Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Screenwriting Exercise: How To Use Netflix To Watch Movies Like A Script Reader

So you’re all caught up on the latest season of Orange Is the New Black and now you’re looking for something else to watch. You scroll through the other offerings on Netflix, ready to take a chance on something different, hoping to find that hidden gem you’ve never heard of.

You browse description after description but you can’t decide between a movie about a retired CIA agent whose ex-wife goes missing while vacationing in Tehran or that one about a tough-as-nails high school gym teacher who uses questionable means to push his students to their physical limits.

Some of your choices may have recognizable names in the cast, but those might have just been a paycheck for the star while the film is hardly worth your time. Some are likely straight-to-video/cable/VOD/streaming, but these days many outstanding feature films – such as Josh Boone's Stuck in Love, which only played on 21 screens – fail to get wide theatrical distribution simply because nobody wears a cape in them.

You can’t possibly watch everything. Whichever movie you start, you’ll probably watch it through to the end even if it’s not grabbing you right away because you never know, it might pick up. And besides, if you stop partway through, you won’t have time to get in another whole movie. Unless...

Imagine you’re a Hollywood script reader armed with a stack of spec scripts to read. Most will be shit, but one of them might be that elusive diamond in the rough that you can recommend to your boss so she can win an Oscar and forget to thank you in her 45-second speech. You’ve never heard of the writers of any of these scripts. You look at the loglines to decide which ones pique your interest. You read those first. You can tell a script not going anywhere in less than ten pages so you fling it against the wall and move on to the next one. You don’t have time to read them all.
In this sense, the script reader's dilemma is not unlike the one you already face as a consumer trying to pick a movie to watch on Netflix. So try this experiment as a writing exercise: Pick a handful of movies that sound promising. Doesn’t matter whether it’s the plot description, the cast, the director, or the thumbnail image that gives you hope. Just go with a bunch of movies you don’t know that much about. Ideally, you haven’t even seen their trailers. You should know not that much more about each film than a reader would know about your script from just its logline and page count. After all, readers prejudge your script based on its premise, page count, or any nonstandard formatting that stands out from just thumbing through the pages before they read the first FADE IN the same way you prejudge any finished movie to decide if you want to watch it.

Now watch only the first fifteen minutes of each movie in your test queue. One opening sequence after another. If you watch the first fifteen minutes of six to eight movies, you’ll have spent as much time in total as it would take to watch one full movie, but now you’ll have a better idea of which of the six or eight movies show the most promise without having invested the time to watch all six or eight movies all the way through. Chances are, only one or two will be worth revisiting. Here’s where the educational part of this game comes in.

Log back onto Netflix tomorrow to finish one of the half dozen or so movies that you started yesterday. Which one will you start with? Go with your gut. Which one do you most want to see more of? Unlike the criteria you used to decide which movies to start, the choice you make now will be based on the strength of the execution of the film’s opening scenes rather than its premise or cast. Strength of execution is what a script reader is evaluating in those first ten pages.

Examine what drew you back to the movie you had to finish first. Did it get the story started quickly and leave you dying to know what happens next? Did it introduce you to a character you are looking forward to spending more time with? Did the tone match expectations set up by the film’s description and poster image or whatever criteria led you to pick it in the first place?

Even if you plan to eventually finish all the movies you started, you have no choice but to prioritize them. Think of the ones at the bottom of that list. Can you remember what happened in them up to the point where you stopped watching? Was it anything exciting, or was the film taking its sweet time setting things up, leaving you still wondering what it was really about after investing a quarter of an hour in it? If Netflix drops one of those movies at the end of the month before you have a chance to finish it, would you go out of your way to get the DVD to find out where it was going?

Analyze what was and wasn’t working about the first fifteen minutes of the movies you want to get back to first and the ones you’ll never get back to, then take a hard look at the first ten pages of your screenplay. Does it suck the reader in? Does something happen right away that leaves the reader dying to know what will happen next? Is the main character compelling, and do we see what’s compelling about him or her in the first three pages? From the very first page, does the tone match the expectation set up by your logline and title? Can the reader tell from the first ten pages that the script is going somewhere, or will he still be wondering at page eight what the screenplay is eventually going to be about? Has anything major happened in the first five pages, or is the reader more likely to find something more exciting happening in one of the other scripts in his pile? If the reader is distracted by a phone call or a fire and must put down your script at page ten, was there something in those pages that will have left him dying to get back to it?

Readers sometimes cite “too many typos” as the number one reason they’ll stop reading a script after just a few pages, but the truth is, they’re just not that into the script. They’ll overlook a hundred typos if a script truly hooks them the way the opening scene of the first movie you decided to continue in this experiment did. So pay attention to what does and doesn’t hold your interest in these randomly selected movies’ beginnings and make sure your first ten pages, as well as the next 80 or 90, will grab the reader the same way.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Conflict in Screenwriting: Feuding Friends

Every scene in a movie needs conflict. Not just the big, action-y beats where the hero dukes it out with the bad guy, but the talking heads scene between two best friends as well. Just because two characters in a screenplay are best friends doesn’t mean they agree on everything. In fact, if they do, it will seem like the best friend character is only there to give the hero someone to talk to as they spout the exposition the writer wants the audience to know.

So how does conflict work among characters who are on the same side and are supposed to be getting along? Let’s take a look at Callie Khouri’s 1991 Oscar-winning debut script, Thelma & Louise, about two gal pals who set off on a road trip and always have each other’s back when the shit hits the fan, as an example. (SPOILER ALERT: This discussion will reveal plot details of the film.)
Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis take a selfie in THELMA & LOUISE (1991)
The titular women are already longtime besties when we first meet them, but they have completely different worldviews, especially where men are concerned. Louise (Susan Sarandon) has been burned by men, knows not to trust them, and does not want them interfering with her girls-night-out weekend at the lake. Thelma (Geena Davis) has only ever been with one man—to whom she is unhappily married—and longs for a small taste of sexual freedom just once in her life. These contrasting character traits inform their conflicts.

Right from the start Louise argues with Thelma that they won’t be needing the lantern—or the gun—that Thelma has brought. Still barely out of town, Thelma wants to stop and have some fun on the way to the lake. Louise does not. More conflict. Thelma wants to drink and dance. Louise warns her not to get into any trouble. Thelma doesn’t listen and gets herself into real trouble out in the parking lot. Louise has to rescue her by shooting Harlan (Timothy Carhart), setting both ladies on the lam. If they didn’t have the gun or stop for drinks or dance with Harlan, the rest of the movie couldn’t happen.
When Thelma (Geena Davis) doesn't listen to Louise (Susan Sarandon), Louise has to rescue her from a rapist in THELMA & LOUISE (1991).
Later, Thelma wants to pick up J.D. (Brad Pitt). Louise doesn’t think it’s such a good idea. Thelma gets her way and J.D. steals Louise’s money. A setback for both of them. They’re in this mess together, but they got there through conflicting goals and attitudes every step of the way. As Detective Hal Slocumb (Harvey Keitel) points out to J.D., if he hadn’t taken their money, their crime spree wouldn’t have begun spiraling out of control in the very next scene. A difference of opinion—about stopping to get laid—tied to the defining contrasts of these two main buddy characters, has again resulted in a consequence that forces the plot into yet another new direction.
Thelma (Geena Davis) takes a time-out from being a fugitive to have some fun with J.D. (Brad Pitt) in THELMA & LOUISE (1991).
From this point on, Thelma takes control, but the pair remain very distinct characters. Thelma robs a liquor store while Louise waits in the car, unaware. Thelma forces Louise to confront a dark, repressed memory. Thelma gets them away from a cop who pulls them over for speeding after Louise has run out of ideas. And Louise is the one who slips and lets the FBI find them, while Thelma wonders if Louise is considering giving up.

Each protagonist has her own distinct arc. Thelma begins as a sheltered idealist, while Louise is a hardened realist. By the end of the picture, the BFFs are square on the same page. They make their final—and hardest—decision together, in absolute unity.
Thelma (Geena Davis) takes control when Louise (Susan Sarandon) runs out of ideas in THELMA & LOUISE (1991).
ScripTipps TIP: Buddy characters should have fundamentally opposite qualities, like Oscar and Felix.

ScripTipps TIP: Imbue every scene with conflict that grows naturally from your characters’ differences.

ScripTipps TIP: Use a little conflict to enliven a talking heads scene among best friends who are always on each other’s side.

ScripTipps TIP: Use a hint of conflict to underline the consequences that will end up moving the plot in a new direction.

ScripTipps TIP: In a two-hander, give each protagonist her own distinct arc that couldn’t exist without the actions of both of them.

ScripTipps TIP: Buddy characters start out as opposites but end up on the same page after each has gone through some transformation.

ScripTipps TIP: Don’t let a supporting character exist just to give the hero someone to talk to for the sake of delivering exposition.

ScripTipps TIP: Make things happen where if they didn’t, the rest of the story wouldn’t happen.

(A version of this post was first published on Five Sprockets on July 19, 2010.)

Sunday, March 26, 2017

The Art of Dramatization

Renee Zellweger as Roxie Hart and Richard Gere as Billy Flynn demonstrate how to dramatize a true story in Chicago (2002).
Criminal defense attorney Billy Flynn (Richard Gere) explains to his client, murder defendant Roxie Hart (Renee Zellweger), that he plans to reshape her public image in the press in order to gain sympathy with prospective jurors in the 2002 film Chicago. “Nobody’s gonna care a lick what your defense is unless they care about you,” he says.

Sometimes, you have to dress up the truth to make it interesting to an audience.

In Argo (2012), President Carter calls off a mission to rescue American hostages in Iran at the last minute, but Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) decides to disobey orders and continue the mission anyway, at great personal risk to himself. Only that scenario, like much of the suspense in the third act of that movie, never happened. But it sure makes the film’s star (and director) seem more heroic.
Ben Affleck stars as a fictionalized version of a hero in Argo (2012).
Dramatization is a word we see on commercials, a disclaimer warning us that the product being advertised won’t necessarily work precisely as depicted when you get it home. Or in documentaries that use actors reenacting historical events that took place before the invention of film.

Dramatization means fake. So does fiction. All movies based on true stories that use actors to reenact those true stories carry the work-of-fiction disclaimer in their end credits.

Hidden Figures (2016) is based on the true story of three African-American women who worked behind the scenes at NASA to help launch mankind into outer space during the civil rights era. In the film, Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) is a genius mathematician who proves herself so valuable to the cause that she is assigned to work in the all-white, all-male Space Task Group led by Al Harrison (Kevin Costner). A unique problem this protagonist faces is that there are no “colored restrooms” in the building that houses the Space Task Group.
Kevin Costner tears down a segregated bathroom sign in a fictional scene from Hidden Figures (2016).
When confronted about her long bathroom breaks, Katherine explains to her boss, loud and clear, exactly why it takes her forty minutes to go to the bathroom. Harrison responds by brutally tearing down the “colored restrooms” sign, forever ending segregation in the U.S. space program. “At NASA, we all pee the same color,” he declares in one of the film’s many stand-up-and-cheer moments.

And one of its most fictional moments. While segregated bathrooms were still a real thing in the U.S. at the time of the Mercury launch, the real Katherine Johnson says she never felt segregation at NASA. “You had a mission and you worked on it.”

Unable to find “colored restrooms” in the east building, she assumed it didn’t matter and just used the white bathrooms for years before someone pointed out her mistake. She then ignored the reprimand and continued using the white bathrooms without further incident. No sign-smashing ceremony ever took place.

Imagine how unexciting a movie would be where events unfolded so uneventfully. Take a look at Loving (2016), for example. Also based on a true story, Loving explores the lives of the plaintiffs in the 1967 Supreme Court case that struck down laws prohibiting interracial marriage.
Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton sit out most of the action in the true-to-life drama Loving (2016).
Writer-director Jeff Nichols has stated he “didn’t feel comfortable making things up with this story.” The script was based on a 2011 documentary that consisted primarily of vintage interview footage of the Lovings without narration or contemporary commentary, and no artificial drama added. The protagonists weren’t even present for their own moment of victory – a detail a more Hollywood movie maker would not have hesitated to tinker with. Nichols’ choice to not reshape events to make a more feel-good movie resulted in a fine film about an important subject that stuck as close as possible to the plain, boring, real-life truth and failed to find a wide audience.

But the bathroom sequence in Hidden Figures does more than dramatize a non-event for the sake of making it more entertaining. The movie is set in a time and place where all the ingredients of the scene existed. What’s more, the motivation for telling this untold story today is to highlight the achievements of people who feel marginalized due to race and gender. The few frames of Kevin Costner destroying a “Colored Ladies Room” sign in the trailer is a powerful visual that sells a lot of what this movie stands for: The times when we have to say, “Enough with all this discrimination nonsense. We have more important things we can be accomplishing together.”
Octavia Spencer, Taraji P. Henson, and Janelle Monae as mathematicians who overcome racism during the Jim Crow era to help put the first man into space in Hidden Figures (2016).
Any screenplay, even one not based on a true story, might have a scene that advances its story in much the way it would likely unfold in the dull old real world. Can that scene be improved with some creative dramatization? Probably.

Take any talking-heads scene in your script. Identify its source of conflict. Now think of a way to visualize that. Make that story beat’s point through a character’s action rather than dialogue. Dress it up. Turn it into a movie scene.

No one’s going to care about what your screenplay has to say unless it says it dramatically. Take it from Billy Flynn, a colorful embellishment himself. For Chicago, believe it or not, is yet another example of a dressed-up, highly entertaining dramatization of an already sensational true story.

Friday, February 3, 2017

2017 Screenwriting Competitions

Many new screenwriters rely on screenwriting competitions to get noticed. For features, winning a contest can help you land an agent or manager. For aspiring television writers, winning a fellowship might put you in a training program that can lead to being staffed on your first show. Some of the feature-writing contests offer similar fellowships too.

Here is a list of writing competitions and their 2017 deadlines, with links to the contests' websites, all in one place, courtesy of my friend David Bertran. (Bookmark this page. Some of these deadlines have passed, but should be around the same time next year. Also, some of the sites have not yet published entry information for this year, so you'll need to check back later.)


Open: May - Deadline: sometime in the summer

Open: May 1 - Deadline: May 31

Open: May 1 - Deadline: May 31

Open: Mar 3 - Deadline: May 1

Open: Mar 3 - Deadline: May 1

Open: Jan 2 - Deadline: Feb 28

Open: Sep 1 - Deadline: Sep 30

Open: Dec 10 - Deadline: Feb 1

Deadlines: Mar 31 / Apr 20 / May 15

Open: Mar 1 - Deadline: Mar 4

Deadlines: Nov 18

Deadlines: Jan 12 / Feb 9 / Mar 1

Open: Jan 1 - Deadline: Jan 10 / Apr 2

Open: Apr 6 - Deadline: Aug 7

Open: Oct 1 - Deadlines: Dec 30 / Jan 15

SCREENCRAFT PILOT TV Contest: Open: May 13 - Deadlines: Jul 13 / Sep 13

Deadlines: Mar 1 / May 1 / May 15 / May 29

Deadlines: Dec 4 / Jan 8 / Feb 5 / Feb 20

Deadline: Aug 9 / Sep 8 / Oct 6 / Nov 3

Deadlines: Dec 20 / Jan 15 / Feb 25 / Apr 5


Deadlines: Mar 7 / Apr 10 / May 1

Deadlines: Mar 31 / Apr 20 / May 15

Deadlines: Apr 11 / Jun 13 / Jul 25

Deadlines: Nov 15

Deadlines: May 3

Deadline: Jul 31

Open: Feb 1 - Deadlines: Feb 27 (non-members) / Mar 13 (members)

Deadline: Mar 3 (Only open to Writer-Directors)

Open: Sep 6 - Deadline: Nov 6

Open: Oct 1 - Deadlines: Dec 30 / Jan 15

Family-Friendly Contest: Open: Oct 2 - Deadlines: Nov 2 / Dec 30
Sci-Fi Contest: Open: Jan 16 - Deadlines: Feb 16 / Mar 30
Comedy Contest: Open: Mar 1 - Deadlines: Apr 1 / May 17
Horror Contest: Open: Mar 15 - Deadlines: Apr 15 / Jul 1
Action & Thriller Contest: Open: Jul 17 - Deadlines: Aug 9 / Oct 11
Short Contest: Open: May 17 - Deadlines: Jun 17 / Aug 1
Short Story Contest: Open: Oct 4 - Deadlines: Nov 4 / Dec 16

Opens: Feb 22

Deadlines: unknown

Deadlines: Jan 12 / Feb 9 / Mar 1

Deadlines: Jan 6 / Feb 1 / Mar 10 / Apr 17 / May 1

Deadline: Jul 31 / Sep 30 / Nov 30 / Jan 8

Deadline: Nov 11

Deadlines: Jan 17 / Feb 17 / Mar 17 / Apr 17

Deadlines: Mar 1 / May 1 / May 15 / May 29

Deadlines: Jul13 / Aug 14 / Sep 6 / Sep 21

Deadline: Jul 30 / Sep 4 / Oct 9

Deadlines: Dec 20 / Jan 15 / Feb 25 / Apr 5

Deadline: Aug 9 / Sep 8 / Oct 6 / Nov 3

Deadlines: May 20 / Jul 22 / Sep 23 / Nov 18 / Dec 2

Enter a script anytime for evaluation. If scores are really high, you get exposure thru them.

Good luck!

Deadlines for Austin Film Festival have been corrected
Dates added for HBO Access Fellowship

Monday, January 16, 2017

2016's Award-Worthy Screenplays

All the movie award shows have a category (sometimes two) for Best Screenplay. Do the voters actually read the screenplays and factor in writing style and formatting when they vote? Almost definitely not. They generally vote based on the finished film’s plot, structure, and dialogue.

Nevertheless, the studios do make the screenplays of their top awards contenders available to voters through websites that anyone can access for free. Seeing a finished film does not always tell you what the writer’s contribution was. So go ahead and click on the links below and download all these scripts while they’re still online, then read them and tell us in the comments which ones you think will or should get nominations or awards.

Bleecker Street's 2016 Top Screenplay Award Contenders
Founded in 2014 by former Focus Features CEO Andrew Karpen, Bleecker Street Media received its first Oscar nomination, in the Best Actor heat, for Bryan Cranston's performance in 2015's Trumbo. This year they are hoping for Oscar recognition in the Best Original Screenplay category for the terrorist thriller Eye in the Sky, the alternative parenting drama Captain Fantastic, and the World War II thriller Anthropoid, and in the Best Adapted Screenplay category for the Holocaust denier courtroom drama Denial.

Universal Pictures' 2016 Top Screenplay Award Contenders
One of Hollywood's major studios, the 104-year-old Universal Pictures scored a Best Original Screenplay nod last year for Straight Outta Compton. This year their fingers are crossed for the Coen Brothers' Hail, Caesar! and the animated hits The Secret Life of Pets and Sing in the Best Original Screenplay category, and the sequels Bridget Jones's Baby and My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2 and the adaptation of The Girl on the Train in the Best Adapted Screenplay category. Note: The original My Big Fat Greek Wedding was nominated for Best Original Screenplay in 2003.

Walt Disney Studios' 2016 Top Screenplay Award Contenders
Eligible films in the Best Screenplay categories from Walt Disney Studios include Finding Dory, Moana, The Jungle Book, Captain America: Civil War, Queen of Katwe, Dr. Strange, and Rogue One. However, Disney has chosen to make only one screenplay available this year for awards consideration: Zootopia by Jared Bush and Phil Johnston, with six additional writers receiving story credit. The studio had two nominations last year in the Best Original Screenplay category (Bridge of Spies and Inside Out). Pixar features have garnered a total of eight screenwriting Oscar nods, but, excluding Miramax releases, the only Disney-distributed script to ever win the gold was 1989's Dead Poets Society.

Fox Searchlight's 2016 Top Screenplay Award Contenders
Fox Searchlight, the art-house branch of 20th Century Fox, has an excellent track record in the Academy's screenwriting categories, picking up seven writing trophies in the last 11 years (Sideways, Little Miss Sunshine, Juno, Slumdog Millionaire, The Descendants, 12 Years a Slave, and Birdman), with six more nominations for scribes in the same period. This year they offer screenplay downloads for Nate Parker's slave revolt drama, The Birth of a Nation, and their First Lady biopic, Jackie, for the consideration of Academy members, both in the Best Original Screenplay category.

Focus Features' 2016 Top Screenplay Award Contenders
Universal's indie branch, Focus Features, was last in the running for a writing Oscar for 2014's The Theory of Everything (adapted). They previously won Best Original Screenplay trophies for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) and Milk (2008), and had Adapted Screenplay triumphs with The Pianist (2002) and Brokeback Mountain (2005). This year's hopefuls, available for download, are the animated feature Kubo and the Two Strings (original), interracial marriage drama Loving (adapted, though considered original by the WGA), dark fantasy A Monster Calls (adapted) and Tom Ford's thriller, Nocturnal Animals (adapted).

Sony Pictures Classics' 2016 Top Screenplay Award Contenders
Sony Pictures Classics has a full dozen screenplay contenders available for download: (original) The Comedian, financial thriller Equity, The Hollars, Dutch drama Land of Mine, Rebecca Miller's Maggie's Plan, The Meddler, jazz biopic Miles Ahead, German comedy Toni Erdmann, and The Red Turtle, an animated feature with no dialogue; and (adapted) French psychological thriller Elle, Hank Williams biopic I Saw the Light, and Pedro Almodóvar's Julieta. Their last Oscar-winning screenplay was Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris (original, 2011). Recent nominations include Blue Jasmine, Foxcatcher, Before Midnight, and Whiplash.

Amazon Studios' 2016 Top Screenplay Award Contenders
Amazon Studios is aiming for their first invitation to the Oscars this year. Up for consideration are Love & Friendship, an adaptation of Jane Austen's Lady Susan, and, in the original screenplay category, Kenneth Longergan's front runner, Manchester by the Sea, whose screenplay has already racked up over 15 awards from critics organizations and 20 more writing nominations, with the film appearing on over 50 ten-best lists for 2016. Other scripts from the startup studio that are eligible but not currently available at Amazon's guild site include Woody Allen's period romance Café Society and Nicolas Winding Refn's The Neon Demon (my personal favorite of the year).
Founded in 1912, Paramount Pictures took home the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar last year for The Big Short. Other recent writing nominations for the studio include The Fighter, Hugo, Flight, The Wolf of Wall Street, and, from the Paramount Vantage label, Nebraska. This year Paramount plans to compete with their extraterrestrial linguistics spectacular, Arrival, a period garbage-man drama, Fences, and Martin Scorsese's historical religious epic, Silence, all in the Adapted Screenplay category. Also eligible, but not available for download, are Florence Foster Jenkens and Allied.
Another of the "Big Six" studios, Warner Bros. has only one script available for Oscar consideration this year: the heroic airline pilot biopic Sully, based on its subject's autobiography. They previously won consecutive writing Oscars for Argo (2012, adapted) and Her (2013, original). Other recent writing nominations for the studio included The Artist, Inception, American Sniper, and Inherent Vice.
The Weinstein brothers ran notoriously successful Oscar campaigns with their previous company, Miramax. Success has followed them to The Weinstein Company with Oscar statuettes for the writers of The King's Speech (2010, original), Django Unchained (2012, original), and The Imitation Game (2014, adapted), with nominations for the scribes of Silver Linings Playbook, Philomena, and Carol. This year, the Weinsteins are crossing their fingers for two original screenplays based on true stories, McDonald's founder biopic The Founder and mining-scam drama Gold, another true story adapted from a non-fiction book, the lost-child drama Lion, and an original musical comedy from Ireland, Sing Street (another personal favorite of mine).
Finally, A24, another newcomer, hot off their first nominations last year, for Best Original screenplay (Ex Machina) and Best Adapted Screenplay (Room, which gave the distributor its first Oscar win, for Best Actress). Downloadable for Oscar consideration are the screenplays for this year's Golden Globe winner for Best Picture - Drama, Moonlight, adapted from a play, and the original, semi-autobiographical period comedy from Mike Mills, 20th Century Women.

Oscar nominations will be announced Tuesday, January 24.

Nominations went to six of the screenplays mentioned above (Manchester by the Sea, 20th Century Women, Arrival, Fences, Lion, and Moonlight). We found two additional nominated scripts online. Get 'em while they're hot. They may not be there forever.

Hell or High Water (original)
Hidden Figures (adapted)

2016 Oscar Nominations: Best Screenplay
Oscar Nominations: Best Original Screenplay (2015)
Oscar Nominations: Best Adapted Screenplay (2015)
Recap: Who Will Win the Best Screenplay Oscars (2014)

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Five Exceptional Screenplays On Modern American Presidential Elections

2016 GOP nominee for president Donald Trump, Julianne Moore as 2008 GOP nominee for vice president Governor Sarah Palin in RECOUNT, John Travolta as fictional Democratic nominee for president Governor Jack Stanton in PRIMARY COLORS, George Clooney as fictional Democratic nominee for president Governor Mike Morris in THE IDES OF MARCH, 2016 Democratic nominee for president Hillary Clinton
For an election cycle that’s been playing like a reality TV show, one might be wondering if there’s a movie in this unprecedentedly nasty fight for the White House. What would be the best way to tell that story? Will Danny Strong be the one to tell it? What message would a movie inspired by 2016 want us to take away from a reenactment of all the crazy Trumpiness? To help figure it out, let’s examine five recent portrayals of our national octennial nightmares, including two behind-the-scenes peeks of campaigns dealing with sex scandals (one cynical, one optimistic), one analysis of what really matters to the everyman voter, one examination of how our votes are counted, and one indictment of how a vice presidential candidate can totally derail a campaign.

Adrian Lester with John Travolta as a Clintonian southern governor running for the Democratic nomination for President in the 1998 Mike Nichols film PRIMARY COLORS written by Elaine May.
PRIMARY COLORS (1998), a fictionalized account of Bill Clinton’s 1992 primary campaign, was based on a novel first published anonymously, later revealed to have been authored by journalist Joe Klein, who had covered the campaign for Newsweek. Comedian Elaine May wrote the screenplay, earning her her second Academy Award nomination in the Best Adapted Screenplay category (following her work on Heaven Can Wait twenty years earlier). The film was directed by May’s former comedy partner, Mike Nichols (The Graduate, Working Girl).

Like The Great Gatsby and The Shawshank Redemption, Primary Colors splits the protagonist and main character into two separate roles. Here the protagonist is the Clintonian southern governor Jack Stanton (John Travolta), but his story is told through the eyes of his reluctant Stephanopoulos-like campaign manager Henry Burton (Adrian Lester), the film’s idealistic main character. Jack’s primary concern is to win the election, which is the story’s external goal. Henry, on the other hand, is the one who goes on a journey related to the film’s thematic goal: to find out whether idealism is worth preserving at the cost of moral sacrifice. While Henry has an active role in the campaign, he is a passive narrator in regards to the plot, leaving Jack to be an impact character who changes those around him, including Henry and the audience. Going on the journey with Henry instead of the womanizing candidate allows us to better understand why we might root for this unsympathetic protagonist.

All the Vice President's Men: Kevin Spacey, as Ron Klain, leads the fight to recount Florida votes in the 2000 election in RECOUNT (2008), written by Danny Strong.
RECOUNT (2008) retells the inside story of the stranger-than-fiction events of 2000 that kept America in suspense for 36 days after Election Day. Empire co-creator and former actor Danny Strong (Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Gilmore Girls) researched his first produced screenplay, with guidance from the Sydney Pollack, primarily through four out of over twenty books on the Florida recount efforts as well as through in-person interviews with at least one person who had been in the room for almost every scene he chose to depict. Strong’s teleplay for the HBO movie, directed by Jay Roach, won a WGA award and was nominated for an Emmy.

The candidates, Texas governor George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore, are shown only from behind, and in only a few scenes, since the story really belongs to the Gore campaign’s General Counsel Ron Klain (Kevin Spacey), who led the fight on the ground in Florida. The script bounces back and forth between the hero’s strategy sessions and those of his adversary, Bush Sr.’s former Secretary of State James Baker (Tom Wilkinson), giving both sides equal weight; Klain comes off as the protagonist because his prior ousting from Gore’s good graces gives him a personal arc and the other team’s lead in the initial counts paint Klain as the underdog. Events unfold in the manner of a thriller, with a roller-coaster of triumphs followed by setbacks, again and again. This gives us the sense of two warring sides even though the opponents never meet face-to-face until they shake hands and walk away in the film’s dénouement. Also worthy of study is the way Strong condenses and distills 36 days worth of convoluted legal maneuvering, esoteric technical details, and the philosophical nuance of legality versus fairness, into a two hour movie that dramatizes the whole mess while at the same time making it entertaining and easily digestible.

Kelsey Grammer and Dennis Hopper tailor their final presidential debate for the one voter who will cast the tie-breaking vote in SWING VOTE (2008), written by Joshua Michael Stern and Jason Richman.
SWING VOTE (2008), also recalling the squeaker of 2000, takes the high concept approach, asking what would happen if the presidential election were so close that it all came down to one person. Joshua Michael Stern, creator of Graves, a new political comedy on Epix, directed the film and co-wrote it with his friend Jason Richman (Lucky 7). As with any high concept movie, the premise is no more plausible than a mother and daughter magically switching bodies. Just go with the magic “fortune cookie” of a voting machine breaking down, thereby giving our everyman hero ten days to re-cast the deciding vote, and enjoy the sharp political satire enmeshed in the sentimental father-daughter story.

Bud Johnson (Kevin Costner) is the clear protagonist in that he goes on a journey that transforms him from apathetic citizen to someone who learns to take his civic responsibilities seriously. However, the main story goal, to get him to vote (and to get him to vote for a specific candidate), belongs to three other characters: his daughter Molly (Madeline Carroll), who drives the story, and the two candidates -- the conservative incumbent (Kelsey Grammer) and the liberal outsider (Dennis Hopper). The candidates, along with their respective campaign managers, traverse a parallel arc, each tailoring his campaign to one single voter by comically flip-flopping, each eventually rediscovering his own moral center. The script deftly weaves Bud’s A-story and the candidates’ B-stories with two C-stories involving a local reporter hoping to graduate to the national stage while striving to maintain her integrity (echoing the theme of the candidates’ arcs), and a surprisingly dark revelation about Molly’s absent mother that makes the young girl finally appreciate her father, dysfunctional though their relationship may be. Added to all that is the barest hint of a pair of love interests for the two lead characters, yet the movie never feels overstuffed, nor the narrative structure muddled. Every character earns the redemption they find in the Capra-esque ending that argues for sane, issues-based political deliberation over this year’s focus on deleted emails, election rigging, and small-handed pussy-grabbing.

Ryan Gosling runs a presidential campaign backstage in THE IDES OF MARCH (2011), written by Beau Willimon, George Clooney, and Grant Heslov.
THE IDES OF MARCH (2011) is loosely based on the 2008 play Farragut North by House of Cards creator Beau Willimon, which was drawn from his experiences working on Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign. Director George Clooney and his producing partner Grant Heslov optioned the property before the play was produced and wrote their version without ever seeing the play. They added thriller elements to the plot and drew additional inspiration from Clooney’s father’s failed 2004 congressional campaign as well as the documentary The War Room, about Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign. Their script was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay.

Like Primary Colors, The Ides of March follows a whiz-kid campaign manager, Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling), on a quest to get a Democratic governor, Mike Morris (Clooney), his party’s nomination for president. Also as in the earlier film, there is a sex scandal and a death in the third act, and both movies deal thematically with the necessity for politics to corrupt the soul. However, March is a much darker story and does not split the protagonist and main character; it’s not the story of how Morris gets the nomination (he doesn’t even appear on stage in the original play). Instead, we follow Stephen on his active path to destruction and the film is entirely about testing how far he will go to win.
Senator John McCain (Ed Harris) chooses Alaska governor Sarah Palin (Julianne Moore) as his running mate in the 2008 presidential election in HBO's RECOUNT (2012), written by Danny Strong.

GAME CHANGE (2012), another HBO film, reunites the Recount writer-director team of Danny Strong and Jay Roach. While the source book by journalistsJohn Heilemann and Mark Halperin, compiled primarily from unsourced “deep background” reporting, encompassed the 2008 campaign cycle in its entirety, the election of the nation’s first African-American president is barely a footnote -- Obama is only seen in archival footage -- in the adaptation that focuses entirely on the game-changing selection of Alaska governor Sarah Palin (Julianne Moore) as the Republican nominee for Vice President. Strong and Roach each won an Emmy for their work on the movie, which also took home three Golden Globe awards and three other Emmys.

The film opens and closes with a framing device: Political strategist Steve Schmidt (Woody Harrelson) looks back on his role in the 2008 Republican campaign and wonders whether he would push for putting Palin on the GOP ticket if he had to do it all over again. Like the other movies on this list, our guide is not one of the candidates, but a powerful behind-the-scenes character. Schmidt’s arc charts his intermittent successes in taming the shrew along with his growing frustrations as he loses control of the monster he’s created. The first act also sets up the real candidate, “maverick” senator John McCain (Ed Harris), as the underdog (he’s way behind in the polls) who, again like the idealists in the movies mentioned above, doesn’t want to play dirty or compromise his principles. By the third act, he will give in to temptation and follow a dark path, only to have to be reminded of what he really stands for. But the central character is Palin herself, a naïf thrust into the story so gung ho to win the White House that she ultimately forgets her fight is supposed to be for someone else’s benefit. One of the unique challenges of the script is to recreate a character and events that were heavily parodied in pop culture only a few years before. Palin’s greatest quips and gaffes pop up as touchstones more to remind us where they fell in the timeline than for just having fun reenacting them; the main storyline is first and foremost concerned with telling the backstage goings-on to help us better decipher the meaning of what we were collectively experiencing at the time. The drama is also not without a few eerie predictions on where the “reality show” nature of Palin’s popularity would lead us in 2016.

Vote for Pedro from Napoleon Dynamite as your favorite election-themed screenplay, or cast your vote for a write-in.
Now it's your turn. Vote for your favorite election-themed screenplay in the comments. Is it one of the above, or might it be The Best Man (1964), The Candidate (1972), Bob Roberts (1992), Speechless (1994), Wag the Dog (1997), Bulworth (1998), Election (1998), The Manchurian Candidate (2004), Napoleon Dynamite (2004), Man of the Year (2006), Milk (2008), Our Brand Is Crisis (2015), The Purge: Election Year (2016), or a write-in? Your vote is guaranteed to count for absolutely nothing.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

T.M.I. in Scene Description

EXT. BANK - DAY - The FRAME is full of cop faces.
"The FRAME is full of cop faces [...] The fact is they love their work, which is criminals. There is a peculiar delight in ferreting out the criminal impulse in everybody, and a matching fury in punishing it -- which is the action of repressing their own strongly developed criminal unconscious. These are tense, funny, violent, and rigidly controlled men."
If that paragraph of scene description, which doesn't at all describe the image above of the scene that was ultimately shot, bored you, that's because screenplays are not supposed to be novels.

Scripts should read fast. Only include what is absolutely necessary in scene descriptions. Don't describe things that can't be seen or heard. How do you film cops "repressing their own strongly developed criminal unconscious"? How do the actors play that?

You may have heard these rules before. But guess what? The verbose description of a simple establishing shot above comes straight out of an Academy Award winning original screenplay by a writer who would go on to become the president of both the Writers Guild of America, West, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

That doesn't make it good screenwriting. However, there are times when a little literary flourish can help get the point across. For example:
Up In The Air starring George Clooney, screenplay adapted by Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner
Glorious close-up of Ryan's PLATINUM CARD sliding through the AUTOMATED MACHINE. Were it any sexier, we'd hear a moan. Maybe we even do.
This line of description breaks about half a dozen "rules" of screenwriting, depending on which screenwriting book is your bible: Don't mention camera angles, never use CAPS for anything other than the first appearance of a character's name, don't use "we" to refer to what the audience hears or sees, etc. But most egregiously, rules sticklers would say there is no way to film "Were it any sexier, we'd hear a moan."

And still the paragraph -- from the 2009 Oscar-nominated script Up In The Air -- sure paints a clear picture of exactly what the writer was trying to convey. The writer happened to also be the director in this case, but almost any director would have reached essentially the same result, including the feeling the writer was going for, based on that description.

Here's an example from the critically acclaimed 2010 drama The Kids Are All Right, also Oscar-nominated for its screenplay. This bit of scene description appears between the dialogue of two teenage girls discussing boys:
The Kids Are All Right by Lisa Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg
JONI: Just cause you're like a 24 hour drive-thru doesn't mean I have to be.
This is their running schtick. Joni calls Sasha a tramp. Sasha calls Joni a prude. They love it.
You can't film that description. But without it some readers might assume -- from the actual scripted dialogue -- that these two best friends despise each other. Unless the writer had resorted to the even more verboten: parentheticals! Or on-the-nose dialogue.

On the other hand, even the pros can overdo their descriptions. The following excerpts are from the 132 page first draft of the George Clooney flop The American by 28 Weeks Later screenwriter Rowan Joffe (son of twice Oscar-nominated director Roland Joffe).
The American starring George Clooney, screenplay adapted by Rowan Joffe
JACK completes his morning exercises then showers and dresses. His manner is precise and methodical. Only a man who has lived alone for many years can live like this.
Live like what? Exercising, showering and dressing? What does that even mean? Only single men exercise, shower and dress? Really? And are we really going to see Jack do all these things? That's a montage!
He hums as he cooks: Opera arias. And Johnny Cash.
Is he humming a mash-up? Or is this supposed to be two separate scenes? Or is it one long scene where he finishes humming an aria then segues to Johnny Cash?
If we were to see her in the Corso Federico II, we would think she was a secretary out shopping, a tourist taking in the sights, a middle class daughter of middle class parents making her way through business college or language school.
Sure. And if we were to see her with a fish tail, we'd think she was a mermaid. What's that got to do with the story?
The WAITER pours a thumbful of wine. It is pale red in colour and frizzante. At CLARA's insistence, JACK tastes it. It is dry and has a tar-like aftertaste.
And just what does a tar-like aftertaste look like on the screen?
JACK has driven to the remotest phone box he can find: not far from the entrance to one of the region's four national parks.
If we don't see the other three of region's four national parks, why do we need to know about them?

The script also contains a six-line paragraph describing the intricate details of a fountain with a 2-1/4mm diameter pipe made of bronze. I thought for sure the movie's Maguffin would at some point be hidden in this structure after so much time was spent describing it, but, alas, it is never referenced again. Nor is another character's son, who appears only once, while his father is on the phone. He has no lines but is nonetheless exhaustively biographied as being 14-years-old with Down's Syndrome and eating ice cream that his father is wiping from his mouth with a handkerchief. Good to know.
Shitty motel from IDENTITY by Michael Cooney
Perhaps the best example of how to tighten up scene descriptions comes from a booklet entitled Spec Format Guide. This example of what not to do is presumably not from a produced screenplay:
A sagging double-bed with a cigarette-burned bedspread stands against the far wall. The ancient wallpaper is faded and peeling. The threadbare carpet is badly discolored with stains the origins of which are best left unsaid. A disquieting breeze blows through the dingy window, causing the tattered curtains to flutter ghost-like in the gloom.
Here's how the guide suggests a good screenwriter would describe this same scene:
Works for me.

In case you're wondering, the Oscar-winning script quoted at the beginning of this article was Dog Day Afternoon. The shot, as so eloquently described, does not appear in the movie. Neither does this superfluous stage direction:
The Commissioner's hand lingers on Moretti's -- they are fond of each other, these men, linked in a relationship of a lifetime of shared experience, of attitudes, of maleness -- an accumulation of years of jokes about being late for dinner, of women waiting and women panting with desire, men secure in the bastion of their roles.
Too much information. Way too much.

ScripTipps TIP: Don't include extraneous information in scene description that can't be filmed and is not useful to the reader or actors.

ScripTipps: TIP: Contrary to the general rule, scene description IS allowed to add context to what is seen and heard.

ScripTipps TIP: It's okay to use scene description to help the reader understand the subtext of a scene.

ScripTipps TIP: Scene description can incorporate language that suggests intended tone and pace for the scene.

ScripTipps TIP: Use scene description to suggest an image or convey how an image should make us feel.

ScripTipps TIP: When writing scene description, don't describe the scene, describe the experience of watching the movie.

ScripTipps TIP: Scene description can comment on character in ways that help actors convey an idea nonverbally.

ScripTipps TIP: Verbose, literary scene descriptions in a screenplay slow down the read in a counter-productive way.

ScripTipps TIP: Don't use scene description to provide physical details of a set or location. That's the production designer's job.

ScripTipps TIP: Sometimes, just one word of scene description could be all it takes to get the point across.

(A version of this post was first published on Five Sprockets on August 16, 2010.)