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.

Study: Carl Theodor Dryer and the Power of White

Danish filmmaker Carl Theodor Dryer’s Vampyr remains as one of my favorite films of all time, a brooding meditation on death, dreams and aspiration. It is perhaps the single most visually stunning film I’ve ever seen, and its fingerprints can be found in several other films that I’ve admired, from the works of David Lynch to the Brothers Quay, especially with their stunning film Institute Benjamenta.

My favorite sequence from ‘Intitute Benjamenta.’

I’ve been studying Dryer for some time, and no filmmaker’s education is complete without some dedication to his canon. Immediately noticeable are Dryer’s compositions and approach to light - unlike so many silent filmmakers he reveled in using brightness and haze to bring out the darkness of the subject matter. He used light to cast shadow and contrast the darkness, something we’d see later in the work of Kubrick, especially in 2001: A Space Odyssey and A Clockwork Orange.

I’ve long been obsessed with darkness, and when I made Lilith I made sure to plunge the entire film in literal darkness. But what I’ve come to realize is that Dreyer’s brand of darkness is actually quite more affecting, in that there is nothing to hide within. There is nothing lurking in Dreyer’s shadows, the horror is real and upfront.

A study of Dreyer’s masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc demonstrates this point brilliantly. In an iconic scene, young Jeanne D’Arc - played by a freshly cropped Renée Jeanne Falconetti - refuses the help of God before she is burned at the stake. The scene is shot in a haunting close-up, Dryer confronts us with Jeanne, and makes us look at her, face-to-face. We see the wrongs of our ways, we cannot turn away from her beauty and innocence. We know what is beset upon her will be a tragedy.

Optimized gif by spetrillo.

Closer study reveals an artistic choice by Dryer which reinforces the horror and tragedy of the sequence, and it is a motif repeated throughout his canon. Dryer keeps the backdrop of Jeanne a pure white - he had the art director paint the background pink so as to avoid any kind of shades being picked up by the black and white film stock - and as a result we are purely confronted by her humanity and our choices put upon her. This is the use of contrast in its most pioneering, as we see her in full detail. She is beautiful but not glamorous, we see her freckles, her small imperfections that reinforce her innocence and bind us to her even stronger. The power of white as a base of contrast, while largely commonplace today, was a massive step in the evolution of cinema, which at the time was reveling in the massive details of epic Hollywood films like The Thief of Baghdad.

Dreyer’s use of this kind of minimalism was selective and done in varying degrees, but remains as one of the few filmmakers dedicated to the use of white, which has now been relegated to films about space travel. Kubrick used Dryer’s technique in 2001: A Space Odyssey and expanded upon it, giving us a set with the bare minimum of iconic dressing, but still using white to a chilling effect, highlighting every element in the room, putting it in our face, and forcing us to connect the dots.

The use of such diametric contrast is difficult to pull off, but when done right and placed within the narrative and edited masterfully, it can be one of the most affecting, powerful things a director, cinematographer and actor can create together. In my most anticipated film of 2014, Under the Skin, I saw in the trailer that Jonathan Glazer bravely attempts this, further cementing him as a spiritual and artistic descendant of Kubrick and Dryer. Glazer does away with the white background and lights the skin of his protagonist, an alien Scarlett Johansson, as uncomfortably pale against a pure black background. The construction is inverse to Dryer, but the effect is nonetheless startling. I absolutely cannot wait to see this film.

One might question this study against my observations of Henri Cartier-Bresson, surrealism and using visually interesting backgrounds for subjects to play in front of, but one has to also accept that a plain white background can be equally visually interesting, and has as much value as one that is overly populated with elements and texture. It’s the middle ground where things get boring and uninteresting. Minimalism is always visually interesting, and Lars Von Trier brilliantly described Dryer’s approach - which can also be applied to Kubrick and Glazer - as cooking down a stock or soup, where elements are removed so that the core flavors become richer, complex and more pronounced. It is complexity by means of subtraction, something even Cartier-Bresson practiced.

Dreyer is a revelation, someone who made movies in the 20s that are still seen as a future vision of cinema today. He demands frame-by-frame analysis, and an even more fruitful exercise is to trace his influence throughout cinema. This is just the tip of that pale, white iceberg.

From Dreyer’s ‘Vampyr’

4th Anniversary of Lilithfilm!

Four years ago, like so many young bloggers on the interwebs, I thought it might be a good idea to share my ideas and experiences as a filmmaker. There were so many young, starting filmmakers like myself out there, so I didn’t figure I’d have much of an audience. Maybe my mom would read the blog every once in awhile, and my wife would favorite my posts anonymously just to make me feel better, because my wife is awesome and she loves me.

I started the blog during pre-production of Lilith and was met with nothing. Fifteen or sixteen posts in and not a single person was reading what I wrote, which was essentially a production diary. There comes that moment in every artist’s life when you realize that you have a lot to say and you don’t have an audience. It’s terrifying, sad, and daunting.

This is where I feel a lot of good and talented people quit the game. I know this because I considered it. The Lilithfilm blog was a huge intellectual demand for me to write, consistently, maybe three to four times a week, and to not have an audience was kind of soul-crushing.

But I enjoyed writing this blog. So I just kept going, and strangely enough people started reading. Rinse and repeat. More interesting things came about. Just kept going. I’ve enjoyed the journey of this blog immensely. I’ve seen zero financial return from the 678 posts I’ve made (with four reblogs, sorry I had to, it was that one girl going “waaay-oh”), but the emotional return has been tremendous. I’ve met some really cool people along the way through this blog, some strange and awkward people, and not a single rude or douchebaggy person (there’s always time).

I’d like to think that it’s because from the very first post of this blog I’ve maintained a policy of brute honesty in documenting the trials and tribulations of being an artist. I try to keep my victories humble and my losses in perspective, and there have been both.

This past year in particular has seen lots of personal hurdles for me, and I felt it appropriate to include them in the blog because they were and remain an important part of my creative life. This blog, and the support of you, my dear audience (now numbering 59,205 and growing every day), helped me tremendously in processing my grief, my emotions, and where I want to go as an artist, as a citizen, as a friend, and as a person. My output last year has been slightly less than years before, but I feel like the quality of my writing has improved greatly.

That’s because through all the death, the loss, the triumphs and the failures, life happened to me a lot last year, and life is what informs the truth and spirit of our work. When I write of death and struggle I can do so with utmost authenticity. When I write of feeling helpless and numb, my words ring hauntingly true. When I find small specks of light in the vast darkness it is a historical account. When I experience love when there seemingly is none, that is a confessional from the bottom of my heart.

I don’t really have a plan as to how long this blog will continue, but as with most things I think it will find its natural end, and I’m fairly sure my ego won’t keep it going longer than its expiry date. As long as I know that people are benefiting from my words, are being entertained by them, enjoy my weekly music selections, and are challenged by my observations, then I see no reason to stop writing. Keep asking me questions, ask me things to think about. I might not get to it right away but I always eventually do. This blog is equally as much for your benefit as it is mine.

1,460 days of writing and it’s been an honor and privilege to be able to share my thoughts and feelings with you. You’ve made it all worth the effort.

Thank you so much.

Your humble director,

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.

All great work is preparing yourself for the accident to happen.

Sidney Lumet

A beautiful moment in film is only resonant if it is captured, and more times than not, beautiful moments are the results of accidents, which is when the unexpected happens in a controlled environment. If we are ill prepared to capture the accident, if we are not ready with our cameras, if we do not know the distances of our focus, if the sound has not been calibrated, if the actors are not in the moment, then the accident will be forever lost except in our minds and memories. But to be prepared, to know your environment, your capture settings, your tools - is to be able to capture that lightning in a bottle. It is why the work of great documentarians and journalistic/ wildlife photographers are so powerful and memorable, because at the decisive moment, they are always ready to capture. The feeling should be no different for the narrative filmmaker, and this is an insanely powerful thing for us to understand and work towards.

It is why Lumet, like Kubrick, Fincher and the directors who are so often accused of being cold, technical and mechanical in their preparation consistently deliver some of cinema’s most memorable images and powerful performances. There is power in preparation, but the true art emerges when we learn to trust it and free ourselves to explore the great unknown.

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…

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.

10 Things I Liked in 2013.

As the year comes to a close, here’s a few things I found exemplary. I’ll be doing best films and best music of 2013 lists soon. In no particular order:

1) Heck by Zander Cannon.

In what was a strong year for comics (Paul Pope’s Battling Boy, Matt Fraction’s Sex Criminals, Sean Murphy’s Punk Rock Jesus), I found this simply-drawn indie to be the most captivating. But don’t let the simplicity of the art fool you, Heck is a metaphysical doozy, telling the story of a broken man who finds a portal to Hell in the basement of his deceased father’s home. He turns the portal into an odd business, of extracting secrets from dead friends and family members of paying clients. The story has a gallows humor and is incredibly emotional, as any journey through Hell should be (I should know). A quick and inventive read, and one that reveals as much about us as it does its characters. Wonderful.

2) Belvoir Elderflower Soda (Pressé)

My wife and I had this stuff at a Michelin-starred restaurant called Grace here in Chicago, and our life hasn’t been the same since. Screw Mexican Coke, this stuff is the shit, and it goes with just about anything. Not an easy find but in Chicago it can be found at Joey’s Sodas and Snacks, and I’m pretty sure Joey ships as well. The fuck if I know what an elderflower tastes like, but in soda form it’s pretty amazing, lightly honeyed and citrusy, with a mineral undertone. Pretty much unlike anything you’ve ever tasted.

3) Yoji Yamamoto Y-3 Sprint Classic Sneakers.

When I’m on set I never sit. Ever. There’s always a director’s chair in the budget and I should save the production a few hundred bucks by telling them it’ll never get used. Invariably someone else gets to sit in my chair, which is fine by me. But I’m on my feet for 20-hours at a shot, and naturally my feet take the brunt of it, and the need for comfortable shoes is paramount in a director’s line of work.

I’m no slave to fashion but I wouldn’t be caught dead in SAS or Crocs or any form of orthopedic shoes. Fuck that. I’m a director of a film, not a senior home. By chance I came across a store that was having a clearance sale and they had one display pair of some cool looking Adidas Y-3 kicks for sale. They happened to be my size, and I tried them on. Holy shit. These have to be the most comfortable shoes I’d ever worn, and a later study revealed that GQ magazine had declared these shoes to be the most comfortable pair they wore all year. Damn. Not inexpensive, but if you’re on your feet all day, it’s worth every fucking penny. I bought two pairs. And while it’s subjective, I think they look dope.

4) Daniel Danger.

One of my hobbies is to collect art. Not in the Picasso / Modigliani / Francis Bacon sense (I wish!), but I love collecting prints and original artwork (if I can) of young artists who are on the fringe of blowing up. Many moons ago I started collecting a then-unknown artist named David Choe, who later painted the offices of Facebook and became a multimillionaire and contemporary art icon. I feel Daniel Danger, who is a household name in the world of concert posters, is one of those artists who will make the leap to fine art in due time. I’ve spent the year combing stores and art fairs looking for his work, and found two incredible pieces that are now being proudly hung in my home. Danger’s detailed work and haunting themes are far from literal, and they exist in some kind of Edward Gorey-esque pre-apocalyptic world, a zone that got like just a third of a nuke. Weird, unsettling, and heart-breakingly gorgeous. Find his work, frame it in archive quality, and keep it for future generations. A monumental talent.

5)Tron: Uprising

I wrote extensively about Tron: Uprising in a post earlier this year. It’s one of the best shows on television, and the best science fiction in the business right now. Naturally, it looks like it’s cancelled. I don’t understand viewers sometimes.

6) Knowshon Moreno.

I’m a die-hard Denver Broncos fan, and this year has been one hell of a season. Peyton Manning’s a shoo-in for MVP and he’s already won the Sportsman of the Year. Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker and Julius Thomas will receive the notoriety they deserve, but to me the unsung hero of the Broncos’ dream season is running back Knowshon Moreno. A first round draft pick under Josh McDaniels, Moreno was on his way to being just another first round bust, but this year he’s rebounded with a competitive fire that I’ve yet to see in any player in the NFL. This guy plays hard, and then some. He consistently grinds yard after tough yard, blocks like a motherfucker (see gif above) and raises the intensity and focus of all around him. While his running style is nothing to write home about, it’s a joy to watch him play, to see him enjoy this beautiful game which has come under such scrutiny, and to revel in being the part of something greater. He’s also an example of perseverance, of responding to critics and adversity and working your way to the top. Tip of the hat to you, Knowshon, you are my MVP for the season.

7) Pizza Dog.

Since Marvel is scraping the bottom of their barrel (Ant-Man? Guardians of the Galaxy? Huh?), maybe it’s time they give a feature film to one of the most memorable characters in the Marvel Universe, PIZZA DOG. His name is Lucky and he’s a one-eyed dog who eats pizza. And he’s awesome.

Pizza Dog is featured in Matt Fraction and David Aja’s brilliant, fun and sexy Hawkeye comic series, and was given his own issue, an iconographic and largely silent telling of Pizza Dog’s exploits as a canine crime fighter. It’s a distinct homage to both Preminger and Chris Ware, and it’s the best single comic book issue that I’ve read in the past ten years. I’m serious as a heart attack, it’s that amazing. It also establishes Pizza Dog as a fully formed character, worthy of his own adventures. I’d love to make a Pizza Dog movie (R-rated, of course). Pizza Dog also has his own amazing twitter, which is probably the best Twitter feed since the dearly-departed HOBO DARKSEID. I want a Pizza Dog movie. Read the issue and you’ll want a Pizza Dog movie too. It will be an instant cult classic. Let’s make it happen.

8) Tomb Raider

I’m incredibly behind on my gaming and am slowly catching up. I’ve had Tomb Raider sitting on my shelf for over six months, and I finally got around to playing it. Wow. I’ve always been a fan of the franchise since way back when but this game takes “cinematic experience” to a whole new level. It’s intense, brutal, and has an actual story. Side characters remain classically inept as with most video games, but this is and has always been Lara Croft’s adventure. We’re given a new origin story and join Lara as a young grad student, and discover how she learned the skills to become the vaunted Tomb Raider. Lara takes a monumental and cringe-worthy amount of punishment in this game, and while she’s still an amazing athlete of world record proportion, the game progressively shows the toll of damage on her, both physically and emotionally. It’s quite remarkable, and an amazing experience throughout. The puzzles aren’t quite to snuff as in the classic TR games, but what it lacks in puzzles it makes up in atmospherics and character. A worthy relaunch of a much beloved character.

9) Kai Kaphrao Kai Dao aka ‘Stir-Fried Chicken with Hot Basil.’

My wife and I cook all of our food from scratch. We eat out maybe once or twice a week, but other than that we get all of our produce from an organic farm share and we make our food at home. It’s rewarding in that we know and control exactly what goes into our bodies, but the downside is that it can be exhausting. After a long day, many times the last thing I want to do is cook.

Asian food is useful in this regard, as many dishes are quick stir-frys that can be done in less than an hour. I found this recipe for an amazing Thai dish from the famed Pok-Pok restaurant in Portland, OR from its eponymous cookbook. This dish has become one of my all-time favorites, and I make it all the time. We make a vegetarian version of it with tofu as well. You can download the recipe from the Amazon page of the book by clicking here. The book is ace as well, but this is the fastest, easiest and knockout amazing tasting dish I’ve had from it. Eat well, eat healthy!

10) Pussy Riot.

I’ve long had a complaint that this generation has had a distinct lack of artistic rage against all that has happened to them. I had Public Enemy and Nirvana as a kid coming off Reagan and Thatcher, and coming off George W. Bush the only thing remotely resembling any kind of legitimate, powerful rage from this current generation is Anonymous. (Which is huge).

Which is why I make the case that Russia’s agit-punk band Pussy Riot should be be anointed the bona-fide voice of a generation, a heart-on-their-sleeve band of troublemakers who are not afraid of whatever punishment Putin and the Russian government can dole out. Their anger is legit, their fearlessness is inspiring, and with today’s release of two of their members from prison as an act of public relations solidarity for the upcoming Winter Olympics in Sochi, you know Pussy Riot is angrier than ever. These are artists we can all rally behind, create anthems with, and stand arm-in-arm with. We are all Pussy Riot. In a year that saw us lose Nelson Mandela, we are in dire need of heroes and leaders of conviction and truth, and Pussy Riot are my choice.

Directing: John Huston, ‘Fat City’ and Making Lean American Films

It’s amazing how things change over time. I used to hate olives on my pizza, now I think they’re pretty dope. Same thing with pickles on a burger. Growing up in the 80s and 90s I used to think that everything about the 70s was a big joke. The bell bottom pants, the big collars, disco music and boring movies. Yep. I found the movies of that era to be uninspired, bland, and boring. Having grown up on a steady diet of Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Star Wars, Pulp Fiction, Raging Bull and Blade Runner, stories about people in their natural surroundings dealing with personal issues were just, y’know, kinda boring. The visuals were uninspiring to me, I needed bombast. I was born in the era of the blockbuster and grew up on fantasy. There was no room - or particular need - for reality.

Gif by ghostofcheney.

It’s only until much later when I actually started making movies and studying them for my work that I began to realize that the 70s, in my opinion, was the most productive decade of American art in this country’s young history. Coming off the Vietnam War, racial tensions and a crippling US economy, artists in the 70s used art in its proper function, to serve as a mirror to the human condition, and the condition of humanity at that time was pretty bleak. Artists turned their brushes, guitars and cameras towards themselves, asking the question of where we are going individually and as a part of a greater family of man.

There are always exceptions, and these films, like Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker or the Coens’ No Country for Old Men and Anderson’s There Will Be Blood exemplify classic American filmmaking that has evolved from the fundamentals laid down in the 70s. They are personal films about people, their place in the world and their meaning relative to each other.

Perhaps no filmmaker, for me, embodies this more than John Huston, whose career spanned almost five decades, but who for me reached his peak with Fat City, which he made in 1972. I know that had I seen Fat City fifteen years ago I’d dislike it immensely, as I’d be waiting for something over-the-top to happen, some cataclysmic event that will change the course of history.

None of that happens in Fat City, which is the story of Billy Tully, a down-on-his-luck amateur boxer trying to eke out a life in an economically ravaged small city. Based on the eponymous novel by Leon Gardner, the film lacks any kind of spit-polish or grandeur that we see in today’s American filmmaking. Fat City meanders, it’s threadbare in its script and plot, and it contains no coincidences or accidents. It’s inhabitants are not supermodels and poster boys, in fact there is an elegant grotesqueness to their beaten and weathered bodies. Tully, played with equal fire and restraint by a brilliant Stacy Keach (who I am only recently discovering to be one of the truly great acting talents of all-time), has scars and bruises, his hair a hot mess, and yet there is a rugged charm about him, a man with some principles who has hit rock bottom and is trying to claw his way out to a decent life.

Huston crafts the film with remarkable precision, using a minimal number of beautifully composed shots (lit by the immortal Conrad Hall in a wash of diffusion and a palette of ochres, turquoise and coral) and allowing his actors to roam freely within these tightly-laid confines. It’s a contradiction, but a beautiful one at that, and it lends itself to a very lean and efficient style of filmmaking, one that is, at its core, the very essence of classic American cinema. If we look at the works of Huston, Cassavettes, Coppola and even turning back the clock to the works of Keaton, Chaplin, Mann, Hawkes and Ford, we see this pattern of lean filmmaking - limited shots, meticulously composed, and allowing for exploration through performance. What results is a very muscular style of film, powerful and deceptively elegant, much like an American muscle car.

This is important to acknowledge in moving forward as filmmakers. As we fully begin to embrace digital cinema, our coverage has increased astronomically. It’s not uncommon for filmmakers to emerge from their shoots with 35-40 hours of footage, which is both a blessing and a damnation. With so much coverage, what we’re seeing now is more and more films being made in the edit, where performance is crafted by the knife. The downside to this is an unfocused film, filled with thousands of cuts that perforate its foundation like swiss cheese. Today’s American cinema feels more like a salad than a side of beef, and any kind of muscularity is being provided by an overbearing Hans Zimmer score and CGI explosions. It’s all resolutely fake, and that cannot be sustained.

What we can learn from Huston and the films of the 70s is to go back to composition as place for actors to work within. Even an extravagant film like Coppola’s Apocalypse Now is spare in its shots - they are allowed to unfold and establish their might, and even with the alien beauty of the jungle, this is still the story of men and their duties to one another. The film is as strong as an I-beam as a result. A fair amount of credit goes to editor Walter Murch, who took the nightmare of hundreds of hours of footage and maintained the lean ethic.

The goal here is to not convey what type of movies to make, that’s nobody’s purview but your own. What is to be impressed upon however is a thoughtfulness in craft, of maintaining simplicity of conveyance and not overburdening our films with unnecessary chaff. This doesn’t mean to omit details - a look at the films of the 70s reveals an immense attention to detail, but it is all done within a restrained number of shots. We cannot establish cinematic power without allowing the time for it to be established.

The best metaphor I can think of for this is a rocket. To lift itself out of orbit - an act of immense power and muscle - there must be a large, focused and maintained blast of rocket fuel. If a rocket were to pulse its blast in small thrusts, it’s expending the same (if not more) amount of energy, but it will lack the power to take off. Think of your edits and compositions in the same way. Allow power and emotion to develop in composed frames, develop your performances in longer takes, and edit your coverage in the leanest way possible. Allow your actors to breathe, to explore, to feel within a meaningful and thoughtfully designed space.

At the end of Fat City, Huston does something quite remarkable. Tully, at the bottom of his barrel and in the haze of alcohol, gazes about a cafe and sees some men talking in the corner. We don’t know what they’re talking about, and they have nothing to do with Tully. But he fixates on them, and there’s a brief freeze frame on Tully’s face. It’s a resoundingly surreal moment, a shock in a film filled with such gritty realism, akin to Truffaut’s freeze frame at the end of The 400 Blows. This is Huston using the power of cinema to undermine all that he has laid down before in one simple move, and it’s a calculated deconstruction. The mighty, muscular film for the past 100 minutes crumbles in a few seconds of a freeze frame, a mirror of the journey of his protagonist. It’s a beautiful moment, akin to when men of iron show vulnerability, and it is calculated and highly risky. I love this kind of filmmaking, which shows no fear and absolute trust in the audience. It’s an irony that Fat City was a studio film (Columbia Pictures) that would never be made by a studio today. My how times have changed, but the silver lining is that with today’s technology, a film like Fat City can be made with little complication as an ultra low-budget independent film. It has to be planned, thoughtful and efficient, and films like it will thrive because they speak to us on a myriad different levels.

I wring my hands at this latest discovery in my journey as a filmmaker, and am ready to reevaluate my plans for The One Trick Rip-Off, to view it through this prism. It will be difficult going back and retooling what I’ve already established, but if it means my growth as an artist and greater benefit to my art, then it is work worth doing and suffering for. Nobody said this was easy.