have to work for one of these companies. And these are the companies who we negotiate with every 3 years to figure out the contract and what those rates are going to be. So, the rates for residuals, how money is going for health and pension, how we are going to schedule the minimums for the kinds of work we do. Together, all these signatories are the AMPTP (The Association of Motion Picture Television Producers)” – John August

Depending on the contract that is drawn up, the WGA could look different in the future. While drastic changes are unlikely, and many of the issues will simply be revised and renewed, what happens with the WGA is important because it determines the working environment of screenwriters. Of course, more research will have to do be done in order to fully understand the negotiations, but looking at the business side, particularly the activities of the various unions involved is a skill that many film students could stand to learn; especially if they have any hope of taking film with any degree of seriousness.

This is especially true because of the breath of jobs that screenwriters perform depending on where they are and the kind of things they write. The contract will most certainly deal with finding a uniform solution to longstanding problems such as work hours, content providers (Netflix, Amazon), and the ability to collectively bargain in an environment that is constantly changing coming up with new ideas and heading in different directions. As Craig Mazin notes:

“… all of this is putting enormous pressure on whatever the old models were; and our bargaining and our contract, it is all steeped deeply in the tradition of the time of which it was first convinced which was post World War II America.”


Writing Dialogue: The Art of Listening

In many ways the screenplay is the most important part of the film-making process, for it is the blueprint in which the final product, the film, is ultimately constructed. One of the essential parts of any screenplay is the dialogue, or the act of two or more characters speaking to each other. John August and Craig Mazin, on their podcast Scriptnotes mention the importance of dialogue, specifically the concept of discourse markers- words such as FANBOYS (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so)- that acknowledge the idea of listening; which is something that we do every single day.

The question is, why is this idea of listening so hard when it comes to writing screenplays? For new writers, dialogue between two characters, according to August and Mazin, is often one character speaking and an intersecting monologues. The fix for this problem is the act of listening: “…It’s the listening of dialogue, and the reacting and the incorporation and the adjustment; that’s the swordsmanship” (Episode 286: “Script Doctors, Dialogue, and Hacks”). The reason why this problem is so commonplace, as August and Mazin go on to say, is the inability of the writer to place themselves, and the words that they write, into their respective characters. In other words, dialogue has lost its naturalism and its lost its naturalism because writers have forgotten how to listen.

This is important to the film industry for a number of reasons, least of all the authorship of a good screenplay to sell to the industry producers. Writing dialogue is important because film, just like any industry, requires dialogue- not just between characters but between actual people as well; if writers can’t learn how to listen than the dialogue becomes flat, if the dialogue is flat than the screenplay gets thrown out and no film is made. Now, more than ever, dialogue in screenplays, and the acts of silence that accompany them, are essential, because it serves as the primary “voice” of the film industry, a voice that begins with the act of listening.