Friday 30 June 2017

Horse before cart...

Sheri Candler is a "marketing strategist who helps independent filmmakers build identities for themselves and their films. Through the use of online tools such as social networking, podcasts, blogs, online media publications and radio, she assists filmmakers in building an engaged and robust online community for their work that can be used to monetize effectively."

Film Courage is a website/blog/radio show/video producer, all focused on assisting independent filmmakers.

Recently Film Courage conducted a video interview with Sheri Candler on the subject of What You Need To Know About Building Your Audience. That means, everything small-time, lo-budget, amateur filmmakers NEED to know about marketing the film they are planning to make, BEFORE they make that film.

The film is the cart, marketing is the horse. Horse before cart. Sound silly? It's not.

Here's that interview, broken up into small chunks.

1. Who is your target audience? If you don't know, you'll never be able to market your film successfully.

2. How much money should we set aside from your budget to reach the target audience? 10% minimum. Yeah, minimum.

3. How much money can we raise through crowdfunding?

4. Will that huge Veronica Mars crowdfunding exercise cause an influx of celebrities into the field?

5. Will Veronica Mars make Kickstarter a household name and help filmmakers in the future?

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First posted: 15 April 2013

Thursday 29 June 2017

The best advice...

The worst best-intentioned advice I ever got about screenwriting came from Richard Gilman, the distinguished literary critic, at a party in New York almost thirty years ago.
    "Whatever you do," said Dick Gilman to the beginning screenwriter, "don't put your heart into your scripts. You'll get it broken."
    For almost thirty years now (and thirty scripts, and fifteen produced movies), I've put my heart into my scripts... and my heart is unbroken.

My advice to beginning screenwriters is this:
    Put every ounce of heart and soul and guts and passion that you possess into every sentence of every screenplay.
    And laugh.

*   *   *

She was a fiery street-smart woman with a nasty temper who'd come to Hollywood out of the world of marketing. She was sexy and no-bullshit and with a hank of hair you wanted to press your face into. She had a commercial eye and used it (and her sexiness and toughness) to become first a VP and then head of production. She got a golden parachute, got married, and gave birth to a little girl.
    I hadn't seen her for a while and when we had dinner at the Ivy, what struck me was how gloriously happy she was. With her husband, with her little girl. With her life as a wife and mother. We didn't talk business all night. We talked about our kids.
    She wasn't in a hurry any more. She didn't speak at the rate of a thousand miles an hour. She wasn't looking through me to see who else was in the room. She was almost serene.
    I'd always liked her and when I hugged her good night outside the restaurant, I thought—Yes, there are happy endings, even real ones, in Hollywood.
    A few months later, she was diagnosed with a brain tumor.
    And not much later, Dawn Steel died.

My advice to everyone is this:
    Put every ounce of heart and soul and guts and passion that you possess into every nanosecond of your life.
    And pray!

Taken from: Hollywood Animal, by Joe Eszterhas, 2004
First posted: 14 April 2013

Wednesday 28 June 2017

Book review: "The Annotated Godfather"

The Annotated Godfather was, for me, one of those books you see referred to every so often, but never got around to reading. I can now say, if you like the movie, it's worth the effort.

The Annotated Godfather was compiled by Jenny Jones, who also wrote The Big Lebowski: An Illustrated, Annotated History of the Greatest Cult Film of All Time, which is compulsory reading if you're seriously into the Dude.

The full title of the book is The Annotated Godfather: The Complete Screenplay with Commentary on Every Scene, Interviews, and Little-Known Facts. That sums it up nicely. The screenplay in view is the official "Third Draft" (completed on March 29, 1971), which incorporates much of Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo's own wording from their final, pre-production draft or shooting script.

While the screenplay is interesting, it's the "Little-Known Facts" that make the book. The Annotated Godfather has has been around since 2007, so those facts have made their way out into the ongoing conversation that surrounds the movie, but it's nice to read them in context.

Francis Ford Coppola arranges a wedding.

Casting and shooting the film were relatively straight-forward, except that the writer didn't want to write it (but Mario Puzo was broke and needed a commercial story), the studio didn't want to produce it, as every gangster picture Paramount had ever made had failed at box office (but the novel was a runaway success and other studios were showing interest), no director would touch the story (twelve directors turned it down, including Coppola, but he was broke and needed a job), the studio didn't want any of the cast, as they were all unknowns, except Brando, and he was considered box office poison (but Coppola outgamed the executives to get what he wanted), and the local Italian-American community banded against the film and amassed a war chest to stop production.

Here are a few quotes from the book, just to give you a taste.
At age forty-five, Mario Puzo owed $20,000 in gambling debts, so he wrote a ten-page book outline entitled Mafia. Eight publishers turned it down.

At a meeting at G.P. Putnam's Sons, Puzo regaled the editors with Mafia stories, impressing them enough to give him a $5,000 book advance. Puzo had never known a mobster or gangster, so he had to do extensive research for the book.

(In 1967) Puzo was so broke, he agreed—against his agent's advice—to accept a deal of a paltry $12,500 option, $80,000 if it was made into a film.

So in April 1969, Puzo was contracted to turn out The Godfather screenplay for an additional $100,000, expenses, and a few percentage points of the profits.

As the 1970s began, Paramount was ranked a dismal ninth among film studios.

Then, over Christmas of 1970, Love Story burst onto the movie scene. With a $106 million return on a $2.2 million investment, Love Story changed the fortunes of Paramount Pictures.

As gangbuster sales of Puzo's book forced Paramount to take another look at their film option, they would try to recreate Love Story's success using the same formula on The Godfather.

Twelve directors turned down the job—many, including Peter Yates (Bullitt) and Richard Brooks (In Cold Blood) because they didn't want to romanticize the Mafia. Arthur Penn (Bonnie and Clyde, Little Big Man) was too busy. Costa-Gravas (Z) thought it too American.

Roberrt Evans, Paramount's head of production, sat down with Peter Bart, his creative second in command, to determine why previous organized crime films hadn't worked, and decided it was because Jews made them, not Italians. So, they sought an Italian-American director, a commodity in short supply.

Francis Ford Coppola was born in Detroit in 1939. His father, Carmine, was the conductor and arranger for the Ford Sunday Evening Hour radio program (hence Francis's middle name).

Peter Bart first approached Coppola to direct The Godfather in the spring of 1970. Coppola tried to read the book but found it sleazy.

His father advised him that commercial work could fund the artistic pictures he wanted to make.

His business partner, George Lucas, begged him to find something in the book he liked.

Coppola reread the novel and came to see a central theme of a family—a father and three sons—that was in its own way a Greek or Shakespearian tragedy. He viewed the growth of the 1940s Corleone Family as a metaphor for capitalism in America. He took the job.

With the inexperienced Coppola, Paramount thought they were hiring an Italian-American director who would also come in on budget and be pliable. Although indeed Italian-American, Francis Ford Coppola would not be the director the studio had envisioned.

The first battle was over the picture being a period piece. Coppola was adamant that the film be set in the 1940s.

Paramount had asked Puzo to set the screenplay in the seventies because contemporary films were cheaper to make; no 1940s cars to find, sets to create, costumes to make.

The second battle was over location. Coppola wanted to shoot in New York, an expensive proposition because of the unions. Producer Albert Ruddy had suggested Cleveland, Kansas City, and Cincinnati as possible sites—or perhaps a studio backlot.

In the end the studio gave in, and the film was shot on location in New York.

The third battle, and it was a long and bloody one, was over casting.

I'll stop there, on page 17 of a 260 page book. If I went on, this post would get right out of hand. Buy the book. It makes for fascinating reading—the true story of how Hollywood made a classic film, and it was not by following the rules they teach in film school.

And just while we're here, I couldn't resist this:

No cannolis are mentioned in the book or shooting script, but Coppola included the detail from his memories of the particular white boxes of cannolis his own father would bring home after work. Richard Castellano, as Clemenza, made movie history by improvising the now famous utterance: "Take the cannoli."

For further interesting reading on this subject, you could try Vanity Fair's article called The Godfather Wars.

First posted: 13 April 2013

Tuesday 27 June 2017

Book review: "Making Movies"

I first read Making Movies, by Sidney Lumet, when it came out in 1995, and was dazzled (and intimidated) by the complexity of big-time filmmaking. I reread it in 2013 and had the exact same reaction. This is a serious book about filmmaking.

Sidney Lumet (1924-2011) directed seventy-two movies and TV shows. He is best known for films such as 12 Angry Men (1957), The Pawnbroker (1964), Serpico (1973), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), Network (1976), Prince of the City (1981), The Verdict (1982), and Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (2007).

Lumet was an actor, appearing on stage in Broadway shows from the age of five. He spent three years with the US Army during World War II, then started directing off-Broadway stage shows after the war, before moving to TV in 1952.

His first movie, 12 Angry Men, was nominated for three Academy Awards. It was also a start of the trend whereby he never won, despite being personally nominated four times. Fourteen of the films he directed were nominated a total of 46 times for Oscars, winning six times. In 2005 the Academy gave him a Lifetime Achievement Award for his "services to screenwriters, performers, and the art of the motion picture."

Here are some quotes from the book.
I once asked Akira Kurosawa why he had chosen to frame a shot in Ran in a particular way. His answer was that if he'd panned the camera one inch to the left, the Sony factory would be sitting there exposed, and if he'd panned an inch to the right, we would see the airport—neither of which belonged in a period movie.

Often the last to arrive [at rehearsal] is the writer. He is last because he knows that at this point he is the target. At this moment, anything wrong can only be his fault, since nothing else has happened yet. So he moves quietly to the coffee table, stuffs his mouth full of Danish so he won't have to answer any questions, and tries to become as small as possible.

There are many reasons for accepting a movie. I'm not a believer in waiting for "great" material that will produce a "masterpiece." What's important is that the material involve me personally on some level.

I've done two movies because I needed the money. I've done three because I love to work and couldn't wait any longer.

The truth is that no one knows what that magic combination is that produces a first-rate piece of work.

For anyone who wants to direct but hasn't made a first movie yet, there is no decision to make. Whatever the movie, whatever the auspices, whatever the problems, if there's a chance to direct, take it!

The theme (the what of the movie) is going to determine the style (the how of the movie).

What is the movie about? Work can't begin until its limits are defined, and this is the first step in that process. It becomes the riverbed into which all subsequent decisions will be channeled.

The script must keep you off balance, keep you surprised, entertained, involved, and yet, when the denouement is reached, still give you the sense that the story had to turn out that way.

Dialogue is not uncinematic. So many of the movies of the thirties and forties that we adore are constant streams of dialogue.

The point is that here is no war between the visual and the aural. Why not the best of both?

A character should be clear from his present actions. And his behavior as the picture goes on should reveal the psychological motivations.

If the writer has to state the reasons, something's wrong in the way the character has been written.

I like the writer present at rehearsals. Words are critical. And most actors aren't writers, nor are most directors.

I use improvisation as an acting technique, not as a source of dialogue.

Most writers are so used to being slapped around that they're stunned that I want them at rehearsal.

There's a powerful magic about being a writer that I still marvel at.

I want the writer to see the first cut. First cuts of a picture always have to have some time taken out of them. Most writers are able to see repetitions in their own work.

In a sense, a movie is constantly being rewritten. The various contributions of the director and the actors, the music, sound, camera, decor, and editing, are so powerful that the movie is always changing.

Making a movie has always been about telling a story.

In Murder on the Orient Express, I wanted Ingrid Bergman to play the Russian princess. She wanted to play the retarded Swedish maid. I wanted Ingrid Bergman. I let her play the maid. She won an Academy Award.

Just as in life, really talking and listening to one another is very, very difficult. In acting, that's the basis on which everything is built.

Sanford Meisner was one of the best acting teachers of my time. With beginning students, he spent the first month or six weeks getting them to really talk and listen to one another. That's all. It's the great common denominator where different acting styles and techniques meet.

Steven Spielberg said of this book:
"Film would be a better place if every director were required to share with other romancers of film his process. It is a gift to us all that it is Sidney Lumet, one of America's greatest filmmakers, who is sharing his point-of-view."
First posted: 8 April 2013

Sunday 25 June 2017

How to write a scene in 11 steps

John August wrote a post—How to write a scene—back in 2007.

In February 2013, Ryan Rivard converted the substance of that post into an infographic. Here it is:

The infographic is great, but make sure you read the original post, so you have the context.

First posted: 5 April 2013

10 Lessons on Filmmaking

Filmmaker Magazine has an article this month called 10 Lessons on Filmmaking from Director Ken Loach. For those who don't know, UK-based Ken Loach has directed almost 50 movies and TV shows. He never worked in Hollywood, apparently never wanted to. His latest film, a documentary, The Spirit of ’45, has just had its world premiere at this year’s Berlinale.
    Loach is now 76, a good age at which to start passing on acquired wisdom. The following list has drawn fire over item 9, possibly unfairly. I'll leave it to you to judge.

1. Avoid corruption: Find a thrifty team.

I have been lucky. I work with producers who don’t rip people off. And we don’t spend much money, so there are no kinds of silly extravagances. It works mainly because the producers have set things up in a very comfortable way.
   I think that, oddly enough, it helps that we’re not spending huge sums of money. It’s a well-paid industry. Even at our level it’s very well-paid. But I think when the sums are huge then it’s very corrupting. So you just try to do the sensible thing.

2. Appreciate the people around you.

I think everybody respects everybody. You try and give them enough time to do their job, and sometimes it’s tight, but we all share the same discomforts.
   I think valuing people’s contributions is key. You know if you’re valued, and they are. I mean, I work with brilliant people, and take any one of them away and we couldn’t do it. You don’t have to say it to them. It’s implicit in what you do, isn’t it?

3. The best team is built upon loyalty.

I’ve just been very lucky to find good people, and people have been very loyal, and you try to show loyalty back. And then you develop a common attitude so you don’t have to go over the basics again and again because there’s an understanding between you. It’s just common sense.
   It’s such a fragmented industry. I’ve been lucky and have been able to work quite regularly. I think if you can work quite regularly that gives you the confidence to build a team.

4. Cut before you begin. And then cut some more.

You shoot too many scenes that you don’t need. I think that’s one of the biggest mistakes that people could make. And I made that, sometimes at the outset.
   We try to cut the budget before we start. We cut the script so that you demand less. Maybe there’ll be a scene, one or two scenes in every film that you find you can do without, but you don’t always know that in advance. But that’s part of the art of filmmaking. And then part of the work is to cut the script before you shoot so that you don’t waste time.

5. Find the epic part of even the smallest story.

That’s in the writing, really. I’ve worked with Paul for quite a long time, and the thing about Paul is that he finds the microcosm, which will tell you about the bigger picture. You see something very small, but through it you know the bigger picture. That’s always what you’re looking for, finding a small story, or a relationship, or a situation, and if you tell that truthfully, you say something about the much bigger picture without actually having to have say it. You infer it, and those are all the stories you’re looking for really.

6. The story should feel effortless, no matter how hard it is to convey.

With directing fiction, certainly for our films, the script is very precise. It’s 98%, what you see on the screen is in the script. One or two percent is added, but it should feel as though it’s improvised. It’s like playing Chopin. You should feel the pianist has just sat down at the piano, and he’s just played this amazing piece just from his head, but of course it was written and it should be the same in the film. It should have all the appearance and quality of just happening spontaneously in front of you, and that’s the trick you have to try and pull off.

7. Edit your script with your enemies in mind.

Part of what you consider carefully all the time is what a film is saying, what’s the subtext of the film and what’s the implication of the film. And is it true and can we justify it and is it open to misinterpretation?
   It’s got to be in the script. I found that if there’s a fault in the script, it’s always there at the end. And there have been one or two times where we haven’t got the script quite right, so the faults stay with you, and that’s always the challenge at the beginning.
   The secret to having the proper subtext is working on the script. It’s just asking the questions you know your enemies will ask.

8. The writer/director relationship is sacred.

We talk about the story a lot before Paul starts and then he’ll do a first draft. When we’re doing an outline, we’ll talk at every stage, but he does the writing. And when we’re casting, which is a long process, I always like him to come at different times and be there at the end with Rebecca, and then to come as often as possible to the shoot. Often he’ll see something that I’m missing. So it’s a very congenial relationship. You don’t put pressure on each other; you just enjoy each other’s presence, really. He brings the coffee if there’s nothing else to do.

9. And remember, writing and directing are not one and the same.

If you’re a director, remember you’re not a writer. I think a lot of directors coming in now think they have to be the writer as well, and I think that’s the biggest handicap, you know? If you’re a director, you’re not a writer. And if you’re a writer, you’re probably not a director. Remember the distinction.
   There are not a lot of good director/writers. Usually the script is too thin. It’s not complex enough, and it’s not deep enough. For a writer who directs, it’s usually too dense. They don’t allow it to breathe.
   You need different visions coming in and they’re not the same; they’re complementary. It’s good that there’s another eye on the script and there’s another eye on the directing.

10. Relax.

It’s only a film, you know? Getting up at 6 o’clock on the long days, that’s the biggest challenge. Keeping self-belief is the biggest challenge.
   In the end, if you don’t get it right, you don’t get it right, but you’ll still be there tomorrow to learn your lesson.
   It’s only a film. Don’t take yourself too seriously.


First posted: 1 April 2013

Saturday 24 June 2017

Book review: "Hitchcock"

In 1962, François Truffaut commenced a series of interviews with Alfred Hitchcock, via an interpreter. These interviews occurred intermittently over the next five years. The end result was published in 1967, as a book called Hitchcock, though you will sometimes see it referred to as Hitchcock/Truffaut.

Prior to reading this, I didn't know much about François Truffaut, other than Julia Phillips' comments about him in You'll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again (which is one of the great reads about Hollywood in the 1970s.)

Steven Spielberg had cast François Truffaut in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), a film Julia Phillips produced. Truffaut and Phillips did not hit it off.

He was an arrogant, famous French film director and I couldn't help but feel that he was fucking with us all the time.
   I was convinced that the well-known-deaf-in-the-left-ear legend (with a hearing aid as a prop, if you please) was a ploy, like not speaking English, to keep the world at bay and for his own private amusement.
   Still I addressed myself to making him feel comfortable, revered, safe. That was my specialty. Also my job. But deep down I knew he was a prick and it was making me defiant. Fuck him. I wanted my own private amusement.
That private amusement took the form of a bet with Spielberg that Truffaut wasn't deaf. She would find out over dinner, where she would be sitting next to him, on his 'deaf' side.
"At some point during dinner I'll whisper his name and we'll see if he turns toward me. If he does he ain't deaf and I win. If he doesn't he is deaf and you win."
Spielberg accepted the bet.
Halfway through dinner I whispered "François" and he turned minutely in my direction. Of course, Steven argued that it was an inconclusive gesture, and he welched on the bet. I know I won because it earned me François's eternal enmity.
Enmity indeed. Truffaut sniped at Phillips throughout the lengthy filming exercise, including telling the Sunday New York Times that she was "incompetent" and "unprofessional."

It has long amused me that François became Julia's true foe. But I'm like that.

The Truffaut who comes through in this book is a serious cinephile, and so well researched that he knew things about Hitchcock's films that Hitchcock didn't know or had forgotten. I came away from the book with a deep respect for his film knowledge and insights.

I was interested to notice that many of the famous Hitchcock quotes that I've read over the years can be found in this book. Whether they are the original source, I cannot say. Here are some quotes from the book.

From François Truffaut:
  • The only two British film-makers whose works have survived the test of time—and space, for that matter—are Charlie Chaplin and Alfred Hitchcock.
  • The man who excels at filming fear is himself a very fearful person.
  • The art of creating suspense is also the art of involving the audience.
  • Clarity is the most important quality in the making of a film.
  • Cardinal rule of cinema: Whatever is said instead of being shown is lost upon the viewer.
  • In real life the things people say to each other do not necessarily reflect what they actually think and feel. This is especially true of such mundane occasions as dinner and cocktail parties, or of any meeting between casual acquaintances.
  • If we observe any such gathering, it is clear that the words exchanged between the guests are superficial formalities and quite meaningless, whereas the essential is elsewhere; it is by studying their eyes that we can find out what is truly on their minds.
  • Each of (Hitchcock's) pictures features several scenes in which the rule of counterpoint between dialogue and image achieves a dramatic effect by purely visual means.
  • Hitchcock is almost unique in being able to film directly, that is, without resorting to explanatory dialogue, such intimate emotions as suspicion, jealousy, desire, and envy.
  • Anything connected with fear takes us back to childhood. All of children's literature is linked to sensations and particularly to fear.

From Alfred Hitchcock:
  • A film cannot be compared to a play or a novel. It is closer to a short story, which, as a rule, sustains one idea that culminates when the action has reached the highest point of the dramatic curve.
  • In the usual form of suspense it is indispensable that the public be made perfectly aware of all the facts involved. Otherwise there is no suspense.
  • To my way of thinking, mystery is seldom suspenseful. In a whodunit, for instance, there is no suspense, but a sort of intellectual puzzle.
  • I don't really approve of whodunits because they're rather like a jigsaw or crossword puzzle. No emotion. You simply wait to find out who committed the murder.
  • I hate to introduce a useless character in a story.
  • Making a film means, first of all, to tell a story. That story can be an improbable one, but it should never be banal. It must be dramatic and human. What is drama, after all, but life with the dull bits cut out.
  • To insist that the storyteller stick to the facts is just as ridiculous as to demand of a representative painter that he show objects accurately.
  • A critic who talks to me about plausibility is a dull fellow.
  • In North by Northwest, where the villainous James Mason is competing with Cary Grant for the affection of Eva Marie Saint, I wanted him to be smooth and distinguished. The difficulty was how we could make him seem threatening at the same time. So what we did was to split this evil character into three people: James Mason, who is attractive and suave; his sinister-looking secretary; and the third spy, who is crude and brutal.
  • In my opinion, the chief requisite for an actor is the ability to do nothing well, which is by no means as easy as it sounds.
  • A mass of ideas, however good they are, is not sufficient to create a successful picture.
  • The more successful the villain, the more successful the picture.
  • One of the cardinal sins for a script-writer, when he runs into some difficulty, is to say, "We can cover that by a line of dialogue." Dialogue should simply be a sound among other sounds, just something that comes out of the mouths of people whose eyes tell the story in visual form.
  • Sex on the screen should be suspenseful, I feel. If sex is too blatant or too obvious, there's no suspense.
  • You know why I favour sophisticated blondes in my films? We're after the drawing room type, the real ladies, who become whores once they're in the bedroom.
  • Without the element of surprise the scenes become meaningless. There's no possibility to discover sex.
  • When you're involved in a project and you see it isn't going to work out, the wisest thing is to simply throw the whole thing away.
When asked about his habit of making personal appearances in his movies:
  • It was strictly utilitarian; we had to fill the screen. Later on it became a superstition and a gag. But by now it's a rather troublesome gag, and I'm very careful to show up in the first five minutes so as to let the people look at the rest of the movie with no further distraction.

Hitchcock is a big book (367 pages). It consists of the recorded dialogue between Alfred Hitchcock and François Truffaut, as they discussed every film Hitchcock made, from The Lodger (1926) to Frenzy (1972). After their meetings ended, Hitchcock made one last picture, Family Plot (1976). The book is of most value to directors, though screenwriters will find some elements of interest.

First posted:25 March 2013

Friday 23 June 2017

Seven tips for surviving the film industry

This month MovieMaker magazine has an article called Hitchhike a Thousand Miles: Oscar nominee John Hawkes gives seven tips for surviving the film industry.

John Hawkes is an actor who has appeared in well over a hundred movies and TV shows. I don't know how it came about, but he shared the following thoughts about longevity in the film business. What caught my eye was his admonition about "hitchhiking thousands of miles."

As someone who hitchhiked tens of thousands of miles as a skinny long-haired teenager, I instantly understood. Hitchhiking saved me. It showed me there were people, and lives, unlike those of the Housing Commission estate where I grew up. Thoughtful people. Considerate people. Generous people. When you sit with someone, in their car, for hundreds of miles, there is an expectation of conversation. I knew nothing and had nothing to say. So I asked questions. The first interviews I conducted were with mobile strangers and those strangers introduced me to worlds I'd never heard of before.

I don't want to distort the picture: I met some weirdos, too. Paranoids, drunks, and friendly men who wanted to show me a good time, wanted to take me home to bed. There were some women, too, with that same idea.

Like John Hawkes, I no longer recommend it, the times being what they are, but I'm glad hitchhiking was a part of my life.

Now see what else he had to say.

I’m an untrained actor with no formal education in moviemaking. I learned my trade by observing the work of others, reading books about acting and film, and through trial and error on sets and stages.

Here’s what I’ve learned.

1. Trust your gut. Don’t guess what the audience wants. Tell the story you want to tell, the way you want to tell it.

2. All arts connect and inform each other. See theater, dance, music, and visual art; read great books. Be thrilled and inspired beyond your niche.

3. Loaf occasionally.

4. Make a vital life outside of the business. Travel, struggle, get a hobby, study, volunteer—gain perspective. This may indirectly benefit your work, as well. Hitchhiking thousands of miles, though I no longer recommend it, greatly enriched my understanding of people and story.

5. This business will knock you down. When it does, try to get up, dust yourself off, and take another step forward. And try to rejoice in the idea that you’ve found work that you love to do. Most don’t.

6. Be kind. Be brave. Be prepared. Work hard. Have a great sense of humor.

7. William Goldman famously said of the film industry that: “Nobody knows anything.” This may be true. I don’t know for sure.

First posted: 24 March 2013

Sunday 11 June 2017

Selling a spec script: 1933-2013

Vanity Fair has released the best write-up about the history of movie spec script sales I've ever seen. Written by Margaret Heidenry, the article is titled When the Spec Script was King.
Once derided as “schmucks with Underwoods,” screenwriters saw their stock soar to seven-figure heights with the advent of the frenzied “spec”-script market. That bubble burst in 2008, but will the schmucks rise again?
Most of the information contained in the article is available elsewhere—in interviews or biographies, such as Joe Eszterhas's book Hollywood Animal—but this article can serve as a primer for an era.

I've met so many wannabe screenwriters with dreams of a-million-dollar-sale-just-around-the-corner, people who will never make it, that it's heart-breaking. If you're interested in pursuing a career writing spec scripts, or even hope to sell one, just one, before you die, do yourself a favor and read this article.

First posted: 12 March 2013

Saturday 10 June 2017

Book review: 'Writing the Romantic Comedy'

The book, Writing the Romantic Comedy, by Billy Mernit, has been around since 2000. I started reading it several times in the last eighteen months, but always got stuck on page 5, where he talks about structure. He throws up three-act theory, then justifies it with the following words:
"Funny thing about threes. Maybe it's hardwired into our DNA, but three seems to be the magic number (as in morning, noon and night, the Holy Trinity, etc.)"
That's absurd and it stopped me cold every time. What about four: the four seasons, the four points of the compass, the four Gospels, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse? Or five: the five fingers, five toes, five basic tastes? Or seven: the seven days of the week, seven hills of Rome, seven Wonders of the ancient world? These are no more arbitrary or irrelevant than his two choices.

The sound you could hear about that time was me grinding my teeth, followed by a 'thump' as the book hit the shelves.

What eventually got me past page 5, and my growing prejudice, was a single visit to Billy's blog, Living the Romantic Comedy. There I found a sincere interest in the subject of romcoms and confessions of his real-life struggle with the elements that make up one of humanity's greatest preoccupations. So I returned to his book. The thing that really won me over was his analysis of Annie Hall, but that's another subject. He talks about Theme a lot and that's all good reading.

Here are a few quotes to give you a taste of the book itself.

Romantic comedy protagonists tend to be emotionally incomplete.

Every genre has its subtext. Thrillers are about creating cathartic confrontations with our fears; action adventures are usually enactments of mythic heroism. In romantic comedies, the real subject matter is the power of love.

In a romantic comedy, crisis provokes the protagonist into comprehending the value of love.

What a protagonist learns by falling in love determines the outcome of a romantic comedy.

One could restate the paradigm for a three-act structure in a romantic comedy as follows:
   Conflict:  Love challenges the characters.
   Crisis:  The characters must accept or deny love.
   Resolution:  Love transforms the characters.

There's a common misconception that characters need to be sympathetic. Not necessarily. Godfather Don Corleone is a monster. We don't sympathize with his methods and his murderous morality. But we're fascinated by his power and passion, and we identify with his devotion to his family.

A character who's getting in his own way is a character who has more than one side to him. He's got an inner conflict that's fueling his outer conflicts. He's got, in a word, complexity.

There's one no-no, a cultural bias so powerful that it remains unbroken in our genre: he can't be in it only for the sex.

The only written-in-stone rule that applies to female protagonists: she can't be in it only for the money.

Typical of romantic comedy heroines from the earliest days of the genre: they were women who dominated, or at least held their own with, men whom they pursued.

What's universal comes out of what's most personal.

A screenwriter's resistance to getting into "personal stuff" is absurd. It's got to be personal, if anyone's going to care about your story, and theme is the arena where your personal experience, attitudes, and insights come into play.

The theme issue in screenwriting is probably the trickiest one of all. ... What's it about? ... Theme, premise, point—whatever you call it. ... Something to learn. A point of view. A meaning.

Your characters are embodiments of thematic concerns; they're the ones arguing the sides of your possible truth.

A good theme is a flexible, ever growing entity and, unlike fortune cookie slogans, is so much an organic part of the whole that it can't be patly extracted.

The romantic comedy generally breaks the traditional three-act structure into seven essential beats: the setup (a chemical equation), the catalyst (cute meet), the first turning point (a sexy complication), the midpoint (hook), the second turning point (the swivel), the climax (dark moment), and resolution (joyful defeat).

The hidden challenge of every romantic comedy lies in getting its audience to believe that these two people absolutely must end up together.

Romance writers can't shy away from the big emotions their characters inevitably experience. One of the reasons people come to these movies is to share those feelings.

Writing the Romantic Comedy. It's a good book. Recommended.

First posted: 25 February 2013

Friday 9 June 2017

Script Development Strategies - Linda Aronson

Years ago, Linda Aronson taught a course at the Australian Film Television and Radio School (AFTRS). One component of the course was a list of Development Strategies that Linda created to assist students find the best version of their stories. The Development Strategies were incorporated in Linda's book, Screenwriting Updated, and subsequently reproduced widely. In 2010, Linda published an expanded version of the book, called The 21st Century Screenplay. The following is a list gleaned from that book.
    Next time you're about to start formulating a new story, try reading through this list and apply the strategies. Think of it as twenty-five steps to a complete story. I consider the Strategies to be distilled practical commonsense, from a professional writer who has decades of writing-to-a-deadline under her belt. You need a method in order to consistently pump out quality work. I suspect most professional writers do this intuitively. Linda Aronson started with an academic background and couldn't help analyzing her own approach, for the benefit of others.
    If you find this information helpful, buy the book. It is an "atlas" (as Christopher Vogler describes it) of information about screenwriting.

1. Define the task at hand.

2. Brainstorm the best 'real but unusual' remedy.

3. Solve the genre equation.

4. Find non-narrative triggers.

5. Create a simple narrative sentence.

6. Create an advanced narrative sentence.

7. Make sure the disturbance happens soon and involves real change.

8. Distinguish the idea from a story.

9. Differentiate the action line and the relationship line.

10. Create a relationship road.

11. Peg the relationship line to the action.

12. Identify the protagonist.

13. Identify the antagonist.

14. Find out what the plot tells you about characters.

15. Get into character.

16. Create a character arc.

17. Insert a misleading plan.

18. Find the first-act turning point scene (surprise/obstacle).

19. Devise second-act complications via the first-act turning point.

20. Second-act turning point, Part 1: Protagonist's worst possible moment.

21. Second-act turning point, Part 2: Decision to fight back.

22. Check that the relationship line is moving.

23. Find the climax and first-act turning point.

24. Come to a resolution and ending.

25. Use symbolism and myth.

First posted: 24 February 2013

Thursday 8 June 2017

The making of the shower scene from 'Psycho'

I've been reading Hitchcock, by François Truffaut, which records the substance of a series of interviews between the French director and his English hero. It's an interesting book and loaded with quotable passages. One that seems topical relates to the shower scene in the 1960 movie Psycho.

Here are some quotes from Alfred Hitchcock, relating to Psycho in general and the shower scene in particular:

It's tremendously satisfying for us to be able to use the cinematic art to achieve something of a mass emotion. It wasn't a message that stirred the audiences, nor was it a great performance or their enjoyment of the novel. They were aroused by pure film.

That's why I take pride in the fact that Psycho, more than any of my other pictures, is a film that belongs to filmmakers.

The construction of the story and the way in which it was told caused audiences all around the world to react and become emotional.

The picture cost eight hundred thousand dollars. It was an experiment in this sense: Could I make a feature film under the same conditions as a television show? I used a complete television unit to shoot it very quickly. The only place where I digressed was when I slowed down the murder scene, the cleaning-up scene, and the other scenes that indicated anything that required time. All of the rest was handled in the same way that they do it in [1950s] television.

You have to design your film just as Shakespeare did his plays—for an audience.

It took us seven days to shoot the [stabbing of Janet Leigh] scene, and there were seventy camera setups for forty-five seconds of footage. I used a naked model who stood in for Janet Leigh. We only showed Miss Leigh's hands, shoulders, and head. All the rest was the stand-in.

And if, like me, you were curious as to who it was who actually does the stabbing in that scene, Truffaut had this to say:

Hitchcock informed me that the attacker was a young woman wearing a wig. He added that the scene was shot twice because, although the only lighting was placed behind the woman, the reverberation of the white bathroom walls was so strong that it revealed her face too clearly. That is why her face was blackened in the second take, so as to create the impression of a dark and unidentifiable silhouette on the screen.
The complete scene runs for just over three minutes. Here it is:

First posted:16 February 2013

Wednesday 7 June 2017

Formulas for hit films

Roger Ebert called Pulp Fiction “the most influential” movie of the 1990s, “so well-written in a scruffy, fanzine way that you want to rub noses in it—the noses of those zombie writers who take ‘screenwriting’ classes that teach them the formulas for ‘hit films.’ ”


Taken from: 

Vanity Fair, Cinema Tarantino: The Making of Pulp Fiction.

This is a long article, but worth the time if you're interested in the history of Quentin Tarantino or the making of Pulp Fiction. It has lots of odd little cinematic and screenwriting tidbits. 

First posted: 15 February 2013

Tuesday 6 June 2017

The old switcheroo

Last year I read a book called The Studio, by John Gregory Dunne, a favourite novelist of mine, but also a screenwriter with over thirty years experience of Hollywood. In 1967, Richard Zanuck gave Dunne "free access" to Twentieth Century Fox for a year, while he researched his book. The result is a wonderfully written description of how the biggest movie studio in town was run. I would recommend the book to anyone interested in Hollywood history

One result of reading that book was that I bought a copy of The Devil's Candy, on Dunne's recommendation. This was written by Julie Salamon in 1991 and is the result of Brian De Palma agreeing to allow Salamon unlimited access to the film production of Tom Wolfe's book, The Bonfire of the Vanities. (I recommend both those books, as well.)

Tom Hanks reigns over the Trading floor in Bonfire of the Vanities.
The Devil's Candy exceeds William Goldman's Adventures in the Screen Trade in making the point that, in Hollywood, Nobody Knows Anything. The studio decided that Bonfire, a book about a bunch of unlikeable characters, could be rescued by casting Mr. Likeable himself, Tom Hanks, as the protagonist. Hanks had just become a star, courtesy of Big (1988). De Palma was appointed director, on the back of his success with The Untouchables (1987). Melanie Griffith had just had a big success with Working Girl (1988), so she got to play the mistress role. Bruce Willis had just become a movie star, courtesy of Die Hard (1988), so he was cast in the pivotal role of the alcoholic English journalist. Morgan Freeman had just been nominated for an Academy Award for Driving Miss Daisy (1989), so he was cast in the role of the white Jewish judge. Kim Cattrall won the role of the wife because she looked the part.

With a cast like that, what could possibly go wrong? Well, pretty much everything. The film cost almost $50million, but was a critical and commercial flop, taking about $15million at the box office.

Richard Gere talks business on his private jet in Arbitrage.

So what, I hear you ask. Well, last night I watched Arbitrage (2012), in which Richard Gere plays a rich Wall Street dude, with a wife and a mistress, who needs a particular deal, worth hundreds of millions, to go through in order to save his financial bacon. While sweating on the deal, he is involved in a car accident with his mistress. She dies and Gere tries to cover his tracks, but falls under the suspicion of a persistent cop.

And I thought to myself, here it is, the old switcheroo! Bonfire of the Vanities as a thriller, rather than a comedy. In Bonfire, Tom Hanks plays a rich Wall Street dude, with a wife and a mistress, who needs a particular deal, worth hundreds of millions, to go through in order to save his financial bacon. While sweating on the deal, he is involved in a car accident with his mistress. A local citizen is injured and Hanks tries to cover his tracks, but falls under the suspicion of a persistent cop.

The old switcheroo, as a device for creating story ideas, has been around a long time. Take a story you understand and feel comfortable with, and rearrange the elements in some way, then write your own version. Turn a comedy into a thriller. Move the country story into the city. Or the other way round. Make the white hero black, or turn the male protagonist into a woman. There are endless examples.

Mickey Rourke and Don Johnson in Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man.
The first time I noticed the technique was with Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man (1991). Two close friends, who ride motorcycles (rather than horses), sense that their time has just about passed. They rob an armoured car in order to save a friend's business, find themselves pursued by an implacable superposse, jump off a twenty story building into a swimming pool (rather than off a cliff into a river), and finish up in a shootout which has a happy ending, in contrast to the original: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969).

Robert Redford and Paul Newman in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

One film which makes no effort to hide its origins is Throw Momma From the Train (1987). Not only is it modeled on Strangers on a Train (1951), with the story reversed from a thriller to a comedy, but it references the film and includes footage of it.

Farley Granger and Robert Walker meet over a book in Strangers on a Train.
Danny De Vito and Billy Crystal both write books in Throw Momma from the Train.
There are endless examples of the old switcheroo, from TV as well as the movies.

If the opposition has The Beverly Hillbillies (1962-1971), a successful TV show about dumb country folk moving in amongst the rich people in Los Angeles, you could always do a switcheroo and write a show where rich people move from Manhattan to live amongst the dumb country people. You could call it Green Acres (1965-1971).

The old switcheroo, you can use it, too. 

Oh, and don't be afraid to borrow from American Gothic, the most famous American painting of the twentieth century, as the source for your cover graphic.

First posted: 13 February 2013