Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The future of screenwriting in the Obama administration

...is not really what I'm going to talk about, but I couldn't think of a good title for my general updates and ramblings. (Note to self: maybe just say "general updates and ramblings" next time.)

In the past few days I came back out of my cocoon of outline-revising, subtext-finding, and central-theme-clarifying, and started on some actual script pages. In my limited experience, the best time to make the transition from outlining to scripting is not when the outline is completely finished, but rather when you're in danger of going insane from doing too many scene summaries without writing an actual scene.

Herein lies one of the constant internal battles that screenwriters face: Outlining sucks, but it's essential; writing real pages is great, but it can end up being a complete waste of time if you don't have the story figured out. But there's a philosophical flipside to this truism -- you can't spend your whole life outlining. You have to write pages eventually, even if you're not entirely ready. Because the outline never tells the whole story (no pun intended). It's a blueprint for a script, just as the script is a blueprint for a movie.

And like the transition from script to film, the segue from outline to script is never completely smooth. A scene that seems easy when written as a sentence (e.g. "Joe decides to tell Marsha it's over") turns out to be incredibly difficult to translate into real dialogue and action. A sequence you'd imagined taking up several pages ends up being easily condensed to a half-page scene. An important transition scene in the outline shows itself to be entirely unnecessary in the script; or two scenes that seemed to flow together just fine turn out to be confusing without a bridge between them.

Fortunately, this process of discovery helps to make the writing process more engaging. Writing a screenplay would be fairly dull if it were simply a matter of taking an outline and filling in the necessary speeches and stage directions. For me, there's a huge difference in the way the story feels when I'm constructing actual dialogue and prose -- for better or worse. All the minutiae is there; the individual moments that get glossed over in the outline are laid bare. If the scene works, those moments add up to much more than I'd even imagined. If it doesn't, every one of them feels painful and out of place. Hence, it makes for a pretty good acid test of the story.

Are there caveats to this methodology? Of course. Like I said, script pages written too early in the process are much more likely to be thrown out as the story evolves. But that's not always the end of the world. It's fun to write movie scenes, even if they might not make it into the movie. It makes you feel like a writer, instead of a person who sits and stares at the ceiling wracking his brain for ideas. We need that sometimes. And as long as you can be philosophical about exiling those recreational pages to the scrap heap later on, there's no harm done.

Anyway, I've really been enjoying the return to banging out pages. The script feels a lot smarter now, more mysterious, less obvious, and I hope I can carry those improvements through to the end. (If not, I'm sure I'll be back here to contradict some of the things I've just said.)

Thursday, January 15, 2009


Here's another thing that's just recently crystallized for me. I always knew subtext was a big deal (and not just to loyal X-Files viewers), but I couldn't quite explain it to myself. The argument all the books use -- that scenes without subtext are flat and boring -- makes sense to an extent, but I don't think it's always true. Where's the subtext in Mission: Impossible, 24, or most of the Bond films? Most scenes in all three of those are just about what they're about, but they still hold our interest. I'm sure there are other examples as well -- maybe not in the "great" movies, but certainly in plenty of solidly entertaining ones. So knowing that has made it a little harder for the whole subtext concept to really take hold.

But my sort-of epiphany came when I was working hard to uncover the themes and ideas within my current script -- figuring out what I was really getting at with this story, who these characters were and why they needed to change, and how those changes would be painful but necessary and ultimately rewarding for both them and the audience. Suddenly I had all these interesting philosophical concepts and character traits to work with, which was a blessing as far as adding depth and interest to my story, but also a burden because -- well, how do you work complex discussions of these topics into a fast-paced thriller?

And voila, there it was -- you do it in the subtext. That's what the subtext is for. It gives the writer a chance to talk about all the underlying morals, issues, questions, and so forth -- but without bringing the action of the story to a screeching halt and boring the audience. In a sense, subtext is just another layer of exposition hidden beneath the visible exposition of the plot. The plot contains information we need the reader to know, while the subtext contains information we want them to know (or think about). So, it's okay to put useful information in the subtext, but crucial information should be communicated more directly. David Lindsay-Abaire's play (and upcoming movie) Rabbit Hole centers around a married couple whose son was recently killed by a teenage driver. Since the entire plot is driven by that event, the script tells us unequivocally that it happened. On the other hand, if the plot were about the husband's infidelity, and the son's death had happened several years ago, it would probably be okay to convey that through subtext (it might even be preferable).

The reason, of course, is that plot is most important. If you're watching a movie and you can't follow the plot, you won't bother trying to decipher the subtext. But when the plot makes sense, and your brain synchs up with the story, then it can be a real joy to start looking for the themes, emotions, and other gems hidden beneath the surface.

The word "subtext" can be misleading, since it seems to refer only to words. It doesn't, though; at least not in a visual medium like film. In a screenplay, there are opportunities for subtext everywhere you look (and I do mean that literally). You can convey subtextual information through the locations in which scenes occur, the clothing your characters wear, physical action that goes on in the background, even the time of day or the weather. Alfonso Cuaron, one of my favorite directors, is an absolute master of visual subtext. The action and images in the background of Children of Men or Y Tu Mama Tambien could constitute movies of their own, but as subtext they simply enhance the experience, the mental and emotional response, produced by the films they're part of.

Monday, January 12, 2009


Screenwriters hate following rules. Doesn't matter what stage you're at, really. If you're new at the trade, the "rules" you read in books and hear about in classes seem bizarre and draconian, a total wet blanket on your creativity and zeal. If you've been writing for a while, you might think that the rules apply to people writing a certain kind of script, just not to you since yours is different. And if you're a veteran writer with several produced screenplays under your belt, you're sick of following the rules and are ready to tackle something outside the box.

I'm still learning the rules, as many of my dispatches here imply, and trying to understand what they mean to me and how I can apply them. The concept of the character arc has been one of the most difficult for me to grasp. I've understood for a long time that it's important for characters to change in meaningful ways over the course of a screenplay, I know that it's a staple of most successful, award-winning scripts, but the specific "why" of all that never jelled for me -- until yesterday.

So let me take a stab at explaining it in my own words.

What's the best thing someone can tell you when recommending a movie? Okay, maybe "four stars," "best picture of the decade," or other such superlatives come to mind. But I wouldn't say they're the best things that can be said about a film. Instead, I'd argue that the best thing you can say about a movie is this: "It changed my life." If someone tells you this, especially someone you trust, you're going to be hard-pressed to avoid seeing the film in question. You might even be hesitant to see it because you're apprehensive about what effect it will have on you. In any case, it's probably one hell of a movie.

Now let's inspect the statement a little more closely. If someone says a movie "changed [her] life," then something about her life and the way she lives it is different now than it was prior to seeing the movie. This, then, is her "arc." Her life was at point A; now it's at point B; the film brought her there -- it changed her. And that change proves the movie's power.

So, okay, we'd all like for our work to be this powerful. Unfortunately, as writers we have very little say over the emotional reaction of the average reader or audience member. That person is bringing his own baggage, his own perspective, to the experience; and those intangible elements -- neither of which the writer has any control over -- will hugely affect how he responds to the movie. That's the bad news.

The good news is that we have absolute control over every one of the characters in our script. Therefore, we can choose whether or not their lives are changed by the story. And if we make it a life-changing story for all of them, then we've got a much better chance of impressing our readers and audience. They know the best stories are the ones that change them, and now they've seen multiple lives change before their eyes. We've told them a good story and given them concrete proof of its effectiveness. That's one reason why character arcs are important.

(A final note here. Conventional wisdom on arcs is that the villain/antagonist shouldn't have one -- he is undone by his own inability or unwillingness to change, and his lack of arc helps to put the hero's arc into sharper focus. That's one way to go, but definitely not the only way. One example that comes to mind is Serenity, in which the villain not only suffers a physical defeat but also chooses to abandon his rigid philosophy as a result of what he sees. In the DVD commentary track, writer/director Joss Whedon explains that he thinks having the good guy show the bad guy he's wrong is more effective than just killing him. This approach may not work for all stories, but it's effective in this case and, I think, worth considering.)

Friday, January 9, 2009

Movies I see: Rififi

(Note: I've made it one of my New Year's resolutions to see more films, especially classics that I've missed, in an effort to broaden my pool of inspiration for writing. I figure it also makes sense to write down some thoughts about them as I see them. Here's the first.)

Rififi (1955, France, directed by Jules Dassin, written by Dassin, Rene Wheeler, and Auguste Le Breton, based on the novel by Le Breton)

It's astonishing to think that this movie was made 54 years ago. It feels so current, so in touch with modern schools of writing and directing, that it must have been shocking (if not downright baffling) to audiences in its day. No exaggeration here: 10 or 20 years from now, if someone sits down and watches Rififi and Ocean's Eleven back-to-back, Ocean's Eleven will be the one that looks dated.

In fact, the only difficulty in absorbing many useful lessons from this film lies in the fact that virtually every other movie of its type has appropriated most of its best techniques. The CIA break-in in Mission: Impossible is probably the most commonly cited beneficiary, and even that scene isn't anywhere near as clever as its counterpart in Rififi; Tom Cruise and company are victorious basically because they have all this sexy technology that's apparently eluded the CIA itself. In Rififi, the guys pull off the heist through planning, ingenuity, and a lot of hard manual labor. The sequence is cool and sexy precisely because of how unsexy it all is.

Where Rififi most sharply deviates from its cinematic progeny, though, is in its moral compass. In modern heist/caper films, thieves are generally allowed to be "good guys" as long as they don't hurt or kill innocent people, and as good guys they're entitled to some kind of happy ending. The protagonists in Rififi are afforded no such luxury. Spoiler alert -- they all die. Even the guy with the wife and five-year-old son. Pretty strong "crime doesn't pay" message embedded in this one, I'd say. Admittedly, I was taken aback. I figured at least the two leads, Jo and Tony, would live. But no. There's no way out for any of them. The path they've chosen leads straight to the grave.

Could you do this in a mainstream movie today? Kill off all your main characters as punishment for pulling off a really clever jewel heist that didn't involve hurting or killing anyone? I don't think so -- not even if they were the villains (and nothing any of them does, with the exception of Tony's belt-whipping of his ex-girlfriend, would qualify them for that label today. There's even a nice little "Save the Cat"-type moment during the heist when one of the thieves puts a pillow behind the head of the jewelry store owner's wife whom they're holding hostage). Does this say something about how our moral and ethical standards have shifted over the years? I think it might.

According to IMDb, Al Pacino is slated to star in an upcoming remake of Rififi. Seems like a silly thing to do after the dozens upon dozens of quasi-remakes that have been spawned in the intervening years, but here we are. In any case, I have no doubt that the story will be changed significantly. For one thing, the new version will take great pains to portray the jewelry store owner (or whomever he's replaced by) as a Bad Guy, thus fully justifying taking him down. (They did this in Ocean's Eleven, although Andy Garcia was never really shown as evil, just kind of a douchebag with too much money.) For another thing, Pacino and his ragtag band of criminals will all be really great, awesome, lovable guys who just happen to steal stuff for a living. If one of them has a son, then the son will probably need some kind of expensive medical treatment that his father couldn't pay for without pulling off the heist. That's how things are done these days. (I'm not even necessarily passing judgment on that approach, because it could probably be quite effective if done well. A story cliche only looks like a story cliche if it's badly executed.)

This is not a movie you need to put into context to enjoy. Fancy technology -- especially made-up fancy technology -- dates a movie within minutes these days, not that that generally stops filmmakers from weaving stories around it. Interesting characters who survive on their wits and cunning alone, on the other hand, are timeless. Definitely something for me to keep in mind as I write.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

The Writer's Intention

I'm feeling especially didactic after a few days of revisiting Robert McKee's Story, so bear with me. Anyway, I realize the term "intention" is incredibly loaded and controversial (if not simply ridiculous) in the studio system, where all such precious concepts go to be taken out and shot -- but fortunately for all of us, that's not the context in which I want to address it.

Instead, I'm just talking about the writer's intention in the most basic sense -- in other words, the thoughts and feelings that the writer hopes to evoke from the reader of his script. Though we might only associate this concept with highbrow intellectual scripts, it definitely applies universally.

"I want to make the reader/audience ponder the futility of hope and goodwill in the face of an unstoppable capitalistic machine" is a clear intention. But so is "I want to make the reader/audience laugh uncontrollably and also gross them out." If you're writing the latter script, you might not actively consider your intention, but it's there nonetheless. Even if your only goal is to write a complete rip-off of The Matrix or Pulp Fiction, your intention is clear: to evoke the exact same thoughts and feelings as those movies.

No matter where on this vast continuum a script happens to fall, it seems to me that it's always worth spending some time identifying and thinking about your intentions -- in the idea stage, during the writing process, after the script is finished. The reason is simple: you need to make sure that your intentions come through in the final product.

I guarantee you there's not a single writer, successful or not, who hasn't failed remarkably in this respect on multiple occasions. There are three general ways for that to happen:
  1. The writer never knew exactly what his or her intention was.
  2. The plot and characters didn't serve the intention sufficiently, and/or served the wrong intention.
  3. The writer's intention was off-putting, uninteresting, or unworkable.
Problem #1 is common among novice writers. They're anxious to get started, so they just pick a genre and a cool premise and then they're off to the races, trying to crank out 100 pages before they run out of steam. This is fine the first few times out, when you're just learning to write in screenplay format and think cinematically, but to be considered seriously, a screenplay needs to have serious intentions. Otherwise, the tone will be all over the place, and an inconsistent tone is a big red flag to readers.

Problem #2 is probably the most common and merits the most discussion. For that, we'll go back to the examples of possible intentions from a few paragraphs ago. Let's say you want to write a gross-out comedy because you've heard that scripts in that genre are being purchased like crazy. (Yes, this example takes place in 1999.) However, you yourself are actually quite squeamish, and you're only able to manage to write one or two serious "hahaha EWWW!" scenes into the script. If you have your intention clearly in mind when you're looking back over the first draft (and you're honest with yourself), then it should be obvious that what you've written is not what you truly intended. Two icky-but-funny scenes do not equal a gross-out comedy. They equal a comedy with a couple of isolated gross-out scenes.

On the flipside, let's say you're not at all squeamish and really go for the gusto on this script. By the time you're finished, it's wall to wall with the most disgusting imagery in cinema history. Any single scene would make the Farrelly brothers blanch with embarrassment. Once again, if you keep your intention in mind -- you're writing a gross-out comedy here, not a free-for-all pukefest -- you'll probably realize that the finished product is too repellent to be funny.

In either case, the solution is to pay close attention to your script as you're going along so that you can make sure it's adhering to your intention. It's not enough to announce your intention to yourself at the beginning, then go off and write your movie and assume that the results will deliver what you intended.

Although I've been talking about this issue on a whole-script scale, in practice it manifests in smaller, more individual ways. Characters, for example, have a way of getting away from you when you're not paying attention. I've long been a fan of the icy, acerbic dialogue style of noir films and old screwball comedies, so my tendency is usually to make people talk that way in my scripts. Problem is, if a main characters is always speaking that way, he or she is going to come off like a certain type of person, and that might not be what I'm intending for that script. So I sometimes have to sit back and ask myself, which is more important -- filling page after page with snappy dialogue that makes me smile, or telling the story in an effective and consistent way? Or, that's a great chase scene I came up with, but does it fit in the story? Awesome shoot-out, but isn't that character supposed to be an arthritic pacifist? As writers, exciting ideas flash into our heads all the time; the only problem is that most of them are completely irrelevant to the project we're working on at the time. Trying to incorporate every inspiration that comes to you is not just a waste of time, but potentially fatal to a script.

Which leaves us with issue #3 -- an off-putting, uninteresting, or unworkable intention. I think this problem is best addressed by bouncing your initial ideas off as many (trusted) people as you can find. Winnie the Pooh said it best: "Sometimes... a Thing which seemed very Thingish inside you is quite different when it gets into the open and has other people looking at it." We never like to consider the possibility that our ideas are only interesting to us, but sadly, a lot of them are. If you think it's a really great idea to write a 100 page script about a thoroughly unlikable main character, you might want to see how other people react to the concept before you commit months of your life to the project. Similarly, a lot of newer writers get it into their heads to attempt something that's "never been done." My argument to that is not to say that everything has been done; but rather to say that there's a reason some things haven't been done.

So here's a multiple-choice question for debate.

You've finished the first draft of your script. After letting it percolate a few days, you clench your teeth and read it. It's great -- well written, entertaining, satisfying. But it isn't at all what you intended to write.

Have you failed?

(a) Sadly, yes. Go back to the drawing board and see where you got off track.

(b) Not at all! The results are what matter. If you like the finished product, who cares how you got there?

(c) You haven't failed, but you're not done yet. Figure out what new intentions emerged while you were writing, and find ways to service them throughout the script now that you're aware of them.

As anyone who's read books that use multiple-choice questions as a rhetorical device knows, the answer is clearly (c). On the one hand, it's great that you ended up with something you're proud of and genuinely enjoy reading -- that's a big part of the battle. On the other hand, the script is probably going to read very differently to someone who's not inside your head. Let's say it starts off as a raunchy gross-out comedy (why am I stuck on that?) but evolves into a thoughtful romantic comedy/drama with a tearjerker ending. To you, this is perfect. You get some great, icky laughs in upfront even as you know that the script is going somewhere much loftier -- the best of both worlds, right? Then you give it to someone else to read and one of two things happens. Either she likes the gross-out comedy premise and is disappointed to see how much the script sobers up over time, or she's turned off by the toilet humor and never even makes it to the Oscar-worthy scenes that come later.

You need to take a hard look at this script and decide what you want from it. If what you really wanted to do all along was to write an intelligent romantic dramedy, but you veered toward the gross-out realm only because you thought such a script would be more marketable, then fear not -- it looks like you have the chops to write something higher-minded, so play to your strengths and get rid of the crass stuff. If you're still wedded to the idea of doing a raunchy comedy, then you're going to have to put the brainy comedy/drama on the sidelines while you finish a proper gross-out script. And if you really want to try to pull off a script that turns from American Pie into As Good As It Gets in the span of 100 pages, you'd better find a way to telegraph that intention as early on in the script as possible (and good luck!).

So, yes, there is a reason why I think this "intention" business is so important and actually warrants as much space as I'm giving it. Here it is: readers are smart and intuitive. They will zero in on your intentions within the first several pages, then decide for themselves over the course of the script whether you deliver on those intentions. If your script begins with an epic car chase through the streets of Manhattan, the reader is going to expect equally thrilling scenes interspersed in the remaining pages. (I don't just mean professional readers; I mean anyone capable of sitting down, reading through your script and giving you feedback. A nonprofessional reader may not be able to articulate their expectations as clearly, but they still have them.) Throw some hysterically funny bits into that car chase, and you've stated your intention to deliver an action-comedy. End the car chase with horrific human casualties and you've stated your intention to deliver a realistic action-drama. And so forth. The only way to ensure you deliver the kind of movie you intend to write is to be aware of how each scene or sequence fits with your intention. When people talk about a script being really "tight," that's exactly what they mean -- and those are inevitably the ones that make the best movies.