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 cafĂ©, 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.