Thursday, August 14, 2014

Structure in TV Sitcom Writing: A Case Study

When ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT debuted to critical acclaim in 2003, its single-camera “mockumentary” style was relatively new to American sitcoms. The format would later become popularized by The Office, Parks and Recreation, and Modern Family. As groundbreaking as it may have seemed, Arrested Development still stuck to the tried-and-true traditional sitcom structure of a cold open, two acts, and a tag for its original three-season run on FOX.

Arrested Development

In the vein of Seinfeld, the series deftly wove multiple subplots toward a single scene or sequence that would tie them together by the end of each episode. Although an ensemble show, Arrested Development also had a clear protagonist in Michael Bluth (Jason Bateman). From the very beginning, when Michael vows to leave the family but is forced to keep them together after their patriarch is jailed, we experience the entire series through his perspective.

When the show’s small but loyal fan base demanded a fourth season, 8 years after the series was canceled, they got an entirely different animal. First, appearing on the commercial-free Netflix streaming service meant no more act breaks. The cast’s incompatible schedules meant few episodes would include the entire ensemble. Instead, each episode focused on one character, lacking the interweaving subplots that had characterized the series in its original run and eliminating the focus on Michael as the protagonist.

Finally, last year’s fourth season differed in its season-long structure. As the title implied, Arrested Development was a series that resisted change, stretching the characters’ conflicts for years without any real development. To prevent a feeling of repetition or stagnation, the original series had set up minor season-long arcs, allowing the continuing conflict to play out in perpetually varying but ultimately cyclical permutations.

For example, George Bluth spent all three FOX seasons fighting the SEC’s charges against him. In the first season, he was behind bars. In the second, he escaped from prison and hid out in the family’s attic. In the third, he was recaptured, but allowed to stay with his wife under house arrest. Throughout the series, he was a prisoner. In the 2013 Netflix revival, however, George’s arc revolves around his purchase of worthless land and subsequent long-con attempt to sell it at an inflated price.

Response from fans and critics to the fourth season was not as unanimously favorable as the original series, though there is still talk of a possible fifth round on Netflix or a feature film.
ScripTipps: Arrested Development by Angela Jorgensen
Angela Jorgensen’s in-depth, scene-by-scene, ScripTipps analysis of Mitchell Hurwitz's Emmy-winning pilot script for Arrested Development is now available at Arrested Development was created by Hurwitz and produced by Ron Howard. The pilot episode and the rest of the first three seasons can be streamed on Hulu Plus and Netflix. Season 4 is available exclusively from Netflix.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Writing Like A Chimp

The most common type of story taught in screenwriting books is the single-protagonist “hero’s journey.” But not every story must fit this mold. Buddy pictures and romantic comedies have dual protagonists. The Hangover and Horrible Bosses are examples of three-ways.

There is a less frequently seen template where the hero duties shift from one protagonist to another at around the halfway point. For example, look what happens to Marion Crane at the midpoint of Psycho.

And if you thought Ellen Burstyn was the protagonist of The Exorcist, then why, after driving the story for most of the first hour, does she spend the last 45 minutes of the movie relegated to sitting and worrying and waiting while Father Karras steps in to do the dirty work of dispatching the Devil for her? Is it a flawed Oscar-winning script, or one of the top ten highest grossing movies of all time when adjusted for inflation?

Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) passes the torch to Father Karras (Jason Miller) halfway through THE EXORCIST.

It turns out a number of films are capable of shifting from one protagonist to another without losing the audience. The first act of The Godfather was all about Marlon Brando, who is unconscious for most of the second act—and remains on the story’s sidelines after he recovers—while the other protagonist, Al Pacino, hides out in Sicily for half the second act, also not moving the story forward. Apparently, nobody minds when this happens in one of the most acclaimed movies of all time.

Protagonist Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) sits out half the second act, hiding out in Sicily, away from the action in THE GODFATHER.

2014's Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a standard two-hander, with Caesar (Andy Serkis) and Malcolm (Jason Clarke) as dual protagonists, working together to each lead his own tribe through his own personal journey. But its predecessor, 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes is virtually split into two movies almost as evenly as Rise is from Dawn.

In the first half of Rise, James Franco raises a super-intelligent chimp in hopes of finding a cure for Alzheimer's before his father (John Lithgow) succumbs to the disease. Once the movie separates man and monkey at the midpoint, we stay almost entirely with the hairier hero (Serkis) for a gripping new story of an ape uprising while Franco's character, frankly, ceases to evolve.

Caesar (Andy Serkis) take the reins of the story from the less evolved protagonist at the midpoint of RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES.

Be careful. Write a script with a one-way seismic shift in protagonists like Rise, Psycho, The Exorcist, and The Godfather, and you're likely to hear professional readers trained on the one-protagonist-per-script paradigm call it a “mistake,” unless they’re looking at it in hindsight after it’s won accolades and grossed a fortune. So the tricky part is getting them to stop thinking like a chimp.

Rise was big and exciting and made over $480 million worldwide without limiting itself to a single protagonist on a single hero's journey because it knows: There's more than one way to save a cat in screenwriting.

(Portions of this article first appeared on Five Sprockets on August 15, 2011.)

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

ScripTipps Turns On The TV

There's never been a more exciting time to write for television. With the feature spec market a thing of the past, it seems more new writers are aiming for the small screen these days.

If you're trying to break into TV writing, you'll need two types of writing samples: A spec episode of an existing series and an original pilot.

Now, to help you learn how the pros write killer pilot scripts, ScripTipps presents our first screenplay deconstruction focused on television.
ScripTipps: Sleepy Hollow, Mining Great Scripts for Insightful TV Writing Tips, Script Analysis by Angela Jorgensen
Last fall, SLEEPY HOLLOW won the most viewers of any fall debut on FOX and was the first series of the year to be renewed for a second season.

Conceived by unproduced, Black Listed screenwriter Phillip Iscove, the show is a mash-up of two Washington Irving stories: The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle. What if Ichabod Crane slept for two centuries and woke up in 2013?
Lt. Abbie Mills (Nicole Beharie) and Ichabod Crane (Tom Mison) in SLEEPY HOLLOW, created by Phillips Iscove, Roberto Orci, and Alex Kurtzman
Further developed with STAR TREK scribes Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, the show is a genre hybrid: a heavily serialized fantasy/horror mythology grafted onto a dual-protagonist, case-of-the-week police procedural.

ScripTipps deconstructs the pilot episode of this smash hit series, analyzing its structural irregularities, how it introduces its important characters and themes, how it establishes a unique tone for the entire series, and more.

With this first TV-centric edition of ScripTipps, we also welcome a new writer to our team.
Real Life Magic: A Collection of Short Stories by Angela Jorgensen, author of ScripTipps: Sleepy Hollow
Angela Jorgensen originally hails from Iowa. She currently resides in Los Angeles and aspires to write for hour-long television dramas. She produced the short film Dolphin Dolphin’s Head and is currently producing a feature-length documentary, The Longest Straw. Her weekly column, As Scene on TV, analyzes individual scenes from TV shows, and can be found at ScripTipps: Sleepy Hollow is her sixth book.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Don't Pitch the Chicken

The Great American Screenwriting Conference & PitchFest

This weekend is the Great American PitchFest, where aspiring screenwriters get the chance to meet one-on-one with industry professionals and pitch a screenplay. The catch? A ticking clock -- a concept every screenwriter should be familiar with.

You get five minutes. Go.
The pressure of a five-minute movie pitch can be just as stressful as the Facebook programmer test in THE SOCIAL NETWORK.
But how can you tell the story of a two-hour movie in five minutes?

Answer: You don't.

I've had the privilege of running a Pitch Boot Camp practice session at GAPF and other pitch festivals around town. People fly in from all over the world with their single-spaced two-page synopsis thinking that pitching is reading a description of each and every scene in their movie.
Example: This college nerd, Mark, goes on a date with a girl named Erica. It doesn't go well because he talks like he has ADHD. He insults Erica and she breaks up with him. So he goes back to his dorm and gets drunk and blogs about her. She sees the blog and gets really pissed off. Then Mark hacks into the university's computers and creates a web site that lets people compare pictures of all the female students. It becomes so popular that same night that it crashes the university's server. That gets the attention of these wealthy twins in this exclusive club that Mark wants to get into. They approach him, Mark, to build a web site for them, but he...
Time! Thank you. We have your contact information. Don't call us, we'll call you. Next!
Mark Zuckerberg's date goes about as well as most pitches. (Jesse Eisenberg in THE SOCIAL NETWORK)
At that rate you'll never get to that really funny scene in Act 2 with Eduardo and the chicken. When the first five sentences of a five-minute pitch are about a date, the listener mentally prepares himself to hear a romantic comedy. He's not expecting that much detail about the first scene of the movie, and he's completely thrown off by the next part of the setup. He assumes you're into your second act by that point -- because you should be.

If you're pitching The Social Network, you want to sit right down and say, "This is about Mark Zuckerberg, the youngest billionaire in history. He invented Facebook in his college dorm room while drunk. It connects 500 million people, but ironically, the guy who invented it is incapable of connecting with anyone in real life. In fact, his business partner and only friend is suing him for half the company after Zuckerberg shut him out."

That pitch tells you about the protagonist, the theme, the conflict, and what the script's hook is.
When pitching THE SOCIAL NETWORK, leave out the part about the chicken.
Over and over again at Pitch Boot Camp, I hear writers nervously describing every beat of their first twenty pages for five minutes and I don't know what their movie is about. Yes, the chicken scene is hilarious, and the reader will love it when he reads it in your script, but it can't be set up properly in the context of a five-minute pitch, and it's not key in getting a studio to understand who's gonna buy tickets to see the movie or why they should bother reading the script in the first place.

So if you're going to be at GAPF this weekend, remember: Don't pitch the chicken!

2015 UPDATE: GAPF has been rebranded ScriptFest. It will be held at the Burbank Marriott, May 29-31.

(Portions of this article first appeared on Five Sprockets on November 7, 2011.)

Thursday, June 5, 2014

The Fault in Our Stars: Adaptation Analsysis

The Fault in Our Stars is a love story about a teenage girl with stage IV thyroid and lung cancer and a boy who has lost a leg to bone cancer, now in remission. Based on a novel that has sold over ten million copies, the screenplay was adapted by Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber, who also penned (500) Days of Summer and another YA adaptation, The Spectacular Now.

"Late in the winter of my seventeenth year, my mother decided I was depressed." Shailene Woodley stars in THE FAULT IN OUR STARS.

The book is written in first-person, narrated by Hazel Grace Lancaster, the protagonist. The main action begins when she reluctantly goes to a lame teens-with-cancer support group where she meets her love interest, Augustus Waters.

Hazel’s decision to hang out with Gus after the meeting sends her into the upside-down world of Dating a Hot One-Legged Boy with Cancer. In the 114-page screenplay, this occurs on page 16, while the novel reaches the same plot point at the end of its first chapter.

Before we can appreciate what’s different in the protagonist’s life after the introduction of this new element, we need some sense of her “normal” world. Presumably, the narrator is starting her story with the day she met Gus, but in prose, it’s easy for her to preface that story with a brief explanation of what brought her to the group, followed by a general description – not a full-blown flashback – of the group (pre-Gus), including an introduction of her friend Isaac, who will bring Gus to the next session, thereby forever changing her world.

The three pages of prose setting up Hazel’s world would be far too much exposition to be handled in voiceover. Instead, the screenwriters invented a visual way into her world. They start by showing us what Hazel and Gus are not:

Hazel and the BOY we will come to know as AUGUSTUS "GUS" WATERS (17) at an outdoor restaurant in some magical place. They look very much like the perfect Hollywood couple.
"Perfect" Hazel and "Perfect" Gus sit on a BENCH overlooking an incredible seascape in some foreign country.
"Perfect" Hazel and "Perfect" Gus kiss in a dark room [and] fall onto a bed together. They look deep into one another's eyes.

Over this series of shots, we hear voiceover that is not taken from anywhere in the book. Hazel tells us how movies often sugarcoat sad stories, but she will not. Then, at the top of page 2, we see the real Hazel, with “some key and obvious differences,” such as an “OXYGEN TUBE in her nostrils which helps her to breathe.”
Shailene Woodley as Hazel Grace Lancaster in THE FAULT IN OUR STARS

The next three pages of the script play out a scene that was merely mentioned in the second paragraph of the book, where her doctor recommends the support group because Hazel seems depressed. This expanded scene combines some of the book’s narration in voiceover with original dialogue and even a small montage showing examples – consistent with, but not duplicated from, the novel – of her “normal” pre-Gus life.

Next we have a two-page scene of the typical, pre-Gus support group session, an abbreviated version of what’s described in more detail in the second and third pages of the book, as a basis to compare to the life-altering session that gets the story going. This is followed by a modified version of the first actual scene in the book, Hazel's mother pushing her to go to group on the Day Her Life Will Change. Some of mom’s dialogue was given to her father, who was somewhat under-written in the novel but probably should have something to do on-screen since we will be seeing him there anyway.

Adapting a novel into a screenplay is more complex than importing a manuscript into Final Draft and removing the “he saids” and “she saids.” Neustadter & Weber converted very readable, literary exposition into cinematic exposition, setting up the same world the author created, while maintaining the spirit of his tone, by expanding on the source material and even inventing some new content. To be sure, other chapters are condensed and some minor characters dropped. Otherwise, the script would be three hundred pages, resulting in a five hour movie.
The Fault in Our Stars one-sheet
Studying how the pros adapt a best-selling novel to fit within the limitations of a screenplay is very useful. Every time you rewrite your original script, you are adapting the previous draft. Moving scenes around and eliminating unnecessary subplots and characters requires attention to the ramifications such revisions can have on all remaining scenes. To learn more, see ScripTipps: The Descendants for an in-depth analysis of an Oscar-winning adaptation.

The comparisons above are based on the first draft of the screenplay, dated May 1, 2012. The pages described may differ from the final cut of the film, which opens tonight. THE FAULT IN OUR STARS was directed by Josh Boone. Click here to read about his first movie, STUCK IN LOVE.

UPDATE (9/16/14): The ScripTipps scene-by-scene deconstruction of the full screenplay for The Fault in Our Stars is now available.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Interview: Cinematographer/Screenwriter Matthew Irving

For our latest screenplay deconstruction, we turn to the 2007 Sundance hit Waitress, written and directed by Adrienne Shelly. We sat down with the film's cinematographer, Matthew Irving, for this internet-exclusive interview about how he worked with the screenwriter to tell her story visually.

Matthew Irving's Director of Photography credit on WAITRESS

ScripTipps: What do you look for in a script when choosing what projects you want to work on?

Matthew: As a cinematographer, one of the primary things I look for in a script is a strong character arc; a distinct emotional journey upon which we can hang a strong visual style. I’m a big believer that style should not be employed merely for the sake of style, but should reflect what the character is thinking, feeling, experiencing. And that all starts with the screenplay. Camera movement, lens selection, color palette, lighting style and composition should all be carefully employed to enhance and support the material that the writer has set down on paper. If there’s no emotional, spiritual or physical journey on the page, then all stylistic choices are hollow.
ScripTipps: How did you come to Waitress? What resonated for you in the screenplay?

Matthew: Waitress came to me through executive producer Danielle Renfrew and producer Michael Roiff. I had worked with Danielle on two previous features: the indie rave film Groove (which was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award) and the coming-of-age drama Daltry Calhoun (executive produced by Quentin Tarantino). They gave me the script for Waitress and I loved it, so I re-watched Adrienne’s previous feature I’ll Take You There, and before long I was interviewing with Adrienne herself. We hit it off immediately.

The script resonated with me due to its strong ensemble of characters and its inherent quirkiness. Some of my all-time favorite movies are slightly odd character pieces from the late 60’s and early 70’s: movies like The Graduate, Harold and Maude, and The Last Picture Show. I’m also a huge fan of Jim Jarmusch and Wes Anderson. When I first read Waitress, I saw this same type of quality. Adrienne’s staccato, rhythmic dialogue set the tone as effectively as any of her evocative descriptions. The story dealt with some very real issues and emotions, yet existed in a heightened fairy tale world.

I also responded to the fact that there was so much rich material upon which we could develop our visual style. In this case, that “rich material” wasn’t limited to the character’s emotional journey. Waitress had several distinct environments that could have their own rules and their own “looks”: from the cooler handheld world of husband Earl to the warmer sanctuary of Jenna’s pie kitchen, where most shots were executed using smooth, lyrical dolly moves.
Keri Russell stars in WAITRESS, photographed by Matthew Irving
ScripTipps: The producers and stars of Waitress have remarked on Adrienne’s unusually clear vision of how the finished film would look. This is evident from the visual descriptions in the screenplay beginning with the title sequence on page one. What were your earliest discussions with Adrienne like about establishing the visual language of the story, which includes numerous detours into heightened realism, from Jenna’s imaginary pies to her frightening perspective of motherhood as occasionally seen in the unruly children she encounters?

Matthew: During our first shotlisting session, Adrienne was a fountain of ideas about how the movie should look. She asked me to revisit The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (directed by Jacques Demy) as an example of overall tone, and to give us specific ideas about color palette. As for the pie sequences, she indicated that they should feel as heightened and fantastic as anything in the original Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. She wanted Jenna’s kitchen to be “safe” and “somewhere we want to be”.

Throughout our prep, the term “fairy tale” cropped up often when describing the story. This trickled down to specific lighting choices, such as the vivid blue/violet nights when Jenna meets Dr. Pomatter at the bus stop, or when Jenna is hiding money in the couch cushions at her home. In a more naturalistic story, I would never create night lighting with such neon color, but Adrienne wanted to “push” the look, and it was the right choice for the world she had written.

As often happens when I go through this intensive prep process with a director, our shotlisting helped crystalize Adrienne’s vision of the movie into tangible, shootable building blocks. It ensured that Adrienne and I were on the same page visually, so she could concentrate more on the performances – including her own – once production began. The shotlisting also allowed us to think of some new tricks that weren’t on the page. For example, there are two key moments in the film when Jenna and Dr. Pomatter kiss passionately and the whole world spins dramatically around them. This “rotating world” gag isn’t indicated in the script, but came out of our brainstorming sessions.
Writer-Director-Actress Adrienne Shelly on the set of WAITRESS
Writer/Director Adrienne Shelly on the set of WAITRESS
ScripTipps: How did working with Adrienne compare to other writers and directors?

Matthew: Adrienne was my favorite type of director to work with. It’s one thing to have a distinct vision, but what set Adrienne apart was her ability to clearly articulate what she saw in her head. This is the best foundation for a strong collaboration.

Since Adrienne was so articulate about what she wanted, I was on very solid ground in making stylistic suggestions I knew would be exactly in line with what she was looking for. And then it became a genuinely fun “dance” where we’d energize each other by firing off different ideas. We would pace around the production office or the Coffee Bean at the corner of Alta Vista and Beverly, giddy with the feeling that we were creating something truly special.

ScripTipps: You’re also a screenwriter. As a cinematographer, do you think more visually when you write? Can you give an example of how you might express an idea visually, on the page, that another writer would tend to convey through dialogue?

Matthew: As a cinematographer, I can’t help thinking visually when I write. I’m constantly tempted to use precise shot descriptions in the script, and have to stop myself from doing so. I’m adamant about avoiding any production terms or specific references to CAMERA on the page, while still trying to imply individual shots.

My scripts tend to be very dense with narrative description. I’m old school, and prefer to progress the story visually rather than through pages and pages of endless dialogue. I’ll leave that sort of storytelling to disciples of Tarantino and Mamet. I’m happiest when I accomplish something with as few spoken lines as possible.
Tegan Ashton Cohan stars in ODD BRODSKY, co-written by cinematographer Matthew Irving
Audrey (Tegan Ashton Cohan) receives mixed messages from the Universe in ODD BRODSKY
(courtesy Free Dream Pictures)
A good example of this would be a scene from the comedy feature Odd Brodsky, which I co-wrote with my wife, director/producer Cindy Baer. At one point, our quirky heroine Audrey Brodsky finds herself at a crossroads: She’s offered a big promotion at a job she hates. She mulls it over at her favorite lunchtime café, where the universe seems to be giving mixed messages. One sign appears to say “QUIT,” but a second glance reveals that it actually says “QUICHE.” Another sign says “LEAVE” but then actually declares: “LEAF SALAD.” A final scrawl on the chalkboard sends the opposite message: “DON’T GO AWAY.” Audrey looks again and sees: “DON’T GO AWAY HUNGRY.” The whole scene is rendered without dialogue, until our confused Audrey steps up to the cashier and meekly declares: “Quiche, please.”
ODD BRODSKY, co-written by Cindy Baer and cinematographer Matthew Irving.
ODD BRODSKY, co-written by Matthew Irving (courtesy Free Dream Pictures)
ScripTipps: On the DVD commentary for Groove you said, “I personally got into this business for the audience, to make a collective group, gathered together in a dark room, feel something in a moment.” From your experiences, what have you found are the best ingredients to make a moment like that happen?

Matthew: It’s a very different business now than it was when I said that. I’m a big believer in what I would call the “cinema of investment,” which has fallen out of fashion. These days, movies are so desperate to keep the audience’s attention. The average scene length is so short, and dialogue is streamlined during development so that every moment can serve the plot. To me, modern movies feel like they’re trailers for a much longer movie to come.

In my experience, the best way to get an audience to feel something is to invest them in the characters and the world. And this might take time and it might take “going through stuff” with the characters. And what’s more, that “stuff we go through” might not have to do with our main plot at all, just so long as it reveals something about the character. Then, once we actually know these people, we can carve out SPACE to make something which moves us. It might scare us, or make us cry, or give us chills because the moment is full of wonder… but we’ve EARNED it if we’ve put in the time.

One of my favorite non-pretentious examples of effective investment-and-payoff is the original Halloween from 1978, directed by the great John Carpenter. Think of how much time it takes that film to get going, and how much “shoe leather” the audience experiences. “Shoe leather” is the term the industry disparagingly uses to describe watching a character walk from one place to another. Filmmakers are usually pressured to “cut out the shoe leather” and make things tighter tighter, faster. But what would Halloween be without the shoe leather?

There’s a scene near the end of Halloween when Jamie Lee Curtis is walking across the street (more shoe leather), from the house where she’s babysitting to the house where her best friends have been murdered. It’s a real-time walk accomplished with only two intercut Steadicam shots, and it takes TIME. Add in Carpenter’s wonderfully atmospheric score and the distant sound of a dog barking, and the audience really FEELS something. The plot is being put on hold to experience this moment. Modern movies would probably cut to the character entering the front door of the murder house. But John Carpenter has invested in this moment so the audience can feel a well-earned chill. It’s incredibly well crafted, even if it’s “just a horror film.” To me, slow-burn moments are the most rewarding, and they’re becoming an endangered species.
Cinematographer MATTHEW IRVING
Matthew Irving has lensed an eclectic slate of 27 features including the recent award winning films GEOGRAPHY CLUB (released last month) and A BIT OF BAD LUCK (starring Cary Elwes).  As a screenwriter, Irving's feature debut, ODD BRODSKY, can next be seen at the 17th Annual Dances With Films Festival.

ScripTipps: Waitress, an in-depth analysis of Adrienne Shelly's mouth-watering screenplay, is available now at

ScripTipps: WAITRESS, screenplay analysis and deconstruction, on sale now at

Waitress is also currently being adapted into a Broadway musical with music and lyrics by Grammy nominated singer/songwriter Sara Bareilles.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Writers are Stuck In Love

Stuck in Love is about a dysfunctional family of writers I wish had been mine. Originally titled Writers, the 2013 release from first-time writer/director Josh Boone (The Fault in Our Stars) is loaded with great writing tips and scenes that budding novelists and screenwriters will find particularly relatable. Here are five of my favorites.

"Looking at her hurt." Liana Liberato and Nat Wolff star in STUCK IN LOVE.
"I remember that it hurt. Looking at her hurt." These are the first words in the film. Rusty (Nat Wolff), the protagonist, writes them in his journal while staring at his secret crush, Kate (Liana Liberato), asleep at her desk in their high school English class.

The film emphasizes the importance of opening lines by having them spoken in voiceover and written across the screen like a meme. Later, Rusty's father, Will (Greg Kinnear), a famous novelist, thumbs through his son's journal and those words pop out at him (not literally, this time). "If that was the opening line of a book," he says, "you'd have your reader hooked."

Novelists agonize over the first words of their novels. The start of a movie is just as important. When I was little, for reasons I've never figured out, I used to keep track of the first and last lines of my favorite movies. But movies are visual. The first spoken words in a screenplay are not necessarily as important as the opening image.

A movie needs to pull the viewer into its world from the first frame the way a novel draws in a reader with its first carefully chosen words. Who can't relate to sitting in a schoolroom next to that unapproachable boy or girl who's so pretty your heart aches? This opening image, and its accompanying line, sets Rusty's story into action.

"You're really cute when you get worked up about books." Nat Wolff and Liana Liberato star in STUCK IN LOVE.
Kate is hardly the reader Rusty is, but she responds quite favorably to the passionate way he speaks about his favorite author, Stephen King. I've experienced similar reactions while lost in conversations of my favorite movies, musicians, or even some of my own writing.

When pitching a screenplay, the material is never enough to sell itself. Development execs have already heard every story that can be written. Experts say passion is contagious. People get excited about something that someone else is excited about. Whether you're trying to get someone's clothes off or just get them to read your *#$%@! script, show them that something matters to you.

On the Stuck in Love DVD commentary, Josh Boone notes how the Stephen King books on the shelf on the bottom left corner of the frame are in the exact same arrangement they were in his own room when he was a teenager. Nat Wolff has to remind him that nobody's paying attention to the bookshelf when there's a half-naked underage girl on the screen, to which Boone is almost oblivious. This is how you know this is a movie about something that really matters to the filmmaker, and something that matters to his characters just as much.

"It didn't seem like my book anymore. It felt like someone else's." Lily Collins and Greg Kinnear star in STUCK IN LOVE.
Rusty's sister, Sam (Lily Collins), is also a writer. Her first novel is being published. Much to her father's dismay, it's not the one he had helped her with.

Even outside of writing, anyone can relate to growing up and reaching that point where you want to accomplish something without your parents' help. The actress related to this aspect of her role from having chosen acting to differentiate her career path from that of her father's, rock star Phil Collins. For me, it was buying a car. My father had handled everything the first time. The second time, I didn't even tell him I was looking for another until I rolled up in front of his house in my new wheels.

Sam's dilemma is more personal, as it pertains to her writing, a part of her soul. But her angst is not necessarily tied to the helping editorial hand coming from a parent. The book Toxic Feedback by Joni Cole talks about how the goal of giving feedback on writing is to find what the writer is trying to say, then helping her find the best way to express it in her own voice. Too often, "notes" are more about the feedback provider trying to rewrite a piece the way he would write it. New writers need to be careful not to implement every suggestion they get from a writers group, or the work will no longer feel like it came from you.

"You can't make me write, Dad." "I won't have to. You're a writer. You'll do it yourself." Greg Kinnear and Nat Wolff star in STUCK IN LOVE.
At the inevitable boy-loses-girl beat of Stuck in Love, Rusty has lost his inspiration to write. His father tries to help, but knows he is powerless. Writing comes from within. He's confident his son still has the writing bug in him, but he'll have to find it for himself.

No one is ever forced to write a screenplay or a novel, and yet such documents do get written. Not by thinking about writing them, or talking about it, or planning to get around to it one day when you have more time and have read the latest how-to-write-a-screenplay-in-24-hours book. Books and movies get written because someone sits down and writes them. Those people are called writers. No one else may claim that title or award it to you.

"I'm not a great writer. I'm a great re-writer." Greg Kinnear stars in Josh Boone's STUCK IN LOVE.
Rusty's father hasn't written anything new since his divorce. The books he's published since then were started before his wife (Jennifer Connelly) left him, which doesn't count because that's just rewriting. He's good at that. In fact, he wishes he could rewrite his life. There are things he'd be able to fix.

In a sense, writing is a chance to rewrite experiences from our own lives, but better. Stuck in Love itself is a semi-autobiographical example. "I was in love with a girl in high school named Kate," Boone reveals on the commentary, "and Nat Wolff plays kind of a version of myself. Like a sexier, more talented version of me." Rusty's parents' post-divorce relationship is among Boone's other revisions from his own life.

Interestingly, the line about rewriting was a rewrite itself. Greg Kinnear came up with the idea, and Boone worked it into the script. Similarly, Jennifer Connelly felt her character needed to be in one scene, a book release party for Sam, in which she did not originally appear in the script. The rewritten version ended up being the most emotionally powerful moment of the film.

Rewriting is not fixing typos. Good rewriting pushes you to make your script the best it can be in ways you never thought possible.

Stuck in Love is available on DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon streaming, and Netflix. Director Josh Boone's next movie, The Fault in our Stars, adapted by Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber ((500) Days of Summer, The Spectacular Now) from the best-selling novel by John Green, opens on June 6. Boone is also adapting Stephen King's The Stand.

Thursday, May 15, 2014


What is SLUGline?
The creators of ScripTipps have carefully curated this online collection of the latest articles about what's going on in the world of screenwriting.

Screenwriter Alex Kurtzman on the cover of SLUGline, a Flipboard magazine for screenwriters presented by ScripTipps

Go ahead, click on the cover and subscribe for free. We've flipped over 160 great articles so far into this easy-to-browse, magazine-style layout powered by Flipboard, with new content added nearly every day!

Stay on top of who's writing what: Jason Reitman is attached to adapt The Possibilities (from the author of The Descendants, which was deconstructed by ScripTipps); Akiva Goldsman was tapped to pen the first Divergent sequel, Insurgent; Seth Rogen is adapting a book on the 1990s video game console wars; JK Rowling is making her screenwriting debut; David Goyer is writing the Fantastic Voyage remake for James Cameron; and more!

Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin on the cover a SLUGline, a Flipboard magazine for screenwriters presented by ScripTipps

Flip through the pages of SLUGline to read about intellectual property lawsuits surrounding Elizabeth Banks' Walk of Shame, Clint Eastwood's Trouble with the Curve, the hit horror franchise The Conjuring, Sylvester Stallone's The Expendables franchise, and Quentin Tarantino's famously leaked The Hateful Eight screenplay.

You'll also find fascinating interviews with top screenwriters (including a rare conversation with Risky Business writer/director Paul Brickman and advice from a recent Nicholl Fellowship winner) and new showrunners (FX's Fargo, MTV's Awkward), along with coverage of the recent awards season and WGA contract negotiations.

Plus, in addition to articles on the craft of screenwriting, SLUGline features analytical articles exploring trends in romantic comedy, female protagonists, shared universe superhero movies, politics in comic book movies, monster movie metaphors, coming of age stories, and the "hyperlink" screenplay.

Once again, SLUGline is completely free and compiled for screenwriters exclusively by the creators of ScripTipps. Check it out today.

Note: ScripTipps and SLUGline are in no way affiliated with Slugline, the Fountain-based screenplay formatting app for Mac.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Sex in Screenwriting

In the old days it was easy. You weren’t allowed to show two people in the same bed. The only acceptable way to write a sex scene was “FADE OUT.”

Those days are gone. If you’re writing a screenplay today involving romance, you’re characters might want to hook up. Do you show “it”? What do you put on the page? Do you write out who touches what when? Do you describe how the actors should scrunch up their faces when they “finish”?

Answer: It depends on the needs of the story. In Basic Instinct, for example, a detective sleeps with a murder suspect in a case where the killer strikes during sex. You can’t skip the bedroom. The script must spell out how the suspense of the scene derives from Catherine reaching back as if she’s going for a hidden ice pick.

Let’s take a look at how the sex was handled in the R-rated comedy Bridesmaids. The movie opens on ANNIE (Kristen Wiig) and TED (Jon Hamm) in a mattress-bouncing session already in progress.
Kristen Wiig and Jon Hamm are out-of-sync in the bedroom in BRIDESMAIDS
We see them in a series of comical positions separated by jump cuts.
ANNIE WALKER, mid 30's, is having sweaty sex with TED, handsome, 40. In a series of close-ups and jump cuts, we see Annie in the middle of a very long, vigorous session.
Most of the shots in the montage were improvised. The point of the gag is to establish that these two characters are “maybe on different rhythms here,” as Annie notes in the middle of it all. The sex is either too fast for her or too slow for him.

The other goal of the scene was to provide a contrast to the sex scenes with OFFICER RHODES (Chris O’Dowd), Annie’s real love interest.
Chris O'Dowd and Kristen Wiig get up to speed in BRIDESMAIDS
On their first date, Rhodes takes Annie to his beat on the side of the road where he lets her “handle his equipment.” There is a subconscious connection as she aims his radar gun at traffic to help him catch early morning speeders.

Each car that passes goes faster than the one before. 58 mph. Then 63 mph. The next one slows the action down to a smooth 48 mph, which Rhodes guesses correctly.

“That’s never happened,” he says. Unlike Annie and Ted, who were on “different rhythms,” Annie and Rhodes are perfectly in sync. It’s never happened for her before, either. When the final car shoots by at 93 mph, we see Annie look happy for the first time in the movie, 53 minutes since it began.

Later, the couple decides to physically consummate their relationship. “Annie and Rhodes fly through the door, making out.” They fall onto the bed. Between their heavy breathing, they both manage to say they like mountain biking and are “glad this is happening.”

We’ve already seen their metaphoric roadside intimacy, and we’ve now re-established how much more these two lovers are on the same page than Annie and Ted. Sticking around any longer would be voyeuristic. Despite the raunchy film’s R rating, we cut abruptly to the next morning without seeing a single item of clothing come off.
ScripTipps: Bridesmaids by Dan Margules
Bridesmaids, by first-time screenwriters Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo, was nominated for two Academy Awards in 2012, including Best Original Screenplay, a rarity for a raunchy comedy. For more insightful screenwriting tips from this well-crafted script, read the ScripTipps deconstruction of Bridesmaids, on sale now.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

WINNERS: 2014 Platinum Brad Screenplay Awards


Announcing the winners of the inaugural Platinum Brad Screenplay Awards presented by ScripTipps and voted on by YOU!

Best Screenplay Based on or Inspired by a True Story
12 YEARS A SLAVE - John Ridley

Best Screenplay Based on a Novel
WARM BODIES - Jonathan Levine

Best Screenplay Based on a Comic Book, Graphic Novel, or Fairy Tale
BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR - Abdellatif Kechiche

Best Screenplay Based on a Play

Best Original Screenplay
HER - Spike Jonze

Best Screenplay Written or Co-Written by the Film's Lead Actor
BEFORE MIDNIGHT - Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke, Richard Linklater

Best Comedy Screenplay
THIS IS THE END - Evan Goldberg, Seth Rogen

Best Drama Screenplay
PRISONERS - Aaron Guzikowski

Best Horror Screenplay
MAMA - Neil Cross, Andrés Muschietti, Bárbara Muschietti

Best Sci-Fi Screenplay
GRAVITY - Alfonso Cuarón, Jonás Cuarón

Best Fantasy Screenplay
FROZEN - Jennifer Lee

Best Superhero Screenplay
KICK-ASS 2 - Jeff Wadlow

Best Franchise Screenplay (Sequel, Prequel, Spin-off, Remake, or Reboot)
THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE - Simon Beaufoy, Michael deBruyn

Best Screenplay for an Animated Feature
FROZEN - Jennifer Lee

Breakthrough Screenwriter
BOB NELSON (Nebraska)

Congratulations to the winners and thank you for voting!

Winners of the 1st Annual Platinum Brad Screenplay Awards presented by ScripTipps include FROZEN (Best Fantasy Screenplay), THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE (Best Franchise Screenplay), BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR (Best Screenplay Based on a Graphic Novel), PRISONERS (Best Drama Screenplay), and THIS IS THE END (Best Comedy Screenplay)

See also: Full list of nominees

Friday, February 28, 2014

RECAP: Who Will Win the Best Screenplay Oscars?

A fact sheet at a glance for handicapping the race.

Learn about all of this year’s Oscar-nominated screenplays and screenwriters in our ten-part series. Click on the titles or pictures to go to the script’s in-depth profile. (Most include links to download the screenplay for free.)

Screenwriters: David O. Russell (also director), Eric Warren Singer
Total nominations: 10 (tied for first place), including Best Picture, Director, and all four acting categories
* Russell’s 5th nomination, second for writing; Singer’s first nomination
* Rusell’s 3rd consecutive film to be nominated for Best Picture, Director, and Screenplay
* Singer’s previous credits: The International
* Script’s original title: American Bullshit
* Script was on the 2010 Black List
* Highest grossing of all nominated screenplays
Other accolades: BAFTA (Original Screenplay), Golden Globes (Best Picture Comedy), SAG (Cast)
Screenwriter: Woody Allen (also director)
Modernization of: A Streetcar Named Desire
Total nominations: 3, including Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress
* Allen’s 24th nomination, 16th for writing
Previous wins:
Annie Hall (1978), Best Director and Best Original Screenplay
Hannah and Her Sisters (1987), Best Original Screenplay
Midnight in Paris (2012), Best Original Screenplay
Likelihood of winning: Same as Roman Polanski presenting
Screenwriters: Craig Borten, Melisa Wallack
* Based on a true story
Total nominations: 6, including Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Supporting Actor
* Borten’s first screenplay written, first screenplay sold, and first produced credit
* Wallack’s first screenplay sold, previous credits include Mirror Mirror
In development: 20 years
Screenwriter: Spike Jonze
Total nominations: 5, including Best Picture
Other script accolades: Golden Globes, Critics’ Choice, WGA, and more
* Jonze’s fourth feature film, his first solo feature writing credit
Jonze’s other work:
* Nominated for co-writing the song, “The Moon Song”
* Acted in Best Picture nominee The Wolf of Wall Street
* Produced Best Makeup nominee Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa
* Previously nominated for directing Being John Malkovich
* His first two films were nominated for Best Screenplay, both by Charlie Kaufman
* Previously married to Best Original Screenplay winner Sofia Coppola
Screenwriter: Bob Nelson
Total nominations: 6, including Best Picture, Director, Actor, Supporting Actress
* First Alexander Payne film not written by Payne
* Fourth of Payne’s last five films nominated for Best Screenplay (his last two won)
* Nelson’s first screenplay
In development: 10 years
* Lowest grossing of all original screenplay nominees

Most likely to pull an upset: American Hustle

Screenwriters: Richard Linklater (also director), Ethan Hawke (also star), Julie Delpy (also star)
Adapted from: characters from Before Sunrise by Linklater and Kim Krizan
Total nominations: 1
* Linklater’s and Delpy’s second nomination, Hawke’s third
* All three previously nominated for writing Before Sunset
* Hawke also nominated for Best Supporting Actor for Training Day
* Only nominee in category not based on a true story
* Only nominee in category not adapted from a book
* Lowest grossing of all nominated screenplays
Last screenplay nominated that was the third part of a trilogy: Toy Story 3
Screenwriter: Billy Ray
Adapted from: memoir by Richard Phillips with Stephen Talty
Total nominations: 6, including Best Picture and Supporting Actor
Other accolades: WGA Award for Best Adapted Screenplay
* Ray’s first Oscar nomination
Ray’s previous credits: The Hunger Games
Ray’s previous writer-director credits: Shattered Glass, Breach
Screenwriters: Steve Coogan (also star and producer), Jeff Pope
Adapted from: non-fiction book by Martin Sixsmith
Total nominations: 4, including Best Picture and Best Actress
Other script accolades: BAFTA (Adapted Screenplay)
* 5th Stephen Frears film nominated for its screenplay (Dangerous Liaisons won)
* Coogan’s 1st feature screenplay
* Coogan’s 1st and 2nd nominations (Best Picture, Best Screenplay)
* Pope’s 1st nomination
Screenwriter: John Ridley
Adapted from: memoir by Solomon Northrup with David Wilson
Total nominations: 9, including Best Picture, Director, Actor, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress
Other accolades: Golden Globe (Best Picture Drama), BAFTA (Best Picture), Critics’ Choice (Best Picture, Adapted Screenplay), Producers Guild (Best Picture, tied with Gravity)
WGA award: disqualified, Ridley left guild during 2007 strike
*Ridley’s 1st nomination
Ridley’s previous credits: U-Turn, Undercover Brother, Red Tails
Screenwriter: Terence Winter
Adapted from: memoir by Jordan Belfort
Total nominations: 5, including Best Picture, Director, Actor, Supporting Actor
* Winter’s 1st nomination
* Winter is married to Best Picture nominee Rachel Winter (Dallas Buyers Club)
Winter’s other work: The Sopranos (writer/producer), Boardwalk Empire (creator)
Number of Scorsese films nominated for Best Screenplay: 8
Number of Scorsese films to win Best Screenplay: 1 (The Departed)
* Highest grossing of all adapted screenplay nominees

PROJECTED WINNER: 12 Years a Slave

Days Left to Vote in the Inaugural ScripTipps Screenplay Awards: 1 (today)

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Best Screenplay Nominee: 12 YEARS A SLAVE

12 YEARS A SLAVE nominated for 9 Academy Awards including Best Adapted Screenplay
LOGLINE - A man struggles to regain his independence after being kidnapped and sold into slavery.

WHO WROTE IT - Born in New York in 1808 the son of a freed slave, violinist Solomon Northrup was kidnapped by slave traders in 1841 while following a bogus lead on a job offer in Washington, D.C. After twelve years of bondage, he was finally able to get word of his whereabouts to his family, who were then able to help free him.

A year after returning home, Northrup wrote his memoir, Twelve Years a Slave, with the help of David Wilson, a New York legislator. Following the success of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin a year earlier, Northrup’s book became a bestseller.
Solomon Northrup, author of TWELVE YEARS A SLAVE
Solomon Northrup
Screenwriter John Ridley met Steve McQueen at a screening of the British director’s first film, Hunger. They were both interested in making a film about slavery and began tossing ideas back and forth until McQueen’s wife discovered Northrup’s book.

Ridley began his screenwriting career in television sitcoms such as Martin and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. In 1997, he published his first novel, Stray Dogs, and adapted it for the screen as U-Turn for acclaimed director Oliver Stone.

His spec script Spoils of War was turned into Three Kings by David O. Russell (nominated this year for directing and co-writing American Hustle). Kings starred Spike Jonze, who is nominated against Russell in the Original Screenplay category for Her.

Prior to 12 Years a Slave, Ridley was best known for writing and producing the 2002 blaxploitation spoof Undercover Brother.
Academy Award nominated screenwriter John Ridley (12 YEARS A SLAVE)
John Ridley
During the 2007 writers strike, Ridley publicly denounced the WGA’s handling of the negotiations and left the union. As a result, his work on the 12 Years a Slave screenplay was ineligible for a WGA award. A man of principle, Ridley agreed to forgo payment in addition to the coveted WGA gong, working on the script for four years on spec (ie, for free).

THE TITLE IS A SPOILER - In the first act of 12 Years a Slave, the protagonist experiences an “unfair injury,” instantly making him a sympathetic hero. The inciting incident forces him on a journey. Everything about the setup is classic storytelling.

The story is somewhat episodic, passing the antagonist duties that first lie with the kidnappers from one owner to the next, always with increasing cruelty. While the institution of slavery is the main antagonist, it is personified as a villain primarily in Epps (Michael Fassbender), the meanest of Northrup’s taskmasters.
Michael Fassbender, Chiwetel Ejifor, 12 YEARS A SLAVE
Michael Fassbender, Chiwetel Ejifor

Like the hero in Captain Phillips (also based on a true story and also nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay), Northrup is incapable of actively participating in his salvation, lest he become Django, the protagonist of last year’s Best Original Screenplay winner. Instead, his heroism comes from his perseverance; eventually he finds the chance to convince one of the executive producers to solve his problem.

The movie is told entirely from Northrup’s point of view, but Northrup wasn’t directly involved the aftermath of whatever happened when his family found out where he was. While we do get to witness his triumphant homecoming, the machinations of his release occur off screen. And since we know from the title that his captivity lasts exactly twelve years, the film's “ticking clock” works to diffuse the tension of the hero's plight rather than build it up.

THE TITLE IS ALSO MISSPELLED - The book spells out the number twelve in its title. The screenplay uses the numeral 12. In his Q&A podcast, journalist Jeff Goldsmith asked Ridley about the discrepancy.

“Everything that I learned, and someone feel free to correct me, that up to ten, if it is the first word of a sentence it is spelled out, up to ten, right?” the Oscar-nominated screenwriter asked.

Not quite. He's mixing up two separate rules. Style guides differ about the over-ten rule in the middle of a sentence. But almost all style guides say numbers must be spelled out when they are the first word in a sentence, even if they are ridiculously long numbers, in which case they recommend rephrasing the sentence.

WILL IT WIN - 12 Years a Slave scooped up top prizes at the Golden Globes, BAFTA, and Critics’ Choice Awards, and tied with Gravity at the Producers Guild Awards. It garnered nine total Oscar nominations, the second only to Gravity and American Hustle, which tied for first place with ten apiece. They are in a three-way battle for most statuettes.
12 YEARS A SLAVE won the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture Drama
In the screenplay races, Slave lost to Her at the Globes, where they combine adaptations with originals, and took a surprise hit at the BAFTAs from Philomena, and, of course, was left out of the WGA heat altogether. But Ridley did pick up a cool dozen trophies from various critics awards, including the Broadcast Critics’ Association, as well as the prestigious USC Scripter Award.

American Hustle and Her may be running neck-and-neck on the original side, but Slave seems to have a strong lead to claim Best Adapted Screenplay along with its expected Best Picture and Supporting Actress wins. The most likely script to pull an upset here is Philomena, which appeals to the Academy's older voters and still addresses a social injustice.

The script for 12 Years a Slave is also nominated for Best Screenplay Based on a True Story in the inaugural ScripTipps Screenplay Awards, which you can vote in for free up until Friday night. (Click here)

WHAT’S NEXT FOR THE FIRST-TIME OSCAR-NOMINATED SCREENWRITER - John Ridley made his directorial debut with the Jimi Hendrix biopic All Is by My Side, due in theatres this May. He was also hired by MGM to rewrite a remake of Ben-Hur and last month received a pilot order from ABC for a crime drama series he created called American Crime.

This is Part 10 of our ten-part series of profiles on this year’s Oscar-nominated screenplays.