Screenwriting: Writing Improvised Scripts

I’m currently in the middle of a screenplay for a feature project to direct this summer. It’s a project that I designed to fill in some empty space in my schedule, as my fall is pretty booked up, and a project I was supposed to direct this summer has been delayed. Such is film, there are no predictable schedules and for a project to come to full realization, a million parts must be synchronized at once.

The piece I’m writing is a pure performance piece - six women in one room - and I’ve never written such a complex script before. As is my style, I tend to write everything out. Both the Lilith and One Trick Rip-Off screenplays are filled with details and instructions, they are more like blueprints for a film to be constructed from. When people read those screenplays, they often are able to vividly see the film before them. It’s a way of writing that works for some, not for others. It works for me, as the analytical part of me reassures my creative free spirit. I know that when I get off the path less traveled, I always have a core plan I can go back to and rely upon.

But this script is an entirely different animal. It’s one room, so it’s not like I have to fill the screenplay with descriptions of setting and mood. One and done on the environment, which changes only slightly over the course of the story. This is purely a performance piece, where the six women talk and debate. Ethics. Morality. Mortality. It all comes into play.

I’ve never written a screenplay - let alone a single scene - where six characters interact with one another. Maximum I’ve done is four in one scene, and luckily that was just a scene, it didn’t have to carry out for 90 minutes. After plotting the script out and writing a full treatment, I stared at the blank page, not really knowing where to begin.

Do I just write it all out, just as I would any other screenplay? I started doing this and it didn’t feel right. It felt clinical and lacked spontaneity. Everything was planned, the dialogue was coming off as far too clever and snappy. I was writing in actions for the negative space - the space between the words - and it was reading just as filler. My tried and tested method of screenwriting was not working.

Not that it was bad writing, in fact it was quite good. Very good quality, some of the best I’d written in a long time. The debates between the women were reading more as a transcript of a debate that’s already happened. I imagined that if I was an actress I’d be excited to play the part, but it would be a matter of saying those specific lines in a specific way. I want something that grabs the actress and fills them with immediacy. So I decided to scrap what I’d written and start over.

I started with the characters. I created detailed profiles of each character, not getting into their backstory but rather the salient points that would affect their arguments. After finishing the profiles, I mapped out the five main arguments that transpire over the course of the story. I then created a graph, with the characters names on the horizontal access, and the argument topics on the vertical access. And then came the hard part - at each cross-point, I wrote how each character would respond to each argument. The graph visually presented each argument in proximity of one another, and in this presentation, I saw how each act would initially unfold.

I’d achieved an organic construct, and now I had to get back to writing a script. The dialogue was beckoning, but I decided to take a massive departure and I planned to let my actresses improvise the dialogue.

Improvisation doesn’t mean you don’t have a script, in fact it’s still a very detailed screenplay that must result. But the script is painted in broad strokes with the important details not omitted, but rather concealed. The true power in improvisation is not telling your actors what to say, but rather describing what they should not say. It’s what they’re holding back that will deliver the true meat of the lines.

Everyone’s got secrets, and the core of any drama is the lengths people will go to cover up the truth. In a romance it is the suppression of true feelings, in horror it is one’s mortality, in comedy it is the avoidance of awkwardness, which makes things all the more awkward. In my screenplay I’m focusing on the inner fears and prejudices that drive each woman to a conclusion, so what’s important is that the actors know what it is that they’re hiding. Once they know that, the improvisation to cover up those truths, when in concert with character preparation and immersion, should promise some very interesting results.

I’m about a quarter of the way through, and the screenplay is reading essentially like a prose document, except with some key start and stop points. I’m defining the beginning of an argument, and the idea of the counter argument. The idea is the gift to the opposing actors. There may be a few key lines of dialogue that are to be given not as gospel, but rather as a suggestion, a seedling to a line that will come out organically and in the moment. By the time I’m finished, the screenplay will be about fifty pages.

I’ve never done something like this before, and I have to admit, it’s a little scary. But I also know that an improvised screenplay has more than one author, and in this instance I will have six more once I complete my casting. Casting becomes paramount because not only am I bringing in six performers with great acting capacity, but also six co-writers who must have the intellect and creativity to finish what I started. They will have to come from a place of total immersion, which is undoubtedly a lot of pressure but also a tremendous adventure for an artist. It’s like being sent on a mission - you’ve been given your orders, you have your tools, and now you must execute. My job as a writer and director is to ensure that my actors are safe and comfortable, that they can count on me for direction when they get trapped or lost. We depend upon one another, and trust is key.

This is exciting, a new territory for me. It’s part of my continual growth as a filmmaker, to keep pushing myself and my collaborators into new things. We swing to different ends of the pendulum and arrive in the center with new skills, perspectives and tools. Ultimately I want to achieve the natural ease of improvisation with the composed, artistic formality of my earlier work. I’ve always been a visual and sonic artist, and to get to the very core of performance, to make acting harmonize with the visuals and sound, is to reach the apex of my goal as a filmmaker. Doing this improvised screenplay is an important step in that direction.

Screenwriting: The Romantic Comedy, Part 3. What is Love?

Baby don’t hurt me, don’t hurt me, no more.

Of course thanks to Haddaway we laugh every time we ask the question, but it truly is an important question, and without delving into it, our efforts to write a romantic comedy script will be futile. In this third installment of the mini-series (part 2 here, and part 1 here), we’ll look at the motivating factors that can drive a romantic comedy.

Here’s a quick test: type the word ‘love’ into the Tumblr search engine and see what comes up. Chances are you’ll get a smattering of gyrating K-Pop idols, sentiments written in old-timey cursive on paper, and lots and lots of people fucking. Is this what love is now?

Having binged on over thirty romcoms these past few weeks, I think we’ve got a very strange conception of what love actually is. There’s a very blurry line in movies and television between wanting to love someone versus wanting to fuck them, and that’s kind of problematic. The endgame of love, in popular media, is getting to fuck someone, and we know that’s just a harlequin romance fantasy. It’s so much more complex than that.

The act of sex is not love, it is an expression of it. It is one of many expressions that can also include things like getting a card, doing the dishes, hanging up your towel, donating to an animal shelter, or simply listening. In mainstream cinema we tend to default to equating sex as love because a) watching people fuck is good for business and marketing, and b) it feeds into our primal instincts and is therefore the fastest route to universality.

This is also love.

But we all know there’s so much more to it, and that the very best romance / romantic comedies know this. I recently watched the Palme D’Or winning film Blue is the Warmest Color and it is one of the freshest, most startling romances I’ve seen in a long time, probably the best since Once. It has very explicit sex scenes but they are just one component of the complexity of the core romance. There is a great dose of pain in the film, the pain of separation, of not getting it right, of possibly losing this person who makes you feel alive, who makes you feel safe, who you can truly be yourself around. I finished watching the film and said “this is a portrait of true, if not tragic, love.”Love is painful.

For a romantic comedy to be truly epic, it must accept this pain, and the source of its humor will arise from that pain. The greatest jokes come from the uncomfortable truths of the human condition, that we’re programmed to do the impressive mating dance and yet we falter, we have flaws, and we hope and pray that the person we’re interested in can see through all of that.

The mating dance - that most awkward of rituals - is the source of the greatest humor. I see it on the street all the time. A male pigeon puffs his chest and prances around a disinterested female, hoping she’ll be impressed. She’s trying to mind her own, and this clown is flexing and preening, making pretty much an ass out of himself. I imagine a bunch of other birds looking at him and feeling sorry for him, and others angling to cash in on his failure. So now my bird friend has two options: amp up his game and make the adjustments to get the girl, or back down and let the other birds swoop in.

Photo by notablackpopstar.

This is the first act of any romantic comedy. We establish the normal world of the hero(ine), their normal way of life, which may include plenty of failure, or loveless sex, or escape from the pursuit of romantic happiness. The end of the first act arrives with the call to action - the object of affection - and the failure of the normal way of doing things. Our hero(ine) is now locked in - if they want the love, then they’re going to have to make some changes to make it happen. End act one.

The second act is where most romcoms fail, in that the core of comedy is found in the failed attempts to get things right with the object of affection. Today’s romcoms revel in humiliation and mean spirited predatory humor on insecurities. Instead, the second act is the very best place for observational humor, humor that brings up absurdity as opposed to humiliation.

In the second act, the hero(ine) works through their playbook, and fails at them all. The realization then arrives that the normal playbook, be it an ace or pathetic one, will not work in this situation. The midpoint comes when the hero(ine) is shown the error of their ways, and it is implied that they will have to make a great change for things to work out. They concoct a new plan, and the end of the second act is when this new plan, fueled by some kind of courage, doesn’t seem to be working. The second act ends with the character on the precipice of absolute failure - not only do they stand to lose the object of affection, but they stand to be in even worse shape than when the movie started.

We’re still playing it safe here, but the third act is where we really have to dig in and understand what being in love is about. In the third act, now having faced almost certain desolation, the hero(ine) must partake in the final, epic battle for their love. This is the Campbellian “slaying of the dragon,” be it a rival suitor, a crippling insecurity (Hugh Grant was / is the king of this in romcoms), or a fear of humiliation. The hero(ine) steps beyond the limitations of their body and becomes an elemental force of love, laying it all out on the line. Exposed heart, willing to lose the world for their love.

We think this is where it all ends, but there is always one last battle, the villain that isn’t really dead, and comes back for one final swipe. This is the moment of true love. It is that moment when our hero(ine) has their worst fear realized, they overcome it, and a new normal is achieved. That new normal is up to you. It may be tragic, in the idea that is always better to have loved and lost than to not have loved at all, or it may be victorious, where the new normal is a coexistence with a new partner in crime.

As aforementioned, this is where we have to dig deep and figure out what is love. For us. It’s different for everyone. But there is one universal factor for true love, and this has been proven over and over again throughout the annals of recorded human history, and that is that true love is rooted in compassion. If passion in Latin means to suffer, then compassion means to suffer with. We suffer for the things we care about, and that’s all what the third act is about. It’s taking the proverbial (and sometimes literal) bullet. True love will not come to you, you will have to make a sacrifice for it, and it is the degree of what you’re willing to give up which defines the epic scale of your love. Sometimes the greatest act of love is simply letting go, and that is the core of the tragic romance. You let go with the hope that they will return, that destiny has it written that you be together. The choice, as it is presented in so many romantic comedies, is not between Hot Guy A and Hot Guy B, it is between you and your conscience. What will being with either guy entail you sacrificing? The greater the sacrifice, the deeper the love. It’s as simple as that.

In my research of romcoms I realized that the great romantic comedies are always romances that happen to be funny. It doesn’t work the other way around. Humor in a romantic comedy is born from brute honesty, observations of human behavior when we are at our most vulnerable, and the missteps that the ego makes us take because we’re too afraid of exposing ourselves as crumbling, awkward people. The desire to appear strong - like the puffed up pigeon - is what is required to have sex for procreation, but the need to be vulnerable - which is born through suffering - is what is required for romantic love. The comedy is in the facade of strength, and the romance is in strength of conviction.

I’m not sure if I’ve cracked the romantic comedy but I think this was a pretty good start. It’s definitely completely out of my comfort zone. But I know what I like, and I don’t really like what I see today. In modern romcoms I’m being sold the idea that romantic love is the only answer to loneliness. This is wrong. The only thing that romantic love addresses is the desire to be wooed, to be pursued. True love is seeing beyond that. True love is not finding the person who is right for you, it is that moment when you are truly at peace with yourself.

Let’s write a romantic comedy about that.

Screenwriting: The Romantic Comedy, Part 2. Teach Me How to Duckie.

Of course if I knew how to write a smash-bang romantic comedy then I’d probably have done it by now. Truth is that I know what I know about screenwriting and making really interesting stories, and based on part one of this series, I’m not happy with how romantic comedies are being written. With the feedback I’ve received so far, it appears that many of you share my feelings.

What I do know is that there is a tried-and-true formula for writing romantic comedies, and the most successful films do high-concept spins off that formula, and the most banal ones follow it to the letter. We see it everywhere, especially in things like haute comfort food. It’s not just a grilled cheese, it’s got cornichons and hand-smoked bacon and fois gras butter. Tastes great, costs a small fortune, but in the end it’s still a fucking grilled cheese sandwich.

I’m tired of that. I want something different. I want us to discover new ways of having people find their true loves, of having them, and struggling to keep them. There’s the bible of romantic comedies - Writing the Romantic Comedy by Billy Mernit - which is uniformly excellent and worth reading, regardless if you want to write an romantic comedy or not. The book breaks the genre down into a single, seven-step formula and goes to great lengths to show that pretty much every romantic comedy followed said formula. Mernit’s formula is as follows:

1) The Chemical Equation, i.e. the players in the game and what’s missing in his / her life.

2) The Meet Cute, i.e. the crossroads where the two lives intersect for the first time.

3) The Sexy Complication, i.e. the central conflict that keeps the characters from fulfilling the gaps laid out in Step One. This can be both internal and external factors.

4) The Hook, i.e. the big event that throws these two together and it becomes the point of no return.

5) The Swivel, i.e. a reveal that puts one or both characters’ goals in jeopardy.

6) The Dark Moment, i.e. the consequence of the big reveal, which exposes an inner truth / realization of what actually is missing or what they’re doing right or wrong.

7) The Joyful Defeat, i.e. the acknowledgement that the other half is the key, and the willing sacrifice of something to make it all happen.

Mernit goes into great detail of each but this is a bastardized version in a nutshell, and I can’t really argue with it. Where we often see failures in the genre is when our expectations are never really challenged, and on top of that the formula is laden with really dull, mean characters. So let’s rock the boat and fuck with both tenets.

I’ve gone into great lengths some time ago about writing interesting characters, and it’s worth your while to go back and revisit those posts:

Creating Memorable Characters.

Character Relationships

Once we have those interesting characters, insert them into Mernit’s formula and see what happens. You should have an interesting story at it’s most basic, fundamental level, but what happens when you start to rearrange and reinterpret the stages. What happens if the ‘meet cute’ happens at the very end of the movie? What if it never happens at all? The latter would be a very bold step, i.e. a romantic comedy where the leads never once meet. At least physically. Think of a movie like Spike Jonez’ Her, where technically the lovers never meet. They interact but there’s no physical connection (despite a painfully awkward attempt which is one of the truly great scenes I’ve witnessed). What if the final sacrifice involves saying goodbye forever, a la Roman Holiday? It’s been done before but what makes it so memorable is the lead-up to that moment. A couple that is so perfect for each other and yet the forces of the universe keep it from happening. The ultimate sacrifice is their love itself, which is a very powerful thing. it plays into the notion that there is no such thing as an everlasting love, because the truth is that death will tear us apart at some point. But there is an elemental love, one that exists in ether, one that death cannot touch. It’s a love that is incredibly difficult to fit into the romcom formula, but I feel if we can do that, we will redefine the genre and bring it back to its glory.

Play with the formula by first writing your story to the formula. Then go back and write the exact opposite of the formula’s demands, one section at a time, and see what happens. Defy expectation, take the path less traveled. Most of the time it won’t make sense but if your characters are true, interesting and compelling, they will take you to very interesting places. Trust your characters, and observe how they would react. One of the most important things to remember is something I call the Mamet Rule, which is David Mamet’s central questions regarding characters:

What does the character want? What happens when they don’t get it?

Deny your characters at all phases. See what happens. Give them a little back. See what happens. Take it away. See what happens. The most unconventional of reactions is where the root of your comedy and drama lays.

I keep thinking of the character Duckie from John Hughes’ screenplay for Pretty in Pink. He is memorable to me because he is constantly denied what he wants. He reacts with both spoken and physical comedy, and his journey is quite tragic. He journey strikes a chord in my heart, as the plight of the fool, which universally is something every romantic has in his / her heart. Putting your love out there is an act of borderline humiliation, but we do it anyway because love is irrational. Duckie is a real character and we get to see what happens when he is denied what he wants. It defies the formula because theoretically it is the story of Andie Walsh and Blane McDonough, but in my view it is Duckie’s story, which kind of blows my mind.

We cannot break rules unless we know the rules in the first place. More importantly we have to accept that while there is the notion of classic, romantic love (which is what the formula gives us), modern love has evolved into something very different. Just think - had there been cell phones and email, most of the problems of romantic comedies would be solved. There’s no need to run to the airport. Feelings can be conveyed in an instant. Flash mobs can be posted on YouTube. Courtship has changed, and no matter our desire for things to be the way they were, the reality is that while romance is still about getting lost in love, we have a GPS in our phones to get out of it. Let’s work with the modern notion of love and courtship and craft authentic stories, with authentic characters, that let us connect to our condition. I think a film like Her accomplishes this with tremendous success, as the desire in a technology-ridden world is the desire for actual, physical contact. That desire is tempered by the protective shield that technology gives us, it feeds into our survival instincts of not wanting to get hurt. Play with these notions, put your characters in them and see how they react. You’ll be telling the tale of modern love.

The Big Gloom

Have A Nice Life


Played 149 times

Music for the Weekend: The Big Gloom by Have a Nice Life.

Indeed the big gloom has set in, I can say with absolute honesty that I’ve had it with winter. I find myself sitting at the edge of my bed in the mornings staring into cold air, faced with the inevitability of shoveling dingy, wet snow. It’s depressing.

The power of the sun is undeniable, it recharges our batteries and our spirits. I’m running on reserves without it, and my batteries are near empty. This has not affected my writing, as I feel that January has been one of the best months of my career in terms of quality of writing, and it’s only getting better as my ideas start to coalesce into words and structure. It’s like watching a cathedral being built.

There is beauty in darkness, comfort in the cold. This song reminds me that. Eminently sad but so achingly gorgeous, one of the most beautiful songs I’ve heard in a long time. Echoes of MBV and Jesu. Stunning, it provides me illumination, it makes the frigid snow glow and dance just a little.

Image by livalskare.

Have a great weekend.

Screenwriting: The Romantic Comedy, Part 1. What Happened?

I came across an article a few weeks ago that discussed which genre had the most original screenplays. In an industry rife with remakes and sequels, I assumed it was the world of low-budget horror where the most original works were to be found. I was wrong. It was romantic comedies that held that title.

I have a hard time accepting this because for the most part, there really hasn’t been a more derivative or lifeless genre in the movie industry for the past twenty-odd years. Sure there have been one-off successes (Bridesmaids comes to mind, but it’s a stretch to call it ‘romantic’) but for the most part as a genre it’s been pretty flat out awful.

But here’s the thing - it’s an insanely profitable genre. Ever since the industry came up with the idea of counter-programming, i.e. giving the sophisticated ladies something to watch while their knucklehead boyfriends watch the latest installment of Transformers, there’s been a need for romantic comedies to be churned out. And since there’s a ton of knucklehead movies, there’s gonna be a ton of romcoms.

With pretty much every Nicholas Sparks novel being exhausted and every holiday ruinously exploited (Valentines Day, New Years Day - both AWFUL), desperate Hollywood and Indies alike have decided to hit below the belt and go after that most uncomfortable of targets - women’s self-esteem.

Hey ladies! Can’t find a man? Unmarried by the age of 33? Can’t conceive? Feeling fat and ugly? Overworked with kids? Don’t know how she does it? Unrecognized at work with a nagging misogynistic boss who for whatever reason you feel the desire to fuck? Let’s have 99-lb Kate Beckinsale with mussed-up hair and no makeup play you and show a remarkable transformation via expensive clothing, soft lighting, five layers of Spanx and “empowerment” in the form of a swift knee to the boss’ crotch.

In the past week I’ve sat down with Netflix and negotiated the treacherous psychological minefield of the Romantic Comedy queue. Movie after movie was women denigrating themselves, calling themselves stupid, fat, ugly, hopeless, not worthy and undesirable. Almost universally it took a handsome bohemian man to let these ladies know that they are in fact the opposite of what they believe, this despite a quasi-fugly female / gay bestie comic relief who eventually comes around the end and tells our newly made over (and owner of her newly opened flower shop!) heroine to “go get him.” Ensue comidic running / driving / general humiliation that culminates in a choice - should be with the male model asshole or the male model bad-boy-with-a-heart-of-gold-who-keeps-it-real, because, you know, there’s only two guys in the universe. Guess who she ends up with.

One after another. Low-budget indie to multimillion dollar star vehicles, it was this same derivative crap. And they’re not funny, they’re mean spirited, with humor coming in the form of humiliation and insults. I’ve seen the true face of nihilism and it’s not No Country for Old Men, it’s the collective works of Katherine Heigl, Jennifer Aniston and Gerard Butler. Paint the face of human tragedy with a pregnancy test and a fake eHarmony profile. It’s dreadful.

Where did it all go wrong? Poor Nora Ephron and John Hughes are spinning in their respective graves. There is a very rich and beautiful history of romantic comedies, from classics like Roman Holiday to the penultimate When Harry Met Sally. Movies that made us laugh, made us think, made us cry. Romcoms today are like the cold steel of grandpa’s shotgun put between our teeth. They exist to point out our shortcomings and propose “solutions” that are based on superficiality and psychological placebos.

I want to see great romantic comedies again, and I know so many men and women want them too. They’re the stories of our lives, our pursuits of love and happiness, and sometimes they don’t always work out (cue Audrey Hepburn with that look, the one that melts my heart every time).

The commonality to all these great romcoms is a dose of sadness, with either love unrequited or the pains of separation, be it permanent or temporary. Perhaps this is the missing element to today’s romcoms, which tend to focus on a woman somehow gaining all that she perceives that she lacks (a good man, a solid career, the ability to balance life and love), whereas romcoms of the past (and by past I mean the 80s and previous), it is not about the practicality of love, rather it is a portrait of how messy and impractical love can be.

It’s important to always remember that a key element to comedy is tragedy. It’s a basic tenet displayed in the universal symbol of the theater with the masks of Melpomene (Tragedy Mask) and Thalia (Comedy Mask). The two are inextricably linked, as Nietzsche famously stated “beneath the conformist, there lives the satyr.” Dante called The Inferno a part of “The Divine Comedy,” implying a sentiment best coined by Jules Renard which is that if we “look for the ridiculous in everything, eventually we shall find it.”

The notion of romantic love in and of itself is absurd, that we’re at times willing to risk life and limb for nothing but a mere “feeling.” It is that absurdity, that impracticality, which makes it so inspiring. It speaks to our crazy, irrational selves, the reckless abandon that invokes the freedom of youth, the liberation that comes with naivety. Love is about not always doing the right thing, it is sloppy, it rarely makes sense. The greatest romantic comedies understood this.

Reality Bites, one of my faves.

The modern romantic comedy is desperately trying to create order from chaos, trying to make sense of messy lives and label and compartmentalize them, trying to find practical and marketable solutions to impractical problems. They are giving us practical fantasies, whereas the best romantic comedies gave us impractical realities.

What befuddles me more is that a vast majority of these romcoms are being written by women, and yet these stories are relentlessly cruel to women, and show women being relentlessly cruel to each other while the men stand by and watch. It’s like those girlfights in high school where one girl finds out her boyfriend has been cheating on her, and instead of going after the guy she goes after the other girl. Never made sense to me. Men in romantic comedies get away with murder while it is the women who suffer. If that’s meant to be a mirror of society, then well, we’re seriously fucked.

To repair the genre, we have to acknowledge three things. The first is that romantic love presents no easy solutions, and the second is that people should not be cruel to each other, because fate and destiny provide enough cruelty to handle. The third thing to accept may sound radical but it really isn’t, and that is to accept that romantic comedies are not the sole voice of women. Romcoms are not women’s stories, they are simply stories. Pandering to the insecurities of women is violence in the written word, and it needs to stop. Misery loves company, and it makes for rotten art. Think of all those Photoshopped covers of women’s magazines that accomplish nothing but instilling insecurity in women and false expectations in men. They are lies about what is considered life, they are fabrications of the highest order.

One of these people exist.

Armed with these three revelations, in the next segment we’ll talk about how to approach writing a romcom. In the meantime I urge you to watch a few romcoms, both modern and classic, and see if these observations I’ve made ring true. I’d love to know your take on it.

Made for Rockets

New Canyons

Everyone Is Dark

Played 189 times

Music for the Weekend: Made for Rockets by New Canyons.

Been listening to this brilliant record by New Canyons and it’s dripping with romance, lots of swooning and sweeping synths, John Hughes-era heart-on-sleeve brand of longing. I really like it, and as I’m in the throes of writing, it got me thinking - what the hell happened to the romantic comedy?

Really? Is this the best we can do?

So I’ve decided that I’m going to spend the coming blog posts on figuring out a) what happened to the romantic comedy and what’s wrong with romantic comedies today, b) how we can approach writing the romantic comedy, and c) what constitutes romance in the first place. Maybe not in that order but I really want to delve into it.

Contrary to popular belief, I love a good romantic comedy. Who doesn’t want to laugh and rekindle the feelings of love and infatuation? It’s been such a long time since I’ve seen a truly great romantic comedy, and I think it’s worth spending the time to figure it out. We all serve to benefit from that.

Going to cram in a few RomComs this weekend in prep, for better or worse. 27 Dresses here I come!

Jesus Christ give me the strength…

Don’t ever say I never suffered for you. Have a great weekend!

I’ve always considered that the last version of my script is the first version of the editing, and that the first version of editing is the last version of my script.

Quentin Tarantino

Tarantino’s words highlight the importance for screenwriters to have some experience with film editing. A writer doesn’t need to be a full-blown editor or have edited a feature film, but some time at an editing bay will help. Or simply sitting in with an editor if you can. At the minimum you must read the scholarly writings of uber-editor Walter Murch, which is essential for all screenwriters.

By studying editing, writers will have a better understanding of film economy, the relationships of shots and sequences placed in serial order and jumping in time, and a grasp of cinematic pacing. These are invaluable things to know when constructing a script.

Quentin Tarantino can write verbose screenplays because he always delivers in his film edits. His films are lean, muscular and propulsive, even in their most languid moments. He’s earned the right to write the way he does, because he’s proven he can translate from written word to film with tremendous efficiency and economy. Very few of us have earned that privilege, but it is definitely a goal to work towards.

Screenwriting: The First Scene.

After months of research, outlining and character profiles, you’re finally ready to bust out that first blank piece of paper and begin writing your screenplay. FADE IN.

Screenplays, like so many novels, novellas, short stories, poems and songs can start out in any myriad of ways. Universally they should always start off strong, as this is the point when a reader / viewer / listener will decide to make their investment of time. Of course what constitutes a “strong” opening is highly subjective.

Screenplays, being that they are a visual medium first and foremost, typically benefit from a strong first image. I was taught this by my professors in school, who always told me that the two most important frames of a film are the first and the last. Both frames should encapsulate the spine and theme of the entire story you are going to tell, which seems like one hell of a difficult task. What image could you possibly write that covers the thematic elements of the entire 120 pages you are bound to write?

It takes a lot of thought, but more times than not this process happens organically if you’ve done the work, research and plotting in advance. This is where the study of symbols, semiotics, literature and art will benefit you tremendously, as metaphors will dominate the composition of the first scene.

Think of a film like Star Wars. A small space cruiser enters the frame and it is followed by a massive destroyer that is raining down laser strikes upon the cruiser’s hull. On the surface it is pretty self explanatory - a war, a battle is being waged. It is a hunt. It also is a metaphor of being outmatched, outgunned, out muscled, and yet still finding a way to survive. This opening shot is the theme of the film, which is to overcome insurmountable odds by sheer will - a force. It is David versus Goliath, a story of ingenuity and survival.

As it is written in the original Star Wars screenplay:

The awesome yellow planet of Tatooine emerges from a total eclipse, her two moons glowing against the darkness. A tiny silver spacecraft, a Rebel Blockade Runner firing lasers from the back of the ship, races through space. It is pursed by a giant Imperial Stardestroyer. Hundreds of deadly laserbolts streak from the Imperial Stardestroyer, causing the main solar fin of the Rebel craft to disintegrate.

It may seem like it would be easier to write such metaphors for science fiction or films that have outlandish imagery, but this also applies to more “human” stories or conventional relationship dramas. Take the opening of When Harry Met Sally, which opens with ‘documentary’ footage of an older couple. They’re sitting on a loveseat, holding hands. This is their monologue:

I was sitting with my friend Arthur Cornrom in a restaurant. It was an cafeteria and this beautiful girl walked in and I turned to Arthur and I said, “Arthur, you see that girl? I’m going to marry her, and two weeks later we were married and it’s over fifty years later and we are still married.

The image is telling - a portrait of everlasting love, one that was robust enough to withstand the test of time. The choice of an older couple visually shows the battle of age but they are defiant of that crumbling physical existence. The monologue reaffirms the idea of an epic, singular love, one that is given to us by a spark.

This is not an opening filled with visual pyrotechnics or kinetic energy - so many films today feel the urge to “drop us in” a sequence that gets our hearts racing immediately, but that needn’t be the case. Think of the first shot of There Will Be Blood, which is a simple fade in to a shot of hills. As it is written:


What seems like something quite static and tepid - a lone fade in of a mountain range, is given a metaphorical meaning by its juxtaposition with the harrowing music. The mountains are a barrier, the singular roadblock of Westward expansion and Manifest Destiny. The music makes the geography lethal and dangerous, and the cut to the title lets us know that a battle to the death awaits us. Whose death is uncertain, but we know it cannot be good. There is evil in them hills, and as we learn, it is Daniel Plainview.

In these three examples we see screenwriters using all the tools of filmmaking - sound, dialogue, image - to deliver an opening frame that gives us the intent and spine of the stories to follow. One can argue that they are so brief and part of greater whole that it doesn’t make that much of a difference, but it should always be reminded that in film, every shot must count, every shot must dedicate itself to telling the story and moving it forward. There are no throwaway shots in film - if it does not add to the story, plot or character, then it must and will be excised in the edit. With that in mind, save yourself the trouble and don’t write throwaway scenes. Make all of them count, especially the first one because that’s the first thing we’ll be engaging with. It makes both a conscious and subconscious statement of who you are as a writer and demonstrates the level of thoughtfulness and lucidity that you are capable of.

If you’re writing a story about a couple of high school kids in love, and say the boy is mentally handicapped and the girl he loves is coming to terms with his condition, then write a scene that encapsulates the meaning of that struggle. If the whole point of the story is to see the true inner self of someone and get past the broken bodies, then create a stirring sequence that conveys that in as truthful way as possible. I don’t know why but I think of a young girl playing with her barbie doll. The doll is scuffed and the hair has been cut. The girl’s room shows the clear signs of a family without much means, it’s a small, crowded apartment living room. She’s wearing a heavy sweater indoors. The girl places her barbie doll inside a makeshift home made out of pieces of cardboard and tape, and the doll looks warm and happy, a sharp contrast to the apartment. What I’m trying to show is the happiness to be found in a harsh world, true beauty in a scarred shell. It’s off the top of my head and needs work, but hopefully you see where I’m going with it.

It’s important to note that every scene in your film should not be approached this way, if so then your film will be heavy-handed and stuffed with metaphors to the point of becoming arthouse absurd. This approach to scenes will be of most use in scenes of introduction, transition and ending, where a deeper thematic message is meant to be conveyed. Use it wisely and you will find it a powerful and effective tool.

The key to doing this effectively is to understand the story you want to tell long before you formally begin writing. If you start your screenplay with a half-baked idea then you will not have a solid reference to draw upon for the formulation of your images. The myth of “writing from the hip” is a detriment, as few to none writers can write straight from nothing. It’s likely an idea that’s been in the works for a long time, sometimes in the head and most of the time in journals, notes and preparation. Those stories of screenplays written in one week tactfully omit the preparation and long-term thought that went into it, and we’re led to believe in the possibility of writing as an act of spontaneous combustion. I wish.

Screenplays are that strange beast in that they must be spare in their literary density (executives don’t like to read thick pieces of text), but they must deliver images in a few short sentences what a novel might take an entire chapter to achieve. The compression comes in the form of visual language, music, sound and careful dialogue. These are the elements that compress an entire prose paragraph in a novel down to a single frame on film. Think of the introduction of the Balrog in The Fellowship of the Ring. Tolkien wrote of it as such:

It came to the edge of the fire and the light faded as if a cloud had bent over it. Then with a rush it leaped across the fissure. The flames roared up to greet it, and wreathed about it; and a black smoke swirled in the air. Its streaming mane kindled, and blazed behind it.

And in the screenplay by Phillipa Boyens, it reads as such:

A HUGE SHADOW, surrounded by flame, falls across the hall..the ground shakes…an unearthly sound rumbles…

the-srinimatographer ASKED:

Hi Sridhar - since you're currently writing a few screenplays and you've had past experience, if/when you need to write for a tight (i.e. tiny) budget, is there anything you do in prep/outlining/drafting in order to properly take into account the limited access to resources? I'm in early planning stages for a low/no budget screenplay but I'm at a bit of a loss as to the process, despite reading a bunch of articles on it. Thanks in advance!

A great question. Often times it’s considered a faux-pas to think of the budget when writing, you simply should get your ideas out without limitation, which from an artistic standpoint can be liberating.

But with film, our primary goal is to get it made, and that’s when we often have to consider budget. The lower the budget, the more chances we’ll be able to complete our financing, increase our chance of return on investment, and actually have a completed film. 

It’s important to know a few things that will aid to your budget, and you can consciously think of these things when you’re plotting your story out. 

1) Reducing locations.

A company move, i.e. when the entire production packs up and moves to a different location, is a major drain on production finances. It’s the old adage that time is money, and company moves take a lot of time out of a very limited work day. The times when you are not shooting is when you are spending the most money.

Most low budget films limit their locations to one or two spots. Even if you have a small crew, it still takes time to get from one location to the other, even if that location is nearby. The geographic proximity isn’t so much a concern as it is the time to load and unload all the equipment. Cameras and lenses need to go back into cases, c-stands need to be broken down, cabling needs to be corralled, and the set needs to be struck. Conversely when you arrive at a new location, all of that has to be done in reverse. This takes time, and given the cost of filmmaking tools, you never once want to rush your team in packing. You also don’t want people getting injured.

You’ll see a lot of low-budget films take place in a house, an apartment, some street shots and maybe a restaurant / club. But your script might call for more geographic diversity, and you just don’t have the money for that. Here’s a simple solution - find locations that you can double up.

Once you’ve written your treatment, go out and scout preliminary locations. It might even be your own house or a friend’s house. When assessing that location, see if there are places in that location that you can cheat for a different location. On Lilith we used an abandoned factory, and we used different corners of that factory - each of which had a distinctive look - for different locations. We had an insane schedule - fourteen locations shot in eighteen days - but the script originally had twenty-seven locations. We were able to take out thirteen company moves - which would have been fiscally impossible to achieve - and it saved us a bundle.

If your script has three separate houses to film in, try and cheat different rooms in one house and make them visually distinct from one another. Dress them differently. Try adjusting your photography / lighting scheme. The only people who know it’s one house is you, your cast and your crew. The audience has no idea.

2) Master shots.

Start every scene by shooting a wide / tracking master shot (or two) that covers the entire scene, and then punch in for coverage and inserts after that. You want to make sure you’re covering your script in the limited amount of time you have, and sticking to the adage that time is money, each setup takes time. Even switching a lens takes time. For zero-budget indie filmmaking, instead of renting an expensive set of prime lenses you can invest in a quality zoom lens. On my short film 7x6x2 we used a pair of Fujinon zooms which were absolutely incredible. We had some very short focal lengths that needed their own lenses, but for the most part we shot with the Fujinons. The downside is that they were very heavy, but we only changed lenses a handful of times.

You want to spend as much time filming and as little time doing setups on a zero-budget film. By grabbing your master shot, you know you’re at least covered in the edit, and you can punch in on close-ups that you know will be essential to your edit. A good master shot will also provide you invaluable cutaways, and it can be a great way for actors to get into a groove for their close-ups.

From a writing standpoint, try writing with the master shot in mind - get too complex and you’ll have a hard time executing it. Reduce your dialogue, and if something can be said in a movement, then do it. It’ll make your master shots more compelling and worthwhile.

3) Rehearsals.

Time is money! Time is money! Time is money! When you have a camera and lights on set, you are spending money. You will have time to make adjustments with your actors, but you will not have any time to do on-set rehearsing with them. Do this in pre-production. Schedule a week, or at minimum two days, of rehearsal time with your actors before photography starts. The more time you spend with them in rehearsals, the less time you’ll be spending on set when everyone’s on the clock. You will have to pay your actors some additional money for rehearsals but it’s not like you’re hiring Leonardo DiCaprio, so it shouldn’t be a major expenditure, and many times with young actors you can negotiate it all into one comprehensive package.

If you are shooting on digital then take advantage of your medium and film your rehearsals / walkthroughs on set. This is additional coverage that you can use, and there will always be hidden gems in rehearsals, as it is when actors might be at their freshest or they may try something unconventional. If you are going to film your rehearsals / walkthroughs, make sure your camera team knows this and have them slate rehearsals or make it a habit to end-slate them.

If you know you can accommodate rehearsal time, then don’t hold back on writing the more complex dialogues and movements.

There are tons of other ways to save money but from a conceptual / planning stage, these I feel will help you the most. This way you can plan out your screenplay accordingly - if you have large swathes of dialogue or complex movements, start planning your rehearsals in advance. Write to maximize your locations. Plan sequences that can be covered in master shots that can be unique.

Hope this helps!

Screenwriting: (How to Avoid) Getting Derailed.

For the first time in my career, I’m writing three separate feature projects at once. Two of them commissioned, the other of my own design. Between producing The One Trick Rip-Off and another short film, I had plenty on my plate with the two screenplays, so why did I start a third?

Because inspiration struck. Because I felt so strongly about this idea and it’s ability to get made. I come up with ideas all the time, and I’ve got a shelf full of notebooks as proof of that, but there are some ideas that just come out fully formed, and you can see how it will be executed and packaged. It is timely, and everyone you talk to about is excited, in large part because they feel the excitement in your voice when you describe it.

So perhaps against my better judgement, I started the third screenplay. I’m now balancing three entirely different genres and I have to make sure that with my brimming excitement of my own idea, that I do not get derailed and marginalize the work on the other two works that I need to deliver on.

It can be a dangerous path to tread, but sometimes - and the key word being sometimes - when you’re flowing on one project, the momentum carries on to the others. You get in a groove, and everything benefits from that. I’m experiencing that now, and I’m finding that the other projects have a freshness to them that I hadn’t experienced earlier. I can clearly attribute that to my work on my own screenplay.

There is one major thing to be cognizant of when writing multiple projects at once, and that is overlap. You might subconsciously (or even consciously) be repeating themes, dialogues or plots in each work. In other words your multiple projects run the risk of melting into one giant, singular expression. Which is okay if you’re writing a trilogy, but if it’s completely different genres as I’m dealing with, it can be a doozy. Some stories require sentimentality, others nihilism, and others a sublime innocence or morbidity. Very different ends of the spectrum on an emotional and tonal scale, and while there can be elements of each that can deliver surprise in the other, it’s important to maintain focus so as not to derail the intent and purpose of each piece.

I avoid getting derailed by plotting out what I am going to write long in advance. I’ve allocated three hours of writing to each project. For the first two hours I write, and the last hour I plot out what I’m going to tackle the next day. By plotting I’m doing a detailed outline of what I want, an outline that is linked to research articles, photographs and references. What helps is having a completed treatment, where you can break the story down into segments or emotional beats that give you clear start / stop points. These are your boundaries for the day.

By plotting out my next day’s writing, I bring a sense of closure to that particular subject and style of writing, and it makes it far easier for me to shift gears into a different style. After my three hours I take a break, and then come back to writing. In total I’m doing about 5-6 hours of quality writing a day, and it’s working well.

The hardest part is when you’re on a roll with one project and stuck with the other. Part of the writing process is staring at the blank page, and I’ve done a lot of that. Temptation is to jump back into the project that was working and let the other marinate for awhile. It’s taken a lot of self-control to avoid doing that. I slog it out, writing stuff that I know doesn’t work very well but that will at least take me to the next beat. It can be brutal. Writing doesn’t always work, in fact a majority of the time it can just be nonsense that will be deleted in the future. But that’s okay, that’s part of the process. It can be frustrating, and that frustration can carry on to the other projects. It’s hard to let go of broken ideas sometimes.

Which is why the outlines help. You can determine in advance what may or may not work so well, and it clears a path for you. Think of it as driving with a GPS as opposed to going at it blind, like Lewis and Clark. The latter has the excitement of exploration, but what we rarely hear about the Lewis and Clark expedition is that there were probably a TON of days where absolutely nothing happened, and even more days where things went horribly wrong. But imagine a pilot flying the space shuttle with an electronic navigation and ground control guiding them. There are tons of unpredictable elements to account for but for the most part it’s smooth sailing because it’s all been plotted out in advance. The excitement is still there, there will always be surprises, but there’s a reassurance that there’s a plan.

Overall the best way to avoid getting derailed is to just make sure you never get off the rails in the first place. Sounds stupid but it’s true - the best way to avoid stoppage of writing is to just keep writing. Simple as that. And the way to keep writing is by having a plan that keeps you focused and disciplined. If you have that, you can switch between any number of writing assignments. For instance this blog post is in a completely different style of what I’m writing in my screenplays, and as soon as I’m done with this, I’m shifting gears and entering a completely different style. Having written this blog post has loosened things up, has warmed up my fingers and my mind, and now the engine is running at full click. I’ve said everything that I wanted to say, I can take a few minutes to jot down what I’ll write about next, and then freely move on to my other assignments. It works remarkably well. IT’S NOT EASY by any stretch of the imagination, but with hard work and discipline, it can be done.

And this is where our judgement must be used. Sometimes no matter how amped up we are about an idea, it may not be the right time to start it. Projects have a way of announcing that they are ready to be written - if you are honest with yourself then you’ll know it. I’ve had a long-gestating western concept kicking in my head and on paper for almost nine years now, and I’m as excited about it as anything I’ve ever thought of. It will be my magnum opus, my Blood Meridian, but it’s not ready to be written. I’m not ready to write it. I’ll know when I am ready, and I keep making notes and building up my research dossier (now some four thousand pages deep) and the starting point will materialize and I will write and write like there’s no tomorrow. But if I write it now, I won’t be doing it justice and I know I will be stuck after the first twenty pages, and I don’t want to write those twenty pages and put it away. I’ve plotted it out and outlined it, but I’m not going to write it. That day will come, I just have to be perceptive and aware of it.