(article originally appeared on screenwriting
website Twelvepoint.com, September 2010)
When a civilian meets a screenwriter, usually the second thing they say is, “Oh, so you write all the dialogue then?” (first thing is “Have you written anything I would’ve seen?”) .
James Goldman (who can write circles around his brother William as far as I’m concerned) notes in his introduction to the published script of Robin and Marian (1976) that most people suppose that the actors and director make the movie up as they go and that, at best, a writer offers them the occasional choice zinger. They don’t know that a movie is written, that before anything else happens, a movie must be written – even if it’s Mike Leigh improvising and devising a film from the ground up – it iswritten.
Dialogue is the poster child of screenplay writing. It is literally the first thing people look at in a screenplay. No matter how well your scenes are constructed, no matter how electrifying your transitions, no matter how artful your conflicts, hand anyone a finished screenplay and they will always, always flip through to glance at the dialogue.
If there long great chunks of dialogue they may even hand it back to you and say, “I’m sorry, Mr Tarantino. It’s too talky.”
If there’s no dialogue on the page at all, if you’ve written a masterpiece of pure cinema, their shoulders will sag and the script will fall from their hands as they lose all hope, anticipating the African Queen-style slog ahead in which they actually have to imagine what is happening, rather than being able to speed along through pages of fluffy white dialogue like some agent skiing down the slopes at Vale – or if the reader is European, wherever European agents go skiing.
Do European agents go skiing?
Dialogue in a script, on the page, is very different from dialogue onscreen. In fact, they are two distinctly different animals involving entirely different sets of brain functions both in the creation and in the reception. Just as “He blows out the match / CUT TO / The sun rises.” will never convey the visceral effect of the famous sequence transition in Lawrence of Arabia (1962), reading their exchanges on paper about foot massages and their boss’s girlfriend just isn’t going to have the same effect as seeing the whole scene play out in real time in Pulp Fiction (1994).
Dialogue is just one more co-equivalent element of scene construction. Because we are all “doing dialogue” with each other every day, using it as our principle means of communication, the importance of dialogue for the screenwriter is always in danger of being underestimated.
When we step back and look at it coolly and honestly – and in the context of actual filmmaking, not as a type of writing on a script page - it is only another sound effect onscreen.
I hear some of you clearing throats uncomfortably, others grunting suspiciously, others saying “Get stuffed” aggressively, but I say again, dialogue is only another sound effect onscreen. The words we write in screenplay dialogue formatting are only notations for trained technicians, actors, to produce the proper sound effects to convey meaning to the audience. We have to be reminded – at least I do – that dialogue is far from essential in the telling of a film story. Brando could say more with a grunt than most other actors could with a page of dialogue. In fact, in On the Waterfront (1954) Kazan obliterates the dialogue in a pivotal scene between Brando and Eva Marie Saint with a deafening steam whistle effect. We see his lips moving and her horrified reaction but hear only the shriek of the whistle – far more effective than if we had heard the dialogue, even from one of the greatest actors in the world.
Dialogue – or verbally-manufactured sound design (okay, okay, you get it) – is the least efficient way of conveying information in a scene but it is easy and plays on the page much more effectively than a series of shots and transitions which, at least at most writers’ skill levels, are hard to make as effective. Dialogue on a page communicates directly with the reader; they can hear it in their head without having to do any imaginative translation. So what do we do? Write for the reader or write for the movie we’re trying to make?
How we write dialogue – the pace of it, the style, the punctuation – and how we use it to get a script made or even represented, is unique to each writer’s ear and aesthetic preferences. That is one of the great delights of reading/hearing good dialogue when one can really taste the unique flavour of each writer’s voice as it manifests itself in a character.
I try to stick to, cling to, the idea that dialogue is just another sound effect. I try to tell a story only with moving images, for which the sound track is just a means of providing depth and weight. I will sometimes try to write a scene forbidding myself dialogue of any kind and am often then forced – after long descriptions of the scenery and props and costume – into moving characters into action rather than blowing it all with yet another dialogue exchange over a dinner table.
Of course, I’m very lazy and have ended up being notorious for extremely long dialogue scenes and – worse – long monologues. I have only a limited ability to practice what I preach, it would seem.
There are no unbreakable rules for writing dialogue. Playing the “less is more” card is a cop out. Some of my favourite movies are saturated with heavy dialogue. However, treating dialogue as “just one more sound effect” can help force you to ask why exactly you are putting dialogue in a scene and ‘to hear these two characters sing a beautiful duet’ is a perfectly good reason, as far as I’m concerned.
When you study the Quentin Tarantino arias, for example, you quickly realize that they are not about gangsters saying witty things. In fact, they are gorgeous polished gems of suspense in which dialogue plays only a supporting role. The most important part of the long Jules/Vincent opening conversation in Pulp Fiction is a single line of dialogue: ‘We should have shotguns for this kind of deal.’ After that ominous set up Quentin’s characters can go on and on about anything they want. Danger is clearly communicated, and so we are hooked, and we will listen to anything he throws at us until that danger is resolved. The secret to his dialogue is not contained in the dialogue tab of his screenplay. It’s in the structure of the scene, the planting and payoff. It’s so clear and threatening that a rock-solid platform is built for him to then write all the virtuoso dialogue he wants.
All the embarrassing imitations that Tarantino has inspired would do well to remember that dialogue is just another sound effect, and that it is the other elements of a scene and how they fit together that determine whether that sound will be music or just more noise.
I heard a rumor – and I always believe rumors – about the cab scene in On The Waterfront, one of the greatest dialogue scenes in movies. The original script called for Brando’s Terry to respond to his brother’s threats with a substantial chunk of dialogue. But in the end, Brando just said: “Wow.”
(this article originally appeared at screenwriting
website Twelvepoint.com, July 2010)
I stepped out of Star Wars: Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace (1999) onto the sidewalk in front of Mann’s Chinese, the second screening of opening day. As I stood there, arranging the debriefing session with my fellowgeeks, an awful thought kept surfacing -like a Dia Nogu’s eyeball. I thought…I thought, well…maybe I hadn’t enjoyed George Lucas’ long-awaited return as much as I should have. I had “a bad feeling”.
But you can’t just say you have “a bad feeling” if you’re serious about studying and making movies. If you don’t like something, you need to find out exactly why. We had looked forward to the return of the Star Wars saga for years, anticipating how wonderful it was going to be. It was not wonderful. Why?
The Phantom Menace is by no means entirely lousy. In fact, despite how universally the film is disparaged, it is not the worst Star Wars movie. The worst Star Wars movie is Episode 2 – Attack of the Clones (2002). Some of the film’s design is superb. Darth Maul – an exquisite cross between a predatory animal and a demonic monk – is one of the best character designs in all of Star Wars, and the final duel between Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan and Darth Maul is one of the best action scenes of the entire saga.
Darth Maul, beautiful & inconsequential
So what is the key failing of The Phantom Menace? It’s not the awful dialogue, which isn’t, on the whole, much worse than in any of the other Star Wars movies, discounting the babblings of the reprehensible Jar Jar Binks. It’s not Jar Jar himself either that destroys the movie. We would like to lay all the blame on Jar Jar: ‘Oh, if it weren’t for Jar Jar, TPM would be pretty good.’ No. No, it wouldn’t. And it’s not the performances either – though, it’s true, most of them are shockingly strangled and lifeless.
The central flaw is, as usual, a script problem, and it’s such a fundamental script problem that no amount of clever, high-tech decoration can disguise it.
In trying to sleuth out exactly why a story doesn’t work, it’s good to put it up next to a story that you know does work. The original Lucas masterpiece, Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977) - which I always call simply “Star Wars”, and so should you – is held up as a paragon of solid script structure, and for good reason. Its simplicity and clarity makes it easy to analyse and understand and, furthermore, it’s a movie everyone has seen, which makes it easy to talk about. It’s also one of the most successful entertainments in history so there ought to be some value in studying it carefully.
When we put the script for The Phantom Menace side by side with the script from Star Wars, one feature distinguishes them from each other more than any other, an element triumphantly strong in one film, almost laughably weak in the other. The stakes. The real difference between the beloved 1977 original film and The Phantom Menace and the reason for latter’s failure is the height of the stakes for the characters.
High stakes are essential to telling a good story. “High stakes” doesn’t have to mean the threat of a bomb exploding in five minutes. A teen’s parents coming home in five minutes is more than enough to put us on the edge of our seats. It isn’t threats of physical torment that determine high stakes either – simply missing a bus can be the most devastating moment in a character’s life.
What determines the height of the stakes is how far apart the poles are of success and failure, as well as the character’s depth of commitment to achieving success. There is little middle ground in the best stories. In the movies we love, a character may strive for great success but the penalties for failure are equally great. The best stories not only have a Devil, they have a Deep Blue Sea.
In the greatest sports movies, for example, the stakes are rarely about whether or not the character will win. The character’s desire to win is usually paired with a penalty for failure that is psychologically catastrophic. In Chariots of Fire (1981), Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell certainly want to win but the tension of the story comes from their utter commitment to their calling, their commitment to their true selves. It goes beyond a desire to win a race. These men have left themselves no room to retreat; they are committed to an idea of themselves and of their futures. The genius of the Chariots of Fire script is that its climax hinges on the characters’ even greater commitment to personal honour and mutual respect, which is far greater than the desire for a medal.
It’s easy to think that death is the worst thing that could happen to a character. In the world of flesh and blood, this may or may not be true, but movies exist in the world of emotion. And an emotional catastrophe – one that is going to be communicated to the audience – can take a million forms and will almost always be more violent than any physical slaughter.
So back to our two Star Wars movies. Let’s take the five main characters from each film and examine the stakes each character faces -what action is asked of each character and what are the penalties of failure?
In Star Wars:
LUKE must deliver R2D2 safely into the hands of the rebellion. If he fails, the fully-operational Death Star will mean the end of the rebellion – and of galactic freedom.
DARTH VADER must retrieve the stolen Death Star plans and learn the location of the secret rebel base. If he fails, the rebels could destroy the Death Star and cripple the power of the Empire, and he will have a lot of explaining to do to the Emperor.
HAN SOLO must pay back Jabba The Hutt. If he fails, he will be a fugitive, fleeing bounty hunters and ruthless gangsters for the rest of his life (wonderfully, he does fail in order that the other characters may succeed).
PRINCESS LEIA must retrieve the plans for her fellow rebels. If she fails, it will mean the end of the rebellion.
OBI-WAN KENOBI must get the plans safely to the rebels. If he fails, it will mean the end of the rebellion.
Looking at The Phantom Menace, we see a different picture:
QUI-GON JINN must negotiate a peace between the Trade Federation and the Naboo. If he fails, the Trade Federation may take over the planet Naboo. Never really clear why this would be a terrible thing.
QUEEN AMIDALA must stop the Trade Federation from dominating her planet, it would seem. If she fails she will no longer rule – and someone else will, I guess.
DARTH SIDIOUS must make Queen Amidala sign a treaty with the Trade Federation. If he fails, the status quo will probably continue.
ANAKIN SKYWALKER must increase his understanding of The Force and return to Tatooine to free his mother and the slaves. If he fails, he will have broken his promise to his mother. (note that he does fail, with no real consequences to anyone, including himself)
JAR-JAR must do what he can to help Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan. If he fails, it’s doubtful the Jedis’ mission would be negatively affected and the status quo will continue.
The lack of consistent high stakes in The Phantom Menace is the movie’s main flaw. Almost across the board, the price of a character’s failing is simply that the status quo will continue or the slack will be picked up by some other character.
In Star Wars, the few main characters are the only people in the galaxy who can pull off the necessary task to resolve the conflict. In The Phantom Menace, few characters are really essential. We might wonder, for example, if Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan were cut from the story altogether, if anything might have changed? I tend to doubt it. The Trade Federation probably still would have invaded and Amidala would have had to lead some kind of armed resistance in the Third Act with or without their help.
If Anakin – who will become one of the most famous characters in movies – had never appeared in the film, would there have been any alteration in the story? Not likely. Apart from the destruction of the Trade Federation command ship – a lucky accident – Anakin is superfluous to the story. And two Jedi Knights who are supposed to be expert negotiators can certainly drum up spare parts for their ship without resorting to gambling on the life of a child.
The Phantom Villain of the movie, Darth Sidious, who is manipulating the Trade Federation, makes many villainous pronouncements but for no clearly discernible purpose. We have no reason to think he would sleep any worse for not making them.
Compare that to Vader and Grand Moff Tarkin’s predicament in Star Wars, where the Emperor himself is counting on Tarkin and his armoured bulldog to solve the problem – and fast. And it is a big problem. The secret plans for the keystone of the Empire’s new military strategy are flitting around the galaxy somewhere, possibly in the hands of the very people they are trying to crush.
"I'm taking an awful risk, Vader."
It’s been said over and over that if you want to make your hero work better, give him a better villain. Star Wars, with a very few strokes, conveys a great weight of responsibility on the villains. They can’t just decide to focus their energies elsewhere or wait for it all to blow over. If they fail, it’s their careers, their lives and the lives of all their associates that are in danger, not to mention the staggering investment in money, manpower and ideological commitment that the Death Star represents.
Also note how in Star Wars all the characters – protagonists and antagonists – are bound together by the same problem. Whatever the outcome is, every character will be permanently affected. It is simply not possible for any of the principal characters – or minor characters, for that matter – to pass through the story without being changed for the worse or the better. In fact, no one in the entire galaxy will be unaffected by how the story plays out. Those are high stakes.
I’m on my way now to the third and final day of the Transmedia Next Training For Media Professionals, where the Pickfords, Chaplins, Fairbankses and Griffithses of the 21st century are gobbling up inspiration and information from the likes of Lance Weiler, David Beard, Inga von Staden, and Anita Ondine.
Officially, I’m attending the Transmedia Next training as a journalist – but that’s just my avatar. As you know, I create other worlds when I’m not writing about this one – and sometimes even get paid for it. I missed Transmedia Next day one, but yesterday was enough to soak me through with new ideas. My pulse rate literally accelerates when I hear the hows & whys of full spectrum storytelling. Really. I get all flushed and sweaty.
“Transmedia” seems to be the designation we’re going to use for this 21st century storytelling, where the divisions between book and film and game and app and any other media-centric experience you can think of can become almost infinitely blurred. But I do like the expression “full-spectrum media” too. I don’t know where I first heard it. Maybe I just made it up. The US military has openly sought “full-spectrum dominance” of all possible combat spaces. Now, storytellers and artists must stake a claim to their own limitless arena. It’s exciting to recall that a spectrum is absurdly larger than the puny ROYGBIV of visible colors. It extends endlessly to the left and right and contains colors we can, right now, only barely imagine.
One of my key functions now – as a “transmedia storyteller” – is to do my best to push into the infrared and the ultraviolet of our current transmedia spectrum, extending the range of vision so the generation after us – the real transmedia artists – the Jean Renoirs and David Leans and Orson Welleses – will be in a position to see a little further.
(this article originally appeared at screenwriting
website Twelvepoint.com, March 2010)
I always pat myself on the back for having written a great scene, but writing a great scene doesn’t help you tell a great story any more than getting a great shot helps you make a great film. What makes a shot “great” is what’s on either side of it, its relationship to the larger assemblage of shots. What makes a scene great is how it plays against the scenes before and after it. A scene, no matter how I feel about it, is only useful insofar as it contributes to a larger whole, and that whole is its big brother, the ‘sequence’.
If you’ve never heard of sequences and are now feeling a bit disoriented in the story anatomy hierarchy, just remember: shots make up scenes; scenes make up sequences; sequences make up acts and acts, as we all know, make up movies.
Of all those building blocks, I would argue that it’s the sequence, not the scene or the revered act, which is the most important one in the screenwriter’s toolkit, and the one he or she must come to understand completely and intuitively. Yet sequences are not well understood by most writers, beyond a vague sense that a sequence is a few scenes stitched together for some kind of common purpose.
What’s a good definition of a sequence? Here’s mine: A sequence is a unit of story structure composed of a series of scenes with a coherent dramatic spine. It begins when a character is placed in a state of uncertainty or imbalance – i.e., when the hero has a big problem. It ends when that problem is resolved and – and here’s the key – the solution to that problem creates another, further problem that then begins a new sequence.
So a sequence begins when a character is confronted with a crisis – and a crisis is any situation in which you can’t say, ‘Let’s just forget the whole thing’ – and it concludes when that crisis is resolved in favour of a new crisis. When a sequence completely resolves or eliminates the central problem that began the whole story, then the movie is over.
A master storyteller is one who leads us to believe that each sequence will be the one that will finally resolve or defuse the main conflict of the story, that will solve all the character’s problems, and then surprises us, frustrates us, thrills us, by delivering the complete opposite: an even greater complication that draws us into a new sequence.
Each sequence has a beginning, a middle and an end. Or to frame it in writer’s language, an inciting incident, a rising action and a climax. You can even think of each sequence as having its own mini-story arc. LA-based screenwriting teacher, Chris Soth, calls his seminars on sequence structure, the ‘mini-movie method’ and encourages students to treat each sequence as if it were a short movie unto itself – not a bad suggestion if you don’t take it too literally.
Some screenwriters will construct a ‘beat sheet’, a kind of outline, for their scripts and often what they’re doing, though most amateur writers wouldn’t think of it in this way, is flailing around in the dark trying to find what the sequences are.
When there are troubles with a screenplay’s act structure, the real fault can often be found in its sequence structure. In my own writing, when the story feels adrift and vague – or when Act II just isn’t working – the cause is almost always a lack of clarity in the sequences that make up the film. I run into the trap of overconcentrating on individual scenes, stringing them together like a child’s bead project, without noting how they contribute to making up a larger sequence, and time and time again I have to look at the bigger picture.
Many screenwriters who are aware of and consciously manage sequence structure in their work have been influenced by the teachings of Frantisek ‘Frank’ Daniel who was Dean of the School Of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California in the late 1980s. This is where I learned about sequence structure, alongside many other media creatives whose names are more familiar to you than mine. Frank Daniel delighted packed lecture halls with his analyses of a wide range of films in terms of their sequence structures and many of us undergraduates would sneak into the back of his graduate level courses in order to learn something we knew was invaluable for our craft.
Frank insisted that every complete film story has exactly eight sequences, usually two sequences in the first act, four in the second, and two in the third act. Some say the origin of this eight-sequence template is the division of early feature length movies into reels, physical reels of film, usually around ten minutes long. Reels, typically with two projectors operating side by side, would have to be switched during a showing, and writing films in ten-minute, cohesive sequences then helped keep each dramatic beat of the story contained within its own reel. I have my doubts about this. I tend to think it worked the other way around. I think the reason a ten-minute reel was used in the first place was becausse that was – due to some mysterious quirk of the human emotional makeup – a satisfying length for a single dramatic beat to be introduced and progress to a climax. I believe the storytelling element came first and the technology followed.
I do not have the courage to say that every feature film always has eight sequences, although Frank Daniel used to amaze us by somehow making every film fit the structure. Sticking to a strict eight-sequence feature film model though can be very helpful in trouble-shooting. It encourages us to look more deeply when a story appears to have too few sequences, or to compress or cut when confronted by a plethora of sequences. The world is not literally divided into lines of latitude and longitude but it helps to pretend that it is.
Generally speaking, the better written a movie is, the clearer its sequence structure will be, and vice versa, the clearer your sequence structure is, the better your story will probably be. Films dominated by strong physical action, adventure movies and musicals, tend to have a more transparent sequence structure and lend themselves to easier analysis. Both action movies and musicals will often have set pieces at the climax of each sequence.
Solid sequences and the writer’s facility with them are what make some three-hour movies seem to fly by and some 80-minute movies last eons. Dances with Wolves (1990) is the second longest movie to win the Best Picture Oscar yet it flies by largely because of its rock-solid sequences, each with a clearly-defined tension that leads into the next sequence. On the other side of the coin, loose or vague sequence structure is usually to blame in that bizarre, yet frequent, phenomenon of a movie that is packed with action but is utterly boring and exhausting.
Ask a friend to list their favorite movies and you’ll get a diverse set of responses but it’s a good bet that most of the choices will have in common clear, strong sequence structure, and the very best will have sequences that keep surprising us and keep us guessing, and play in contrast or in sympathy with each other like find symphonic music.
I am an on again/off again David Lynch fan. I can never make up my mind whether I love his work or not. One thing that keeps me coming back though is his solid sequence structure. I may not like what he’s doing on the screen all the time but it’s always presented in a structurally rock-solid, coherent way if you look at the skeleton under the strange and fearsome flesh he puts on top of it. Imagine my surprise – lack of surprise, it should be – to learn when researching this article that David Lynch was a devoted student of Frank Daniel.
How a story is dissected into sequences may depend very much on the analyst’s point of view. Like an isolated, non-technical civilisation that doesn’t distinguish yellow from orange, for example, one analyst might see one large sequence where another sees two shorter sequences.
I’ve included below a simplified outline of the sequence structure of Star Wars: Episode IV (1977), indicating the problem that begins each sequence, and the resolution that ends it and launches us into the next sequence. You might disagree with my breakdown, which is good. Do your own analyses of as many films as you can and don’t worry too much about trying to force a movie into eight sequences. The key is to locate exactly where each new dramatic tension begins, note how the character tries to solve that tension, and then to find exactly where that tension is replaced by a new one.
STAR WARS 8 SEQUENCE BREAKDOWN
Problem: The Empire is about to retrieve the Death Star plans, capture the Princess and send R2D2 and C3PO to the spice mines of Kessel – in short, the movie is about to be over.
Complicated by: the droids are captured by Jawas.
Resolution: The droids find safety with Owen Lars and his nephew Luke.
Problem: Luke find a mysterious message from an important person begging for help from someone he might know.
Complicated by: R2D2 runs away.
Resolution: Luke decides to go with Ben Kenobi to Alderaan.
Problem: Luke and Ben have to find a way to get to Alderaan at Mos Eisley Spaceport.
Complicated by: Imperial forces are searching the city for them.
Resolution: The Millennium Falcon escapes Mos Eisley and heads for Alderaan.
Problem: Fly the droids and the plans safely to Alderaan.
Complicated by: Alderaan is destroyed.
Resolution: Our heroes are captured by the Death Star.
Problem: They discover the Princess is aboard the Death Star.
Complicated by: The Princess is scheduled to be terminated.
Resolution: The Princess is rescued.
Problem: They must take the most important person in the galaxy to safety, starting from the bottom of a garbage masher.
Complicated by: Legions of single-minded fanatics are trying to kill them.
Resolution: They escape the Death Star and the Death Star’s sentry ships.
Problem: The Death star is following the heroes to the Rebel Base.
Complicated by: Han is abandoning them.
Resolution: Luke and the rebels fly out to destroy the Death Star.
Problem: The Death Star is going to destroy the Rebel Base and end the rebellion forever.
Complicated by: Darth Vader engages the rebel pilots in his own ship.
Resolution: Luke destroys the Death Star and becomes the hero of the galaxy.
And so, with growing dread, I came to understand that this tedium I was experiencing was actually a booming Hollywood screenwriting career – getting your latest brilliant spec read, getting a meeting, hearing about their project, pitching them your take on their project, waiting, waiting, waiting for your agent to call – and repeat ad infinitum. Ad infinitum. And if you are very lucky, someone will accidentally pay you a great deal of money to pour your heart and soul into their project, everyone involved knowing but never saying that the project will almost certainly never be produced.
I was pitching a television series idea to the production company of a woman who has produced at least one of your favourite sci-fi movies and had an arsenal of good writing samples to show and not the worst track record, and I was no closer to actually getting a story in front of an audience than back when I was on the plane to LA at age 17. I realized my entire career – and the careers of many successful writers I know – had been a case of shaking an apple tree year after year, waiting for oranges to start dropping.
I hope I don’t seem complete ungrateful. I do like apples but I just don’t want to spend any more time eating apples, wishing they were oranges.
So I moved to London.
It wasn’t quite as simple as that but it was a complete and fairly dramatic relocation. My wife had an opportunity to work here and I was suddenly completely committed to giving up the apple tree shaking thing. We sold everything. We brought the cats with us.
By the way, I am a British subject – my mum was born in the shadow of Upton Park Football Stadium – so rest easy that I’m not just another foreigner come to steal employment from decent working folk.
After arriving, I began to have The Conversation again and again. I would say to someone, ‘I’m a screenwriter and I’ve permanently relocated to the UK.’ They would stare in baffled silence, then reply, almost with tears in their eyes, ‘Why??…’ There were no screenwriting jobs to be had here, there was no film industry here. Why was I moving away from success? I would press on, explaining that, you know, I am also eager to write comics and a wide variety of genre-based cross-media content. They would immediately call the police and inquire as to the name of my social worker.
It seems to be accepted universally – and I mean ‘throughout the known universe’ – that success as a media writer is directly proportional to one’s proximity to West Hollywood. If you crunch the numbers, you’ll probably find an element of truth in that. However, it is also universally accepted that your success in politics is directly proportional to your proximity to Washington DC. ‘Success’ has a broad spectrum of meaning and doesn’t necessarily mean ‘in your and everyone else’s best interest’. Just because McDonald’s has sold billions doesn’t mean that it’s the best thing going.
Within a year of arriving in the UK, I had more writing jobs than I’d had in the previous five years in Los Angeles. One of these was writing an historical thriller featuring swordplay, bullfighting, torture, and ‘contemporary political resonances’ – i.e. my dream project. I was paid literally peanuts for the work. Yes, literally peanuts. Okay, maybe not literally peanuts, but it was a South African based company paying the bills and I feel confident they could have paid me in peanuts if I’d asked.
Though the money was nothing like LA money, I was writing for enthusiastic indy people who were flying on a wing and a prayer and I was being paid to write. It was such a thrill to go through the whole process from beginning to end with producers who were rabid to make a movie. I wrote a short, too, that was made by the same producers and was able to practise, practise, practise the screenwriter’s real craft – making a good movie. However, I had to supplement the screenwriting income with journalism for some media trade magazines as well as temping at a firm that sold pipes and ducts.
It was encouraging – and enlightening and instructive – to see how, when I was willing to try something completely new, trusting like a fool that a solution would materialise, that something things worked out surprisingly well.
There wasn’t any logical connection between moving house and the surge in work but I’d like to think that on some metaphysical level or other, I’d suddenly become open to possibilities outside my previous, ultra-narrow assumptions. Having a dream, a vision, is vital to success, yes, but clinging desperately to a single narrow idea – at least this was the case with me – makes one’s whole life look like the view down a toilet roll. Many, many possibilities, things that might have leap-frogged you into another dimension, pass under your nose unnoticed. When I’m clinging so tightly to an idea of myself and my future, white-knuckled, the odds are good that somewhere deep down, I don’t have much real faith in the idea. When I’m absolutely clear about what I want or, more importantly, about who I am, then it’s easier to loosen my grip a bit and look around and be open to all the myriad possibilities, idiotic things like moving to London and expecting to be able to write movies.
There have been a few surprises in the relocation. One was hearing it would take a London-based company several months to read a writing sample. I felt like I was living in the 19th century. Kind of quaint actually, if it weren’t so irritating. The biggest surprise has been the stunning amount of talent I see in the UK. If I may be very American for a moment: This country has talent and ability coming out its ass (also “arse”). Unfortunately all this talent seems too often paired with a not-at-all-amusing self-deprecation and abdication of responsibility. Over and over again I see people looking to the US as the source of all the best ideas, as the only place to be taken seriously, certainly as the only place a vision could ever become reality. I want to shake them – hard.
There has been a great deal of moaning and groaning about the economy and the decline of this or that vital industry. But when I hear news of yet another formerly unshakeable media enterprise tottering, I feel encouraged and grateful that I left the US at the right time – perhaps not a moment too soon. 20th century business models are collapsing and although we try to shore them up and repair them in the same way a doctor tries to prolong the life of a heart patient who refuses to give up smoking and eating bacon, they are not going to last. If they do, it will be in some kind of zombie-fied, tax-payer subsidised condition far removed from a dynamic, real world economy.
A producer I know got the green light on a Friday for a movie directed by Steven Soderbergh starring Brad Pitt. On Monday, the studio head called back to say that the deal was off. It was too great a commercial risk in this climate. Newspapers and book publishers are merging or closing everywhere and LA-centric media production is going down with them.
This is all good news. For me. For you, too.
Where some people see collapse and destruction, many of us see exciting change and the promise of real renewal. Something entirely new is going to rise from the ashes of the 20th century media industries, something marvelous and global. In fact, it’s already here and a many of us are jumping on at the ground floor.
Of course, LA will continue to be a hub of media production; just not the hub. I love LA very much but it is isolated in a distinctly American way from most of the world. Cities that are truly interconnected – sometimes to their own chagrin – with the rest of the world have a head start on cities and countries that are protectionist and attached to 20th century, pre-global thinking.
I do wish the best of luck to all my friends still playing the studio screenplay game in Hollywood but I am very grateful to have jumped into the lifeboat when I did. While they are still shaking apple trees, hoping for oranges, I plan to be making and writing pictures of all descriptions and formats, and sharing them with my audience and my partners all around the globe.
‘(Los Angeles) is a country coming down from its trip. We are 91 days from the end of this decade, and there’s gonna be a lot of refugees. They’ll be goin’ round this town shoutin’, ‘Bring out your dead.’”
- “Withnail & I” (1987), Bruce Robinson
(this article originally appeared at screenwriting
website Twelvepoint.com, Jan. 2010)
I knew – everyone knew – that if you wanted to make movies, you had to go to LA. You also had to have a degree from a top-rate film school. A writerly alcohol and drug habit was a good idea too.
I know today – having learned through experience – that I was starting my life’s journey based on a complete pack of lies. But I was 17 years old and it was the 1980s. When you’re 17, starting a life’s journey based on a pack of lies is…well, it’s what you do, isn’t it?
I graduated from film school with a host of brilliant classmates. Some went to Portland and Seattle and actually made movies; some went back home to Texas or Connecticut. The rest of us went out into LA to seek our fortunes. Post-film school life in LA was exactly halfway between “Sunset Boulevard” (1950) and ”The Big Picture” (1989), a fantasy veering crazily from cynical gloom to sweet comedy and back.
95% of my USC classmates began their course determined to win at least one Best Directing Oscar but the attrition rate of Cherished Film School Dreams looks a bit like a casualty roster of WWI pilots. By the time of our graduation, many of my friends had traded in their ideal visions for something more bite-sized and realistic. Why? A good film school’s job should be to impress upon its students that filmmaking is a bizarre and tedious process that sane people ought to avoid. And USC has one of the best film schools in the world. Also, students began to learn that there was a massive array of supporting crafts that go into a film production and discovered that one of these fired their hearts and imaginations in a way the vague, grandiose vision of ‘Oscar-Winning Director’ could not.
There were a few emotionally-immature, mental defectives – I among them – who refused to surrender the dream (while increasingly suspecting that they were utterly unemployable in any normal work). We graduated and began to write spec screenplays – lots of them – and gave them to anyone and everyone who pretended to want to read them.
Screenwriting is hard, thankless work. Though not like digging ditches or mining coal, obviously. Digging ditches is something useful and beneficial to society. 1000 hours spent fretting over an urban melodrama about vampires hasn’t been on the Nobel Committee’s application form for some years. But because it is hard work, rather than churning out new material, a few of the devoted dreamers became obsessed with rewriting the same screenplay over and over again – infusing it with a Great New Idea with each pass – until the thing read like a transcript for the blind of a David Lynch movie written by a teenage girl on ecstasy. Thankfully, most of them gave it all up before they went mad.
In a very few years there were only a handful of us left, writing one spec screenplay after another, each waiting for his or her particular stars to align.
My stars aligned early on. One of my first sci-fi screenplays was optioned by Mario Kassar – the Old Hollywood-style movie gangster who brought us “Rambo”, “Total Recall”, “LA Story”, “Basic Instinct”, “Terminator” and ”Stargate”. It was in the twilight years of the era of script mega-sales, those days when coke-addled producers would shell out $3 million for an idea written by Joe Eszterhas on the back of a McDonald’s napkin.
I had the obligatory ‘tyro screenwriter’s mega-deal’ article in “Daily Variety” and every major director whose career started in television advertising was on the verge of saying ‘Yes’ to the film. Then, just as quickly, it all petered out and I was left in the tragic position of living in a big house in the Hollywood Hills, with a view of Catalina on a clear day, transported into the world of an A-List screenwriter.
I pitched ideas to every company of note in LA. I joined the long queues of writers brought in to give a fresh perspective on whatever proposed sci-fi/action/fantasy property Company X was developing. A few of those projects, after years in development purgatory, finally did escape and audiences seemed to like them. They usually ended up with a single writer’s name on them but I’m sure all of us who sat there saying to execs “The villain in Blade must under no circumstances be Count Dracula” feel a certain attachment to those projects, like when you receive news that someone you had a fling with has become married to a jerk not nearly as attractive and talented as you.
With growing dread, I came to understand that the tedium I was experiencing is the bulk of the work in a booming Hollywood career. Get your latest brilliant spec read, get a meeting, hear about their project, pitch them your take on their project, wait by the phone for your agent to call, repeat ad infinitum. Ad infinitum. If you are very lucky, someone will accidentally pay you a great deal of money to pour your heart and soul into their project when everyone involved knows but never mentions that the project will almost certainly never be produced.
I was pitching a television series idea to the production company of a woman who has made at least one of your favourite sci-fi movies, had an arsenal of good writing samples to show and not the worst track record, and I felt like I was no closer to making movies than when I was on the plane to LA at age 17.
Then it occurred to me that movies are made by people who are making movies. You know what I mean? Marathons are run by people who are running marathons, cakes are baked by people who are baking cakes. Am I making sense? It’s the simple and obvious that has always eluded me. The Hollywood studio system is about not losing money first and making movies second. That is how many successful businesses operate. It’s how NASA operates. NASA’s primary purpose is not to send stuff into space, it’s to allocate resources and personnel in such a way that everyone at NASA still has a job next year. Imagine my surprise when I realised my entire career – and the careers of many successful writers I know – had been a case of shaking an apple tree year after year, waiting for oranges to start dropping.
I hope I don’t seem a complete ingrate – I do like apples – but I just didn’t want to spend any more time eating apples, wishing they were oranges.
Saw James Cameron’s “Avatar” (2009) yesterday afternoon in 3D at the Shepherd’s Bush VUE Cinemas in London. Went with my Dad who has seen more movies than I am ever likely to see, including the 3D masterpiece, “Bwana Devil” (1952).
One of my first thoughts was: Now I know what the Act III of “Return Of The Jedi” (1983) should have looked like.
“Avatar” isn’t Jim Cameron’s best movie. That honour still goes to “Aliens” (1986), as beautifully plotted an action movie as there has ever been. A respectable horror movie too, but it is primarily an action movie. Still, I really found “Avatar” exquisitely beautiful in its design and execution.
Already I’m getting flack from Film World Colleagues, who thought the movie ham-fisted. Where I saw delightful design choices, they saw lipstick on a pig.
The fact that there is nothing new in its premise – that “Avatar” is “Dances With Wolves” (1990) / “Little Big Man” (1970) / “Lawrence Of Arabia” ?? (1962) / “Fill In The Blank” In Space – seems a weak criticism of the movie, though it’s been trotted out a lot over the past couple weeks.
Native American actor & Vietnam vet, (far left) leads a Pawnee raiding party in Dances With Wolves. He played Eytukan in Avatar
Cameron has deliberately kept the story simple, obvious even, to provide a solid framework on which he can hang all his beautiful decoration. To get clever with both design and story at the same time could invite Unmanageability – the bane of Cameron’s existence. Cameron has always kept his plots and characters very simple, virtually mechanical in their efficiency. When he has tried to reach for more complex and subtle (relatively) themes and plotting, the movies have suffered. And, recalling the tales told about the production of Cameron’s two “wettest” movies, “The Abyss” and “Titanic”, his crews have suffered too. For Cameron, “Keep it simple” is a mantra that leads to success.
The story structure in “Avatar” is really quite adroit – solid and simple. As any good writer will tell you, “solid and simple” is actually hard to pull off, because false notes – and there are some in “Avatar” – stick out like signalling antennae on an alien lifeform.
The movie has a skeleton of very simple, rock-solid sequences – like its cousin “Dances With Wolves”. “Dances”, one of the longest movies to ever win a Best Picture Academy Award, flies by for most people because it is constructed of straightforward, firmly constructed sequences. Knowing where the story is going – having “seen it before” – carries the audience along. We are always anticipating the next beat. We know what is supposed to happen next, more or less, but we don’t know exactly how it will be presented. And that is the way expert storytellers do it – just ask Hitchcock.
Oh, and Cameron stole the entire “Avatar” idea from me. I wrote, in high school, a story of a race of simple blue-skinned aliens who lived on a jungle world. A human male is drawn into defending them from a highly technological man-machine who wants to take the blue-skinned guys’ precious, sacred mineral.
Naturally, I plan to sue.
Of course, I ripped off – and still do – all the other sci-fi writers I knew and loved. “Avatar” is a conservatively plotted, “classic sci-fi” story, in the vein of one of the Heinlein or Asimov books. It absorbs all the flavours and styles that those great 20th century sci-fi authors – and their hundreds of imitators – spun and then sings it back in Cameron’s voice. Just as I did in my own voice via my high school “Avatar” precursor.
We are in an age of illustration in movies – and we have Peter Jackson to thank/blame for it. The goal in so many big studio movie adaptations is not to bring new insight to a story or a franchise, but to illustrate an existing property faithfully. Peter Jackson’s stunning success rested on giving audiences exactly the “Lord Of The Rings” that they had imagined – plus a bit more. A lot of people – well, myself anyway – watched the “Lord Of The Rings” movies thinking, “Wow. If I had a bit more imagination, then that is exactly how I would have imagined it.” In other movies, the source material has been so sacred that barely a word or beat is changed in the film adaptation – “300″ and “Sin City”. I think “Avatar” follows in this tradition, illustrating a sci-fi story already existing in the back of our collective imaginations. Dragon riders, floating mountains, glowing forests with trees the size of skyscrapers – we all know bits and pieces of these from books and wall calendars and dreams. It’s as if Cameron has supplied the movie to a story we had known about all along.
There’s much more to say about “Avatar”. For one, its political stance is fascinating to me. It’s a major studio movie by a major studio director that takes an aggressively anti-neocon POV. Very unusual.
But I’d like to hear your comments, then we can get into some discussion.
A 2 hour workshop designed to help writers of all skill levels practice and improve their skills for writing scripts for image-based media – film, tv, comics/graphic novels, games.The workshop is open to anyone interested in writing for film, tv, games or comics – from veterans trying to perfect their skills to people who have never written fiction before.
The workshop will emphasize practice over theory, doing over observing. You will get out of it exactly what you put into it. It’s like an intense session at the gym – for media writing.
Price: £30 (payable via cash or check – PayPal link will be available within the next few days)
We are offering this low introductory rate for this first workshop only. Those who attend for this first night will receive a discount on later courses, starting up at the end of March. Spaces are limited. Sign up early.
The facilitator Neal Romanek is a graduate of University of Southern California’s renowned Cinema-TV Production school. Neal has written for the screen, games, and motion picture industry magazines and websites. He has had intensive training from some of the world’s best teachers in writing and creative process.
Watching “Jaws” (1975) again, I am reminded – again – of how perfect a film it is. Performances, music & sound design, editing, and writing come together to make a masterpiece. In truth, none of these elements, by itself, is perfect in the film – close, but not quite. But somehow they were brought together, on a production where everyone was convinced they had a disaster on their hands, to produce one of the greatest horror movies and adventure movies ever.?
At night, aboard the fishing boat, Orca, our three heroes – Brody, a police chief afraid of water; Matt Hooper, a young marine biologist; and Quint, a seasoned shark fisherman – exchange comical stories about their scars.
When Hooper asks about the scar of a removed tattoo on Quint’s arm, actor Robert Shaw launches into one of his best scenes as an actor and one of the best monologues in movies:
QUINT: (pointing to the tattoo) That’s the U.S.S. Indianapolis.
HOOPER: (breathless) You were on the Indianapolis?
BRODY: What happened?
QUINT: Japanese submarine slammed two torpedoes into her side, Chief. We was comin’ back from the island of Tinian to Leyte. We’d just delivered the bomb. The Hiroshima bomb. Eleven hundred men went into the water. Vessel went down in twelve minutes. Didn’t see the first shark for about a half-hour. Tiger. thirteen-footer. You know how you know that in the water, Chief? You can tell by lookin’ from the dorsal to the tail. What we didn’t know … was that our bomb mission was so secret, no distress signal had been sent. They didn’t even list us overdue for a week. Very first light, Chief, sharks come cruisin’ by, so we formed ourselves into tight groups. It was sorta like you see in the calendars, you know the infantry squares in the old calendars like the Battle of Waterloo and the idea was the shark come to the nearest man, that man he starts poundin’ and hollerin’ and sometimes that shark he go away … but sometimes he wouldn’t go away. Sometimes that shark looks right at ya. Right into your eyes. And the thing about a shark is he’s got lifeless eyes. Black eyes. Like a doll’s eyes. When he comes at ya, he doesn’t even seem to be livin’ … until he bites ya, and those black eyes roll over white and then … ah, then you hear that terrible high-pitched screamin’. The ocean turns red. And despite all your poundin’ and your hollerin’ those sharks come in and … they rip you to pieces You know, by the end of that first dawn, we lost a hundred men. I don’t know how many sharks there were, maybe a thousand. I do know how many men, they averaged six an hour. Thursday mornin’, Chief, I bumped into a friend of mine, Herbie Robinson from Cleveland. Baseball player. Boson’s mate. I thought he was asleep. I reached over to wake him up. He bobbed up, down in the water, he was like a kinda top. Up-ended. Well … he’d been bitten in half below the waist. At noon on the fifth day, a Lockheed Ventura swung in low and he spotted us, a young pilot – a lot younger than Mr. Hooper here – anyway, he spotted us and a few hours later a big ol’ fat PBY come down and started to pick us up. You know, that was the time I was most frightened. Waitin’ for my turn. I’ll never put on a lifejacket again. So, eleven hundred men went into the water. 316 men come out, the sharks took the rest, June the 29th, 1945. Anyway … (with a smile – or a sneer?) … we delivered the bomb.
I’m happy as a sandboy to announce that our short film, “Unto Dust” is in the can. I wrote the movie, based on the short story by Herman Charles Bosman – South Africa’s Mark Twain. The indefatigable Mendy Groner produced and directed for Memetic Films.
Cast, crew, and technical support from all over South Africa have united to put Bosman’s biting, ironic glimpse of Voortrekker life on film – yes, film – including Gatehouse Commercials, Media Film Services, NFVF, and Waterfront Post. And the additional support of Qualified Health, which is not a film company but instead does some useless thing or other like providing health care.
My deep thanks to everyone involved, but especially to Mendy Groner and Memetic.