Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Making use of story fragments

If you're like me, you have a bunch of partial scripts lying around, things that started out as a good idea, but eventually went nowhere. I started thinking about some of mine after I read the following quote from the 2011 BAFTA Screenwriters' Lecture by Charlie Kaufman.

I wrote Being John Malkovich while I was waiting for [the next sitcom] hiring season. My idea was that I would write a script and use it to get work. I had this idea that someone finds a portal into someone's head, and I had another idea that somebody has a story about someone having an affair with a co-worker. And neither one was going anywhere, so I just decided to combine them.           Charlie Kaufman

And that reminded me of a quote by Shane Black from Tales from the Script, a collection of interviews with fifty Hollywood screenwriters, about how he approaches writing a screenplay.
I play Tetris obsessively with scripts, and realise that I still have nothing resembling a finished draft, because I’m still stuffing ideas in and hoping that these three things will come together to form one hybrid. Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang started as a romantic comedy. Then it was a straight comedy. Then I added the detective character, and it became this dark thriller. Then I went back in time to the forties and tried to get some of these old-time detective pulp novels involved, and say everything I had to say about that. By the end it’s sort of this mishmash. It’s a pulp-style, homage, fairy-tale, retro, film-noir, comedy, “kids in the big city,” Capra-esque murder tragedy. You know, it’s everything stuffed together. For some reason, that one worked—but you can play that game forever and never get anything done.  Shane Black
If your script isn't going well, maybe think about mashing it up with another idea.  

First posted:  15 October 2011

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Michael Caine, "Acting in Film" and "Harry Brown"

I've been having a bit of a Michael Caine time lately. The guy's amazing. He's made over 150 movies, and is still going strong.

First I read his book, Acting in Film: An Actor's Take on Movie Making. This is a riveting, compelling read. He talks about acting, but much of what he says can be applied to screenwriting. 
There was no place allowed for the likes of me in the firmament of actors. Almost anybody has it made today compared to my chances thirty-five years ago.
Flawless (2007)

Let me run through my curriculum vitae before I landed my first role.  See what you think of my chances. I had worked in a laundry. I'd done a stint in a tea warehouse. I'd worked pneumatic drills on the road. I was the night porter in a hotel. I washed dishes in all the best restaurants. I remember making jewel boxes at one time. And I was a soldier.
Get Carter (1971)

It's very difficult for people to comprehend that when I say I was broke at the age of twenty-nine, that I literally didn't have the price of a bowl of spaghetti down at the local diner. They think being broke is being down to your last couple of grand in the bank. My bank was in my pocket, and my account was full of lint.
The Quiet American (2002)
Chances are, you've had some formal higher education. Well, to me and my parents, going to grammar school was higher education. I had no classes to go to, or instructional videos to watch. But I was a tremendous reader of books. And from the pages of those books I discovered what other people's lives were like. They weren't like mine. And I became determined to change my life. I wasn't exploring the possibility, I was determined.
The Actors (2003)

If you really want to become an actor, but only providing that acting doesn't interfere with your golf game, your political ambitions, and your sex life, you don't really want to become an actor. Not only is acting more than a part-time job, it's more than a full-time job. It's a full-time obsession. Anything less and you'll fall short of the mark.
It's a great book, full of the wisdom of the years. You won't be disappointed. 

Harry Brown (2009)
Next I watched him in Harry Brown (2009). It's a simple story, told in an uncomplicated linear fashion, but with immense power. Great script, great acting, great direction. And one of the few films which distinguished itself in my experience by the way it employs both sound and silence. There's much a screenwriter could take from the film. Recommended viewing. 

Harry Brown reminded me of one of Michael Caine's early films, Get Carter (1971). In the first he's the lone avenger of a murdered best friend, in the second he's the lone avenger of a murdered brother.

Get Carter (1971)
One of the interesting scenes in Get Carter takes place in a pub early in the movie. Caine arrives and orders a beer "in a thin glass." Further along the bar we're shown a man taking a drink, and, if you're paying attention, you'll see a hand with six fingers (okay, five fingers, and a thumb). Go on, count them. This isn't CGI or film trickery, it's real. A little joke Michael Caine enjoyed, particularly as almost no one watching the movie ever notices.

The Princess Bride (1987)

The "six-fingered man" made a notable reappearance in The Princess Bride (1987), some sixteen years later.

Michael Caine has made at least six movies since Harry Brown, so I still have some catching up to do. 
First posted:  20 October 2011

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Courage, and the making of a good first impression

Simplicity. The heart of a good short film. Here's one written by Jason McKinnon and directed by Eric Gamache of 17 West Productions.  

4 Stops: A young man riding a subway has less than four minutes to speak to a beautiful stranger, without being creepy, sprayed with Mace, or attracting the ire of the Transit police.

First posted: 17 October 2011
(... and I never found a better short film in all the years I searched for them. Well done, Jason McKinnon!)

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Don't get it right, get it written

Some advice for aspiring screenwriters:
The secret of screenwriting success is simply this: Don't get it right, get it written.  Art Arthur
So many people drop out after a few classes. Most people never finish a screenplay. I impress on my students to finish in the time allotted. There are a lot of perfectionists out there who kinda circle around and around and research and read books and study—and they never really finish screenplays. What I took away from my teachers was they made me finish scripts.  Kris Young, UCLA
Butch Cassidy
I don’t know what it means, a perfect story. I think you just wanna basically try to figure out the story, and stay in the story as long as you can and as closely as you can, and end it. I think when you start telling yourself, “I wanna write a perfect thing,” all you’re gonna do is castrate yourself, and get into deeper and deeper trouble. It’s hard to do anyway. It’s no fun going into your pit every day and trying to figure out how to get two or three or five pages. Some days you don’t do anything. Then if you have two crappy days in a row, you’re really in deep shit. You just wanna get it done, and you pray someone will like it.   – William Goldman
Toy Story 3
The first draft is nothing more than a starting point, so be wrong as fast as you can.  Andrew Stanton
Actually finishing it is what I’m gonna put in as step one. You may laugh at this, but it’s true. I have so many friends who have written two-thirds of a screenplay, and then re-written it for about three years. Finishing a screenplay is first of all truly difficult, and secondly really liberating. Even if it’s not perfect, even if you know you’re gonna have to go back into it, type to the end. You have to have a little closure.   Joss Whedon
Once you start writing your screenplay, the most important advice I can possibly give you is to keep going. Do not go back and make revisions under any circumstances. Once started, press on like there's a pack of wolves nipping at your ass.  William Froug

First posted:  11 October 2011

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Tales from the Script

Tales from the Script: 50 Hollywood Screenwriters Share Their Stories, by Peter Hanson and Paul Herman.

Here's a collection of interviews in book form and on DVD with a bunch of real screenwriters, including William Goldman, Shane Black, Frank Darabont, Paul Schrader, Nora Ephron, John August, John Carpenter, Paul Mazursky, Ron Shelton, Robert Mark Kamen, Antwone Fisher, David S. Ward, Steven E. de Souza, and others. (If you don't recognise all those names, you haven't been doing your homework as a screenwriter.) 

The book is great, the DVD is better. Partly for the joy of seeing the writers and hearing them speak, but also because of all the Extras on the disc. Worth it for the Advice for New Screenwriters section alone.

Here is a video clip which provides a taste of what's on the DVD.

First posted:10 October 2011

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

You're not interesting enough...

On September 30, Charlie Kaufman Being John Malkovich Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Synecdoche, New Yorkwas one of the speakers at the 2011 BAFTA Screenwriters' Lecture Series. His comments have been reported in a number of places, including The Guardian.

One of the many quotable lines from the session addresses a fear which afflicts some aspiring screenwriters: You're not interesting enough to be writing movies.
My first writing job was on a TV show called Get a Life. The show was mostly in the voice of its creators, Chris Elliott and Adam Resnick, who'd worked on the David Letterman Show. Adam's scripts were the best thing about Get a Life – and we all tried to write in Adam's voice. That was the job. 
I was frustrated with the results, but it occurred to me that there was no solution as long as my job was trying to imitate someone else's voice. The obvious solution was to find a situation where I was doing me, not someone else. The major obstacle to this is your deeply seated belief that "you" is not interesting.      Charlie Kaufman
If Charlie Kaufman wrestled with the fear of being uninteresting, there's hope for the rest of us. 

First posted:  8 October 2011

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Advice from Joe Eszterhas

Devil's Guide
One of the most successful spec screenwriters in Hollywood in the 1980s and '90s was Joe Eszterhas. His films included F.I.S.T., Flashdance, Music Box, Basic Instinct, Showgirls, and Telling Lies in America.

A lot of people don't like him for his lifestyle, his drug use, his arrogance, or his choice of stories to tell. I'm not here to defend him over any of those things, just to say: If you want to see how to write a great script that sells, read one by Joe. You can find a copy of the script for Basic Instinct here
Basic Instinct
In 2006 he published The Devil's Guide to Hollywood, a mix of reminiscences and Hollywood trivia in the guise of a handbook for wannabe screenwriters. (It's an eye-opener; well worth reading.)

In the following video, recorded at a public reading of that book in 2006, Joe talks about his research and how he went about writing some of his scripts, including Basic Instinct.

First posted: 4 October 2011