WRITING A COMMERCIAL SCREENPLAY- Professional script readers, (whether they are producers, script-buying executives or development people---sometimes called "D" girls, or literary agents, who help producers/ studios find product,) will all concede that aspiring writers often don't pay attention to their own 'film-critic' faculties when WRITING a script as opposed to VIEWING them.
If a fresh kid on the block could write a tight, commercial script, he COULD get taken just as seriously by studios as the 3 million dollar per script pros. And when the lowest they can pay you is 70k, by guild mandate, this is a lot smarter than buying lottery tickets. So what does one need to know before one starts. Well, first of all:'The play's the thing.' Writers are like GODS to agents/buyers /readers. They open every script HOPING it'll take their breath away. And they are invariably disappointed. And that's too bad because movies are SO EASY to write. Once you have your CARDS done (the outline) it shouldn't take more than 4 days of work. For seventy grand? (Honey, throw away the jigsaw, I think I just found myself a new HOBBY!)
All the good movies you've seen over the span of your life pretty much obey the same formulae. FASCINATING strong heroic male beats the evil forces around him. Gandhi, Indiana Jones, or E.T. --these three, disparate scripts all had this similar, or even identical palm print that caused them to get READ and taken seriously. May we describe the palm print completely just to be sure you understand what Hollywood basically wants. I. THE OUTWARD APPEARANCE OF THE FILM:
1.) THE VEHICLE FACTOR: A LOVABLE, strong male lead to be played by a star who is in his prime reproductive years, i.e. between the ages of l6 and 50. The character as drawn must have interesting quirks and/or colorations. i.e. Redford in "Out of Africa:" poetic, elusive, committed to his freedom. Seemingly made of aluminum. Schwarzeneggar in 'Terminator.' Also made of aluminum. Aristotle said that the hero absolutely had to be kingly, that audiences would not be interested in the tragic events of plebeians, however, since the demise of the dynasties, democratic audiences tend more and more to settle for men who at least look kingly, i.e. who are drop-dead gorgeous hunks, and supposedly the best at what they do---and less for their being actual, crowned heads.
If your film is going to be serious or heavy, the hero can have serious quirks. Pacino, in DOG DAY AFTERNOON wants a sex- change operation. Pacino in SEA OF LOVE is drunkenly and loudly torching for his ex-wife who ran off & married his partner. Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon I& II is also a cop who's lost his wife, but to death and the mob. He doesn't want booze; he wants to DIE and suicidally dares hoods to 'off' him, endangering his partner, stable Danny Glover who has a family to live for.
Conversely, if it's a humorous film, the hero can have nutty quirks which become a running joke: in the "ODD COUPLE" Felix is a neatness-freak. In E.T. hero's foreign and doesn't understand things like fridges, t.v. John Wayne or Halloween. Serious or funny, we must LOVE & CARE FOR our hero for the film to work. Quirks or unusual traits give us a running start on TWO THINGS: A.) LOVING him, and B.) THE PLOT as character is destiny. Quite often you'll see films use a constant repeat of the basic quirk as if it were a 'design motif.' The smirky jokes about the slut daughter in "Married with Children" come two a minute. In Sit-com writing the joke built around the quirk is a mainstay. Viewers like to see 'the quirk' appear every few minutes. They expect it. It's a gerbil pellet they'll sit up for. Some film stars have built identities on quirks. Woody Allen is a good example. Reappearance of 'the quirk' can liven up a slow story moment. But quirks aren't enough. To LOVE our hero, we want to see some smidge of heroicism or goodness, early in the film. Or, Dickensian pathos/ vulnerability. So, while you have a story in the conceptual stages, (called 'the cards') write down his quirks, what makes him heroic and special and loveable. Then, start to think of what mythic, Joseph Campbell type Dark Situation in the Land will make him Turn Heroic but while you're warming up also turn your attention to:
2.) THE OTHER OCCUPANT of the VEHICLE: A girl. Harry Cohn once said that a girl couldn't be the SOLE OCCUPANT OF THE VEHICLE unless she was pregnant, or had cancer. The rule obviously didn't apply to women who were MEN, like Joan Crawford or Bette Davis, and right after WWII plenty of films got made that were built around this new 'heroic female archetype. The powerful, (but admirable) bitch archetype was let loose during a wartime emergency period, when we'd all seen those heroic, real-life Rosie the Riveters and were ready for it. In the back to comfortable un-scary 50's, females reverted to being passengers in male-dominated films, and in spite of the woman's lib movement, they have never moved back into the driver's seat. Today, you still need an all girl-girl in the passenger seat, unless you're doing PLATOON and it's all guys, or 4th JULY and it's serious male-solo issues, or RAINMAN, a brothers/buddy film about a serious issue. As Meryl Streep has complained, there simply aren't many good starring roles for women. Women don't carry pictures because they can't carry audiences alone. Even super star Jessica Lange was doomed to Box Office failure in the perfectly made and quite entertaining "MEN DON'T LEAVE." Men cannot be dragged to see solo-females with 'chick' problems. As a general presumption, any script that turned up with a female hero 'on top of it' would be felt by studio heads to probably be unworthy of being developed. Woman's libbers say the reason is because American men are panicky about their status in the recessionary 80's and 90's and strong women are threatening. It would seem they are immediately, and unconsciously ---resented and disliked. Crawford, De Havilland and Davis would be reduced to doing character bits, today.
But I think the reason why women are out as heroes is because actuarials control the film-funding process. It's a known fact, women audiences can be dragged to action films but men will not be dragged to 'real men eat quiche films.' They do poorly at the B.O. unless it's a romantic comedy and it's date night --but even still, the b.o. is nothing like an action flick. So--put a woman in the passenger seat when you can,---when there's no serious or all male issue, or where a child isn't in the other seat, as in E.T.. But for most scripts, you will need good, old, reliable 'boy/girl.' Billy Wilder says (in his superb bio by Maurice Zolotow,) that a script absolutely needs a 'meet-cute' for its two main characters. He says the meeting of Gable and Claudette Colbert in a department store, over a pajama counter, fighting to buy a single pair of pajamas, him with the pants, her with the top was a good example. Later, as lovers, they show up dressed in the tops and pants. The jammies become a running joke. You don't want your two heroes KNOWING each other already, before the start of the film. The kid didn't KNOW the E.T. --he met him in the shed. Mel didn't know Danny, he met him on the floor of the police station. Tom Cruise didn't know he had a retarded idiot savant brother, but when he goes to find the brother who inherited all HIS money, he finds him in a state institution.
We want to SEE their first-time meeting, and first few dialogue scenes together. In a male/female context, letting things SLOWLY BUILD creates a sexual tension and eventually a 'longing' in the viewer, for love to be felt by the actors, -- and then --finally, for love to be amusingly or tenderly expressed. In a male-bonding, 'buddy' film, the lst meeting counts. i.e. the explosive, hilarious and thrilling meeting of Mel Gibson & Danny Glover in 'Lethal I' where Mel immediately JEOPARDIZES Danny's life. As in life, how things start is how they will always be. The seed unfurls into the plant. Such electric beginnings uncoil into continually lively and electric dramatic action. The meet cute with two lovers is very important, as SEX SCENES absolutely do not work for films if you DO NOT have a lot of electricity and energy building between the two characters from word one. Sex doesn't work unless you have some unusually dynamic, tension going, or a charming, basic 'footing' involving the two, main characters. "WHEN HARRY MET SALLY" had so much of it that their meeting became a word in the title! Harry and Sally are not romantically inclined when they meet. They are put together to do a mundane kind of transaction, travel together, simply as two non sexual adults, ---giving them a chance to lock horns philosophically. An odd couple. "OUT OF AFRICA" is an exemplary romance film where their first meeting has a different kind of a kick. Meryl comes out onto the veranda of a train car in her nightgown to defend her boxes of belongings from some man in hunting regalia, with a gun, looking gorgeous, (HIM, not her) throwing animal carcasses on top of her Victorian china. Gun? Boxes? You can practically smell the cordite, his sweat, the animal blood contrasted with her lavender-dusted body in silk and lace. We know Redford and Streep have wind of one another's scents from that moment on. Sexual events with any characters, primary or secondary, do not work unless you have this slowly built some kind of charged electricity between the two people, some 'arousal-footing.' Just cut them out of your writing habits and scripts. They OFFEND viewers' sensibilities. We can take violence any time, we are 'ready' for it, but for sex to play takes a slow, simmering building of subtle energies. Audiences need to see attraction, love, affinity, and then the plot forces that keep the lovers apart. That will produce LONGING, then finally, a slow coming together, with gradually exposed body parts, and lastly, passionate, loving acts---a slow build for them to be arousal- producing and enjoyable and not like a hot pizza in the face. Just cutting to two people making love, gratuitous sex, EVEN between married couples is a total turn off. Also be careful of the Jungian 'purity' archetype that all viewers unconsciously have, which makes them react adversely to heroes speaking raunchily /graphically of sex. Only Villains can get away with that. On the other hand, if you want to resort to Safety Thru Schlock,---Roger Corman says you need a little nudity every 15 pages. (He never made a movie that lost money.) Corman says it doesn't have to be whole body nudity. A shoulder, a wet t-shirt will do. It can be other people's nudity, hero's, or even some secondary character. Just keep the nudity coming. Maybe that's why Meryl was in her nightgown on the veranda in an A flick. Now, for the less important factors.
3.) THE UNIFIED VILLAIN. You will need ONE VILLAIN or danger that lasts the whole movie. Was it also Aristotle who dreamed up the Dramatic Unities of time and action? Let's add 'unified threat.' We're not doing Captain America serials here. (Funny that this is the latest big hit!) We don't want anything episodic. i.e. changing villains, or a meandering plot. We want one specific evil Doctor No to last the whole movie. 'FILM' doesn't mind one kind of danger or difficulty at point A & a different kind at pt. B as long as during course of film, these many dangers come from ONE, cohesive, organized, monstrous bad guy. As people have seen a trillion movies in their lifetime, it can't be a hackneyed villain/threat. The 'danger' has to be either very dangerous or very interesting, or trendy, out of the head lines, modern, NOT DONE yet, and must have its quirks, too. Or the villain must be so noxious, like Atilla the Hun or the Nazis, that you can use him a l00 times. The 'uniqueness' factor was well realized by Jack Nicholson in 'Batman,' Terrible noxiousness as an endearing quality was personified by the Nazis --used in hundreds of films, even fifty years after their moment in history. VILLAINS can be social forces: i.e. the social ostracism of the heroine-whore in "Pretty Woman". Or the endlessly brutal Klan in Mississippi Burning. Or the unseen hand of Pinochet and the CIA in "MISSING." The villain's identity can surprise us. In "SEA OF LOVE" the villain turned out not to be who we thought, i.e. Ellen Barkin. While she's a slut that answers singles ads, and she looks tough, it was also set up that she used to be married to a worse weirdo, and HE turns out to be killer. So---at last minute, the villain can CHANGE as fast as the morality value judgements of one decade yields to the morality of the next. By the time you grow up, your children will be watching films where the hero offs a few perps on the way to school. The Bible on handling villains (and danger itself) is ALFRED HITCHCOCK. Rent everything he ever did. He makes a peep show out of DANGER not unlike what Mr. Corman does exposing body parts. A new hormone spurt every 15 minutes. Only HITCHCOCK's hormone of choice is ADRENALIN. His second hormone of choice is stomach acid. The sight of corpses being floated, bagged, or dragged around while couth people sit down to gemutlich meals and daintily serve each other food while they discuss mayhem, is intended to make stomachs heave and laughter belch forth.
4.) SIMPLICITY. No subsidiary MAIN plots are allowed. An hour and a half is not a long voyage. Save your complex plots for novels and mini-series. The whole plot should 'tell' in one or two sentences at most. And when you tell it, that story should grab you. So try 'telling' your story. IS IT A STORY? Try it out on someone to see. If your mother or sweetheart will listen to the whole thing, it's probably o.k, but if a 12- year old child will sit listening to you it is excellent. Films require that the basic story be 'tellable' to a high degree; they depend NOT ON TALK but on a muscular story line that moves like a train at five hundred miles in two, brief hours. Plays do not always need this as a play is not condemned for being talky. You can indulge in dialogue on the stage. Neil Simon's "Odd Couple's" shimmering raison d'etre --is the one- liners, the bon mots, the endlessly expertly crafted jokes that depend on character quirks and fall like diamonds, 4 per page. If you want to watch a phenomenon at work, a man in his prime, the funniest play ever written, take a paperback version of the play and circle each joke. There are 4 on a page, and all hysterically brilliant. Many of them come out of the quirks of the two quirky leads. Others on imaginative verbal exaggerations. On surrealistic going beyond the limits of reality. The plot,---will Felix get back with his wife, is just an invisible string under these many diamond beads that are what really satisfy and entertain.
5.) MOVIES ARE FOR FUN; AND LAUGHTER IS THE MOST FUN MANKIND CAN HAVE. A larger statistical section of the audience can enjoy laughter than eroticism. Making an R rated flick makes oldsters and kiddies not show up in the theater. So have HUMOR. Even in a highly dramatic film, where ardent and intense heroes give us sexual hormones and thrilling adrenalin, secondary characters can still be relied on for the really hot 'f' word, FUN. Let secondaries provide comic relief. Secondary characters can turn a slow movie into an audience favorite. The poker playing bozos around Felix and Oscar in Odd Couple fill the bill. Or, in a film, remember Nicholson's role of the drunk lawyer, in Easy Rider, which made him a star, and which was the only comic relief in a basically moody, tragic film. Secondaries are like baking powder: you only need a teaspoon in a cake, but they can immensely leaven the rich, main ingredients, the eggs, flour and lift any soggy doughball. When you write secondaries, load them up with LOVEABLE, endearing, comedic --even farcical ---quirks. My alltime favorite film in this respect is Billy Wilder's "Arise my Love" with Milland and Colbert. It's not in video, so you'll have to find it on cable. Wilder learned from Ernst Lubitch, who had the European traditions of romantic frothy romantic comedy well digested and under his belt. He believed the writer should always leaven the romantic with the frivolous. That way, love won't become thick, cloying and cheesy, it will become souflee-like. European playwrights left the champagne bubble-work to farcical secondary characters. In Arise My Love, WarTime news-hen Colbert meets Miland in a jail, scheduled to be hung. She gets him out. So it starts dead serious. Later, they go to Paris where she is joined by her Viennese photographer. His accent is so thick it comes out gibberish. When he's fluttering around the room, the comedic pace picks up and the film changes gears into nutcake farce allowing the two leads to do the film's most farcical seduction scene which achieves in froth what it lacks in reality. He thinks she's stopped fighting and has come to his hotel room to be seduced. She has actually come to photograph him for her paper. She says 'what chair shall we use?' Milland blanches. "Chair?" he croaks. "Yes, shall we let some light in?" She raises the shades. "You want to do it in a bright room in a chair?" he says? The audience is screaming. Later, they change back into the slower pace of their wartime love story, but it is the farce scenes with the leads that made this film sheer heaven. And the title 'Arise My Love' certainly signals that this is an erotic farce not a prison war drama.
6.) HIGH CONCEPT. Remember that old dictum, what three things makes a restaurant a hit? Location, location and location. Well, for films, it's HIGH CONCEPT. A secret gland almost like a vestigial eye, buried deep in the human brain goes on red alert when MOVIE VIEWING AUDIENCES scan newspapers or t.v. ads searching for a film to pay 7$ to view. It tickles and excites viewer when this gland senses the 'high concept' of a film via the ad. Harrison Ford with a whip, funny hat and a lot of snakes in some middle eastern location made sense at that point in Harrison's career. An insect-face alien getting lured with Reeses pieces out of the garden shed into the kid's closet where mom mistakes it for stuffed toy, WORKED. An English school boy getting swept into concentration camp by Japs in WWII didn't make as much money, but Empire of the Sun was a much greater Spielberg pic than the other two. Always try saying your plot to an imaginary studio head, summing it up until you can state the 'high concept' properly so that it 'tickles ' the Box Office gland. For this last film, I'd say EMPIRE was about a boy who is enamored of war and war toys until he encounters a real war. The irony is in the description of the plot, hence it's gooseflesh time for the studio exec who hears you describe it. Gooseflesh gets bought.
7.) HEART. When Paramount structured the ad campaign for its runaway l990 hit, "GHOST," they realized that the romantic, 'til death do we part and maybe even after' theme was its selling point, not the strong comedic or thriller aspects. The word they chose to sum it all up was certainly a gooseflesh word. It was 'BELIEVE.' When a film has 'heart' sewn into the high concept, heart above all, that movie sells, via the advertising in front, and word of mouth tail end. And it affects the viewer. I have never heard a theater react go any film the way they did to Ghost. The audience noises, laughter, awe, weeping made it the number one noise-evoker of all time. The ads for some other after death movies, ---weepy and wonderful films like Spielberg's "Always" and Albert Brooks' "Defending Your Life" could have used a gooseflesh word like this one Paramount used to work up the people in the ticket line with the 'Believe' campaign for 'Ghost.' To re-iterate, we need simple ingredients: a star vehicle, a hero or heroine we CARE ABOUT, and who care about each other, who 'meet-cute', the intense rich flavor of a villain, plot zigs and zags that are non-derivative, some frothy, leavening secondaries and a goose-flesh all over high concept. Now, get into the kitchen, assemble the ingredients, and give collecting an oscar a serious shot.
PART II. THE UNSEEN FILM; I.E. THE SCRIPT the READER SEES. 1. SHORT STAGE DIRECTIONS. You know, those little lines that go from left side of page to right margin that say. "He comes into the room, lights a cigarette. While he lights it, he carefully searches all the corners of the room. He draws his gun and wheels on a shadow in the corner." Use short, bullet sentences that don't demand much memory by the reader. COLLAPSE those descriptions to 2 lines max because long study by pros has proven that NOBODY reads this part anyway. Readers cannot wade thru long stage directions. It interrupts the experience for them. Put the visual cues in the NEW SCENE DESCRIPTION IN CAPS.
JOE ENTERING ROOM (this by the way is called the 'BULLET')
Gun in hand, he wheels on a shadow in the dark.
2.) EVEN SHORTER DIALOGUE. Save your long speeches for after you make friends with the director. Nobody reads or takes seriously a script where ANY character has long speeches. Maybe director will let you add them later, if he's windy too. Film is a traveling EYE not a traveling mind. KEEP THINGS VISUAL. You have to envisualize the entire outline before you write script. As a pacy dream. While you do this, take quick notes, throw in the essential dialogue and stick to it. DOn't add much more when you sit down to write the script. Keep the talk punchy.
3.) FROTH NOT PITH - Resist temptation to study philosophical, psychological, economic, ethical, scientific sociological, anthropological or political questions at any point in film UNLESS done thru the story's action and then only if your film pivots on this same question. Even THEN, show us your thesis, don't tell us. Don't let your characters 'jaw' about ideas. Let the action pivot for a minute on some moral issue, without the author hammering on it. We're not stupid; if you show it to us for a moment, we'll get the issue. It'll trigger something in us. Let us reconstruct those IDEAS for OURSELVES, as we watch your film or even later as we think back on the film. In other words, don't tell us the fruit milk shake contains VITAMINS. Slip them in and for sure they'll later be absorbed in the recesses of our minds strengthen our systems, and ---later, in our lives,---reappear in our beliefs, conversation and actions. And that is when and how movies advance evolution.
4.) AVOID EXPOSITION. Use Exposition only when absolutely necessary to explain something that you COULD NOT SHOW IN THE FILM ITSELF. BUT MAKE SURE YOU TRIED TO SHOW US, FIRST. Avoid turgid, Greek Drama, Shakespeare or Ibsen-like, off-stage action which your characters refer to or talk about 'after the fact.' Before the invention of the diorama, or revolving stage set, from the time of the Greeks til now, stage playwrights have had to resort to dumb, expositionary devices. The chorus of fates who moaned about a horrific war abroad, Rosencrantz and Guilderstein who tell you about Hamlet's trip to France, or Noel Coward's maid and butler who discuss the master and mistress. This 'discussing' stuff (Oh, you're the new maid sent to do the upstairs bedrooms, huh? Then you will fast learn that our mistress is cheating on our master" ) is considered exposition, is done where there are script problems and it creates other problems (BOREDOM) and is avidly to be shunned. EXPOSITION is like condoms. it severely cuts down on everybody's pleasure, but when you don't know who people ARE, you're in a spot and aren't prepared, they can be necessary.
5.) DIRTY HARRY NOT LAZY HARRY : Avoid 'Dirty Harryisms' especially if they are trendoid, familiar, and part of pop lingo already, especially when serious dialogue is required. Clint's "Make My Day," worked partly because it was ORIGINAL, and secondly, because nothing more serious is required when you hold a .45 to a perp's forehead. Last line of "Q.& A." DOESN'T work because something more serious WAS required: The asst. D.A. summing up his job in the horrendously corrupt world Lumet created for us, says "It's a dirty job but somebody's got to do it," and exits on that line. Seconds from the end of the picture too. I don't think that line worked but I can see how there practically was no other line to use. That line was already being parodied in shoe shine commercials. For me, it was a little too hacknied an expression of the idea (however true it WAS here) to sum up the powerful violent denouement. Otherwise, this film is BRILLIANT! Another case of a spectacularly well done film being destroyed--shot out of the water--- by a single line, (and this truly is the last line in this movie) is Spielberg's 1941. The entire film is flawless. Virtuoso, sumptuous, funny, Belushi's crowning performance...At the very end, Ned Beatty hammers a wreath on the door of the teetering house the G.I's themselves bombed, and the house falls off the cliff into Pacific. That would have been a fine ok ending, very in keeping with the movie. But, a big mistake was made, one that ruined the entire comedic momentum. Spielberg let Ackroyd say 'Well, it's only the lst year of the war, 1942 will probably be better. (I could almost hear Spielberg saying, "we're all rubbing our hands for a sequel so we better lay it in now".) And then Vinegar Joe Stillwell, Robert Stack says "I'll be a long war." A second boring line, which really meant maybe as many as FIVE sequels, 1942, 1943 etc, was in Spielberg's mind.. This Virtuoso 2-hr Sousa fireworks display ends with two dimbulb lines with no flash, humor,---two fizzle lines that left people walking out of the theaters shaking their heads, and ruined the last impression--- hence the word of mouth and eventually the Box Office. That film lost money in droves. And Spielberg had a team of brilliant writers, creative execs and even wives, mistresses and friends, and what about comedic actors on board---who could have given him a superb sum-up line, although the house falling was quite good enough. So when it comes time for a punchy line, PRAY you can come up with new 'Harryisms' like Puzo's "make him an offer he can't refuse,' but if you can pray that good, pray for bi-lateral disarmament and a nuclear freeze, whydoncha.
5.) AGAIN: HIGH CONCEPT- At every stage in the selling of the film you must be prepared to tell plot of film in 'one sentence.' You go into studio pitching-meetings with 'It's Jaws with an alien'- or, "extra-terrestrial lives in kid's closet, mom thinks it's a doll.' Some writer sold not one but three 'Alien' movies in one fell swoop with the former. And the best selling movie (950 mil) of all time with the latter. One LINE will show the execs their ad campaign AND very next to the exact dollar FUTURE grosses.
THE WRITING OF THE DAMN THING: THE CARDS. Unless you're doing a script to a book you love (which isn't a bad idea, as first timer movie scripts can be easier to sell if there's a book involved,) CAREFULLY STRUCTURE THE WHOLE FILM front to back, ON 3x5 CARDS FIRST. Making cards is a semi-religious experience. You go 'out of body.' A good writer actually travels into the astral and 'sees' the whole procedure as if he were watching a movie in his third eye. He may start with an idea, 'I want to do a film on wheat fields, on American farmers.' or 'I want the Mississippi river in 1929' or even more of a fix: 'I want to do a film on small town politics. But he might just shut his eyes and see the plains, and realize it's l929. He might say very specifically, "I want to write about my Uncle Buck and Aunt Edna during the depression.' But once you've got your specifics, meditate on the things only your unconscious might have stored, which your rational mind doesn't know yet. Go into your inner eye, and wait for the inner t.v. to click on. It will. Take notes without opening your eyes, as you watch your whole movie unfold. Remember, the only hope of a beginner is to be very, very original & good. Being that means not being in your MIND which is derivative, i.e. a storehouse of what other writers have done. DIG smack down into your unconscious which is a fountain of stuff NOBODY has ever done before. The 'right brain' can give you a visual, cohesive sequence that is GOING somewhere your unconscious wants to go. TRUST the unconscious. Great art comes out of it. But remember Roger Corman and all the formulas, while you're at it. Let your unconscious DRAIN its sublime, unique contents into the little MOLDS of 'the FORMULA.' So, once I have done my deep breathing and am in what Harold Ramis calls the Zen 'not-know mind, ' I meditate and begin filling out 3x5 cards, with my scribbled notes. I barely wake from my reverie to do them so they are highly illegible and must be typed up RIGHT after the session before you forget what the scribble meant. Put 1 scene locale on each card.
CARD # 1. RIVER BANK. Buck our hero, age l8, is fishing. A Cargo boat floats by; Buck waves. Boat founders on sand shoal, grinds to a halt. From river bank, Buck shows them how to lighten boat, then helps darkies unload. Dialogue. (insert it, too) Beautiful girl watches from on deck. LATER: Captain brings girl down to river bank. Her name is Edna. Dialogue (insert) CARD II. WHEAT FIELDS / HOUSE. Uncle Buck comes home with the boat captain and Edna. Card III. DINNER TABLE. CARD IV. FRONT PORCH, NIGHT. Edna/ Buck. CARD V. RIVER BANK NEXT DAY: Cargo Boat leaves, as it pulls away, we see BUCK is now working for the captain, on deck. He's left home. That's only five cards but it's a damn good start. PLOTTING TRICKS TO USE WHILE STRUCTURING YOUR SCRIPT. A.) The "what he don't know is" school of plotting. At every intersection of your initial meditative, structuring of the story, ask yourself what surprises lurk in the woodwork; i.e., 'what he don't know is.' (Billy Wilder coined this phrase.) For instance: when I had Buck meet Edna on the boat, she was just an enigma to me. A pretty girl. So I asked myself 'what he don't know is.' My unconscious immediately supplied this: what Uncle Buck don't know is Edna ISN'T the captain's daughter, she's one of his string of girlfriend/whores and two, she is really a mulatto, which he will not know until well after they're married, and three, this is really a traveling casino with whores, only masquerading as a cargo boat. And then my imagination says 'one day Buck will be Mayor' this is a turn of the century miscegnation story with political consciousness...the only kind I like to write. Excuse me but I teach an L.A. seminar in how to write SOCIALLY RELEVANT films so don't be angry with me if I switch from a lazy, southern historical romance to the distaff Great American Hope script which certainly might be much more cinematic than the true story of your uncle and aunt. See, the problem is if your unconscious HAD to remain true to the facts of this American-Depression couple, you would never come up with this wild stuff in the first place. That's why we don't REALLY WRITE FROM LIFE. That's for beginners, for writing students who always start with their own drama. Diaper time I call it. Babies play with their own squish. But adults are universal. They have learned that their unconscious (yours too) knows ALL LIFE, everybody's life. Take advantage. Ask your unconscious to dream up something good and then stand back and be prepared for it to be set in the future, or the year 1620 or yesterday in Chechnya. If you're going to stick to your real Aunt Edna, then you'd better ask it to be respectful of relatives. "Give me one 'clean' thing Buck doesn't know about Edna. That' she's a fanatical church going, cake-baking bible-thumping QUAKER or something so your own aunt an uncle don't disinherit you. Or ask 80 yr old Uncle Buck what the surprise with Edna WAS, so only Aunt Edna will disinherit you. Best, is to never ask for help.
When you are 'taking dictation' from your unconscious and it seems, momentarily, to run out of plots, try 'the all stops out, 'what he don't know is ' writing trick of Billy Wilder. I'm going to give you TWO MORE wonderful tricks that come from Billy Wilder. The man is such a gold mine. The 'AND THEN---' school of story telling. SEE Buck and Edna on the boat, then ask your unconscious, "AND THEN???" Inner eye will give you 'roads' (plots) going off in several directions. The unconscious works slowly, much slower than the MIND. Like the very slow focusing of a camera shutter. And you get ONE vision (or road) at a time. They don't come quickly like lists, or ideas in the mind. These are visions, but when they come, you SEE them. i.e. "---And then, ---they dock in the big city, St. Louis. SEE St. Louis in l929. And then? Men she's slept with show up everywhere. He doesn't notice though. You can go from there. You are slowly becoming a story teller. The unconscious will allow MYTHIC dimensions to penetrate your story that your little list-making mind could never come up with. You may not think the depression was very mythic, but your film or work of art will be judged by the ages. By the year 2090, Edna and Buck in St. Louis of l929 facing a depression can be MUCH MORE MYTHIC than you imagine. Remember Redford, in the NATURAL? That was mythic. It was written as a novel by Malamud, I believe I heard that an actual baseball tragedy out of newspaper 20's headlines was reworked by Malamud's unconscious to BECOME THAT mythical.
Your Uncle Buck and Aunt Edna MIGHT BECOME the Orpheus and Euridicye of some future day. And if art can be mythic, then even a l990 plot of how you got your lst job could also be reworked by your unconscious to become mythic. Wasn't WALL STREET mythic? When the boy visits Michael Douglas in his limo, office or beach palace, the ancient myths of Faust and Homer-Tempted were retold. The unconscious of an artist is like a lens. It can view ordinary daily life with unexpected depth. The final story can be riveting. TRUST the UNCONSCIOUS and take the time to 'get into it.' Like getting into a saddle on a tall horse, it takes just a little practice daily to be able to 'get into it' faster. Billy Wilder is inexhaustible. Lastly, there's his "ONLY" school of story plotting. As you're structuring your basic story line on cards, before you write film or dialogue, try 'only's' too. For instance, Buck picks a boarding house in St. Louis, ONLY---It forces you to add weird, imaginative predicaments, DIFFICULTIES, obstacles or conditions. I said "ONLY" and it triggered my unconscious into coming up with: "only the boarding house is all darkies." That's a pretty good "only." He opens his door the next morning and this sheltered white boy finds he's living in a black building in l929. You can always try for several 'only's then sort thru them and pick the best but it is the 'onlys' which give us a PLOT which thickens. Imagine the action that can come off this 'only.' Now, after Buck's rented his room for a month, he finds he has automatically becomes the only white man these darkies know, and a 'go-between' for a community with severe economic difficulties, vis a vis a white, wealthy, haughty Missouri community. It forces him into being a HERO. The entire Edna Buck plot was constructed as I wrote this. Doing this chapter, I needed a film plot that I wasn't working on at home. (A writer will never share that.). So I meditated. The beginning of a potential movie 'came to me' while my hands were actually on the keyboard, while I typed in ONE 3 minute long meditation. And I'm not even psychic. You can do much better than I did. So what's stopping you? Answer, NOTHING, so just do it.
IV. THE FINAL TEST of a plot. Phrasing it for Maximum 'High Concept' Potential. You do this by telling the finished story to the imaginary studio head.' My story is about a Missouri farm boy who becomes the first pol EVER to emerge in the black community in DEPRESSION St. Louis, who marries a girl who is secretly not only mulatto but an ex hooker then the Big Pols lean on him to do their bidding, blackmailing the young politician with a gingerbread family of debutante daughters. I can see the studio exec leaning toward you over his desk in total absorption, because the idea has never been done--not since Carmen Jones, or The Last Hurrah, anyway. At this point in the daydream, as you 'tell the imaginary executive,' you can see the multiplicity of directions this plot could go in. Write them all down now, before the jello clots, before any of your tentative structure solidifies into bones. Because, when you get l0 or 20 finales, you can always decide which is the most goose-fleshing eventual story goal, and head in that direction. Will she get blackmailed later and put a hit on someone? Will her skin color cause her husband to fall from power? Pretend you can hear the studio executive ask 'the most likely questions.' 'Is this about white/black relations in America, and if so, did this ever happen? Is this a love story? Pretend you answer him. You might find out what your problems are before the studio exec hacks your real, finished script to pieces! Another fine writer, Edward Anhalt, (Becket, Jeremiah Johnson) recommends that at some point during the structuring, you pretend someone bumps into you as you're coming out of the theater after watching YOUR MOVIE. He asks, 'what's it about. You're going to tell him in three sentences. 'It's an epic Middle West love story, and a lot of black, historical stuff, real interesting. Never heard any of it, before.' Or whatver. These daydream gambits give you new takes on the thing, every time you do it. But do move into the interior, visual dream when you plot or tinker with structure, or seek to know what you're really hacking away on. Michelangelo claimed he could see the finished statue standing there, when he looked at the stone. He said he was really only uncovering what was already there. Well, the place inside where your statue stands is in your unconscious so you'd better take a good, long probing look before you hack. By digging into your mind's dark interior, you will discover an incredibly original and preposterous set of conditions, that the universe or your muses or your unconscious have thrown at you---things that are new to your mind, and to the studio and to viewers. Each time you must sort through, choose, resolve any story elements, go back to the unconscious. The whole movie becomes more unpredictable, less derivative, more interesting. Nothing is formulastic. It's always 'off the wall.' The wall being your UNCONSCIOUS.
So finally, what can we do with Buck & Edna? Do they open a grain mill, and does she pass for white in a small town? Is it a story about miscegenation and fear and prejudice? Or is it about a politician's fall from on high? Or, how about a mythical man in America becomes a heroic governor of the state, then his wife's background gets them blackmailed but he turns the tables..." Or, he becomes a Gandhi figure in the Middle West due to this event. Problem is, such a thing never happened, so it's fictional. But at this point you can make your choices based on what you think the public will buy, in every sense of the word. But as you go, in your mind's eye, examine each possibility as you would freshly dug-up rough diamonds. One might be shaped well enough to cut, the other ten, fraught with cracks, might NOT. Save 'em in a box somewhere for future reference. Anyway, YOU write the Edna /Buck movie. I have no uncle in Missouri, myself. But let me give you one extra hint: when you tell the studio head your high concept, don't tell it the long way I just did. Simply say "it's Gandhi in Missouri." Remember, studio execs prefer SHORT HAND. Because their minds are already seeing the ad campaign on the newspaper MOVIE page. Or TV page because if it is Gandhi in Missouri, it would make a better novel, then a T.V. mini-series. Right now films don't want this epic, historical genre unless made by Brits, but, since these Ismael Merchant films DO very well when made in Britain, maybe we could start a trend here. So when you structure your cards, do all these little pretend-games. Envision your product and plot from all sides. Remember, ONE shot out of the film must grab the ticket buyer and bring him in. The best Box office is when a young man reads an ad, then pulls his young lady's sleeve and says 'I want to see that.' Second best box office is when a woman pulls a man's sleeve and says ' Take me there.' Third best is a film a kid wants to see it and drags a parent and all his pals, but ahead of them all is the film that ALL three groups must go see together --blockbusters like Raiders, ET and Star Wars. The commercial realities are, films cost a minimum of 10 mil below the line (before prints and advertising) and if there are exotic locales, stunts and FX, they can go as high as 100 million. Another 5 to l0 million for P&A. (Prints and advertising) So today, a film MUST be a blockbuster to do anything at all for the indie prod/studio & distributor. So consider your ad campaign while you do the cards. A t.v. ad that shows your auntie looking in love and unhappy in a lace, 20's dress and him in a bowler hat which mentions that "their love may not have been forbidden a farmer, but it is certainly forbidden a governor" MIGHT get people in to the theater. It would help if it were Streep and Redford or Michelle Pfeiffer and Jack Nicholson. Or Streep and Nicholson but all the ads in the world won't sell this flick if the script itself doesn't have a high-concept plot. Something that 'pushes the edges of the envelope,' thematically speaking.'
So, perhaps I'd put this plot aside, and try meditating again. My unconscious is triggered by what's around me, at every second. In my kitchen where I'm washing dishes, a Public Radio Station is on, with a biographical show about an American, populist 50's radio star in the farming south. It's an interesting life as the fellow was blackballed out of radio. I finish the dishes, go into my study, turn off the lights and sit. A plot just comes to me. What if this heroic leftist activist were a re-incarnation of Abe Lincoln. Wow. How would it start? Well, Abe Lincoln's in heaven. Truman's just lit the A-bomb under Japan. (an added benefit is all the studios are Japanese owned now, and they'd be open to this one.) Abe is shocked, wants to be reborn on Earth. God, (played by Marlon Brando) argues he can't, he's done his job perfectly, to the T, and no re-takes are required, karma wise. Abe persists, saying the Civil War was all his fault and the draft was bad karma and convinces God he should be allowed to go back. Abe is such a convincing debater, God gives in, and Abe's reborn in Texas. He's a poor farmboy, at school he studies Abe's life, not knowing it is HE, become a radio-Will Rogers type entertainer like Garrison Keiler, who runs for U.S. Prexy and wins. It's Mr. Deeds Comes from Heaven. High concept? Yes it is, but whether it's high concept earthy enough to get financed at a studio, cannot be determined so easily. Albert Brooks got 'Defending Your Life' ( a 'heaven / reincarnation ' movie,) made, partly because the fine script got Meryl Streep interested. But stars Kelly McGillis and Tim Hutton couldn't save their perfectly fine reincarnation movie, "Made in Heaven." And believe me, when you show up at a studio or producer's office with a heaven movie, they are going to cite chapter and verse on every heaven film ever made. In that case, broach Warren Beatty's remake of the Paul Muni film. But don't worry now about such details as the studio brass. You've heard 'man proposes, god disposes?' Well, writers propose, and STUDIOS dispose. And later, audiences dispose. Time (and the skill of studio development execs who will tinker with your basic concept ---will tell. When you brainstorm up 2 or 3 dozen wild ideas from your unconscious, simply PICK THE BEST ONE. Good marriages and blockbuster commercial films get born the same way. BEING SELECTIVE from word ONE. As banks are very leery of leaping on scripts with cameras and immediate wholehog financing, a lengthy 'development' process always takes place, nowadays, where your basic ideas will be 'refined' a hundred thou at a time. Some writers appreciate the help; some consider the tinkerers to be a plague, a scourge. But, it is generally agreed, with high costs today, they are a necessary evil. (NOTE: Just as this article was written, with the US in a recession, independents have stopped buying scripts that need developing. They want their babies BORN perfect. They aren't going to pay to send them to school. So share your cards with your film buff friends. Develop 'em with PALS' help.) What you have to worry about at this CARD stage is not only getting the initial card-writing process done, but doing it correctly from every aspect. Gauge commerciality factors at every step as you structure. Structure refers to the shape of the story's bones. That shot where the plane crashes into the sky scraper? COSTLY. But always write it anyway if there's no cheaper way out. Maybe they can fake it with bluescreen. When the bones are finished, and the thing can walk, then think about fleshing it out with dialogue. NEXT, HOW do you write the actual script? You will be using the Paramount Form, as I heard one oscar-winning screen writer, who was writing films during the 40's and 50's, call it.
IV. THE 'PARAMOUNT' FORM. (The actual 'look' of the script.) All SHOULD BE COURIER 12 CPI
EXT. RIVERBANK - DAY
BUCK (l8) a husky farmboy, sits with a bucket of freshly caught fish. He baits and casts his line into the Mississippi. A cargo boat approaches in BG. When he hooks a fish, the black deckhands cheer him. Buck sees a beautiful young girl at the boat's prow.
Ma'am, may I gift you with these fish? Even swim them out to you if you want'em.
GIRL ON DECK
She is EDNA, (l7) beautiful, red-brown hair, very sexual, but wearing a plain dress. (This lets us know she's nice & it's the female lead) Edna laughs.
You'd lose your fish to wave at a girl?
The Fish tugs.
BUCK (pulling it in)
I get reckless when a girl's pretty as you.
EDNA is touched.
Won't do you no good. We're headed for St Louis.
She smiles, waves goodbye sadly. Suddenly she is jolted as the boat comes to a halt on a sand bar.
DECK OF BOAT
Darkies run around the cabin looking overboard. CAPTAIN ANDERSON, (56) comes out on deck. He is a sinister madman. bushy brows, hooked nose, a Sterling Hayden clone.
What the hell you darkies done now? I know you done it. Edna, what the hell happened?
We HEAR her slip into the water. A little kerplunk. Cut to BUCK who smiles widely.
BAM WHAM! Note punchy description on EVERY character so reader can get a quick fix on each and recall him later. Also include age--not optional, ( ) are optional. The CAPITALS on a name in the descriptive bullet show this is his first time introduced. A separate CHARACTER page at FRONT, behind title page, PRE-capping characters, doesn't hurt either. THE NEXT STAGE OF WRITING THE SCRIPT The PERSONAL GROWTH OF THE CHARACTER FACTOR: Your character wants something, but it isn't what he really NEEDS. Over the course of the film he must discover his short- sightedness, mend his ways. That's one specific kind of growth. Wanting but really NEEDING SOMETHING ELSE, but any other kind of mental 'click' of growth that the audience can SEE thru your script helps make your film lofty, resonant, and more meaningful. Think back to characters you've seen. Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon WANTS to die, but what he needs is to again become engrossed in catching scum thru cop work. Structured properly, the film's main action becomes the catalyst for your character's having the click, & making changes.
The INDECENCY FACTOR. As a responsible writer you will want to make PG-13 or soft R films that do not pollute the heads of young teens, or awaken inappropriate impulses in them. There's a line a writer walks that involves responsibility as a fellow citizen. Show lurid things without inviting youngsters to go out and experience the thrill of the lurid activity. In other words, luridity written so that thinking adults understand what's going down. but which is presented so as to go over the heads of youngsters. Filmakers did this very adroitly in the 40's when the Breen Office breathed down producers' necks. "CAGED" was a lurid film about women in prison; its only sexual romantic action was Lesbian in nature. There's a scene where a bull dyke sits next to the beautiful young, Eleanor Powell who is vulnerable and traumatized and almost in a trance, and the dyke looks down at her hungrily and tells her meaningfully, "you're in here long enough you forget about men entirely." Adult audiences got the message loud and clear. We didn't need hands on breasts or attempted kisses at all! Other writers say, 'why worry?' I heard one old pro say art was immune from the laws of moral reprehensibility. He told me, 'do you think people go see a Giotto hanging in a museum and go out and crucify someone?' Actually this writer had done the first film on a serial killer, done in the 50's. Some young man saw it l9 times, went out and killed 7 women. The mothers of the dead girls sued the studio for the perversity of the film. In court the writer defended himself saying 'your honor, I see nothing perverse. Now, if he'd gone out and killed seven MEN--- these ladies might have a case.' That didn't impress the judge but the studio didn't have to pay damages, based on the freedom of speech amendment to the Bill of Rights. This man will face his judge elsewhere I suppose.
LITTLE ERRORS THAT KILL A SCRIPT'S CHANCE OF A FAIR READING Now, for a few common mistakes that beginning writers make. A few little silly strokes you must avoid making when you write script, or, in the case your script is written, which you must FIX, ---before the script can be shown to a studio reader. In the world of marketing, hustling, selling to Hollywood, there ARE no LITTLE mistakes , of course. Any of the following errors would be glaring errors. Any professional studio reader would immediately suspect you of being an amateur if these errors were to be allowed to remain in the final draft you hand in. Little 'flaws,' in a script, turn readers off. Allowing them to remain in your submission would be like mentioning your worst vices on a lst date. It would so prejudice the girl, that you could never get your virtues appreciated from that moment on. Studio readers enter the analysis of the script into a log, called 'coverage.' You cannot fix the script after it's turned down and resubmit the script later. Even to another regime of executives at that studio. The coverage is permanently on record. NOTE: If you ever want to re-submit to another regime of execs, at the same studio, it can be done. Simply change the title! COMMON ERRORS IN WRITING:
1.) FLAB. Showing your laziness, not your stupidity. Correct all misspellings, erroneous facts. Your computer has 'SPELL CHECK' so this is no big thing.
2. BLAB. Being too wordy in the description paragraph. This is not a novel. It's a map for trained professionals to shoot with.
3. ARROGANCE. Having any director's cues or angles in the script. A 'bankable' director has to be signed on to the script for it to get financed. Alienate him at this stage, you're dead in the water. Have a little humility. Leave the decisions to He who is the most egocentric, controlling person on the planet, He who also knows the language of cinema to its last verb and who is a visual genius: the average film director.
4. OLD HAT. NOT BEING 21st century. BANALITY. Anything derivative or ordinary. T.V. fare from the 50's, 60's, 70's or 80's. Car chases are dead in the water. REMEMBER DIE HARDERS TRY HARDER. No predictable, hacknied old-fashioned villains, action, bar fights, car chases in DIEHARDER. Recall Bruce trapped in sealed pilot's cabin, live grenades by his feet, EJECTING then Parachuting out. Gets a l0. Then dropping onto wing of villain's plane, poking hole in gas tank, then lighting plane's gas trail on the snow with a pocket lighter, blowing it up, also earlier, l villain getting crushed on a luggage carrying stair, and the alltime stunt was his reaching a gun that eluded his fingertips by turning on the escalator just as villain's gun is turned on him. Also a fine snowmobile chase. Nothing old hat in having a Panamanian drug-trading dictator protected by elements of our Military Intelligence, either. Lethal Weapon II picked the South Africans, a handy target during the pre-Mandela years. Being 90's means being relevant to 90's trips. Don't be backwards, banal, 'usual' or COMMONPLACE in choice of heroes, stunts & action, choice of mise en scene, (locales) or in your choice of villains. (i.e. what you identify as negative forces in the world.) Lastly, in your dialogue, struggle with your own machine to achieve the extraordinary via going inward, and coming up with good stuff, then rewriting it. Submit your stuff to savvy friends for critiquing. Take their criticism if not their advice, (as they can rarely give it if they aren't film buffs or professionals), and rewrite that part, when you see how some advice can be utilized to make script better. (For easy rewrites, get a word processor instead of a typewriter, and do use Spell Check as misspellings make the reader think it's amateur night in Dixie. At first writing and every rewrite, DRILL into the unconscious and make it supply you. Sometimes the unconscious accidentally get 'drilled into' when you're doing automatic work, like washing dishes, so be attentive to your musings at such times. What floats to the top--as it were, while you're polishing the car, watering the garden is the finishing polish. To come up with these inspirations you have to live, eat and breathe that one script, during the process of writing it, otherwise your unconscious will NOT notice it. The unconscious is deep, not attached at all to your usual mental concerns. You must convince your unconscious this is a survival concern or a 'soul' concern in order to get it to help you. Of course, some artists just have a lot more connection with their 'mastermind.' Most of us have to get out the drill bit. It's that link between right and left brains that makes our work deep and resonant and original. So drill we must. To motivate your doing this digging, convince yourself once and for all, to sell a great script, you cannot be lazy, derivative, commonplace, left brained, 'usual' or banal. Your script must crackle and pop with vibrancy, pivot on visceral 90's concerns, & shimmer with ARTISTIC originality. It alternately must inspire loving & caring, sorrow & weeping, horror, wonder and laughter. To achieve this, you must FEEL what your character feels as you write it. We must diligently become 'method' writers, a word Stanislavsky coined to direct actors. We must actually walk in your characters' shoes, hallucinating ourselves INTO the action, to ACHIEVE REALISM. Be there as you write down your character's next word or motion. I once heard Jack Garfein, a New York Method director and writer, who's the end of a theater lineage going from Strasberg, branching back to the Group theater, rooting right back to Stanislavsky, talk about screenwriting. Jack complained about the time it took him, because he would never just write off the top of his head. At every sentence, he'd put the pen on the paper and stop. He had to go inward to where it was real. He always did it and sometimes found the pen had entirely drained into the page when he finally started to write.
But when it's real, it's magical, the writing always surprises and never is derivative. Learn from these dedicated last twig-people, on long branches of dramatic lineage. Many are not around, Stanislavsky or the people who studied with him, like the late great Stella Adler, or the stiff-necked Mr. Lee Strasberg have all gone to that great WRITERS UNION MEETING in the sky but their books are in your libraries. And I am certain new gurus will come, the students of Adler and Strasberg and they will teach acting, directing, and writing-- and the tricks, the methods to drill into the unconscious and pull real, visceral things out, fluttering with life and astounding audiences the way a live rabbit or pigeon amazes when it flies out of a top hat. But when the lowest the Writers Guild will let them pay you for your first effort is 50 grand ---with that incentive, I'd get a top hat.
Ready to GO? Check out the best coffee houses that'll let you sit around and write: https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/10-best-hollywood-coffee-shops-668010
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