Thursday, November 21, 2013

5 Great Screenplays by Hunger Games Screenwriters

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, screenplay adapted by Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire) and Michael Arndt (Little Miss Sunshine)

First there was the Twilight franchise. Four YA novels by Stephenie Meyer adapted into five screenplays by one screenwriter -- Melissa Rosenberg, whose only prior feature writing credit was Step Up. The movies made more than $1.3 billion.

As that golden goose reached its golden years, Summit moved on to The Hunger Games. Three YA novels by children's television writer Suzanne Collins (Clarissa Explains It All, Wow! Wow! Wubbzy!), turned into four films.
Suzanne Collins, author of The Hunger Games novels
Suzanne Collins
Collins shares a screenwriting credit on the first movie, but after she turned in her first draft, Summit decided to bring in an A-list lineup of talent to revise that script and draft the next three.

Billy Ray (Captain Phillips, Breach) came on board first. Ray added a subplot with Gale breaking into the Capitol during the Games to persuade Haymitch to get off his drunk ass and help Katniss. Obviously, none of this ended up being used.

A well-respected script doctor and WGA board member, Ray's first film as director was 2003's Shattered Glass, which he also wrote.
Peter Sarsgaard and Hayden Christensen play games in SHATTERED GLASS by Hunger Games scribe Billy Ray.
The script tells the true story of The New Republic journalist Stephen Glass (Hayden Christensen), who turns in dozens of phony articles while his editor (Peter Sarsgaard) is forced to claw through a web of deceit to find out why an online competitor has found so many mistakes in one of his articles. Soon, the lies come crashing down around him like the districts taking down President Snow.
Jennifer Lawrence starred in The Hunger Games, written by Suzanne Collins, Billy Ray, and Gary Ross
Ray's work on The Hunger Games was rewritten by the film's director, Gary Ross, best known for writing and directing Pleasantville (1998), about a town revolting against oppressive black-and-white attitudes. Ross was nominated for Oscars for three of his screenplays: Seabiscuit, Dave, and Big.
Robert Loggia and Tom Hanks play games in BIG, written by Hunger Games writer/director Gary Ross and Anne Spielberg.
The son of Oscar-nominated screenwriter Arthur A. Ross (Brubaker), Gary wrote Big with his neighbor, Anne Spielberg (Steven's sister). The quintessential wish-fulfillment tale of a boy whose wish to become a grown-up comes true was the first feature writing credit for both scribes.

Jennifer Lawrence stars in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, written by Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt
Ross opted out of The Hunger Games sequels, so the job of adapting the second novel, Catching Fire, went to British screenwriter Simon Beaufoy. Like Ross, Beaufoy was Oscar-nominated for his first produced feature script, The Full Monty (1997). He shared another nomination with filmmaker Danny Boyle in 2011 for 127 Hours after winning the gold for his adapted script for Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire.
Dev Patel and Anil Kapoor play a game in SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE, written by Catching Fire scribe Simon Beaufoy.
This unlikely box office hit tells the life story of a young man (Dev Patel) from the slums of Mumbai in non-linear flashbacks to show how he comes to know the answers to a set of quiz show questions that are about to make him a millionaire. An epic love story is skillfully woven through the complex narrative.

Beaufoy's work on Catching Fire was then handed off to Michael Arndt. An Academy Award winner for his first produced screenplay, Little Miss Sunshine, Arndt followed up his triumphant debut with a nomination for his second script, Toy Story 3.
Lotso, Buzz, and Woody play games in Toy Story 3, written by Catching Fire scribe Michael Arndt.
Picking up eleven years after the previous sequel, Andy heads off to college. Left behind, the toys end up at a daycare center where they take a beating from rambunctious toddlers. Like the citizens of District 12, their situation worsens but, as always, they are able to team up to set things right. Arndt delivered it all in a script that reduced many grown men to tears.

Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins was adapted into two-part screenplay by Danny Strong.
Tapped to pen both The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1 and The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2 is former Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Gilmore Girls, and Mad Men actor Danny Strong. No stranger to writing about the type of political gamesmanship found in Panem, Strong had a hit with Lee Daniels' The Butler, a chronicle of the Civil Rights movement told through the eyes of a long-term White House servant, and scored back-to-back Emmys for his pair of HBO political docu-dramas, Recount and Game Change, covering the 2000 and 2008 U.S. presidential elections, respectively.
Ed Begley, Jr., Kevin Spacey, and Bruce Altman play political games in RECOUNT, written by Mockingjay screenwriter Danny Strong.
The extraordinarily convoluted case of Bush v. Gore captivated the divided nation for 35 days in late 2000. Eight years later, Strong's teleplay recounted the events, taking us behind the scenes, distilling the many misunderstood details, and capturing the compelling drama of the game.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1 opens November 21, 2014.

Friday, November 15, 2013

5 Great Road Movies

Storytelling is about a hero who goes on a journey.

Sometimes it's a literal one, with the protagonist traveling great distances by car, bus, train, foot, horseback, covered wagon, kayak, or any combination of thereof, often thrown together with their last choice of traveling companions, enduring many unexpected hardships along the way, and ultimately learning more than they'd bargained for.

Here are five great "road movies" you may have missed.

Jami Gertz, Joe Seneca, and Ralph Macchio hit the road in Walter Hill's CROSSROADS
CROSSROADS (1986): A classically trained guitarist (Ralph Macchio, The Karate Kid) with a yen for the blues hobos from Julliard to Mississippi in search of a legendary lost song by bluesman Robert Johnson. He is accompanied by Johnson's last surviving bandmate, Willie Brown (Joe Seneca), who is desperate to get back to the Delta to undo a deal he'd made with the devil at the crossroads of his youth. Along the way, Jami Gertz (The Neighbors) teaches the younger musician the true meaning of the blues. Directed by Walter Hill (The Warriors, 48 hrs.) and written as a student screenplay by John Fusco at NYU, the film is often confused with the unrelated, same-named Britney Spears vehicle from 2002.
Gene Wilder and Harrison Ford trek across the country in Robert Aldrich's THE FRISCO KID
THE FRISCO KID (1979): Willy Wonka and Han Solo team up as an incompetent Polish rabbi making his way across 1850s America to deliver a torah to a congregation in San Francisco and a hard-edged bank robber navigating him through treacherous Indian territory. Originally intended as a John Wayne vehicle, the comedy-Western, directed by Robert Aldrich (The Dirty Dozen), stars Gene Wilder and Harrison Ford, with a script by the writers of Black Bart (a failed TV pilot spin-off of Blazing Saddles).
Brad Pitt, Juliette Lewis, Michelle Forbes, and David Duchovny go for a ride in Dominic Sena's KALIFORNIA
KALIFORNIA (1993): David Duchovny (The X-Files, Californication) stars as a journalist who takes his photographer girlfriend (Michelle Forbes) on a cross-country tour of infamous murder sites as they collaborate on a book on serial killers. To cut costs, they ride-share with Early Grayce (Brad Pitt) and his girlfriend (Juliette Lewis), unaware their passenger is himself a psychotic serial killer. Written by Tim Metcalfe (Revenge of the Nerds), the R-rated thriller was directed by Dominic Sena (Gone in Sixty Seconds).
Michael Peña, Tim Robbins, and Rachel McAdams travel together in Neil Burger's THE LUCKY ONES
THE LUCKY ONES (2008): A trio of U.S. soldiers coming home from Afghanistan, two on leave, the other at the end of his tour, are thrown together when a shortage of rental cars at JFK forces them to rideshare across the country. Director and co-writer Neil Burger (Limitless, Divergent) uses the opportunity to capture a snapshot of America's varied attitudes toward the war at the time. With three beautifully developed characters played by Tim Robbins (The Shawshank Redemption), Michael Peña (Crash), and Rachel McAdams (The Time Traveler's Wife, About Time), this character-driven gem was overshadowed by The Hurt Locker, which was released the same year.
Gael Garcia Bernal and Rodrigo de la Serna ride through South America in Walter Salles' THE MOTORCYCLE DIARIES
THE MOTORCYCLE DIARIES (2004): A young medical student and his best friend set off to see the world on a broken-down motorcycle in 1950s South America. Along the way they look for love, explore Incan ruins, and visit a leper colony. Based on the true adventures of Ernesto "Che" Guevara (Gael Garcia Bernal), who would later become a leader in the Cuban Revolution, and Alberto Granado (Rodrigo de la Serna), the story's diarist, the film was directed by Walter Salles (On the Road), won an Oscar for its score by Jorge Drexler, and was nominated for its screenplay by José Rivera.

Related content: Alexander Payne Hits the Road Again

ScripTipps: The Descendants
For valuable screenwriting tips and a scene-by-scene deconstruction of the Oscar-winning screenplay for Alexander Payne's Hawaiian road movie The Descendants, read ScripTipps: The Descendants.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Alexander Payne Hits the Road Again

This Friday, ALEXANDER PAYNE releases his fourth consecutive road movie. Does that make him King of the Road?

Here's his cinematic itinerary:

Jack Nicholson on the road in Alexander Payne's ABOUT SCHMIDT
ABOUT SCHMIDT (2002): Newly retired and widowed protagonist Jack Nicholson travels from Omaha to Denver in a Winnebago in an attempt to stop his daughter’s wedding.
Thomas Hayden Church and Paul Giamatti on the road in Alexander Payne's SIDEWAYS
SIDEWAYS (2004): Paul Giamatti and Thomas Hayden Church are former college buddies who drive from San Diego to Santa Ynez on a final wine-tasting adventure before one of them has to tie the knot.
George Clooney and Shailene Woodley on the road in Alexander Payne's THE DESCENDANTS
THE DESCENDANTS (2011): George Clooney stars as a haole lawyer who goes island hopping with his teenage daughter (Shailene Woodley) on a wild goose chase to track down and bring his dying wife’s lover back to Oahu before her funeral.
Bruce Dern and Will Forte on the road in Alexander Payne's NEBRASKA
NEBRASKA (2013): Bruce Dern (Big Love, Django Unchained) and Will Forte (Saturday Night Live) journey from Billings, MT, to Lincoln, NE, to claim prize money from a bogus sweepstakes mailing.

The black-and-white film is quickly gaining Oscar buzz. All three of Payne’s previous road trips earned nominations for their travelers (Nicholson, Kathy Bates, Church, Virginia Madsen, and Clooney) and the last two both won Best Adapted Screenplay trophies. Dern, 77, was previously nominated 35 years ago for Coming Home.

Thinking of sending your protagonist on a holoholo? Read the scene-by-scene analysis of Payne's second Oscar-winning script for valuable screenwriting tips.
ScripTipps: The Descendants, scene-by-scene analysis of the Oscar-winning screenplay filled with valuable screenwriting tips.
Related content: 5 Great Road Movies

Friday, November 8, 2013

Writing Conflict in Images

Film is a visual medium. Show, don't tell.

Every scene in a screenplay should have conflict. That doesn't mean every scene needs a knock-down, drag-out fisticuffs or shootout. But how else do we show conflict visually, without relying on some dialogue-heavy, verbal shouting match?

Here is a scene from Brian De Palma's CARRIE (1976). The scene contains no dialogue, very little movement, and almost no interaction between the two actors. Yet, clearly we can see two opposing emotions at play.

Margaret White (Piper Laurie) prays, in fear of the dance, while Carrie (Sissy Spacek) sews her prom dance in anticipation of it in this scene from CARRIE (1976) that shows conflict visually.
This brief scene occurs shortly after the film's midpoint. Carrie has just defied her mother for the first time in her life. She has decided she will go to the prom, against her mother's wishes, then revealed her telekinetic powers to demonstrate precisely how she intends to enforce this shift in power. "Things are gonna change around here," Carrie says.

Moments later, we see this shot of Margaret praying in the foreground, juxtaposed with Carrie sewing her prom dress in the background. This is a reversal of an earlier scene where Margaret sat at her sewing machine while she forced Carrie to pray in a closet.

Carrie's action here represents her anticipation of the dance. Her mother's opposing action shows fear of what will happen at that same dance. The scene shows two characters with conflicting points of view on the same subject without dialogue or movement. Their actions are at odds with each other, in the same frame.

ScripTipps TIP: An event often occurs at a screenplay's midpoint that changes the balance of power between the hero and villain.

ScripTipps TIP: Write a reversal scene that turns the tables on two characters' positions from an earlier scene.

ScripTipps TIP: Conflict can be shown visually, even in a scene with no dialogue and very little movement.

For more screenwriting tips like these, check out ScripTipps: Carrie or any of the ScripTipps scene-by-scene screenplay analysis ebooks today.
ScripTipps: Carrie, a scene-by-scene deconstruction of the 1976 screenplay Carrie for screenwriters, available at
Related content: What Are ScripTipps?
Related content: Two New Screenwriting Tools Just Released

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Film School Book Report

How does going to a prestigious film school help you break into the industry? Is it ever too late to start down that path? What happens when you get there?

Steve Boman shares his answers to these questions in his 2011 memoir, FILM SCHOOL, from the perspective of an outsider who overcame high-stakes obstacles to beat the odds.
Film School by Steve Boman
A self-described Midwestern family man with no filmmaking experience, Boman uprooted his life in his 40s to pursue a graduate degree from the USC School of Cinematic Arts.
USC University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts
His tome fills in the details, semester-by-semester, of the hard work and politics required to survive in this environment that mimics the entertainment business.

Steve Boman, author of Film School
“Here’s the bottom line, the dirty truth about film school: film school is a constant competition. The entertainment world has thousands upon thousands of wannabes. The odds of success are so long that people instinctively gravitate toward those they think might better their odds.”
Boman was not one of those odds-strengthening people others gravitated toward, and after his first semester, he gave up. Two years later, a near-fatal car accident pushed him back to USC to finish pursuing his dream. Then, on the morning of his first class, he had a stroke. Told by his family doctor to return home to Minneapolis for surgery, he decided to stay and conquer film school once and for all.

And conquer he does. USC regularly brings in industry pros to work with their students. This is how Ted Gold, former head of FOX’s drama division, heard Boman’s practice pitch for an original series based on his pre-film-school life as an organ transplant coordinator.

That pitch became THREE RIVERS. The pilot was shot six weeks before Boman graduated USC. Though it lasted only half a season on CBS, final act of the book takes us through the show’s gestation step by step, from finding a show runner to battling a hundred other pilots for a thirteen-episode order.
Three Rivers TV series on CBS
When you hear about a freshman showgetting canceled, you consider the show a failure. As this last section of FILM SCHOOL illustrates, every show that makes it to air has already won a marathon on a long, winding, and treacherous course.

FILM SCHOOL is a must-read road-map for anyone embarking on the USC journey and anyone curious about how to successfully pitch and sell a TV series from outside the industry.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Writing a Heroic Hero: Captain Phillips

Tom Hanks escapes from a lifeboat in CAPTAIN PHILLIPS

The hit film CAPTAIN PHILLIPS (now playing) retells the true story of a harrowing 2009 Somali pirate attack on an American cargo ship and the thrilling rescue of her captain by the U.S. Navy SEALs. Tom Hanks stars as the titular captain who becomes a hostage on a small lifeboat the pirates try to use for their getaway.

Hanks may very well earn his third Oscar, thanks to the much-talked-about emotional catharsis at the end of the film which, it turns out, was not in the script by The Hunger Games screenwriter Billy Ray (Shattered Glass).

Not having read the screenplay, there was a different scene I would have guessed had not been part of the initial drafts. At one point, Phillips leaps out of the lifeboat in a daring escape attempt. It's an exciting, unexpected, danger-filled moment. But ultimately, he ends up right back where he started. The sequence delivers thrills, but accomplishes nothing story-wise, like a musical stopping for a song, or the Wolfpack in The Hangover taking a complete detour from the plot to return an angry tiger to its owner.

Captain Phillips is the protagonist, or "hero," of the movie. For the second half of the movie, this hero is mostly an immobile hostage. He takes a back seat while the Navy swoops in and rescues him, as dictated by the facts of the real-life events. His hands are tied, literally. The hero doesn't get to participate in solving his problem.

In this situation, it would make perfect sense to insert an action beat into the story to let the star act heroically, even if the end result must put him back into position for some other force to take the final steps in saving him.

ScripTipps TIP: In a story that demands someone else save the hero, give the hero a moment of his own to act heroically before putting him back into position for the final climax.

ScripTipps TIP: Set pieces sometimes can be inserted or removed from a script without affecting the plot, like songs in a musical.

As it turns out, a quick perusal of the book A Captain's Duty, the source material for the screenplay, shows the underwater set piece really did happen so it most likely did appear in every draft of the script. Nevertheless, it presents a useful screenwriting lesson (dictated by life, in this case) in writing an active, heroic hero.

Columbia Pictures presents TOM HANKS as CAPTAIN PHILLIPS, based on a true story, released 10/11/13