Wednesday 30 September 2015

Eleven Laws of Great Storytelling

Writers are special people in some ways, and just like the rest of humanity in others. We like tips, and tricks, and formulas that promise us insight. Sometimes these things help, sometimes they distract, and sometimes they mislead us, but just offer us another batch and we'll be there, sniffing hungrily. 

Jeffrey Hirschberg is an Assistant Professor and Director of the Television and Film Arts Program at Buffalo State College. A member of the Writers Guild of America and judge for the WGA awards, Jeffrey has been a professional screenwriter for eighteen years and has written and/or created shows for Showtime Networks, Lifetime Television, and ABC. He has worked at NBC, Viacom, and Warner Bros. Then he wrote a book called Reflections of the Shadow: Creating Memorable Heroes and Villains for Film and TV. The following list of insights are taken from that book.  

Throughout my eighteen years of screenwriting I have read and analyzed thousands of scripts from writers of all levels. During this time, I discovered eleven Laws of Great Storytelling – trends that tend to exist in many of the most memorable stories of all time. Of course, creating unforgettable heroes and villains is an integral part of all the Laws and should always be in the forefront of your mind as a writer.

So while it is impossible to have a foolproof objective formula for a great story, I have learned that if certain principles are followed, the probability of your story achieving a modicum of greatness increases dramatically. With this disclaimer firmly in place, here goes: 

1. Assume everyone has A.D.D.

There has never been a greater truism in Hollywood. While I am guilty of playing dime store psychologist, one does not need a PhD in Clinical Psychology to conclude that audiences (that means us) tend to have short attention spans.

Now, we can argue there are certain external factors contributing to a population of diminishing attention spans (MTV, video games, text messaging, IM, and the Internet to name a few possible culprits), but it is safe to say that the attentiveness (or lack thereof) of the audience is directly related to its ability to make a successful emotional connection – and that connection must be made quickly, or you will lose your audience even more quickly.

Readers, like moviegoers, need to be entertained very quickly. 

2. Spend most of your time on the first ten pages of your script.

In Gladiator, we are immediately engaged as we are introduced to our hero – General Maximus – and the respect he commands from the Roman army. Add an action-packed, bloody opening battle to the mix, and we are sold.

In Pulp Fiction, the first ten pages of the script feature a restaurant robbery and the prophetic musings of two unforgettable hit men. The dialogue is fresh, imaginative, and unrelenting in its pace and originality. If you are a reader perusing the screenplay, you undoubtedly want to continue turning the page.

When you are finished with your script, give the first ten pages to a group of friends or family you trust. Then ask each of them one simple question: “Do you want to read more?” If the overwhelming response is in the affirmative, you are on the right road to writing a memorable screenplay. 

3. Write roles to attract movie stars

Create a memorable hero or villain and chances are you just might attract a movie star to your script. Why? Because characters like the heroes and villains featured in my book are unique, intelligent, and intriguing people with magnetism to spare. Who wouldn’t want to play Hans Gruber, Norma Rae Webster, Hannibal Lecter, Ellen Ripley, or Gordon Gekko?

You may also want to watch films that feature Academy Award-winning roles.

Movie stars can buy anything from Porsches to Picassos; they have adoring fans throughout the world who will wait for hours to get a glimpse of them; and they are told by sycophantic agents, managers, attorneys, studio executives, PR professionals, writers, producers, and directors that they are nothing less than the great Da Vinci reincarnated.

But, they cannot buy the respect an Academy Award affords them. So, if you can write a juicy role that will attract the attention of one or more movie stars, you just might find yourself in the midst of a studio bidding war. 

4. Write economically

Throughout my years of writing and reading screenplays, one of the most common mistakes I have experienced is “overwriting.” This phenomenon often falls into two categories: 
  1) verbose stage direction; and
  2) “on the nose” dialogue.

Verbose Stage Direction

Keep your stage direction short (I recommend trying to keep each paragraph to less than five lines) and to the point. Never forget you are writing a piece of entertainment, and stage direction should entertain as much as it informs us as to the comings and goings of your characters.

“On the Nose” Dialogue

Several years ago, I sent a script to my manager and received notes including quite a few pieces of dialogue circled with the comment, “OTN.” I was perplexed and asked him to explain. He said these were several instances where my dialogue was too “on the nose.” The point is to make the audience work a bit for the information – not too much (we don’t want to frustrate them) – but enough for them to feel emotionally involved in your story. 

5. Make sure every character has a unique voice

Movies work most effectively when they are populated with characters that are unique from one another. So, you should try to --

Avoid stereotypes
One of the problems I see over and over again with new writers is the depiction of characters who feel familiar and stereotypical. The key is to go against stereotypes, thus providing your audience with the refreshing read they crave.

Surprise us with quirks and unusual traits
Every once in a while, I’ll be sitting in a movie theater and suddenly I’ll discover something fresh and unusual about one of the main characters. It is that feeling of surprise we all desire and unfortunately, those moments are few and far between.

Create someone an actor will love to play
One can only imagine Julia Roberts’ reaction when she read the script for Erin Brockovich. It is simply not the typical role afforded to actresses in Hollywood. The hero of the film is a quintessentially strong character any actress would love to play. She is confident, bold, sympathetic, and has plenty of memorable monologues. It is a classic underdog story resulting in Roberts winning the Oscar in 2000.

Transform him/her over your story
Rick Blaine in Casablanca is a great example of a hero transforming over the course of the story. At the beginning of the film he confidently states his mantra, “I stick my neck out for nobody.” But, at the end of the film, he does just that – sticking his neck out for the woman he loves.

Make everything about his/her journey difficult
We love watching our heroes struggle. What would Raiders of the Lost Ark be if Indiana Jones immediately stumbled upon the Ark of the Covenant and brought it back to America? What if John McClane burst into the Nakatomi Christmas party and took out Hans Gruber and all of his henchmen in one momentous moment? And, what if Ellen Ripley easily discovered the Alien’s whereabouts as well as a surefire way to destroy the monster? Boring! 

6. Understand your audience

When you are writing a screenplay, there are two audiences you should consider: 1) the readers, agents, managers, producers, and studio executives who will be reading your screenplay (aka, the buyers); and 2) the demographic you believe will be most interested in seeing your movie.

If your script is a comedy, it must be funny. If you are writing a horror script, it must be scary. Sounds like common sense? It isn’t. Talk to a professional reader and ask her how many comedy and horror scripts she has read of late that are actually funny and scary. “The comedy scripts are scary and the horror scripts are funny,” is the answer you just might receive.

Re: demographics: Hollywood studios like to categorize the world into four simple compartments, typically referred to as quadrants: 1) Male under 25; 2) Male over 25; 3) Female under 25; and 4) Female over 25. If you ever wondered why every Pixar film seems to make a billion dollars in worldwide gross and ancillary revenues, it is because the company excels at making Four Quadrant movies – films that appeal equally to males and females under 25 and over 25.

7. Know your three-act structure

Like it or not, Hollywood has a language all its own. Here is what buyers expect from your script: 
  • By page ten, they want to be introduced to your hero, what he wants (his goal), and the genre of the story you are telling.  
  • By the end of Act One (page twenty-five or so), readers want to know exactly where this story is going, including the stakes (What happens if the hero does not achieve his goal?) and the villain (The person, place, or thing preventing the hero from achieving his goal). 
  • By the midpoint (the middle of Act Two, page fifty-five or so), readers like to feel that the stakes for the hero have been raised in some fashion. Maybe a new character has been introduced. Maybe a new obstacle or villain has reared its head. Maybe the hero has experienced a distinct character transformation.  
  • By the end of Act Two (page ninety or so), readers presume your hero will be in a heap of trouble. Up until now, the hero may have been steadily moving toward achieving his goal. But at the end of Act Two, things have changed. He has suddenly been put in a corner and the audience is asking itself, “How in the world is he going to get out of this one?” 
  • In Act Three, readers want your hero to somehow devise a new plan and escape from the mess that has presented itself at the end of Act Two. This is the big finish.
8. Be aware of theme, and keep it consistent throughout the script

Theme is a tough nut to crack. When I ask my students the theme of Die Hard, they often restate the film’s core concept (or, in Hollywood terms, the “logline”), saying something like, “It’s about a cop thwarting a group of international terrorists while saving his wife and a bunch of innocent people.” While this is true, it doesn’t quite touch on theme. I then dig deeper, suggesting Die Hard is really about a man trying to reconnect with his wife. True, this reconnection takes place amidst the backdrop of an action-packed heist, but at its core, this is a story about John McClane discovering the importance of family and the love and appreciation he has for his wife, Holly. 

9. Watch and re-watch successful movies similar to your story

There is an old adage in Hollywood: They want the same, but different. Because the average studio picture costs over $100 million to produce and market, studios are in the risk aversion business every bit as much as they are in the movie business. The impact on you is that these buyers of product tend to gravitate toward the familiar – stories they think will have the best chance at attracting a global audience. 

10. Know what your hero wants (the goal), what happens if he doesn't get what he wants (the stakes), and who/what is preventing him from getting what he wants (the villain)

Think about some films you haven’t loved. I bet one of the reasons there was no love connection was because they failed to answer the questions above.

In Toy Story 2, Buzz Lightyear is the primary hero whose goal is to lead a group of toys to save Woody from being sent to a museum in Japan. The primary villain of the story is Al (of “Al’s Toy Barn” fame) and the stakes are simple: If our hero and his team do not achieve their goal, they will never see Woody again.

Jaws is another movie that quickly answers our burning questions. By the end of Act One, we know Police Chief Martin Brody (with the support of Quint and Hooper) is our hero, his goal is to kill the shark, the villain is the shark itself, and the stakes are: If Brody does not achieve his goal, more residents of Amity will die. 

11. Leave them wanting more

This Law seems to be as ancient as showbiz itself. Yet it is just as relevant today as it was at the turn of the twentieth century. The Law is really about crafting a memorable, climactic ending that will forever be satisfying to your audience. An outstanding ending can often save a mediocre film while a mediocre ending can often ruin an otherwise outstanding story.

So, does your climax:

1. Feel like a big, fulfilling finish?
2. Reveal a significant character trait of your hero or villain?
3. Resolve the central problem established in Act One?
4. Contain a satisfying surprise?
5. Appear five to twenty minutes or so before the end of the film?

If your story accomplishes all of the above, you are on your way to crafting a memorable tale that will live on in the memories of your audience. Happy writing!

First posted: 3 January 2012 

Tuesday 29 September 2015

Editing as Punctuation in Film

This is just too good not to share. Editing as Punctuation in Film is a video essay created by in response to an article published by Kathryn Schulz in Vulture in January 2014 called The Five Best Punctuation Marks in Literature.
It got me thinking about what the five best “punctuation marks” in film might look like. I wanted to assemble a video essay with a rapidfire list of nominees of great moments of editing-as-punctuation in film. But as I started putting it together, the project grew into a twofold piece: an analysis of and response to Schulz’s article as well as an attempt to spur new insights about editing by examining it through the metaphor of punctuation.

So, here it is: 20 minutes long, clips from 100 films (101 if you count that Woody Allen quotes Duck Soup in Hannah and her Sisters), and, I hope, an inspiration to anyone else who loves film on a formal level and believes, as Bazin did, that the language of cinema isn’t done being invented yet.

What? You wanted to see a list of the films (in order of appearance)? Here they are.

Pulp Fiction | 1994 | dir. Quentin Tarantino
Sherlock, Jr. | 1924 | dir. Buster Keaton
Napoleon | 1927 | dir. Abel Gance
Man with a Movie Camera | 1929 | dir. Dziga Vertov
Orpheus | 1950 | dir. Jean Cocteau
A Serious Man | 2009 | dir. Ethan and Joel Coen
So Is This | 1982 | dir. Michael Snow
Scott Pilgrim vs. The World | 2010 | dir. Edgar Wright
Batman: The Movie | 1966 | dir. Leslie H. Martinson
All That Jazz | 1979 | dir. Bob Fosse
Collateral | 2004 | dir. Michael Mann
Bob le flambeur | 1956 | dir. Jean-Pierre Melville
Fantastic Mr. Fox | 2009 | dir. Wes Anderson
Jaws | 1975 | dir. Steven Spielberg
The Searchers | 1956 | dir. John Ford
The Godfather | 1972 | dir. Francis Ford Coppola
Guys and Dolls | 1955 | dir. Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Wattstax | 1973 | dir. Mel Stuart
The Battleship Potemkin | 1925 | dir. Sergei Eisenstein
City of God | 2002 | dir. Fernando Meirelles
Come and See | 1985 | dir. Elem Klimov
The Bourne Supremacy | 2004 | dir. Paul Greengrass
The Wild Bunch | 1969 | dir. Sam Peckinpah
The Passion of Joan of Arc | 1928 | dir. Carl Th. Dreyer
Psycho | 1960 | dir. Alfred Hitchcock
Intolerance | 1916 | dir. D. W. Griffith
[image of Ivan Mosjoukine in footage used in the Kuleshov Experiment, ca. 1918]
Modern Times | 1936 | dir. Charles Chaplin
Koyaanisqatsi | 1983 | dir. Godfrey Reggio
The Graduate | 1967 | dir. Mike Nichols
All Quiet on the Western Front | 1930 | dir. Lewis Milestone
Psycho | 1960 | dir. Alfred Hitchcock
2001: A Space Odyssey | 1968 | dir. Stanley Kubrick
Touki Bouki | 1973 | dir. Djibril Diop Mambéty
Lawrence of Arabia | 1962 | dir. David Lean
Citizen Kane | 1941 | dir. Orson Welles
Hannah and her Sisters | 1986 | dir. Woody Allen (which features a clip from Duck Soup | 1933 | dir. Leo McCarey)
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt S1E6 | 2015 | dir. Michael Engler
Citizen Kane | 1941 | dir. Orson Welles
The Wizard of Oz | 1939 | dir. Victor Fleming
She’s Gotta Have It | 1986 | dir. Spike Lee
Shock Corridor | 1963 | dir. Sam Fuller
Stalker | 1979 | dir. Andrei Tarkovsky
Wings of Desire | 1987 | dir. Wim Wenders
The Picture of Dorian Gray | 1945 | dir. Albert Lewin
Moonrise Kingdom | 2012 | dir. Wes Anderson
Pierrot le fou | 1965 | dir. Jean-Luc Godard
La Ronde | 1950 | dir. Max Ophuls
All That Jazz | 1979 | dir. Bob Fosse
Fruitvale Station | 2013 | dir. Ryan Coogler
The Sacrifice [Offret] | 1986 | dir. Andrei Tarkovsky
Fail Safe | 1964 | dir. Sidney Lumet
It’s a Wonderful Life | 1946 | dir. Frank Capra
All About Eve | 1950 | dir. Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Chungking Express | 1994 | dir. Wong Kar-wai
À la folie… pas du tout | 2002 | dir. Laetitia Colombani
Peppermint Candy | 1999 | dir. Lee Chang-dong
Funny Games | 1997 | dir. Michael Haneke
Lost Highway | 1997 | dir. David Lynch
Sliding Doors | 1998 | dir. Peter Howitt
India Song | 1974 | dir. Marguerite Duras
Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai Du Commerce 1080 
Bruxelles | 1975 | dir. Chantal Akerman
Europa ‘51 | 1952 | dir. Roberto Rossellini
The Greatest Story Ever Told | 1965 | dir. George Stevens
Ceddo | 1977 | dir. Ousmane Sembene
Wanda | 1971 | dir. Barbara Loden
The 400 Blows | 1959 | dir. François Truffaut
The Cyclist | 1987 | dir. Mohsen Makhmalbaf
Late Spring | 1949 | dir. Yasujiro Ozu
Breathless | 1960 | dir. Jean-Luc Godard
We Need to Talk About Kevin | 2011 | dir. Lynne Ramsay
When Harry Met Sally | 1989 | dir. Rob Reiner
Pillow Talk | 1959 | dir. Michael Gordon
Requiem for a Dream | 2000 | dir. Darren Aronofsky
Casablanca | 1942 | dir. Michael Curtiz
King Kong | 1933 | dir. Merian C. Cooper & Ernest B. Schoedsack
Vertigo | 1958 | dir. Alfred Hitchcock
The Wizard of Oz | 1939 | dir. Victor Fleming
A Turn of the Century Illusionist | 1899 | dir. Georges Méliès
Black Narcissus | 1947 | dir. Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger
Cries and Whispers | 1972 | dir. Ingmar Bergman
The Age of Innocence | 1993 | dir. Martin Scorsese
Ikiru | 1952 | dir. Akira Kurosawa
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night | 2014 | dir. Ana Lily Amirpour
Gone Girl | 2014 | dir. David Fincher
Arnulf Rainer | 1960 | dir. Peter Kubelka
N:O:T:H:I:N:G | 1968 | dir. Paul Sharits
Sans Soleil | 1983 | dir. Chris Marker
Letter from Siberia | 1957 | dir. Chris Marker
La jetée | 1962 | dir. Chris Marker
Sans Soleil | 1983 | dir. Chris Marker
Fargo | 1996 | dir. Joel and Ethan Coen
The Rules of Attraction | 2002 | dir. Roger Avary
Daisies | 1966 | dir. Vera Chytilová
Ballet mécanique | 1924 | dir. Fernand Léger
Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song | 1971 | dir. Melvin Van Peebles
Holy Motors | 2012 | dir. Leos Carax
Stay | 2005 | dir. Marc Forster
Passage à l'acte | 1993 | dir. Martin Arnold
Report | 1967 | dir. Bruce Conner
Detour | 1945 | dir. Edgar G. Ulmer
The Travelling Players | 1975 | dir. Theo Angelopoulos
The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp | 1943 | dir. Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger
The Conversation | 1974 | dir. Francis Ford Coppola
Man with a Movie Camera | 1929 | dir. Dziga Vertov

Wednesday 23 September 2015

Avoid pitching disaster

Josh Linkner, jazz guitarist
Many screenwriters hate having to pitch their latest idea to someone who could really make a difference to their lives. Stomach tightens to a knot. Throat dries up. Palms become clammy. Vision blurs. Mind goes blank... Well, okay, that's just me.

The thing I dislike even more than pitching is practice pitching. I think that's worse because you're under intense scrutiny without the trade-off that maybe, just maybe, this hassle will bring a reward.

But enough about me. Meet Josh Linkner. He is
a Berklee-trained professional jazz guitarist performing regularly in jazz clubs throughout the United States. He is also a venture capitalist.  

Josh was the founder of four successful technology companies. He has been honored as the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year, the Detroit News Michiganian of the Year, and is a President Barack Obama Champion of Change award recipient. Josh is a regular columnist for Fast Company and Inc. Magazine, and his work has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, USA Today, and The New York Times. He currently runs Detroit Venture Partners, together with business partners Earvin “Magic” Johnson and NBA team owner Dan Gilbert, and is also Adjunct Professor of Applied Creativity at the University of Michigan

Oh, and he is also the New York Times Bestselling author of Disciplined Dreaming: A Proven System to Drive Breakthrough Creativity, one of the top 10 business books of 2011. And he is a regular blogger at where he recently had this to say on the subject of pitching to a venture capitalist. (No different to pitching to a producer or agent, really.) 
Most of us have something to pitch. You may be pitching your startup to a VC to secure funding. Or perhaps you’re pitching your product or service to potential customers. Whether you are pitching your case to a jury, your hypothesis for a research grant, yourself for a new job, or your best friend for a date with that cute guy, a simple rule applies: the better the pitch, the better the results.

As a venture capitalist, I hear pitches every day. In this highly competitive environment, a strong pitch can be the difference-maker between securing millions in funding and completely missing the mark.

There are many obvious cliché moves: give a firm handshake, communicate with passion, make strong eye-contact, and try to relate with your audience. Yet there are approaches I see constantly that sabotage an otherwise good pitch. To significantly improve your batting average, avoid these disaster moves when pitching just about anything:

1) THE RUN-ON SENTENCE: One of my pet peeves is listening to someone drone on for a 45-minute monologue. In your big moment, your instinct is to communicate everything you know, the entire history of your idea, and endless amusing anecdotes. Avoid this urge! Your pitch will be 100 times more powerful if you can make it concise. Make every word count.

2) THE FACT LEAP: Anyone who is being pitched has turned on their highly-developed BS-detector to full tilt. We are questioning everything you say and trying to poke holes in your story. So the minute you exaggerate a stat, make an outrageous claim, or state a fact that can be challenged, your credibility crumbles.

3) THE OVERSELL: If you make a strong point once, it resonates. If you feel the need to make the same point several times you end up diluting the power of the message. If you keep pushing a point, you transform before our eyes from a passionate world-changer to a used-car-salesperson or infomercial pitchman. If what you are pitching it that special, you don’t need to oversell it.

4) THE S.A.T.: When responding to a question, just answer it directly. If you tell a four-minute story that includes 73 data points, the listener feels like they are taking an S.A.T. exam in which they need to sift through all the irrelevant stuff in order to get the answer. This does not help you shine or get your message heard.

Grandiose braggers may entertain at cocktail parties, but they rarely win the battle of the pitch. Keep it authentic and real. Your startup with 11 beta customers isn’t a billion-dollar company just yet. Think big, but stay humble. After hearing a pitch where the daring hero outperforms Groupon and Apple in their second year with trillions of revenue and six billion customers, I’m ready for a shower instead of a closing dinner.

Hone your pitch to stand out from the hapless masses that continue to fall into the same traps. In turn, you’ll land the job, get the girl, win the capital, and seize your full potential.
And now for something completely different, Josh Linkner and band. 

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First posted: 13 December 2011 

Wednesday 16 September 2015

Interview with Xander Bennett

Xander Bennett is an Australian screenwriter who divides his time between Sydney and Los Angeles, where he once worked as a Hollywood script reader. He first became famous as the author of the Screenwriting Tips... You Hack blog, and a book of the same name.
    I stumbled across the blog a year or so ago and found his advice sharp, funny, helpful and absolutely to the point. I imagined him to be a stern bear of a man, with a mop of unruly hair and a severe, professorial manner. Then I discovered he was under thirty, meaning even I could trust him. I wanted to learn more about how such a young man could have done all he has, and still have time to develop wisdom, so I asked him some questions.


* You were born in Perth, Western Australia, on 16 February 1984. What were you like growing up?  (Were you a nerd? Did you play football? Were you a gang leader? When were you first arrested?)

You'll have to speak to my lawyer about that last one. I have four (lawyers): my father, mother, brother and sister-in-law. 
  Yep, I grew up in a family of lawyers. With the benefit of hindsight, it seems quite inevitable that I'd grow up geeky and literate. We were surrounded by books from a young age. I vividly remember books on mythology, some early Batman and Silver Surfer comics, all the big sci-fi authors (Heinlein, Asimov, Bradbury), and especially Terry Jones' book Erik the Viking, which for some reason scared the crap out of me.
  I was not a sporty child except when it came to swimming, which I excelled at. I was picked last for every team except water polo.
  Summer was my time to shine; in every other season, I just went back to avoiding sports in favour of geeky activites: LAN parties, D&D, etc. 

* What kind of a family did you grow up with?  

I grew up with a small but supportive family. I have two younger brothers. We couldn't possibly be more different from each other, but we still get along very well.
  My parents wanted the best for us, and my dad had (and still has) a love of gadgets. Those two factors led to us becoming early adopters for game consoles, home computers, the internet, etc. We even had a massive home video collection at a time when that meant closets full of bulky VHS tapes. 
  My parents never pushed us one way or the other; they always told us to follow our dreams and become whatever the hell we wanted to be. You can't ask for much more.  

You started writing early. You won the West Australian Young Writer of the Year award in 1999, when you were just 15.  How did that come about?  
My mother encouraged me to write short stories. I'm sure they were absolutely terrible, but she made a big deal out of them. I'd print them out and she'd read them quietly and reverentlymaybe make a few polite suggestions here and therethen tell me how good they were before filing them away in her document folder.
  Thanks to her, I developed an artificially inflated sense of my own skill. I heard about a short story competition which our city's newspaper was running and thought, "Pfft, I can do this". My entry was something grandiose about God and Death playing a game of chess, except the chess game was actually World War II. I even threw Hitler in there! 
  Anyway, I won, and I got to go to an awards ceremony and listen to my entire story being read out in front of a hundred people. They gave me a little trophy. I think that was it: my inciting incident. People had publicly announced that I was a writer. I had independent verification. I've been trying to live up to it ever since.

* How old were you when you first left Perth?  

I was right on the tail-end of 18 when I first left Perth. It was a big decision, but I wanted to go to film school and there weren't really any film schools in Perth at that time.
  (For your international readers, let me explain: leaving Perth is a little like leaving your village in Siberia. Perth is the most isolated state capital in the world. It's a five hour flight to pretty much anywhere else on the continent. Kind of a weird place to grow up.)
  At the time, I figured I'd live over east for a few years before moving back home. Nine years later, I still haven't moved back.

* You won the 2010 Queensland New Filmmakers Award for Most Original Script. Tell us a little about that screenplay. What happened with it?

That was a weird one. Myself and a group of my closest friends were sitting around one evening in December, and we realised: hey, we're all film school graduates, we're all pretty talented, but we've never actually made a film together. Surely we can bang out a script, gather some more friends, call in some favours and get a short film made? We even know a great production designer with a garage full of props. The sky's the limit!
  Obviously, it was a lot harder than that.
  To start with, I wrote a weird little script. It was a mock 1950s educational film from an alternate reality in which aliens have enslaved humanity. I'd read about how the early atomic scientists were afraid that nuclear fission might, y'know, rip a hole in the fabric of spacetime. Our premise was that it did, and aliens came through and kicked our asses. The film was narrated by a creepy scientist called "Doctor Sitwell", and it consisted of him explaining how we could best serve our alien masters.
  I was not subtle with my allegory in those days.
  It was a hard script to film on a low budget, but we made a valiant attempt. There were problems and hang-ups, as there are on any film set, but we got it done.
  My friend then spent three years editing it. I couldn't tell you exactly why. Suffice it to say that she does things in her own time, and hey, the end result won awards!

* You have lived in Perth, on the Gold Coast, in Saigon, Vancouver, Los Angeles, and in Sydney. Which is your favourite place and why?  

My favourite place would have to be Saigon (or Ho Chi Minh City, if you have no romance in your soul). Why? Because you could take a photograph of a random street in any of those other cities, and I'd be hard pressed to tell you where they came from.
  But Saigon's different. All of Saigon looks like Saigon. It's another world, completely unlike anything I'd ever seen, and it blew me away the first time I laid eyes on it. I'm not sure that it's a perfect place to live and writeI find it quite draining, mentally and physicallybut it might be a nice place to retire.

* You have written film and television screenplays, videogames, role-playing games, comics, a graphic novel and a screenwriting advice book. Which is your favourite form of writing, and why?

I suppose it must be screenwriting, because that's the one I think about every single day. I go through phases of loving comics and games, but film and television is a constant presence in my life. And when I come up with a new idea, I tend to mentally frame it in terms of either a feature or a TV pilot.
  That said, I'd love to try comics writing again. Comics are a bit magic. There's a weird alchemy to them that I haven't quite figured out yet. And nothing in the world compares to the feeling of getting a finished page of art back from an artist. That's pure, almost instant gratification. Writers can, and do, get addicted to it. 

* What sort of role-playing games did you write, and what was that experience like?

The Song of Roland
If you know about role-playing games, you might remember that they had a surge of popularity in the mid-2000s due to the rise of digital publishing and the release of a universal system called 'D20'. It was the biggest thing to happen to RPGs since Dateline declared D&D a satanic cult. And it gave many geeky young writersme includedtheir first shot at freelance fiction.
  I worked for several companies, including The Le Games, Dogsoul Publishing and Highmoon Media. One book was about pirates. Another was about the Tuatha deDanann, the Irish hill faeries. I also wrote an enormous adaptation of the Medieval French epic The Song of Roland. I think about three people read that one. Overall, the experience of writing for RPGs was educational, if not exactly lucrative.

* Your first job as a writer was on the Australian animated children's show FARMkids in 2005.  What do you remember most about that experience?

I remember the exec producer was an incredibly loud man who spent most of our meetings talking about himself. In the Australian vernacular, he was "a character". I was worried he'd turn out to be a control freak and I'd be stuck doing drafts forever, but it wasn't so badonly one or two rounds of notes.
  Mostly I remember the thrill of getting paid to write a script which I knew was going to get turned into a real, live episode of television. That's exciting!

* Your most recent feature film work was developing The Colour of Fear for a Melbourne-based producer. What is happening with that project?

That project is the brainchild of actor/producer James Vegter. It's an Australian thriller set in India, for the Australian and Indian markets. James brought me on board to revamp the story and write a lengthy outline, with an eye to eventually write the script. They're still in the pre-production and funding stage, but James is an incredibly persistent guy. If anyone can get the project off the ground, it's him.

* You’re famous for your blog, but you’ve also written a book with almost the same title: Screenwriting Tips, You Hack: 150 Practical Pointers for Becoming a Better Screenwriter.  The book surprised me a little. I wasn’t expecting much more than a selection of Tips from your blog, perhaps with a comprehensive index. Instead it is a screenwriting manual; written from a coaching perspective, rather than the usual dry, by-the-numbers reworking of Syd Field. Now that it’s out there, are you happy with the book?  

I'm very happy with the book, and I'm glad it surprised you. I wanted it to be much more than just a collection of tips. I guess I had a lot to say about screenwriting, and the book was the perfect outlet for that.
  Some amazing things have come from the book being published. One of them was hearing that the great Will Akers had added my book as a course requirement for his screenwriting class. And several readers have emailed me to say how much they enjoyed the book. One reader even said she'd make sure to credit me in her first film! It's comments like that which make you feel like the whole thing was worthwhile.

* Who was the screenwriting teacher who had the biggest influence on you?

The aforementioned Will Akers, definitely. I didn't like my screenwriting teacher at university, and I had never gotten much out of McKee, Vogler or Field. But Will's book Your Screenplay Sucks! made a big impression on me. I thought, wow, here's a guy who's not sugar-coating it. He's not pretending that it's going to be easy, or glossing over the grimy mechanical parts of the process. 

* If you had to suggest just one screenwriting book (not your own) to a newbie writer back in Adelaide, which one would it be?

A toss-up between Will Akers' Your Screenplay Sucks and Blake Snyder's Save The Cat!. In fact, I'd cheat and tell you to get both. One focuses more on the first draft, the other more on rewriting. 

* Is it true you play ukulele in a strip club to unwind?  

That's not true, although now I kinda wish it was. Mostly, I unwind by watching TV. Which is a bit sad, considering I already think about it all day. In my defence I watch a lot of half-hour comedies, a genre which I don't write.
  I'm also partial to a bit of Rock Band on Xbox (Expert guitar and vocals!), and I'm addicted to buying games on Steam for my PC. I try to read as much as I can -- comics, histories, scripts, novels, whatever. I also recently discovered Scotch whisky (trust me, it's an entire hobby in itself).

* As a final question, tell us something about living in L.A., and rubbing shoulders with celebs.  Any famous encounters, conquests

Hmm. This is a hard one. I'm rubbish at celebrity sightings. Even when my friends point them out, by the time I turn to look they're invariably gone.
  Let's see... I saw Gary Busey at a party once. Um. I met Scorcese's agent? Nope, that's crap...
  Wait, I know: I once walked past Susan Sarandon on a plane and gallantly refrained from singing Rocky Horror songs to her. Does that count?

It will have to do. Thank you, Xander Bennett.

First posted:  15 January 2012

Friday 11 September 2015

The World Trade Centre in movies

Construction work began on the North Tower in August 1968; construction on the South Tower was underway by January 1969. The topping out ceremony for the North Tower took place on December 23, 1970, while the South Tower's ceremony occurred on July 19, 1971. The first tenants moved into the North Tower in December 1970, while it was still under construction; the South Tower accepted tenants in January 1972. The ribbon cutting ceremony was on April 4, 1973.

The French Connection (1971)
The Hot Rock (1972)
Serpico (1973)
Man on Wire (1974)
Three Days of the Condor (1975)
Superman (1978)
Stir Crazy (1980)
A Chorus Line (1985)
F/X (1986)
Crocodile Dundee (1986)
Les Patterson Saves the World (1987)
Wall Street (1987)
The Secret of My Success (1987)
Moonstruck (1987)
Cocktail (1988)
Crocodile Dundee II (1988)
Working Girl (1988)
Black Rain (1989)
See No Evil, Hear No Evil (1989)
When Harry Met Sally (1989)
The Godfather: Part III (1990)
The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990)
The Freshman (1990)
My Blue Heaven (1990)
F/X2 (1991)
City Slickers (1991)

Delirious (1991)
29th Street (1991)
The Last Seduction (1994)
The Usual Suspects (1995)
Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995)
Men in Black (1997)
Why Do Fools Fall in Love (1998)
Pushing Tin (1999)
Buena Vista Social Club (1999)
Runaway Bride (1999)
The Out-Of-Towners (1999)
Being John Malkovitch (1999)
The Thomas Crown Affair (1999)
The Sopranos (1999)
Autumn in New York (2000)
Town & Country (2001)
7 Days in September (2002)
7 Days in September (2002)

Definitely, Maybe (2008)