Saturday 29 October 2016


Here's a link to an interview with me, just published by Pete Richmond at Zealot Script.

Irish Medley

Chris Thile and The First-Call Radio Players (Rich Dworsky, Chris Eldridge, Brittany Haas, Sarah Jarosz, Paul Kowert, and Ted Poor) perform a medley of Irish tunes — "The Kid on the Mountain," "The Frost is All Over," and "Cunla".

Friday 28 October 2016

Wednesday 26 October 2016

Tricks of the Trade, by Nia Vardalos

Nia Vardalos is a Greek/Canadian/naturalized American who wrote and starred in My Big Fat Greek Wedding, what?, wow, sixteen years ago. Time flies.

In this video she talks about how she got started, getting an agent, being Greek, the history of Wedding, and her writing process.

First published: 2 December 2012


Tuesday 25 October 2016

The schoolboy forger

As a teenager, Adolfo Kaminsky saved thousands of lives by forging passports to help children flee the Nazis. He spent his life helping others escape atrocities around the world.

Saturday 22 October 2016

The Queen and the worker bees

Discover the nitty-gritty details of Vanity Fair's version of the Queen’s royal entourage.

Friday 21 October 2016

Top Ten 30 Rock Moments

For this list, MsMojo selected the most memorable and funniest moments from Tina Fey’s modern classic series that showcase just how fast-paced, quick-witted and off the wall the show could be.

Thursday 20 October 2016

Bob Dylan at 20

Dylan was just 20 years old when he appeared on the Folksingers Choice radio program on WBAI FM in New York City. He'd arrived in Manhattan just a few years earlier and was playing in the coffee houses of Greenwich Village, at one in particular he was paid "a dollar plus a cheeseburger."

During this hour-long interview with Cynthia Gooding, Dylan played some of his own songs ("The Death of Emmett Till", "Standing on the Highway") and covers of classics by Howlin' Wolf, Hank Williams, and Woody Guthrie. We scored this Blank on Blank with Dylan tuning up his guitar and playing his harmonica.

It's a wonderful snapshot in time, with a young Dylan before he was famous and before he even released his debut album. He's nervous and funny. He's just a guy with a guitar with a little mischief underneath.

Wednesday 19 October 2016

Book Review: The 21st Century Screenplay

Linda Aronson is an English-born, Australian playwright, scriptwriter, comic novelist and screenwriting theorist. She has taught screenwriting to professionals across the world, having come most recently from a six-month tour of Europe, which culminated in an appearance at the London Screenwriters Festival.

Her previous book Screenwriting Updated (published in Australia as Scriptwriting Updated) was the leading text on how to write non-linear films, until it was superseded by The 21st-Century Screenplay in 2010.

True confession: I've been talking about writing this review for about a year now, but I kept putting it off, excusing myself that there were other things to talk about instead.

The truth is, I have felt intimidated.
"Linda Aronson is one of the great and important voices on screenwriting."  —Dr Linda Seger, author of "Making a Good Script Great"
The first screenplay I wrote that was ever seriously considered by producers was a story with a parallel narrative. I didn't fully appreciate that fact until long after it had been given a pass by... well, everyone.

Once it dawned on me that I needed to know more about the theory of structure than the usual three-act, single protagonist model, I went looking. And found nothing. Until I saw a reference to Linda Aronson on Twitter. And one thing led to another. I'm still hoping that the interview she agreed to do last year will finally appear here in December.

Now to the book.

It's big. Almost 500 pages, including a decent index (thank you). To put it in context, it is almost one hundred pages longer than Christopher Vogler's The Writers Journey. Vogler himself refers to The 21st-Century Screenplay as an "atlas."
"A lucid and eminently useful atlas of screenwriting technique. All the vague confusing things that teachers and studio executives say about flashback, turning points and multiple protagonists are whipped into coherent shape here, in a comprehensive, precise and extremely practical theory. An essential tool in any writer's kit."Christopher Vogler, author of "The Writers Journey"
It's not really a book, it's a kind of mini-encyclopaedia. It should, in my opinion, have been published as at least two separate books, possibly more. It is divided into six Parts, and some of those Parts are divided into as many as six Sections, and a given Section can have up to eight chapters. There are fifty-six chapters in total.

Part 1 looks at creativity and getting ideas. With expanded examples and exercises, it could be a book in its own right. Part 2 addresses conventional narrative structure and, again, could be a book in its own right. Woven through Parts 1 and 2 are twenty-five "development strategies" which could—this is getting repetitive—provide the framework for a book of their own.

So how is it, 125 pages into this one book, I'm already saying it could be three different books? The best way to understand this is, Linda Aronson has so much good stuff to say, and feels she has so little time in which to say it, that she has tumbled it all out into one place.

And it is good stuff. Even Part 2, which deals with Conventional Three-Act Structure and could have been a simple regurgitation of Syd Field, contains a remarkably different approach to the subject. Regular readers will know I have been working on my own comparative analysis summary of structure theories for years, lining up alongside one another the key outlines of Syd Field, Linda Seger, Michael Hauge, Christopher Vogler, Viki King, Blake Snyder, John Truby, David Mamet, Brian McDonald, etc. Linda Aronson has a completely fresh approach, for which she takes no credit. She calls it "the Extended Smiley/Thompson plan" and says of it:

by Prof. Sam Smiley
"I first came across it many years ago in a class on stage writing run by Paul Thompson of New York University, who says that he developed it from Sam Smiley's book on playwriting."
The Extended Smiley/Thompson plan is kinda like a beat sheet, but not really. I won't go into it here, other than to say that over the last year I have found myself drawn back to rereading this section many times.

Part 3 is called "Practical Plotting" and provides a lot of common-sense information on the art of screenwriting. Part 6 is called "Getting It On The Page." It rounds out the practical advice section of the book. There's good, solid, practical advice here, but nothing you couldn't find in a heap of other books. 

If those Parts were the whole book, I would say it represented excellent value and that you should think about buying a copy. But there's more here.

Part 4 steps into the largely unexplored world of "Parallel Narrative." Part 5 reports on "Films with Structural Flaws": or Why Films Fail. This is an area that wouldn't make sense without Part 4, so they belong together, preferably as a separate book.

Parts 4 and 5 are what the fuss is all about. 

If you'll be happy writing a few short films, or maybe a couple of three-act, single protagonist features, you don't need this book. Stick to Blake Snyder, Michael Hauge, Linda Seger, or Christopher Vogler. 

But if you've ever dreamed of writing something with the complexity of a Pulp Fiction, The Usual Suspects, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The English Patient, Crash, Fried Green TomatoesCity of God, 21 Grams, The Hours, or Memento, you need this book.

To be clear, a parallel narrative is about "two or more complete stories in the past and present." It is not "a linear three-act structure with a chunk of action from two thirds of the way through the story stuck at the start to grab the audience," as found in a film such as Michael Clayton.

I had naively assumed that there was but a single type of parallel structure and had been trying to work out the principles governing that. Linda Aronson tells us that there are "six different sorts of parallel narrative films, each structured differently and each transmitting a different philosophy." To explain:

"These six fall into two main categories: films that jump about in time and films that don't. The films that stay in one time frame are often called ensemble films, and there are three main kinds. The films that jump about in time are often called non-linear films, and there are two main kinds. Finally, there is a hybrid, which is very like one of the ensemble forms, but it incorporates time jumps."
If that sounds complicated, we've only just begun. For example, the non-linear forms include six classes of flashback, and four classes of consecutive story. But don't worry, there are over 250 pages explaining everything.


I won't attempt to summarise it all here. What follows is a brief explanation of each of
the six different sorts of parallel narrative films, together with some examples of films that adhere to that structure. For the rest, you need to buy the book.

1. Tandem narrative:

Films with equally important stories on the same theme, in the same time frame, with the action jumping between stories. Same theme, different adventures.

Traffic, Lantana, Nashville, Love Actually, Crimes and Misdemeanours, City of Hope

2. Multiple protagonist narrative:

Films about a small team of people thrown together in a group 'adventure'—a quest, a reunion, a siege (emotional/actual). All the main characters are versions of the same protagonist. Same team, same adventure.

Galaxy Quest, The Big Chill, Saving Private Ryan, Little Miss Sunshine, Mystic River

3. Double journeys narrative:

Multiple protagonist films with two characters journeying towards each other, in parallel, or apart (physically/emotionally). Two lives in parallel.

The Departed, Finding Nemo, The Lives of Others, The Queen, The Proposition

4. Flashback narrative:

There are six varieties of flashback, some simple, some complex, each serving a different story purpose. Some films have several kinds.

i) Flashback as illustration: a simple backstory device, e.g., when a detective asks, "Where were you on the night of April 5?" and we flash back to what happened.

ii) Regret flashback: non-chronological fragments from an unsuccessful love relationship (as in Annie Hall and And When Did You Last See Your Father?).

iii) Bookend flashback: a scene or sequence in the present that appears at the start and end of the film, 'bookending' the story (Saving Private Ryan, Fight Club).

iv) Preview flashback: the film starts on a scene or sequence midway or two-thirds through, then flashes back to the start, running through chronologically to the end (Goodfellas, Michael Clayton).

v) Life-changing incident flashback: one life-changing moment is revealed bit-by-bit in one flashback shown several times incrementally (Catch-22).

vi) Double narrative flashback: two or more complete stories centered on one enigmatic outsider are told in different time frames, with the action jumping back and forth between the two. Films in this form drop into two categories according to their view of human nature and each is structured differently. They are:

5. Consecutive stories:

Films that tell separate stories (with different protagonists) one after the other, coming together at the end. Their point is to make a political or philosophical comment. There are four main sorts.

i) Stories walking into the picture: new protagonists will walk into shot and the film switches to their stories (The Circle, Ten).

ii) Different perspectives: different versions of the same event (Run Lola Run); or different characters' versions of the same event (Rashomon).

iii) Different consequences from the same event: (Atonement).

iv) Fractured frame/portmanteau: several stories are split up and held within one story, which forms a frame (Pulp Fiction, The Butterfly Effect, City of God, The Joy Luck Club).

6. Hybrid:

Fractured tandem:

Fractured tandem runs equally important tandem narratives but fractures them, jumping between time frames (21 Grams, Babel, Crash, Three Burials of Melchiades Estrada).

Autobiographical narrator using voice-over:

The voice-over autobiographical narrator, honest or unreliable, can appear in all parallel narrative forms. It causes significant structural changes in double narrative flashback. Some films have a narrator who tells someone else's story, not their own, and who is either a minor player or an unidentified storyteller.


If you're worried about which is the best approach for your material, there is a whole chapter telling you how to decide.

The only other thing to emphasize is that
this is an advanced book. To follow much of it you need to be film literate. No, I mean seriously film literate. If you haven't seen most of the films listed in this brief summary, you're going to struggle to understand the points being made.

The 21st Century Screenplay is an extraordinary book. At less than $20, it represents an accessible investment for every serious screenwriter. You won't read and grasp it all in a weekend. It's a book which demands study; it's a book that will reward study. That's not something I can say about every screenwriting book on my shelf.

If you're serious about screenwriting, I recommend that you buy this book.


There is an interesting article (here) in The New York Times, 21 November 2012, which notices a trend in dispensing with storytelling conventions in the current crop of films.

First posted: 26 November 2012

Tuesday 18 October 2016

Progress on "Loving Vincent"

In the Polish city of Gdańsk, over 50 artists at a time are producing pictures in the style of Vincent van Gogh. Their oil paintings are part of the feature film "Loving Vincent", about the Dutch painter's life and work.

Friday 14 October 2016

Philip Seymour Hoffman on Happiness

A Philip Seymour Hoffman conversation with Simon Critchley, recorded live at the Rubin Museum of Art on December 22, 2012 .

Wednesday 12 October 2016

The MacGuffin

What is a "MacGuffin"? The screenwriting term, frequently associated with Alfred Hitchcock, describes a plot device. It is common in thrillers. It could be a goal or an object that the protagonist is willing to pursue, often without explanation as to why it was so valuable.

Examples include the meaning of rosebud in Citizen Kane (1941), the Falcon in The Maltese Falcon (1941), the briefcase in Pulp Fiction (1994) and Ronin (1998), the crystal skull in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)
, and the mineral Unobtainium in Avatar (2009).

Alfred Hitchcock popularized the term "MacGuffin" with The 39 Steps (1935). He explained the term in a 1939 lecture at Columbia University:

"[We] have a name in the studio, and we call it the 'MacGuffin'. It is the mechanical element that usually crops up in any story. In crook stories it is almost always the necklace and in spy stories it is most always the papers".
Interviewed in 1966 by François Truffaut, Alfred Hitchcock illustrated the term "MacGuffin" with a story, which he repeated in an interview with Dick Cavett. The voice over in the following video comes from the Dick Cavett recording. Thanks to Isaac Niemand for this re-edit.

You can see the original interview here.

First posted: 24 November 2012

Friday 7 October 2016

1950s Educational Film "How To Undress In Front Of Your Husband"

1950's Education Film teaching a wife how to undress in front of her husband. Every Good Wife should watch this film, much can be learned.

Wednesday 5 October 2016

Interview with Alan Watt

Alan Watt is a novelist, a playwright, a teacher, a publisher, the founder/creative director of LA Writers Lab, founder of the 90-Day Novel Press and Writers Tribe Books publishing companies, and is currently executive producer of a film being made from his novel Diamond Dogs.

Alan first taught a summer creative writing workshop at UCLA in 1998, and has been teaching and lecturing on the creative process in Los Angeles and at colleges around the country ever since. He has taught everyone from award-winning authors to A-list screenwriters, journalists, poets, actors, professional athletes, war veterans, housewives, doctors, lawyers, television showrunners, Emmy-winning directors, first-time writers, and anyone else with a story to tell.

  Where were you born, and where did you grow up?

I was born in Aberdeen, Scotland, and moved to a small town in Ontario, Canada, called Guelph when I was five-years old. I grew up in Guelph.

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

My father is a doctor, a psychiatrist more specifically. And my mother was a Phys Ed teacher, until she had four kids in four years. I have two brothers and a sister. All of them are very smart, very ambitious. Two of them went to medical school and became doctors, while my other brother went to Business school and is now into real estate and manufacturing and all sorts of other things.

I, on the other hand, was the one who spent his days staring at clouds and living in his imagination. I had the brilliant idea of marching into my high school principal’s office three months prior to graduation and announcing that I was quitting school to go on the road and be a stand-up comic. (I had a weekend gig two hours away—in retrospect I’m not sure I needed to quit school for it.)

  What was your first paying job

We moved to a farm when I was ten. My two brothers and I spent that first summer picking rocks. We picked rocks for six to eight hours a day, clearing the fields by hand. My father paid us a dollar an hour. I made four hundred dollars that summer.

  When did you first decide you wanted to write?

When I was three, my mother asked me what I wanted for Christmas, and I told her “a pencil.” I didn’t know how to spell yet, but for some reason I desperately wanted to write. There was something deeply satisfying about the idea of putting my thoughts down on paper. To this day I prefer to write by hand because I find the simple act of moving my hand across the page rather therapeutic.

  Why did you set up the L.A. Writers Lab?

I was always helping my friends with their screenplays, and when I started selling my work I began getting deluged with calls to read and help them with their work. I decided it was easier to set up a formal workshop where I could help them.

I am also fascinated with the creative process – far more interested in that than the result. I love working with writers who have been blocked and helping them write the story that they’ve been struggling with for years. This is why I created the 90-Day Novel and 90-Day Screenplay workshops.

The subconscious is where the truth lies. It’s where all of the complexity and paradox of our experiences are disseminated and it’s where patterns are explored. Logic is immaterial to our subconscious, which is why it is so difficult for writers to begin, and so thrilling once they’ve begun. It’s not so much a matter of ‘can I rely on my subconscious?’ It’s really that we have no other choice. I don’t believe it’s possible to write anything more than a grocery list from our pre-frontal cortex. We don’t have the bandwidth.

Now, though we must rely on our subconscious, I don’t believe that’s a guarantee that we’ll get to the end of our story. The 90-Day process involves marrying the wildness of our subconscious to the rigor of story structure. There are key universal experiences in the hero’s journey. By exploring these experiences in the world of our story, images appear and it actually becomes possible to move beyond our limited idea of our story to a more vivid and dynamic version. The truth is that our idea of our story is never the whole story. Writers tend to get stuck when they either rely solely on their subconscious, or solely on “plotting.”

I teach story structure as an experiential model rather than a conceptual model, which is a fancy way of saying that we can reduce any transformation in our life to a series of experiences. There is nothing formulaic about this approach. I tell writers that everything we can imagine belongs in our story if we’re willing to distill our ideas to their nature. I teach writers how to ask better questions of their subconscious in order to understand their story in a new way.

  What are your upcoming writing projects?

I’m currently writing a thriller for a film producer, and just completing a new novel called Days Are Gone, about a woman who leaves her upwardly mobile marriage and ends up in a small town, where she begins a relationship with a guy who is on parole for committing a terrible crime. It’s about how we forgive ourselves for our pasts in order to move on. I’m publishing it through my new literary press, Writers Tribe Books. I recently sold my movie adaptation of my first novel, Diamond Dogs, to Quad Productions, who just did a movie called The Intouchables. Diamond Dogs will be shot in the States and will be their first English-speaking movie.

Here's the trailer for The Intouchables.

  You have established not one, but two, separate publishing houses. Tell us a little about them.

It happened by accident. The 90-Day Novel Press publishes books on writing. I wrote The 90-Day Novel just as this whole self-publishing craze was heating up and the traditional publishing industry was dying. I had been procrastinating for a year in sending my agent a book proposal, and then one day I just decided that I was going to publish it myself. I knew the book was not a traditional writing book—it was much more of a right-brain book that explored the mechanics of the story process from an intuitive place. Quite frankly, I wrote the book that I wish existed when I started writing, and it’s become a bestseller here in the U.S.

Writers Tribe Books publishes literary fiction and was another accident. With the traditional publishers dying on the vine, I started getting calls from friends of mine—some really great novelists, but because their last book didn’t land on the bestseller list they were getting dropped by their publishers. The traditional publishing model cannot support the work of mid-list authors. Publishing has become like Hollywood—they need huge hits to survive. But since I don’t have Fifth Avenue rent to pay I can afford to publish authors who I just love, and rather than giving them a huge advance, we split the profits, and it becomes more of a partnership model.

  What are three things you wish someone had told you about screenwriting when you were starting out?

1) Build a body of work. Don’t spend three years on one project.
2) Be willing to fail. Keep putting your work out.
3) Write the story that you want to tell. Don’t concern yourself with what you think the “marketplace” is looking for.

Peter Finch is mad as hell, and he's not gonna take this any more.
  Name ten of your all-time favorite movies.

Here are ten in no particular order. I could give you ten more tomorrow that could supplant these ten.

Here's a five minute clip of Alan Watt talking about how story works.

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First posted: 23 November 2012