Check yourself

I recently spoke with a very important screenwriter.  I know he was very important because he told me so.  More than once.  In fact, this man was a complete asshole.  I’d like to give you all kinds of juicy gossip about this famous celebrity but I can’t.  He’s not famous.  In my estimation, he’s not important either.  Just an asshole.

I’m my dealings I’ve come across more than a handful of people who fancy themselves as very important people .  None of which you would recognize by name, nor their work.  In fact, I have spoken with many important  screenwriters, producers, and directors – none of which pointed out to me just how important they were.  My point is: check yourself.  Even the most famous screenwriter is not a household name.  You make movies, or television, or musicals, or plays.  You’re not curing cancer.  You’re not a civil engineer or a doctor.  You create entertainment.  On your best day, it’s art;  On your worst, no one cares.

The “very important” individuals I referrenced before, most likely,  scream at waiters and don’t realize they’re spitting in their soup.  They’re often loud.  Probably because no one listens to them otherwise.  They distort facts to fit their opinions so they sound intelligent.

Maslow’s heirarchy peaks with self-actualization.  Sadly, I have no hope for these individuals to reach that.  They are too absorbed in themsleves.  And why wouldn’t they be?  They’re very important.  But for the rest of you out there, please, check yourself.  No matter what level of success you have, or how much money you make, or how much smoke is blow up your ass: keep your feet on the ground.  Respect isn’t measured in box office returns or Oscars.  And you’re never too important to earn it, or give it.

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Logline hell

In today’s world you live and die by the logline.  Nobody wants to read your screenplay.  Trust me.  They don’t.  So you have one sentence to encapsulate your story and hook them into actually reading the screenplay.  It’s that one sentence you’ll utter when you casually meet s0-and-so producer in passing; or include in your query letter when looking for an agent or manager.

So what makes up a great logline?

Blake Snyder spends a large chunk of Save the Cat stressing the importance of a great logline.  He says it contains four elements.

  1. Irony (aka the hook)
  2. Presents a compelling mental picture
  3. Hints at the audience and cost
  4. A killer title

David Freeman gave this handy little template at the Screenwriting expo.

MOVIE TITLE is a GENRE about a PROTAGONIST who is involved in an INCITING INCIDENT that is COMPELLED into ACTION with a DESIRE that is OPPOSITE from the ANTAGONIST.

I don’t disagree with either one.  That’s all good knowledge.  However as I started to build my own loglines I found it rough going.  I discovered I was always torn between two different ones.  The first was a very short logline that focused on the most basic info and the hook of the story.  The second was longer and presented much more of the story – but I couldn’t remember the wording ten seconds after I wrote it.  Truth is, a logline might look great on paper but if someone asks you, “What’s your story about” you better be able to spit out quick and hook them.  If it interests them they’ll always ask questions.

Terry Rossio talks on his blog about something he calls “the Warner Bros. hallway test” which basically equates to someone sees you reading a screenplay and asks, “What’s it about?”.  And then the reader/intern/assistant proceeds to summerize your screenplay in one line.  Much like a logline.  Hmmm… And then that exec or director judges the whole screenplay based on that one line.

Terry’s point was (I believe) you live and die by your idea.  My point is a logline is probably best if short and memorable.

That’s when I found a wonderful blog by Mr. Christopher Lockhart.  In it there is a great – and very long – article about crafting loglines.  He says:

“A logline conveys the dramatic story of a screenplay in the most abbreviated manner possible.”

Now we’re talking.  Shorter is better.  Though he goes into great detail about it, the nuts and bolts are broken down into three elements.

  • the main character
  • the goal
  • the antagonist

It’s short.  It shows the conflict in the story.  It tells us the two biggest roles – which means we picture stars to fit them.  At the very least we can picture it, or movies like it.  We’re either on the boat or not at that point.  I don’t believe in a logline that attracts all audiences.  If you write a zombie pic don’t try to write a logline that illustrates the love story that happens in it.  Be true to your story.  Embrace your genre.  Use your short and simple logline to interest the right person to read it.

What is voice?

Have you ever heard a commercial and recognized the celebrity voice narrating it?  Celebrities do it all the time.  Morgan Freeman, Christian Slater, Gene Hackman, and Keifer Sutherland have all lent their voices to commercials.  Why do corporations pay extra for these people when they could use your average announcer?  Because of their unique and recognizable voice.

Voice is something that comes up a lot in screenwriting.  One day I was speaking with the a prominent VP who helped usher a number of Hollywood hits to the big screen.  His single biggest emphasis for a good piece of writing was on the writer’s voice.  A few weeks later I had a manager tell me the same thing.

Here’s another good example pulled straight from Variety.com

Summit Entertainment picked up dark comedy “The Beaver,” penned by Kyle Killen.

“We bought the project because it’s told in one of the most unique voices ever,” said Erik Feig, Summit’s president of worldwide production and acquisitions.

It seems to one of the most important things and yet there’s really nothing written about it.  Why?  Because you can’t teach voice.  It’s individual to the writer.  What is surprising is how hard writer’s work to blend into the pack.  They toil endlessly over formatting and try to look just like every other piece of writing.  The truth is you need to stand out.  And I’m not talking about changing your fonts.  I’m speaking in terms of story and how it’s told.

What is voice?  It’s the idiosyncrasies in your choices as a writer.  The subject matter.  How you tell it.  And most obvious, the dialogue.  Think of these writers: The Coen Brothers, Charlie Kaufman, Quentin Tarantino.  Granted these writers are a bit more unique then the average Hollywood writer but they’re bleeding with voice.

Write the stories that only you could write, and do it your way.  If someone else can write your story better then you then they don’t need you.

Find your voice.  Then scream.

Where do ideas come from?

I will not tell you how to come up with story ideas. A lot of books will. I think it’s crap.

Every writer I know has a bottle neck of ideas. Like many others, I keep a little book that I fill with things that spring to mind on a random basis: story ideas, titles, scenes, random dialogue. It’s called inspiration. If you don’t have it, you’re not a writer.

Working backwards. Victim’s Song started by the sheer need to shoot something in one location. I knew I was actually going to direct it. So my question was, “Why would someone only be in one location.” The answer was simple. They can’t leave. “Why can’t they leave?” Someone tied them to a chair. “Why did they do that?” And so on until I found I had a story coming together.

From a title. My most recent screenplay came completely from the title. I had come up with what I thought was a bad-ass title. I wrote it in my little book and forgot about it. Eight months later, while I was on a plane about to land, I suddenly remembered the title. I pondered it’s meaning. What would that movie be about? By the time we touched down I had the entire story structured, characters mapped out, and even bits of dialogue. I had to take a pen to a napkin and jot things down.

Without inspiration there can be no passion. Without passion there can be no art.

Farwell to Blake Snyder

Anyone who learned anything about screenwriting in the last decade has probably heard the name Blake Snyder. His popular book Save the Cat has become the book on screenwriting structure. August 4, 2009, he died from a pulmonary embolism.

It was one of the first books recommended to me and instantly became a favorite. I was lucky enough to meet with Blake on a number of occasions. He was always very nice and I couldn’t help but be impressed by how much he genuinely wanted to help writers. His contributions will be felt for generations. He will be missed.

Script Titles

I’ve seen too little and too much attention given by writers when it comes to naming their script. But how important is it really?

Wes Craven’s original title for his 1972 film was Night of Vengeance. Later it was released as Sex Crime of the Century. Almost no one went to see it. The name was changed to Last House on the Left and suddenly lines stretched down the block.

Anybody see the films Pride and Glory, We Own the Night, Fracture, Next, Body of Lies? These are all big movies with big time movie stars. All released within the last few years. Anybody having a hard time remembering the trailers for these? They’re not bad titles, but they’re also not very memorable. I call them invisible titles. They’re generic. Let’s try it again. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Thank You For Smoking, Little Miss Sunshine, Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle, No Country For Old Men, Death to Smoochy, The Devil Wears Prada, Snakes on a Plane. Come on, man! Snakes on a Plane! Samuel L. Jackson even admitted that’s the only reason he did the film. Because of the title. But now you think it’s only long titles. Let’s try it again. Fight Club, Mean Girls, Ghost, Die Hard, The Sting, Witness, Rain Man, Jarhead, The Matrix.

The point is: titles matter, a lot.

Now don’t get so concerned about it that you don’t actually write the thing. You can always name it after you’ve written it. But don’t let it go out the door without a title that grabs you. I pride myself on good titles. Like many writers, I have a notebook I write ideas down in. I also write titles. My last three screenplays were titles in my book long before I ever came up with an idea for them. When I finally get an idea I probe the book looking for titles that fit.

Now a lot of people will tell you that a short title is preferred. But as you saw from my previous examples it doesn’t really matter. Here’s the test of a good title.

1. Does it draw a mental picture for you?
2. Does it imply the tone of movie?
3. Can you remember it twenty minutes after you’ve heard it?

If your friends have a hard time remembering the name of your script, change it.