Wednesday 29 July 2015

Free Screenplays - 2011

Lately I've been involved in a number of conversations about locating copies of produced screenplays. Some people watch a film on DVD, think "I'd like to read the script behind that," and expect to be able to find it on-line. Sometimes you can. Most of the time you can't. 

Here's the good news. 'Tis the season for studios to place nice, crisp, clean copies of their (they hope) Oscar-worthy screenplays on their websites. But be warned: the season doesn't last long. They will soon vanish from the website and become very hard to find. (Try tracking down a copy of the screenplay for The African Queen on-line. It won Best Screenplay in 1952, and it used to be available, but...) 

In Adelaide, it's cherry-picking time. In the world of Hollywood movies, it's screenplay-picking time. Some of those seasonally-available... today (and I emphasise today): 
Artist, The
Cars 2
Debt, The
Descendants, The
Girl With The Dragon Tattoo
The Help
Ides of March, The
Iron Lady, The
Jane Eyre
Machine Gun Preacher
Margin Call
Martha Marcy May Marlene

My Week With Marilyn
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
War Horse
Win Win
What? You haven't seen the movies and aren't sure you'll like them? Tough toenails, Toots!  He who hesitates is lost. Get 'em while they're hot!  If they turn out to be crap, you can always delete them later.  You wanna be a screenwriter, don't you?  Among other things, that means reading current screenplays.  What are you waiting for?

First posted:  5 December 2011

Wednesday 22 July 2015

Joss Whedon's Top 10 Writing Tips

Joss Whedon is one of those super-talented, successful screenwriters, who does all the other stuff, too; like acting, directing and producing. He wrote for TV shows Roseanne and Parenthood, then wrote the scripts for Toy Story and Alien Resurrection, then he created the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly, Angel and Dollhouse.

And he has three features coming out next year, The Cabin in the Woods, The Avengers and Much Ado About Nothing. So we can safely say the guy knows a thing or two about screenwriting. 

Years ago he gave out a list of tips for screenwriters that resurfaces every so often on writer's blogs from across the world.  They republish the list for one simple reason: it contains great advice.

So in the spirit of recycling greatness, here they are again.

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.


Structure means knowing where you’re going; making sure you don’t meander about. Some great films have been made by meandering people, like Terrence Malick and Robert Altman, but it’s not as well done today and I don’t recommend it. I’m a structure nut. I actually make charts. Where are the jokes? The thrills? The romance? Who knows what, and when? You need these things to happen at the right times, and that’s what you build your structure around: the way you want your audience to feel. Charts, graphs, coloured pens, anything that means you don’t go in blind is useful. 

Bruce Willis had something to say. Yippe-ki-yea.
This really should be number one. Even if you’re writing a Die Hard rip-off, have something to say about Die Hard rip-offs. The number of movies that are not about what they purport to be about is staggering. It’s rare, especially in genres, to find a movie with an idea and not just, ‘This’ll lead to many fine set-pieces’. The Island evolves into a car-chase movie, and the moments of joy are when they have clone moments and you say, ‘What does it feel like to be those guys?’ 

Everybody has a perspective. Everybody in your scene, including the thug flanking your bad guy, has a reason. They have their own voice, their own identity, their own history. If anyone speaks in such a way that they’re just setting up the next person’s lines, then you don’t get dialogue: you get soundbites. Not everybody has to be funny; not everybody has to be cute; not everybody has to be delightful, and not everybody has to speak, but if you don’t know who everybody is and why they’re there, why they’re feeling what they’re feeling and why they’re doing what they’re doing, then you’re in trouble.


Here’s one trick that I learned early on. If something isn’t working, if you have a story that you’ve built and it’s blocked and you can’t figure it out, take your favourite scene, or your very best idea or set-piece, and cut it. It’s brutal, but sometimes inevitable. That thing may find its way back in, but cutting it is usually an enormously freeing exercise.


When I’ve been hired as a script doctor, it’s usually because someone else can’t get it through to the next level. It’s true that writers are replaced when executives don’t know what else to do, and that’s terrible, but the fact of the matter is that for most of the screenplays I’ve worked on, I’ve been needed, whether or not I’ve been allowed to do anything good. Often someone’s just got locked, they’ve ossified, they’re so stuck in their heads that they can’t see the people around them. It’s very important to know when to stick to your guns, but it’s also very important to listen to absolutely everybody. The stupidest person in the room might have the best idea.

Robert De Niro gives Brazil a happy middle.
You have one goal: to connect with your audience. Therefore, you must track what your audience is feeling at all times. One of the biggest problems I face when watching other people’s movies is I’ll say, ‘This part confuses me’, or whatever, and they’ll say, ‘What I’m intending to say is this’, and they’ll go on about their intentions. None of this has anything to do with my experience as an audience member. Think in terms of what audiences think. They go to the theatre, and they either notice that their butts are numb, or they don’t. If you’re doing your job right, they don’t. People think of studio test screenings as terrible, and that’s because a lot of studios are pretty stupid about it. They panic and re-shoot, or they go, ‘Gee, Brazil can’t have an unhappy ending,’ and that’s the horror story. But it can make a lot of sense.


Write the movie as much as you can. If something is lush and extensive, you can describe it glowingly; if something isn’t that important, just get past it tersely. Let the read feel like the movie; it does a lot of the work for you, for the director, and for the executives who go, ‘What will this be like when we put it on its feet?’


Having given the advice about listening, I have to give the opposite advice, because ultimately the best work comes when somebody’s fucked the system; done the unexpected and let their own personal voice into the machine that is moviemaking. Choose your battles. You wouldn’t get Paul Thomas Anderson, or Wes Anderson, or any of these guys if all moviemaking was completely cookie-cutter. But the process drives you in that direction; it’s a homogenising process, and you have to fight that a bit. There was a point while we were making Firefly when I asked the network not to pick it up: they’d started talking about a different show.

Last Action Hero. It could've been good...
The first penny I ever earned, I saved. Then I made sure that I never had to take a job just because I needed to. I still needed jobs of course, but I was able to take ones that I loved. When I say that includes Waterworld, people scratch their heads, but it’s a wonderful idea for a movie. Anything can be good. Even Last Action Hero could’ve been good. There’s an idea somewhere in almost any movie: if you can find something that you love, then you can do it. If you can’t, it doesn’t matter how skilful you are: that’s called whoring.

First posted:  21 November 2011

Wednesday 15 July 2015

"The Cat Piano"

The Cat Piano is a beautifully animated, short film made in Adelaide by The People’s Republic of Animation. It was voiced by Nick Cave, written by Eddie White, and directed by Eddie White & Ari Gibson, in 2009. 

The Cat Piano won awards at a heap of Festivals, including Flickerfest, Melbourne International Film Festival and Sydney Film Festival, and made the Oscar shortlist for the 'Best Animated Short' category at the 82nd Academy Awards in 2010. 

It is also the best example I have come across of a short film being marketed across the social media spectrum. You can read about the film, listen to the soundtrack, check the vital statistics, discuss it on Facebook, buy the DVD, or simply watch it, at several locations. See the list below the video window below.

Note: This is not a cartoon for children.

Facebook    IMDb    Music    Tumblr    Website    Wikipedia    WordPress

First posted:  18 November 2011

Wednesday 8 July 2015

Actors, dialogue and the art of listening

Writers tend to worry about dialogue, with good reason. A bad line can kill a scene. A good line can become the buzz phrase of the year. And be quoted in the actor's biography, with all credit to them, but that's the business we've chosen.

This blog has borrowed a few quotes from Michael Caine's book Acting in Film. It was written for actors, but provides food for thought to writers as well. Here's one more.

Hannah and Her Sisters
Many writers fail to appreciate just how much a good actor can extract from a single word. Michael Caine explains:
You can bring new life to an apparently mundane reply by planning a thought process based on a key word and then never voicing it.
Other actor: "Would you like some tea?"
You:  "Yes, please."
"Tea" is the key word. The simple word "tea" can open up so many responses. Let's say you would have preferred coffee. The minute the other actor says "tea," your eyes will change because you'd really like coffee. Or maybe you're allergic to tea. Then you answer politely, but with a bit of anguish, knowing that you won't really drink it. The camera thrives on niceties like that; yet you often see actors missing out on these little presents that can open whole realms of possible action.
"Tea" could be an indication that he's too poor to offer you booze, or that he regards you as an alcoholic who shouldn't be offered a drink. Take the script and explore these possibilities because to pick up key words opens a repertoire of potential response that can lift a scene off the page and into reality. Don't make a fetish of it or you will complicate things unnecessarily. You'll seem a maniac if everything sets you off. But take it to reasonable bounds and you'll find that your performance is more interesting to you and more believable on the screen.
Dirty Rotten Scoundrels
I have been guilty, in my writing, of underestimating actors, with the result that I compensated by overwriting the dialogue. It's about trust, really. (If you've watched as many bad film actors as I have, you'll know the fault doesn't lie 100% with me.)

Back to Michael Caine: If you think an actor can do a lot with one word, look at what a good one can do with no words at all.
When I was very young and in repertory theatre, I was given some advice by a clever director. He said:
"What are you doing in that scene, Michael?"
"Nothing," I said, "I haven't got anything to say."
"That," said the director, "is a very big mistake. Of course, you have something to say. You've got wonderful things to say. But you sit there and listen, thinking of wonderful things to say, and then you decide not to say them. That's what you're doing in that scene."
And that's the greatest advice I can give to someone who wants to act in movies. Listen and react. If you're thinking about your lines, you're not listening.
David Niven listening to Claudia Cardinale in The Pink Panther 
I first encountered that advice, second-hand, from another great English actor. David Niven published his first autobiography, The Moon's a Balloon, in 1971. In it he provides an endless stream of anecdotes from the Golden Age of Hollywood, including the following:
Irving and Norma, like all top movie people, had a private projection room in their house. One night Lubitsch brought down a print of Bluebeard's Eighth Wife and they ran it after dinner for their friends.
I sat squirming with embarrassment throughout the showing but after it was over, everyone, with one exception, was overly flattering and enthusiastic. Fairbanks and Sylvia, Merle, the Astaires, Paulette Goddard and Frederick Lonsdale, all puffed me up most pleasantly. One guest sat silent in his chair. Finally, I could stand it no longer.
"What did you think, Mr. Chaplin?"
 His answer constituted the greatest advice to any beginner in my profession.
"Don't be like the majority of actors... don't just stand around waiting your turn to speaklearn to listen."

First posted:  17 November 2011

Wednesday 1 July 2015

One page equals one minute?

One page of a screenplay equals one minute of screen time. Everyone knows that. It's in all the screenwriting books, starting with Syd Field and moving forward. All the gurus repeat that mantra. So why bother thinking about it for yourself?

My introduction to the question came through Terry Rossio. He devoted Column 17 of Wordplay to the question of: "Fudging," meaning, "fudging the page count." 
Any script with a page length over 125 is suspect. Over 130, and the script is, at best, an interim draft with "Lots more work to be done." And it may not even get read. "If it's too long, it goes to the bottom of the pile," a Disney executive told me once. "At one o'clock in the morning, a 105-page script can look a lot more appealing than a 135-page script."
   The bias isn't just due to how long it takes to read the script. The classic rule of thumb says that one page of script will average out to one minute of screen time. This isn't always true -- sometimes a single descriptive line such as 'the horses stampede through town' can take more than a minute, and some dialog scenes will take less. (It's said that screen time eats up dialog, and action eats up screen time.) But over the course of a script it's supposed to average out to that magic page-a-minute. So a 135-page script is automatically considered to be a longish movie, more expensive to produce, and may limit the number of screenings the exhibitors can schedule in the course of a day. Bad things all.
   In addition there are structural concerns. Quite often in a 135-page script, the spin into Act III won't come until after page 100. It can feel a bit odd to head off in a brand new direction at a point where some movies are winding up. The script, then, may be thought to be paced too slowly.
   Oh, and I should mention that none of this actually makes any damn sense whatsoever, of course. There are many films that work just fine at 150 minutes or longer. And the screenplay for the first Terminator movie was, I believe, 170 pages long. But these are the biases we deal with, whether they have merit or not. If your script is under 105 pages, all the notes you get will be about stuff that needs to be added. If your script is over 130 pages, all the notes will be about stuff that needs to be cut. At 115 pages or thereabouts, the notes tend to be confused and cancel out, because no one can figure out whether to add stuff or cut stuff.
   So what do you do when your screenplay is edging into the unreadable 130-page plus territory?
   You cheat, of course.
The most important line in that quote is this: "These are the biases we deal with, whether they have merit or not."  (I take the You-cheat-of-course line for granted.)

You have to understand that every "expert", from a potential Executive Producer to the funding body's receptionist to the catering assistant, knows that one-page-equals-one-minute. Which means you have to look like you believe it, too, or you'll be considered a fool.

Anyone who has ever wrestled with a script on Movie Magic Screenwriter or Final Draft knows the hassle of getting stuff to stay where they want it, without having page breaks cut text in awkward places and making the page look ugly. Man, the hours I've spent rewording dialogue or action lines, just so they were short enough (or long enough) to have the automatic page break fall in a neat place! 

One of the tricks Terry Rossio talks about is "eliminating the widows," a widow being a typesetting term for when one or two words at the end of a line wrap around down to the next line.

I had an experience early on with a script I wrote, where I changed one word. One lousy word. I went from a long word (I forget what, now) to a shorter equivalent, on about page 2. There were no other changes. Everything else was identical, except the script was now lighter by three or four characters. That one change caused a ripple effect which resulted in a script that was two pages shorter. Two pages!  Which must give us a new rule, that four-characters-equal-two-minutes-of-screen-time. No?

Terry Rossio's suggestion #6 for fudging the page count is: If the script's really long -- forget the CUT TOs altogether, leave 'em for the shooting script! 

I experimented with doing just that on a longish script I wrote recently. The script shrank by six pages. Not a single change to action or dialogue or scene headings, but I was suddenly a six-page better writer. I suppose that means, if you include CUT TOs in your screenplay, your movie will be six minutes longer than if you don't, because six-pages-equals-six-minutes-of-screen-time. Right?

About a year ago, I sat through a presentation by a UK screenwriting guru (another one who has never actually written a screenplay), who shocked me by making a statement to the effect that, if you use parentheticals (personal direction, actor instructions, 'wrylies', whatever) in your screenplay, you are an incompetent writer.

I went home and started a study of the use of parentheticals in produced screenplays. That's a subject for another time, but it led to me setting up a document with a table headed: Title, Writer, and No. of Parentheticals. Then I thought, seeing I'm doing this anyway, why not add No. of Pages, No. of Scenes and Minutes. The document currently holds details of well over 350 screenplays, 127 of which are either nominees or winners of Academy Awards in one of the two screenplay categories. Let's consider some of them.

Start with a personal favorite: Lost in Translation. This was written and directed by Sofia Coppola, who won the Best Writing (Original Screenplay) category at the 2004 Academy Awards for it; something her father, Francis Ford Coppola, had done in 1970 with Patton. IMDb says Lost in Translation runs for 104 minutes. The screenplay (you can download a copy here) consists of 137 pages. At first glance. Take a closer look and you will find that 62 of those 137 pages consist of maybe two lines. The rest is blank. One page has nothing on it but a CUT TO. I took the PDF of that script, ran it through an OCR package, copied the output to
Movie Magic Screenwriter, and reformatted it so that it matches the original, minus all the wasted white space. How long? 64 pages.

A 64 page screenplay translated into a 104 minute movie. We can't say that the director took liberties, or didn't understand the writer's intentions, because Sofia Coppola did both jobs. What we can say is that one-page-does-NOT-always-equal-one-minute-of-screen-time. In this case, the screenplay is light by some 40 minutes.

Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson wonder where the extra 40 minutes came from.

This works the other way, too. Consider Hannah and Her Sisters, by Woody Allen, who won the Best Writing (Original Screenplay) category at the 1986 Academy Awards for it. The available version of the screenplay (download a copy here) is a HTML document. If you copy that into Final Draft or Movie Magic Screenwriter, and format it correctly, you'll find the screenplay runs about 205 pages. According to IMDb, the movie runs for 103 minutes. That leaves some 100 minutes of screen time missing. Where did it go? Once again, we can't blame the director, because Woody Allen did both jobs. 

Mia Farrow explains her theory on why the other 100 pages have vanished.
Don't take my word for it, check the facts for yourself. Here are some examples of:

Screenplays that are 30 pages, or more, longer than the movie:
   Almost Famous (2000)
   The American President (2007)
   Blast From The Past (1999)
   Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001)
   My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997)
   Ocean’s Eleven (2001)
   Out of Sight (2006)
   Sexy Beast (2000)
   The Last Boy Scout (1991)
   The Social Network (2010)

Movies that are 30 minutes, or more, longer than the screenplay:
   As Good As It Gets (1997)
   Braveheart  (1995)
   Dances With Wolves (1990)
   Moonstruck (1987)
   Mulholland Dr. (2001)
   Schindler’s List (1993)
   Sling Blade (1978)
   The Deer Hunter (2002)
   The Pianist (1978)
   Total Recall (1990)
This is not an exhaustive list, just ten examples from each end of the spectrum. According to the "experts", these screenplays all failed to achieve the magic benchmark, and should have been rejected by the studio, or at least sent back for a rewrite.  

Notice the names of some of the writers involved: Aaron Sorkin, Billy Bob Thornton, Cameron Crowe, Dan O’Bannon, David Lynch, James L. Brooks, John Patrick Shanley, Randall Wallace, Richard Curtis, Ron Bass, Ronald Shusett, Shane Black, and Steven Zaillian. Between them, they've been nominated for Academy Awards for writing sixteen times, and picked up eight wins. Not too shabby.

The one-page-equals-one-minute rule is absolutely brilliant for everybody, except writers. If you suffer from ADD, or you want to sound like an expert, without actually doing any work on the subject, go ahead: rattle off the formula.

If you're a writer, you should forget it completely during the writing process. Focus on getting your story out, the best way you can. But once you're happy with your story-telling, you have to go back and focus on making all the "experts" happy. And that means fudging the page count to make it as close as you can to what they expect. 

These are the biases we deal with, whether they have merit or not.
Terry Rossio's Wordplay is a good place to go for ideas on how to do that.

First posted:  15 November 2011