Sunday, 25 June 2017

How to write a scene in 11 steps

John August wrote a post—How to write a scene—back in 2007.

In February 2013, Ryan Rivard converted the substance of that post into an infographic. Here it is:


The infographic is great, but make sure you read the original post, so you have the context.

First posted: 5 April 2013

10 Lessons on Filmmaking

Filmmaker Magazine has an article this month called 10 Lessons on Filmmaking from Director Ken Loach. For those who don't know, UK-based Ken Loach has directed almost 50 movies and TV shows. He never worked in Hollywood, apparently never wanted to. His latest film, a documentary, The Spirit of ’45, has just had its world premiere at this year’s Berlinale.
    Loach is now 76, a good age at which to start passing on acquired wisdom. The following list has drawn fire over item 9, possibly unfairly. I'll leave it to you to judge.




1. Avoid corruption: Find a thrifty team.

I have been lucky. I work with producers who don’t rip people off. And we don’t spend much money, so there are no kinds of silly extravagances. It works mainly because the producers have set things up in a very comfortable way.
   I think that, oddly enough, it helps that we’re not spending huge sums of money. It’s a well-paid industry. Even at our level it’s very well-paid. But I think when the sums are huge then it’s very corrupting. So you just try to do the sensible thing.

2. Appreciate the people around you.

I think everybody respects everybody. You try and give them enough time to do their job, and sometimes it’s tight, but we all share the same discomforts.
   I think valuing people’s contributions is key. You know if you’re valued, and they are. I mean, I work with brilliant people, and take any one of them away and we couldn’t do it. You don’t have to say it to them. It’s implicit in what you do, isn’t it?

3. The best team is built upon loyalty.

I’ve just been very lucky to find good people, and people have been very loyal, and you try to show loyalty back. And then you develop a common attitude so you don’t have to go over the basics again and again because there’s an understanding between you. It’s just common sense.
   It’s such a fragmented industry. I’ve been lucky and have been able to work quite regularly. I think if you can work quite regularly that gives you the confidence to build a team.

4. Cut before you begin. And then cut some more.

You shoot too many scenes that you don’t need. I think that’s one of the biggest mistakes that people could make. And I made that, sometimes at the outset.
   We try to cut the budget before we start. We cut the script so that you demand less. Maybe there’ll be a scene, one or two scenes in every film that you find you can do without, but you don’t always know that in advance. But that’s part of the art of filmmaking. And then part of the work is to cut the script before you shoot so that you don’t waste time.

5. Find the epic part of even the smallest story.

That’s in the writing, really. I’ve worked with Paul for quite a long time, and the thing about Paul is that he finds the microcosm, which will tell you about the bigger picture. You see something very small, but through it you know the bigger picture. That’s always what you’re looking for, finding a small story, or a relationship, or a situation, and if you tell that truthfully, you say something about the much bigger picture without actually having to have say it. You infer it, and those are all the stories you’re looking for really.

6. The story should feel effortless, no matter how hard it is to convey.

With directing fiction, certainly for our films, the script is very precise. It’s 98%, what you see on the screen is in the script. One or two percent is added, but it should feel as though it’s improvised. It’s like playing Chopin. You should feel the pianist has just sat down at the piano, and he’s just played this amazing piece just from his head, but of course it was written and it should be the same in the film. It should have all the appearance and quality of just happening spontaneously in front of you, and that’s the trick you have to try and pull off.

7. Edit your script with your enemies in mind.

Part of what you consider carefully all the time is what a film is saying, what’s the subtext of the film and what’s the implication of the film. And is it true and can we justify it and is it open to misinterpretation?
   It’s got to be in the script. I found that if there’s a fault in the script, it’s always there at the end. And there have been one or two times where we haven’t got the script quite right, so the faults stay with you, and that’s always the challenge at the beginning.
   The secret to having the proper subtext is working on the script. It’s just asking the questions you know your enemies will ask.

8. The writer/director relationship is sacred.

We talk about the story a lot before Paul starts and then he’ll do a first draft. When we’re doing an outline, we’ll talk at every stage, but he does the writing. And when we’re casting, which is a long process, I always like him to come at different times and be there at the end with Rebecca, and then to come as often as possible to the shoot. Often he’ll see something that I’m missing. So it’s a very congenial relationship. You don’t put pressure on each other; you just enjoy each other’s presence, really. He brings the coffee if there’s nothing else to do.

9. And remember, writing and directing are not one and the same.

If you’re a director, remember you’re not a writer. I think a lot of directors coming in now think they have to be the writer as well, and I think that’s the biggest handicap, you know? If you’re a director, you’re not a writer. And if you’re a writer, you’re probably not a director. Remember the distinction.
   There are not a lot of good director/writers. Usually the script is too thin. It’s not complex enough, and it’s not deep enough. For a writer who directs, it’s usually too dense. They don’t allow it to breathe.
   You need different visions coming in and they’re not the same; they’re complementary. It’s good that there’s another eye on the script and there’s another eye on the directing.

10. Relax.

It’s only a film, you know? Getting up at 6 o’clock on the long days, that’s the biggest challenge. Keeping self-belief is the biggest challenge.
   In the end, if you don’t get it right, you don’t get it right, but you’ll still be there tomorrow to learn your lesson.
   It’s only a film. Don’t take yourself too seriously.


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First posted: 1 April 2013

Saturday, 24 June 2017

Book review: "Hitchcock"

In 1962, François Truffaut commenced a series of interviews with Alfred Hitchcock, via an interpreter. These interviews occurred intermittently over the next five years. The end result was published in 1967, as a book called Hitchcock, though you will sometimes see it referred to as Hitchcock/Truffaut.

Prior to reading this, I didn't know much about François Truffaut, other than Julia Phillips' comments about him in You'll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again (which is one of the great reads about Hollywood in the 1970s.)

Steven Spielberg had cast François Truffaut in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), a film Julia Phillips produced. Truffaut and Phillips did not hit it off.



He was an arrogant, famous French film director and I couldn't help but feel that he was fucking with us all the time.
   I was convinced that the well-known-deaf-in-the-left-ear legend (with a hearing aid as a prop, if you please) was a ploy, like not speaking English, to keep the world at bay and for his own private amusement.
   Still I addressed myself to making him feel comfortable, revered, safe. That was my specialty. Also my job. But deep down I knew he was a prick and it was making me defiant. Fuck him. I wanted my own private amusement.
That private amusement took the form of a bet with Spielberg that Truffaut wasn't deaf. She would find out over dinner, where she would be sitting next to him, on his 'deaf' side.
"At some point during dinner I'll whisper his name and we'll see if he turns toward me. If he does he ain't deaf and I win. If he doesn't he is deaf and you win."
Spielberg accepted the bet.
Halfway through dinner I whispered "François" and he turned minutely in my direction. Of course, Steven argued that it was an inconclusive gesture, and he welched on the bet. I know I won because it earned me François's eternal enmity.
Enmity indeed. Truffaut sniped at Phillips throughout the lengthy filming exercise, including telling the Sunday New York Times that she was "incompetent" and "unprofessional."

It has long amused me that François became Julia's true foe. But I'm like that.

The Truffaut who comes through in this book is a serious cinephile, and so well researched that he knew things about Hitchcock's films that Hitchcock didn't know or had forgotten. I came away from the book with a deep respect for his film knowledge and insights.

I was interested to notice that many of the famous Hitchcock quotes that I've read over the years can be found in this book. Whether they are the original source, I cannot say. Here are some quotes from the book.




From François Truffaut:
  • The only two British film-makers whose works have survived the test of time—and space, for that matter—are Charlie Chaplin and Alfred Hitchcock.
  • The man who excels at filming fear is himself a very fearful person.
  • The art of creating suspense is also the art of involving the audience.
  • Clarity is the most important quality in the making of a film.
  • Cardinal rule of cinema: Whatever is said instead of being shown is lost upon the viewer.
  • In real life the things people say to each other do not necessarily reflect what they actually think and feel. This is especially true of such mundane occasions as dinner and cocktail parties, or of any meeting between casual acquaintances.
  • If we observe any such gathering, it is clear that the words exchanged between the guests are superficial formalities and quite meaningless, whereas the essential is elsewhere; it is by studying their eyes that we can find out what is truly on their minds.
  • Each of (Hitchcock's) pictures features several scenes in which the rule of counterpoint between dialogue and image achieves a dramatic effect by purely visual means.
  • Hitchcock is almost unique in being able to film directly, that is, without resorting to explanatory dialogue, such intimate emotions as suspicion, jealousy, desire, and envy.
  • Anything connected with fear takes us back to childhood. All of children's literature is linked to sensations and particularly to fear.

From Alfred Hitchcock:
  • A film cannot be compared to a play or a novel. It is closer to a short story, which, as a rule, sustains one idea that culminates when the action has reached the highest point of the dramatic curve.
  • In the usual form of suspense it is indispensable that the public be made perfectly aware of all the facts involved. Otherwise there is no suspense.
  • To my way of thinking, mystery is seldom suspenseful. In a whodunit, for instance, there is no suspense, but a sort of intellectual puzzle.
  • I don't really approve of whodunits because they're rather like a jigsaw or crossword puzzle. No emotion. You simply wait to find out who committed the murder.
  • I hate to introduce a useless character in a story.
  • Making a film means, first of all, to tell a story. That story can be an improbable one, but it should never be banal. It must be dramatic and human. What is drama, after all, but life with the dull bits cut out.
  • To insist that the storyteller stick to the facts is just as ridiculous as to demand of a representative painter that he show objects accurately.
  • A critic who talks to me about plausibility is a dull fellow.
  • In North by Northwest, where the villainous James Mason is competing with Cary Grant for the affection of Eva Marie Saint, I wanted him to be smooth and distinguished. The difficulty was how we could make him seem threatening at the same time. So what we did was to split this evil character into three people: James Mason, who is attractive and suave; his sinister-looking secretary; and the third spy, who is crude and brutal.
  • In my opinion, the chief requisite for an actor is the ability to do nothing well, which is by no means as easy as it sounds.
  • A mass of ideas, however good they are, is not sufficient to create a successful picture.
  • The more successful the villain, the more successful the picture.
  • One of the cardinal sins for a script-writer, when he runs into some difficulty, is to say, "We can cover that by a line of dialogue." Dialogue should simply be a sound among other sounds, just something that comes out of the mouths of people whose eyes tell the story in visual form.
  • Sex on the screen should be suspenseful, I feel. If sex is too blatant or too obvious, there's no suspense.
  • You know why I favour sophisticated blondes in my films? We're after the drawing room type, the real ladies, who become whores once they're in the bedroom.
  • Without the element of surprise the scenes become meaningless. There's no possibility to discover sex.
  • When you're involved in a project and you see it isn't going to work out, the wisest thing is to simply throw the whole thing away.
When asked about his habit of making personal appearances in his movies:
  • It was strictly utilitarian; we had to fill the screen. Later on it became a superstition and a gag. But by now it's a rather troublesome gag, and I'm very careful to show up in the first five minutes so as to let the people look at the rest of the movie with no further distraction.



Hitchcock is a big book (367 pages). It consists of the recorded dialogue between Alfred Hitchcock and François Truffaut, as they discussed every film Hitchcock made, from The Lodger (1926) to Frenzy (1972). After their meetings ended, Hitchcock made one last picture, Family Plot (1976). The book is of most value to directors, though screenwriters will find some elements of interest.


First posted:25 March 2013

Friday, 23 June 2017

Seven tips for surviving the film industry

This month MovieMaker magazine has an article called Hitchhike a Thousand Miles: Oscar nominee John Hawkes gives seven tips for surviving the film industry.

John Hawkes is an actor who has appeared in well over a hundred movies and TV shows. I don't know how it came about, but he shared the following thoughts about longevity in the film business. What caught my eye was his admonition about "hitchhiking thousands of miles."

As someone who hitchhiked tens of thousands of miles as a skinny long-haired teenager, I instantly understood. Hitchhiking saved me. It showed me there were people, and lives, unlike those of the Housing Commission estate where I grew up. Thoughtful people. Considerate people. Generous people. When you sit with someone, in their car, for hundreds of miles, there is an expectation of conversation. I knew nothing and had nothing to say. So I asked questions. The first interviews I conducted were with mobile strangers and those strangers introduced me to worlds I'd never heard of before.

I don't want to distort the picture: I met some weirdos, too. Paranoids, drunks, and friendly men who wanted to show me a good time, wanted to take me home to bed. There were some women, too, with that same idea.

Like John Hawkes, I no longer recommend it, the times being what they are, but I'm glad hitchhiking was a part of my life.

Now see what else he had to say.

________________________________________________________________________
I’m an untrained actor with no formal education in moviemaking. I learned my trade by observing the work of others, reading books about acting and film, and through trial and error on sets and stages.

Here’s what I’ve learned.

1. Trust your gut. Don’t guess what the audience wants. Tell the story you want to tell, the way you want to tell it.

2. All arts connect and inform each other. See theater, dance, music, and visual art; read great books. Be thrilled and inspired beyond your niche.

3. Loaf occasionally.

4. Make a vital life outside of the business. Travel, struggle, get a hobby, study, volunteer—gain perspective. This may indirectly benefit your work, as well. Hitchhiking thousands of miles, though I no longer recommend it, greatly enriched my understanding of people and story.

5. This business will knock you down. When it does, try to get up, dust yourself off, and take another step forward. And try to rejoice in the idea that you’ve found work that you love to do. Most don’t.

6. Be kind. Be brave. Be prepared. Work hard. Have a great sense of humor.

7. William Goldman famously said of the film industry that: “Nobody knows anything.” This may be true. I don’t know for sure.
________________________________________________________________________

First posted: 24 March 2013


Sunday, 11 June 2017

Selling a spec script: 1933-2013

Vanity Fair has released the best write-up about the history of movie spec script sales I've ever seen. Written by Margaret Heidenry, the article is titled When the Spec Script was King.
Once derided as “schmucks with Underwoods,” screenwriters saw their stock soar to seven-figure heights with the advent of the frenzied “spec”-script market. That bubble burst in 2008, but will the schmucks rise again?
Most of the information contained in the article is available elsewhere—in interviews or biographies, such as Joe Eszterhas's book Hollywood Animal—but this article can serve as a primer for an era.

I've met so many wannabe screenwriters with dreams of a-million-dollar-sale-just-around-the-corner, people who will never make it, that it's heart-breaking. If you're interested in pursuing a career writing spec scripts, or even hope to sell one, just one, before you die, do yourself a favor and read this article.

First posted: 12 March 2013

Saturday, 10 June 2017

Book review: 'Writing the Romantic Comedy'

The book, Writing the Romantic Comedy, by Billy Mernit, has been around since 2000. I started reading it several times in the last eighteen months, but always got stuck on page 5, where he talks about structure. He throws up three-act theory, then justifies it with the following words:
"Funny thing about threes. Maybe it's hardwired into our DNA, but three seems to be the magic number (as in morning, noon and night, the Holy Trinity, etc.)"
That's absurd and it stopped me cold every time. What about four: the four seasons, the four points of the compass, the four Gospels, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse? Or five: the five fingers, five toes, five basic tastes? Or seven: the seven days of the week, seven hills of Rome, seven Wonders of the ancient world? These are no more arbitrary or irrelevant than his two choices.

The sound you could hear about that time was me grinding my teeth, followed by a 'thump' as the book hit the shelves.

What eventually got me past page 5, and my growing prejudice, was a single visit to Billy's blog, Living the Romantic Comedy. There I found a sincere interest in the subject of romcoms and confessions of his real-life struggle with the elements that make up one of humanity's greatest preoccupations. So I returned to his book. The thing that really won me over was his analysis of Annie Hall, but that's another subject. He talks about Theme a lot and that's all good reading.

Here are a few quotes to give you a taste of the book itself.




Romantic comedy protagonists tend to be emotionally incomplete.

Every genre has its subtext. Thrillers are about creating cathartic confrontations with our fears; action adventures are usually enactments of mythic heroism. In romantic comedies, the real subject matter is the power of love.

In a romantic comedy, crisis provokes the protagonist into comprehending the value of love.

What a protagonist learns by falling in love determines the outcome of a romantic comedy.

One could restate the paradigm for a three-act structure in a romantic comedy as follows:
   Conflict:  Love challenges the characters.
   Crisis:  The characters must accept or deny love.
   Resolution:  Love transforms the characters.

There's a common misconception that characters need to be sympathetic. Not necessarily. Godfather Don Corleone is a monster. We don't sympathize with his methods and his murderous morality. But we're fascinated by his power and passion, and we identify with his devotion to his family.

A character who's getting in his own way is a character who has more than one side to him. He's got an inner conflict that's fueling his outer conflicts. He's got, in a word, complexity.

There's one no-no, a cultural bias so powerful that it remains unbroken in our genre: he can't be in it only for the sex.

The only written-in-stone rule that applies to female protagonists: she can't be in it only for the money.


Typical of romantic comedy heroines from the earliest days of the genre: they were women who dominated, or at least held their own with, men whom they pursued.

What's universal comes out of what's most personal.

A screenwriter's resistance to getting into "personal stuff" is absurd. It's got to be personal, if anyone's going to care about your story, and theme is the arena where your personal experience, attitudes, and insights come into play.

The theme issue in screenwriting is probably the trickiest one of all. ... What's it about? ... Theme, premise, point—whatever you call it. ... Something to learn. A point of view. A meaning.

Your characters are embodiments of thematic concerns; they're the ones arguing the sides of your possible truth.

A good theme is a flexible, ever growing entity and, unlike fortune cookie slogans, is so much an organic part of the whole that it can't be patly extracted.

The romantic comedy generally breaks the traditional three-act structure into seven essential beats: the setup (a chemical equation), the catalyst (cute meet), the first turning point (a sexy complication), the midpoint (hook), the second turning point (the swivel), the climax (dark moment), and resolution (joyful defeat).

The hidden challenge of every romantic comedy lies in getting its audience to believe that these two people absolutely must end up together.

Romance writers can't shy away from the big emotions their characters inevitably experience. One of the reasons people come to these movies is to share those feelings.


Writing the Romantic Comedy. It's a good book. Recommended.


First posted: 25 February 2013