Wednesday 24 June 2015

Twelve screenwriting principles

Here is some excellent advice from Daniel Martin Eckhart, whose screenplay Blood Eagle has just started shooting in Hamburg.  

These wise words have been reposted in many places, but, for obvious reasons, are well worth repeating here.  

There's more to screenwriting than a few broad strokes. But if you're just starting out, then these 12 principles should give you something to hold on to, something to live by and something to grow with. Now go write!

1. Thou shalt write daily.
(You need a strong writing muscle to succeed - so exercise it.)

2. Thou shalt enjoy procrastination.
(Procrastination is life - never feel guilty about it.)

3. Thou shalt trust thy instincts.
(Learn from others but never depend on them.)

4. Thou shalt believe in thyself.
(If you don't, no one ever will.)

5. Thou shalt suck it up.
(Learn from rejection - it'll make you stronger.)

6. Thou shalt know thy world.
(Make movie history, films and scripts part of your essence.)

7. Thou shalt network.
(You'll never have a career if you don't get out there.)

8. Thou shalt be happy.
(If writing doesn't make you happy, stop.)

9. Thou shalt be generous.
(Spread your ideas, don't hide them.)

10. Thou shalt be a craftsman/woman.
(It may become art in time.)

11. Thou shalt deliver on time.
(Never miss a deadline, not even one you gave yourself.)

12. Thou shalt collaborate.
(You'll never make a film happen on your own)

First posted:  13 November 2011

Wednesday 17 June 2015

Respect for writers

It's amazing how poorly writers are regarded by some of the people who make their living off the back of writers' work. Here's an anecdote from Michael Caine's book, Acting in Film
Movie scripts are not Holy Writ. As if to prove its fallibility, the director (Sidney Furie), on the first day on the set of The Ipcress File, put the script on the floor, set fire to it, and said, "That's what I think of that."  We all stood there looking at each other. I was a bit baffled. "What are we going to shoot?" I said. In the end, the director used my copy. But I was allowed to improvise a lot. 
Michael Caine and Maggie Smith in California Suite
Some writers know how to deal with the problem of presumption by mere actors. Here Michael Caine gives us another glimpse of how things can work in Hollywood.
California Suite
I did a picture called California Suite, which was written by the great American comedy writer Neil Simon. He visited the set the first day, came over to Maggie Smith and me and said, "Listen, if you think of anything funny, you know, ad libs, put 'em in. But tell me what they are first. And they better be funnier than what I've written." We thought and we thought. Our poetic license hung heavy on our conscience. And needless to say, we never ad-libbed a word.
I know I've quoted from Michael Caine's book a lot lately (and I haven't finished yet), but it's a bloody good read. Acting in Film. Get a copy and read it. 

First posted:  11 November 2011

Wednesday 10 June 2015

Steal my ideas!

Seems the first reaction I get from people when trying to discuss my latest script idea is: "If you talk about it, won't someone steal your idea?" Even my podiatrist worries that I'm about to be robbed. Worse than that, wannabe writers worry their brilliant, never-before-in-history, original idea will be stolen if they breathe so much as a syllable about it. 

Bobby Bowfinger hands his script around.
This fear is the mark of an amateur, because it's born of ignorance. 

The first place I came across a discussion of the fear of plagiarismas with so many other thingswas Terry Rossio's Wordplay, Column 4: Steal this Column! wherein he explained:
Nobody in Hollywood steals screenplays. It's usually easier to just buy the damn thing.
   Think about it. Imagine a writer has sent a finished script to an unscrupulous producer. The producer says, "Aha! Great screenplay. But I won't buy it -- I'll steal it instead!".
   Okay, so now the producer has a stolen movie idea, some characters to re-name, maybe even some kind of loose structure. Next step, he's got to find a writer to write this faux screenplay.
   No problem -- he just reads lots of scripts, conducts interviews, hoping to find a decent writer who'll write the thing the way he wants to see it. And whose fee isn't way beyond what it would have cost to buy the original screenplay in the first place.
   But before any writing happens, the producer must negotiate the writer's deal, and perhaps wait for that writer's availability. Finally, the writer starts writing. Six months later he turns in something that may or may not be a good execution of the stolen idea.
   And for all this, what has the producer gained? The potential for a lawsuit, and the dubious value of arriving second to the marketplace with the original idea.
   Uh-uh. No, your average Hollywood producer or studio executive would rather buy your script if they love it enough to steal -- and then ruin it on the way to production. (Typical of the writer's fate in Hollywood -- you still get screwed, but at least you get paid.)
Brad, thinking up a new idea to give away.
There are many blogs about screenwriting on the internet. One which takes a different approach is Steal My Script. In it Brad offers all his writingboth broad ideas and detailed scriptsto anyone who wants them. Criticize, rewrite, film; do what you want with it. In return he asks only one short line of acknowledgment. That's it. No tricks. Help yourself.

Brad recently wrote that:

This blog, Steal My Script, is based around my opinion that new writers (and some not-so-new writers) are overly concerned that their precious ideas are going to be stolen. I think that's (99% of the time) bullshit. I think a great script is just so damn hard to write that an idea is useless without execution.

About ten years ago, an offer appeared on our office computer network. A local genius had come up with a "guaranteed, sure-fire winner idea for a movie." He offered the idea for sale for $100. All you had to do was the easy part, hand over $100, then write the script. I laughed about that for months. 

Xander Bennett (author of Screenwriting Tips, You Hack) said this:
It's almost always the case that what you think is a billion-dollar idea is less than meaningless to somebody else. Nobody could have imagined Inception before Nolan wrote it -- at least not in a way that would have suggested a box-office success. Same with The King's Speech, Bridesmaids, Slumdog Millionaire or any number of surprisingly successful movies. Hell, Matthew Weiner sat on the concept for Mad Men for almost a decade. And it's clear why -- as anyone who's ever tried to sell their friends on that show knows, it's not exactly an easy idea to describe.
Blake Snyder said this:
The other great part about road-testing your logline is that you have the experience of all-weather pitching. I pitch to anyone who will stand still. I do it in line at Starbucks. I do it with friends and strangers. I always spill my guts when it comes to discussing what I'm working on, because:
a.  I have no fear that anyone will steal my idea (and anyone who has that fear is an amateur) and...
b.  You find out more about your movie by talking to people one-on-one than having them read it.
Alec Baldwin listens to a pitch in The Last Shot.
So, set your fears aside. Gain the confidence to talk about your ideas and--

What?  Me? 

Okay. I'm working on a romantic comedy about a journalism graduate who can't find a job as anything other than a blogger for an online newspaper. (That was one of the things that prompted me to start this blog, because I knew nothing about blogging and needed to find out the hard way.) My writers' group has the first 45 pages of a first draft and will be taking it apart later in the month. If I suddenly stop posting, it'll be because I've slashed my wrists. (Just kidding.)

I'm also working on a webseries idea about a bunch of older nurses (like my wife). They do lunch every few weeks. Some of them are retired (like my wife). Some are still working and bitching about all the problems that arise in modern nursing, the rest are sympathising and rejoicing they no longer have to put up with all that crap (like my wife). This one's in the early stages. I need to do a lot more research, which will involve me doing lunch and listening like an artist. 

First posted:  9 November 2011

Wednesday 3 June 2015

Interview with Anne Flournoy

For those who don’t know, Anne is the writer/director/producer/editor of The Louise Log, a 36 episode (so far) series of internet shorts detailing the life of a New York City wife and mother.

I asked Anne the following questions in the hope of gaining some insight into what makes for a successful webseries.

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in rural New Jersey, far from New York City.

Where did you go to school?

Though I 'went to school', nothing much stuck 'til I was out of college and could finally do what I wanted to—which was to learn to draw like Leonardo da Vinci.  Having studied Art History, I did what I'd read everyone in the 19th century had done, and went to Paris. I attended L'Academie de la Grande Chaumiere. Little did I know that this had degenerated into a place for Japanese businessmen-painters to gather and ask the nude models to pose with their legs spread. After a few months, an acquaintance tipped me off that I could audit at the Beaux-Arts and be surrounded by art students like me.
  After a few years I came back to the States and applied to graduate schools to get an MFA. Mercifully I didn't get into Yale. I say mercifully because at Yale, the sculptors were off in one building, completely isolated from the other visual artists. At Rutgers, where I was offered a spot, the sculptors, photographers, painters, ceramists, conceptual and performance artists were all crowded into one building.

"I don’t even have the nerve to wiggle."
I arrived making large wooden, axe-hewn sculptures, some of which had a problem staying upright. Two of the very sophisticated, second-year students came to me, barely concealing the fact that they were snickering: "You're still making free-standing monoliths??"
  More than a little insulted, I proceeded to do almost no work for the entire first year except to try and figure out how these conceptual artists could dismiss my work.
  Some of the professors, notably Leon Golub and Geoff Hendricks (a member of Fluxus) made the sheer cliff of my learning curve possible with their encouragement and integrity. By the end of the first year I did a performance which was an organizational nightmare involving all kinds of audio and visual equipment and performers on stage moving (silent film era) cardboard waves, with one or more of them wearing cardboard cutouts of rowboats as 'skirts'. And then all we had to show for the effort was a lousy video taken from the back of the auditorium. It landed me in a darkened room getting migraines and thinking that film looked like the easier, softer way.

When did you first decide you wanted to write?

I didn't originally want to write. I hadn't done particularly well at school and didn't think I could 'write'. The need for fake subtitles for my first short was my first foray into it and then in wanting to make a feature, I just figured: 'Gotta do it. No one's going to send me a script.'

"Rejection enhances my self-esteem."
A poet friend recommended a life-changing book which gave me a way to write without a lot of hemming and hawing or even using sentences. Writing the Natural Way by Gabrielle Rico.

Your character, Louise, exhibits Woody Allen-type insecurities. Is that a New York thing, a conscious choice of style, or just you?

Hmm. I don't know if insecurities are a New York thing. I'm not the most confident person I've ever met but would like to think that whatever issues Louise has are like mine on steroids.

Ten favourite movies?

In no special order:
Un Chien Andalou (1929), Bunuel
Vivre Sa Vie (1962), Godard
Stranger Than Paradise (1984), Jarmusch
Why Not (1970), Arakawa
The Piano (1993), Campion
Mulholland Drive (2001), Lynch
All About My Mother (1999), Almodovar
Pulp Fiction (1994), Tarantino
Galaxy Quest (1999), Parisot
Love Serenade (1996), Barrett

V.O. was the backbone of the ‘noir’ films of the 40s and 50s, and has been used in movies as diverse as Bridget Jones's Diary, The Royal Tenenbaums, and The Quiet American. Most modern “experts” decry the use of V.O., but I love the way you use it for Louise’s interior monologue.  Have you had many comments about that?

"All I need is a knife... and a bag of onions."
So happy to hear that you like it. It arose as a last minute attempt to salvage the first episode which, with just the picture and the music, didn't seem to be working. A wonderful writer, Lucile Bruce, with whom I worked on an early version of my 'second feature' told me that Emir Kusturica had taught a class at Columbia University's graduate film school. He'd made a point about 'the third thing'. If a scene isn't working with a man and a woman, add a dog. Or a clap of thunder. Etc. I was about five months beyond my self-imposed deadline to make a viral video and it was the end of December. All I could think was that if I didn't finish and upload this Louise Log before January 1st (it was supposed to be a single video) that I could be trying to improve it for months—or years—to come. So I whispered into the macbook and that was that.
  In answer to your question, people seem to love it or hate it.

The Louise Log starts out as a small Woody Allen-esque show, then it gives a bit of Dr Who skip as Phineas morphs into another body, then it expands into a Seinfeld or 30 Rock type of story, with a single person struggling to maintain a grip on reality while others around them seek to distort it. Is that the future for Louise? A Jerry Seinfeld or Liz Lemon anchor role?

That's an interesting analysis! As you can see, the first two seasons have been more about putting one foot in front of the other than about executing a grand plan. The guiding principle has been to give Louise 'obstacles', to have fun and (since the 4th episode) to find a balance of the internal monologue and the exterior life. I feel that 2-3 character scenes and a very simple story arc work best with my sensibility and the under five minute format I love. If you want to compare recent episodes of The Louise Log to two of the most popular shows on television, please be my guest.

"What did we go over in June with your therapist?"
For years, budding screenwriters in Australia have been pushed toward writing (and making) short films. With the success of Italian Spider-Man, that push has been redirected toward making webisodes. Do you have any advice or warnings for inexperienced wannabe filmmakers?

Hmm. Okay. From my experience I'd say two things are really important.
  Figure out a way to tell your story as cheaply as possible. It usually takes time to find your audience and if you blow all the money you have on the first five or ten episodes, you may not be able to hang in there as long as you need to.
  The second thing is about length: ask yourself 'How long should this video be?' If someone had asked me this, I would have thought that they were 1) a picky accountant-style person, or 2) just not that bright. Only four years of hits and misses has convinced me that this is a very important question. And there are two factors to consider: the filmmaker's particular gift and the story (not the script... the story).
  Some people have epic imaginations and gifts and are straining at the bit to be able to upload thirty minute videos to YouTube. Others, and I put myself in this category, are miniaturists and do best with very short pieces. I'm sure there's a third category of people who can do both but... haven't done an exhaustive survey on this.
  The second sub-factor of 'the story' has to do with the arc. Some of The Louise Log episodes are much less successful than I think they could be because I slavishly tried to cram what we'd written as 'an episode' into one episode. (I think Episode 23 should have actually been three really really good episodes instead of one that's sub-par.)

"Ever thought of a web series? ... It’s cheaper than therapy."
What do you think are the essential elements of a good webseries?

I was recently given some excellent advice by Eric Mortensen the Director of Network Programming at "Scripted' content is (with rare exceptions like The Guild and Anyone But Me) having a hard time getting masses of viewers. The more you can give the viewer a sense of great immediacy—like that of a newscast—the better." He didn't use the example of LonelyGirl, but the blurring of the lines between fiction and non-fiction, which that show accomplished at first, is what I took from his suggestion.
  Humor is supposedly hotter than straight drama. And getting to the point in the first ten seconds, OR LESS, matters. No fancy title sequences, no meandering—BOOM. Grab the viewer's interest and let them know what you're up to. You've got only a few seconds before they'll be getting skyped or messaged by a real life friend. Which brings me to the last suggestion: develop characters which can compete with their own real world friends, who your viewers will care enough about that they'll put their life on hold to watch your show.
  This is so much easier said than done. I've put some resources which have sustained me through the tough times on the website at

"Now we’re gonna need the raw milk..."
Can you tell us any interesting facts or trivia about your show? Any funny stories?

The Louise Log (season 1) was supposed to be my second feature. I rewrote the script for years and finally 'put it on the shelf' when Delta Airlines lost all the carefully gathered notes I'd collected from smart people for the 'last rewrite'. I only started the first episode in an attempt to make a thigh-slapping viral video to get the attention of Hollywood executives. It was humbling to discover how hard it is to make a thigh-slapper. Only after four episodes did I realize that I was going to have to gut my script of its juiciest moments to tell the only story I wanted to tell.
  As far as the funny stuff, it's so painful I can't bear to recall it right now. There's one video of bloopers that gives an idea of the level of problems we've faced:  (There are two videos here—you have to scroll down. It's called 4 Tips From the Masters.)

What’s next for Anne Flournoy? More webisodes, a feature, the great American novel, or something more interesting?
There's so much of Season 2 shot and waiting to be edited... What I had thought was going to be Episode 24 has become 24-27 and maybe even 28. So it's really unclear when we'll finish editing and uploading Season 2. I'd love to shoot at least one more season of The Louise Log but that's as far ahead as I've thought.


This interview was followed a year later by One year on..., which deals with Hurricane Sandy and Anne's plans for the future.

First posted: 6 November 2011
This was the first interview I conducted with anyone, but not the last... Anne has been a great supporter of the blog over the years. I'm grateful she was willing to go first and take the risk with an interview virgin.