Thursday, 20 July 2017

Five tips for cleaning up your script

Julie Gray lives and works in Tel Aviv. She is a screenwriter, story consultant, writer's coach, director of a Screenwriting Competition and publisher of the Just Effing Entertain Me blog.

Julie has taught at the Oxford Student Union at Oxford University, The West England University in Bristol, Wilmington University in Delaware and San Francisco University in Quito, Ecuador. She also teaches writing classes at Warner Bros., The Great American Pitchfest, The Creative Screenwriting Expo and the Willamette Writer's Conference in Portland, Oregon.

She is a volunteer at the Afghan Women's Writing Project, she blogs for the Times of Israel, and is working on a memoir.

I'm hoping to set up an interview with Julie down the track. Meantime, here's a simple but valuable piece of advice she posted on her blog recently.

Five Tips for Clean Pages

You know that feeling you get when you receive an email from someone – someone you love and care about, and yet the email is one long, dense block of type? And your shoulders slump a little? Why can’t they just use paragraph breaks? This is going to be a slog.

Script pages that are cluttered and have “too much black” give readers the same feeling. And they frequently get put at the bottom of the pile if not rejected entirely. Which is a crying shame because your story might be GREAT. But your pages are off-putting. Listen, if I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times, real human beings read your scripts. They might have read three other scripts that DAY alone. So you want to make your pages very clean and easy to read.

Here are five ways to clean up those pages.

1. Avoid Camera Directions

Do not use camera directions of any kind. No “tracking shot”, no “angle on”, no “smash cut”. These instructions do not belong in your spec script and definitely muck up your pages. Don’t do it.

2. Limit The Number of Consecutive Action Lines

Try not to write more than five lines of action in one block. If you have more action because you are writing an action scene, simply use a paragraph break. Break up those big blocks of action lines.

3. Avoid Lengthy Dialogue

Avoid dialogue that is more of a monologue and is longer than ten lines. Monologues that take up half a page or even a whole page instantly put a reader off their feed.

4. Keep Sluglines Simple

Simplify your slug lines. Do you need:


No. Many writers include in sluglines what should actually be in the action lines below it. Long detailed sluglines are very off putting.

5. Learn About and Use Mini-Sluglines

Use mini-slug lines. If you are in the same location (one house, many rooms, as one example) instead of slugging every mini-location within your location, you can use a mini-slug which looks like this KITCHEN, or OUTSIDE ON THE DECK. 

Taken from Michael Clayton (2007), by Tony Gilroy

Go through your pages today and look for EVERY opportunity for there to be more white on your page and less black. It’s okay if you have a long sequence or two – but it’s all in how you present it. Simplicity and brevity are your very best pals in screenwriting.

First posted: 15 September 2013

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

"Hollywood" magazine

Over the years there have been many magazines with a focus on Hollywood and the movies. One such was "Hollywood," a monthly magazine published from 1911 to at least 1943.

For 5 or 10 cents, you could learn the answers to such pressing questions as:
Can a Woman Love Two Men at the Same Time?
Is Success Ruining Katharine Hepburn?
Are Pretty Girls Safe in Hollywood?

You could also learn about:
Mae West's Personal Beauty Secrets,
How to Hold a Husband in Hollywood
, or  

The Man in Garbo's Past.

This appeared on "The Publisher's Page" in 1934.

January 1934:  Fame and Romance in Hollywood.
It's amazing just how far a few yeast tablets could take a girl in the old days.

Back issues of this magazine, from 1934 to 1943, are available online here, courtesy of the Media History Digital Library at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

First posted: 9 September 2013

Monday, 17 July 2017

Jim Jarmusch’s 5 Golden Rules of Moviemaking

I first noticed Jim Jarmusch as the writer/director responsible for Broken Flowers (2005), with Bill Murray. In that film, a middle-aged man first contemplates, then confronts, his past. Then I noticed how that had become a theme for older actors around that time. Steve Martin made Shopgirl (2005); Jack Nicholson had earlier made About Schmidt (2002); and Dustin Hoffman made Last Chance Harvey (2008). Jim Jarmusch was in his early fifties at the time. So was I. Maybe that's why I noticed.

When I looked him up, I remembered having also watched Stranger Than Paradise (1984) on TV. That's a low-grade B&W film in which a guy breaks out of his boring routine in New York and travels to Florida with his cousin, only to end up back where he started. It's not quite Sullivan's Travels (1941), but still an interesting exercise.

Anyway, I was fascinated to see in MovieMaker magazine five rules for filmmakers, promulgated by Jim Jarmusch. Naturally, the first rule says there are no rules, but read it for yourself.

Rule #1: There are no rules. There are as many ways to make a film as there are potential filmmakers. It’s an open form. Anyway, I would personally never presume to tell anyone else what to do or how to do anything. To me that’s like telling someone else what their religious beliefs should be. Fuck that. That’s against my personal philosophy—more of a code than a set of “rules.” Therefore, disregard the “rules” you are presently reading, and instead consider them to be merely notes to myself. One should make one’s own “notes” because there is no one way to do anything. If anyone tells you there is only one way, their way, get as far away from them as possible, both physically and philosophically.

Rule #2: Don’t let the fuckers get ya. They can either help
you, or not help you, but they can’t stop you. People who finance films, distribute films, promote films and exhibit films are not filmmakers. They are not interested in letting filmmakers define and dictate the way they do their business, so filmmakers should have no interest in allowing them to dictate the way a film is made. Carry a gun if necessary.
    Also, avoid sycophants at all costs. There are always people around who only want to be involved in filmmaking to get rich, get famous, or get laid. Generally, they know as much about filmmaking as George W. Bush knows about hand-to-hand combat.

Rule #3: The production is there to serve the film. The film is not there to serve the production. Unfortunately, in the world of filmmaking this is almost universally backwards. The film is not being made to serve the budget, the schedule, or the resumes of those involved. Filmmakers who don’t understand this should be hung from their ankles and asked why the sky appears to be upside down.

Rule #4: Filmmaking is a collaborative process. You get the chance to work with others whose minds and ideas may be stronger than your own. Make sure they remain focused on their own function and not someone else’s job, or you’ll have
a production assistant who is holding back traffic so the crew can get a shot is no less important than the actors in the scene, the director of photography, the production designer or the director. Hierarchy is for those whose egos are inflated or out of control, or for people in the military. Those with whom you choose to collaborate, if you make good choices, can elevate the quality and content of your film to a much higher plane than any one mind could imagine on its own. If you don’t want to work with other people, go paint a painting or write a book. (And if you want to be a fucking dictator, I guess these days you just have to go into politics...).

Rule #5: Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration 
or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is nonexistent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery—celebrate it if you feel like it. In any case, always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: “It’s not where you take things from—it’s where you take them to.”

You can read the whole article here.

First posted: 8 September 2013

Sunday, 16 July 2017

The Three Stages of Pitch

One of the toughest things for many screenwriters to come to grips with is the Pitch Meeting. Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio were so bad at meetings that Steven Spielberg told them, "It's a good thing you guys write better than you pitch."

Lynda Obst, who produced films such as The Fisher King (1991), Sleepless in Seattle (1994), Someone Like You (2001), The Invention of Lying (2009), had the same problem when she started in Hollywood.

In her book, Hello, He Lied, and Other Tales from the Hollywood Trenches, Lynda says that when she first came to town, she wrote notes for herself, as she came to grips with this unusual social event.

Pitch is transactional theater. The quality of its performance is an important factor in its outcome. Regardless of the nature of the story we pitch—historical drama, cartoon adventure, police procedural, inspirational coming of age, brainless comedy, classic remake—there is a customary structure to both its content and its performance. Each pitch has three stages.

1. The Prep

Before the segue into the pitch, the producer has to prep the room. We do this by talking about the spouse, the boy/girlfriend or lack thereof, Gymboree, yoga, diets, the playoffs (if it's the right season; any playoff will do), or whether some mogul is going to buy Sony or MCA or Disney or anywhere at all. Gossip is currency in prepping the room. Charm rules.

2. The Windup

The job of the windup is to warm up the room. No self-respecting producer should ever rely on the writer for personality and ease. (Notable exceptions are some comedy writers, who are like standup comedians. This brings to mind the perennial question: If the pitch is funny will the script necessarily be funny? Hard-learned answer: No.)

First of all, the writer is likely to be only person in the room more nervous than the producer. Second, his talent is often in inverse proportion to his ability to pitch—read: schmooze. Consider the almost axiomatic observation: Good writers pitch badly and bad writers pitch well. The exceptions—the good writers who pitch well—are a function of gifted personality. They're charming. They are often the most highly paid, more often future directors.

A tip: Writers for whom solutions come too quickly are suspect. The writer should know that the solution to a story point is supposed to be harder than that.

3. The Concept

Then the wired producer must meet his optimal challenge, the mark of a truly gifted pitcher: He must present the concept whole—the miniaturization of the idea. It must be succinct. This is the famous high concept. Its seminal influence is the TV Guide log line.  The most common (and banal) form of the high concept idea is the hybrid: as in "Pretty Woman meets Friday the Thirteenth" (a great-looking whore is dismembered by a horrific, hockey-mask wearing creep). It requires virtually no imagination. By combining the names of past hits, one forms genetically engineered new movie ideas—sort of.

The appeal of these ideas is that they appear to reduce the risk level for the buyer. And they don't take deep concentration to grasp. No limb jumping here. Just by referencing these past hits, we share their patina of success.

Before the meeting the producer should have prepared the writer to be able to tell the story without going into excruciating detail.
Members of the pitching party should have resolved among themselves any major plot disputes. This sounds obvious, but I can't tell you how many pitch meetings I've seen go awry through internal debate. Like an escalating marital rift, these meetings dangle perilously on the precipice of collapse unless grand synthesis is quickly found. This is your job (producer). Subtle theoretical issues can remain tactically open as these minor snags often invite debate from the buyer, intriguing and involving him.

First posted: 31 August 2013

Saturday, 15 July 2017

Danny Boyle’s 15 Golden Rules of Moviemaking

Danny Boyle is an English film director, producer, screenwriter, and theatre director, known for his work on films such as Slumdog Millionaire, Shallow Grave, 28 Days Later..., 127 Hours and Trainspotting

The following is a list of "Golden Rules" he provided to MovieMaker magazine back in May 2013.

1. A director must be a people person

Ninety-five percent of your job is handling personnel. People who’ve never done it imagine that it’s some act, like painting a Picasso from a blank canvas, but it’s not like that. Directing is mostly about handling people’s egos, vulnerabilities and moods. It’s all about trying to bring everybody to a boil at the right moment. You’ve got to make sure everyone is in the same film. It sounds stupidly simple, like ‘Of course they’re in the same film!’ But you see films all the time where people are clearly not in the same film together.

2. Hire talented people

Your main job as a director is to hire talented people and get the space right for them to work in. I have a lot of respect for actors when they’re performing, and I expect people to behave. I don’t want to see people reading newspapers behind the camera or whispering or anything like that.

3. Learn to trust your instincts

Ideally, you make a film up as you go along. I don’t mean that you’re irresponsible and you’ve literally got no idea, but the ideal is that you’ve covered everything—every angle—so that you’re free to do it any of those ways. Even on low-budget films, you have financial responsibilities. Should you fuck it up, you can still fall back on one of those ways of doing it. You’ve got Plan A to go back to, even though you should always make it with Plan B if you can. That way keeps it fresh for the actors, and for you.

4. Film happens in the moment

What’s extraordinary about film is that you make it on the day, and then it’s like that forever more. On that day, the actor may have broken up with his wife the night before, so he’s inevitably going to read a scene differently. He’s going to be a different person.

I come from theater, which is live and changes every night. I thought film was going to be the opposite of that, but it’s not. It changes every time you watch it: Different audiences, different places, different moods that you’re in. The thing is logically fixed, but it still changes all the time. You have to get your head around that.

5. If your last film was a smash hit, don't panic

I had an obsession with the story of 127 Hours, which pre-dated Slumdog Millionaire. But I know—because I’m not an idiot—that the only reason [the studio] allowed us to make it was because Slumdog made buckets of money for them and they felt an obligation of sorts. Not an obligation to let me do whatever I want, but you kind of get a free go on the merry-go-round.

6. Don't be afraid to tell stories about other cultures

You can’t just hijack a culture for your story, but you can benefit from it. If you go into it with the right attitude, you can learn a lot about yourself, as well as about the potential of film in other cultures, which is something we tried to do with Slumdog Millionaire… Most films are still made in America, about Americans, and that’s fine. But things are changing and I think Slumdog was evidence of that. There will be more evidence as we go on.

7. Use your power for good

You have so much power as director that if you’re any good at all, you should be able to use that to the benefit of everyone. You have so much power to shape the movie the way you want it that, if you’re on form and you’ve done your prep right and you’re ready, you should be able to make a decent job of it with the other people.

8. Don't have an ego

Your working process—the way you treat people, your belief in people—will ultimately be reflected in the product itself. The means of production are just as important as what you produce. Not everyone believes that, but I do. I won’t stand for anyone being treated badly by anyone. I don’t like anyone shouting or abusing people or anything like that. You see people sometimes who are waiting for you to be like that, because they’ve had an experience like that in the past, but I’m not a believer in that. The texture of a film is affected very much by the honor with which you make it.

9. Make the test screening process work for you

Test screenings are tough. It makes you nervous, exposing the film, but they’re very important and I’ve learned a great deal from using them. Not so much from the whole process of cards and the discussions afterwards, but the live experience of sitting in an auditorium with an audience that doesn’t know much about the story you’re going to tell them—I find that so valuable. I’ve learned not so much to like it, but to value how important it is. I think you have to, really.

10. Come to the set with a look book

I always have a bible of photographs, images by which I illustrate a film. I don’t mean strict storyboards, I just mean for inspiration for scenes, for images, for ideas, for characters, for costumes, even for props. These images can come from anywhere. They can come from obvious places like great photographers, or they can come from magazine advertisements—anywhere, really. I compile them into a book and I always have it with me and I show it to the actors, the crew, everybody!

11. Even perfect formulas don't always work

As a director your job is to find the pulse of the film through the actors, which is partly linked to their talent and partly to their charisma. Charisma is a bit indefinable, thank God, or else it would be prescribed in the way that you chemically make a new painkiller. In the movies—and this leads to a lot of tragedy and heartache—you can sometimes have the most perfect formula and it still doesn’t work. That’s a reality that we are all victims of sometimes and benefit from at other times. But if you follow your own instincts and make a leap of faith, then you can at least be proud of the way you did it.

12. Take inspiration where you find it

When we were promoting Slumdog Millionaire, we were kind of side-by-side with Darren Aronofsky, who was also with Fox Searchlight and was promoting The Wrestler. I watched it and it was really interesting; Darren just decided that he was going to follow this actor around, and it was wonderful. I thought, ‘I want to make a film like that. I want to see if I can make a film like that.’ It’s a film about one actor. It’s about the monolithic nature of film sometimes, you know? It’s about a dominant performance.

13. Push the pram

I think you should always try to push things as far as you can, really. I call it “pushing the pram.” You know, like a stroller that you push a baby around in? I think you should always push the pram to the edge of the cliff—that’s what people go to the cinema for. This could apply to a romantic comedy; you push anything as far as it will stretch. I think that’s one of your duties as a director… You’ll only ever regret not doing that, not having pushed it. If you do your job well, you’ll be amazed at how far the audience will go with you. They’ll go a long, long way—they’ve already come a long way just to see your movie!

14. Always give 100 percent

You should be working at your absolute maximum, all the time. Whether you’re credited with stuff in the end doesn’t really matter. Focus on pushing yourself as much as you can. I tend not to write, but I love bouncing off of writing; I love having the writers write and then me bouncing off of it. I bounce off writers the same way I bounce off actors.

15. Find your own "esque"

A lesson I learned from A Life Less Ordinary was about changing a tone—I’m not sure you can do that. We changed the tone to a kind of Capra-esque tone, and whenever you do anything more “esque,” you’re in trouble. That would be one of my rules: No “esques.” Don’t try to Coen-esque anything or Capra-esque anything or Tarkovsky-esque anything, because you’ll just get yourself in a lot of trouble. You have to find your own “esque” and then stick to it.

You can read the whole article here.

First posted: 30 August 2013

Friday, 14 July 2017

Gary Oldman as Churchill

First footage revealed of Oldman’s much-hyped performance as Britain’s wartime prime minister, set during the early years of his premiership.

Thursday, 13 July 2017

Billy Wilder

I'm not going to tell you the story of Billy Wilder. You should recognise the name, at the very least. If not, you can't call yourself a student of film. On the other hand, you have some delightful homework in front of you.

Here is a version of his life, narrated by Jack Lemmon.

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First posted: 29 August 2013

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

The Origins of Screenplay Formatting

Part of the journey to becoming a full-time screenwriter is the process of learning how to format a screenplay. These rules aren't the arbitrary nuisances some people think. They exist for a reason.

In this short video, John Hess of Filmmaker IQ tells us how the present situation arose.

Trace the roots of how the screenplay evolved from the earliest moving pictures, through the golden age of Hollywood and into the post-studio era.

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First posted: 28 August 2013

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

6 Lies of Film Distribution

Jerome Courshon is an award-winning writer/producer, whose first movie was the critically acclaimed indie God, Sex & Apple Pie, released by Warner Bros. His challenging journey to get to the proverbial finish line was profiled in the Los Angeles Times and documented on several major film sites. After acquiring enormous experience and knowledge from playing "the game" of getting distribution for his own movie, he began assisting colleagues on their movies—with some of them achieving distribution in as little as four months by applying his information.

One of the major Achilles’ heels for film producers and directors is the distribution game. Once you’ve made your movie, what do you do? How do you play the game? What strategies do you employ? Is there even a strategy?

Well, there’s good news and bad news. The good news is there are indeed strategies to use and employ. The bad news is that most filmmakers don’t know what they are, and flounder around trying to figure them out. What’s even worse is too many filmmakers throwing in the towel and just dumping their film online, hoping it “hits” somehow.

In this article, I’m going to debunk some prevalent lies (or “myths”) about achieving distribution. This will give you some insight into the game, should you be looking for distribution now or preparing for your production.

Myth #1: I’m a director, a filmmaker, a creative person. Telling stories is my thing and if I make a good movie, I don’t have to worry about the business stuff or the marketing because someone else will do that.

Truth #1: There are of course some people who get lucky and either have a producing partner who does all the business & marketing (and is good at it), or they have the money to hire the right people to do everything.

However for most this isn’t the case, especially if one’s film career is in the early stages. You need to become a businessperson once your movie or documentary is done. At least until it’s sold (or until you’re done selling if you’re DIY’ing it). 


Because distribution is business, and distributors don’t care if you’ve made the greatest indie film/art film/documentary of the past 20 years. What they care about is if it will make them money. (And your audience, if you’re DIY’ing your film, needs to believe they’ll be sufficiently entertained and/or enlightened before they’ll buy a DVD or pay to watch it online.) The more you can become a “salesperson” and marketing maven, the more success you will have on your quest for distribution or sales.

Yes, I know this part isn’t nearly as sexy and fun as making movies and can be downright boring at times. But what Orson Welles famously said about the film business is still true today: “It's about 2% moviemaking and 98% hustling.”

Myth #2: Distributors are calling me and they’re excited to see my movie! I’ll send it to them and if they like it, they’ll acquire it!

Truth #2: All major distributors track the movies that have been listed in the trades under their production columns. If you were in those columns, you’re going to be phoned. Do not send them a rough cut. Do not send them a final cut. Do not send them the movie. If you do, you will not get a theatrical distribution deal, if this is what you are aiming for.

You must “unveil” your movie in the right place at the right time, such as a top film festival, to get the theatrical buyers to really want your feature. Movies do not get picked up for theatrical releases that have been sent on a DVD to a distributor. So when they call asking to see a screener, you’ll say “It’s not ready, but I appreciate your call. Check back with me in a month or two.” (And you’ll do this every time they call, until you’re ready for the grand unveiling.)

Myth #3: My movie was selected for the Sundance Film Festival! Woohooo! All I have to do is show up and I will get a deal!

Truth #3: Okay, you won the lottery and got a slot at one of the top three film festivals (Sundance, Toronto, Cannes) for your movie premiere. Guess what? Your work hasn’t even begun yet. You now must assemble a team of people: a PR firm, an agent from one of the top agencies in Los Angeles, an attorney, and possibly a producer’s rep. (But beware…most producer’s reps are useless.)

You will have to work, strategize and position your movie, before it premieres, as a very desirable movie that distributors must have. You have one shot at the top festivals for a theatrical deal, so don’t piss it away. Unfortunately, most filmmakers don’t know or understand this. They get a slot at Sundance or Toronto, don’t assemble a team or promote their film properly, and then come away without a deal and are entirely lost as to their next step.

Myth #4: I was rejected by the top festivals, so now I’m submitting and getting accepted by the next tier of festivals. This is cool. All I have to do is show up to my screenings and I’m treated like a rock star. Distribution, here I come!

Truth #4: Yeah, okay, if this is you, at least you’re having fun. But you’re not going to get distribution this way. There is a real purpose to the festival circuit beyond the top festivals that most people, even Hollywood veterans, simply do not understand. The obvious purpose is, of course, exposure. But there is actually a MORE important purpose: Building a Pedigree.

What is a Pedigree?

It is an accumulation of press coverage, interviews, quotes from critics, and awards if you can get them, which says you have a winning movie on your hands. Once you methodically build this pedigree, which takes some work on the festival circuit, you are then ready to parlay this into a distribution deal (or healthy sales). It’s a simple concept that most do not grasp; yet it is extremely powerful and effective for independent films that don’t get into the top festivals. There is real psychology involved in the “art” of selling a movie or documentary. Ignore at your own risk. However, if you learn this “art,” you will have success.

Myth #5: I’ve submitted my movie to the 15 home video companies out there. I’ve even talked to producer friends and looked at industry reference books for whom to submit to. If these 15 companies say ‘No,’ I’m out of luck for a home video deal.

Truth #5: This truth right here may be worth serious dollars to you. There are literally over 100 home video companies in the marketplace, all operating under their own labels. On top of that are additional companies that pick up movies and programming that have output deals with these distributors. So if you think you’ve exhausted your search for a home video deal and have only contacted a handful of companies, you’ve simply just begun.

And don’t buy the occasional diatribe out there that DVD is dead. It’s not. It is still the largest revenue generating segment of the entire film industry. Last year alone, it generated $16-17 billion in revenues. That’s billion with a ‘B.’

Myth #6: I’m going to bypass traditional distribution altogether, sell my movie on the internet myself and make a ton of money from DVD sales and digital streaming (VOD).

Truth #6: Not likely. For every 5000 movies being made every year, there are less than 20 who make serious money this way. WHY? It’s hard work. It takes time (a lot of it), it takes specific strategies, and you become the de facto distributor for a good year, if not longer. Which isn’t an exciting proposition for most filmmakers, who’ve already been on a lengthy and arduous journey of making their film.

However, some who go this route do it very successfully. They’re either great at marketing already, or great learners. And they’re very committed to achieving success, so they really do what it takes to win. Also, the budget of your movie can dictate if this route is viable for you. If you’ve made a $10,000 movie, it’s not that difficult to recoup this amount, with some decent work. But if your budget was $1 million, good luck making your money back using only the internet. You’ll either need traditional distribution, or a hybrid approach of both traditional and non-traditional.

So these are a few of the popular and misleading myths out there, and the truth about them. With 5000 (or more) movies being made every single year, that’s a lot of producers and directors working with often erroneous information. Not to mention an overwhelming number of movies vying for a limited number of distribution slots. These two factors combined can make for a daunting journey filled with frustration and failure.

The silver lining however, is that with the right knowledge, coupled with dedicated and diligent work, anyone with a decent film can achieve success. Anyone. But it does take the right knowledge. You do not have to have star names in your movie to get a deal or have success, and your movie does not have to be phenomenal. If it’s at least decent, you do have a real shot.

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First posted: 25 August 2013

Monday, 10 July 2017

'Never go to a meeting without a strategy'

It's a cliche that Hollywood is a place of endless meetings. Woody Allen satirised the practice in Annie Hall (1977).

          A Hollywood Christmas party is in session, complete with
      music, milling people, circulating waiters holding out
      trays of drinks.  It's all very casual.  French doors run
      the entire width of one wall; they are opened to the back
      lawn, guests move from the room to outside and back in.
      It is crowded; bits of conversation and clinking glasses
      can be heard.  Two men, California-tanned, stand by the
      French doors talking.

                      1ST MAN
          Well, you take a meeting with him,
          I'll take a meeting with you if
          you'll take a meeting with Freddy.

                      2ND MAN
          I took a meeting with Freddy. Freddy
          took a meeting with Charlie. You
          take a meeting with him.

                      1ST MAN
          All the good meetings are taken.

"All the good meetings are taken."

Lynda Obst, who produced films such as The Fisher King (1991), Sleepless in Seattle (1994), Someone Like You (2001) and The Invention of Lyingh(2009), had a problem with meetings when she started work in Hollywood.

She talks about the lessons she learned in her book, Hello, He Lied, and Other Tales from the Hollywood Trenches.
I got it. If I didn't know what we wanted to accomplish, we couldn't accomplish anything. If we weren't there to score, we couldn't win. I never forgot this lesson. It goes like this: You are a salesman, so bring your sample case. A meeting is either won or lost, so you need a strategy. A strategy implements a plan or an agenda.
     Strategies are devised by intersecting your agenda with that of the other person at the meeting (i.e., "Let's talk about you. When can you help me with my agenda?"). If you have no strategy and just attend a meeting blindly, you lose your edge because you can count on the fact that your lunch date has a strategy.
     Every chance encounter is a meeting, and each meeting is part of a larger series of actions that, when taken together, accumulate into an overall agenda. Agendas can shift, change or adapt, particularly with a new job. But one must always have one. Each move either furthers or obstructs an agenda. Think of it as a board game.
     Sometimes meetings, because they are held in such delightful places, can be mistaken for high teas at which people forget what they're doing and start thinking they're merely having drinks with a couple of well-dressed people with great haircuts. But the truth is that each these well-manicured charmers is, in fact, ruthlessly pursuing his or her agenda. If he is a studio executive, he wants big summer pictures. A producer wants his scripts to be that summer hit. The most wide-ranging fishing expedition of a meeting has its agenda, even if it's only information gathering, friendship building, or propagandizing.
     At lunch with an agent, a producer's strategy would be to win her over and make her aware of his projects. Or simply to go fishing for new hot properties. This is called "tracking," and people are paid to do it. When he has her rapt attention, it's critical that he doesn't bore her to death.

The following is a sample lunch conversation between a producer and a reluctant literary agent.

Producer: So how was your New Year's? ... Aspen?
  (It's never boring if he talks about her.)
Agent: Hawaii. I was sick the whole time.
  (Shut down—or an opening?)
Producer: How hideous! Did you get a lot of reading done?
  (Lead the dance.)
Agent: Had to. When I finally felt better, it was pouring.
Producer: What you need is a great big auction over your new favorite script.
Agent: I did read a really terrific new writer over vacation.
Producer: You know how I love to work with new writers! Why don't you slip it to me early...

  (A descendant of "sock it to me," slipping a spec is giving a time advantage to
   one buyer with plausible denial to the rest of the buyers. As in, "I have no idea
   how she got it!" A gift.)

... and I'll make your first bid.
  (He can't really guarantee this but why should he? He hasn't read it!)
Agent: Great idea!

The producer wins. If the script is any good.

Now let's look at a sample conversation between a producer and a preening studio exec over Chinese chicken salad.

Producer: Congratulations on this weekend! Twelve million! You guys creamed 'em.
  (Locker room talk.)
Exec: It was my picture, you know.
  (This is true whether it is or not.)
Producer: Of course. Everyone knows.
  (Flattery will get her everywhere.)
... Your stock must be pretty high this morning.
  (Hoist them on their own petards.)
Exec: I guess so.
  (Fake humility. A new standard.)
... I'd sure love to bring in a big spec this week.
Producer: You could sell anything this week!
Exec: You think so?
  (This is her setup. She goes in for the kill. Now.)
Producer: I'm getting a terrific script slipped that no one has seen. Spielberg is tracking it, but I think I have it exclusively.
  (Spielberg tracks everything, so this lie is borderline safe.)
Exec: I heard about it! I definitely want it.
  (He's salivating now, despite the chicken salad.)
... When can I get my hands on it?
Producer: Friday. It's yours.
  (After she gets her hands on it.)
... In fact, Darren...
  (his chief competitor)
... has been asking around about it, but I'd rather give it to you. You're my main man.
  (Bonding, flirting, joking—depending on gender relations.)
Exec: And you're mine. Even though you're a chick!

The producer wins again. If the script is any good.

And the moral of the story? Writer, you never go to a meeting without a strategy.

First posted: 24 August 2013

Sunday, 9 July 2017

13 Golden Rules from Steve Buscemi

We've noted our affection for Steve Buscemi before on this blog.

The following is a list of "Golden Rules" provided by him to MovieMaker magazine and first published by them back in 2006.

Note: The following “rules” are from the unbalanced mind of a relatively novice moviemaker.

1. Ask yourself, “Am I sure I want to make this movie?” Then ask yourself, “Why?” A good follow up question is, “Am I insane?”

2. The script is everything—a living thing that needs to breathe, to be fed and to grow. Take care of your script; don’t let anybody mess with it.

3. As Abel Ferrara once said, “A script ain’t a movie.” Okay, so maybe the script isn’t everything. But it’s a good start.

4. It’s not a bad idea to make a short film before you attempt a feature. But don’t think of it as your “calling card film.” It can of course become that, but it should be your first film, first. Make the film you want to make—not the film you think financiers will be impressed with.

5. Be aware: Finding financing for your feature can be a potentially soul-crushing endeavor. You may find yourself in a sterile room, pitching your film to a humorless executive and desperately blurting out stupid things like, “Well, you know, it’s kinda like Leaving Las Vegas meets Barfly.”

6. No two movies should ever meet each other.

7. Okay, no shit, as I am writing this, I get a call from my agent saying there is a “situation” brewing that could possibly undo the financing of the current film I am slated to direct—a remake of the Theo van Gogh film, Interview. We already lost the original Dutch financing a few weeks ago and I’m scheduled to start shooting in a couple of weeks. This also happened two years ago with my previous film, Lonesome Jim. We lost our studio deal in the eleventh hour. Luckily, InDigEnt, a New York-based, Mini-DV movie company, came to our rescue. The budget dropped from $3 million to $500,000 and our shooting schedule of 30 days was reduced to 17, but we were able to make the film we wanted to make. Financing never comes easy. Trees Lounge took a good five years to find its way and my second film, Animal Factory, based on the great Eddie Bunker book, took three years. What? You never heard of the film Animal Factory?

Trees Lounge (1996)

8. Try to get a good distribution deal.

9. Number 9 makes me think of John Lennon. If there’s one business that’s perhaps more challenging and insane than the movies, it’s the music industry. And yet there’s all this inspiring work from artists like Lennon, Joe Strummer, Nina Simone, Thelonious Monk and countless others. It’s true in film, as well. I know John Cassavetes didn’t have it easy. Buster Keaton? It’s the love for his work that kept him going, not the opening weekend box office receipts. Whenever I get down, I think of the great ones and their struggles against all odds, fighting an uphill battle against commerce and mediocrity, and it gives me strength.

10. Find the back issue of MovieMaker that lists the rules (or non-rules) of Jim Jarmusch. He rules. He’s never made a film he didn’t put his complete heart and soul into—and he’s able to make his living at making movies! I admire any director who makes his living solely from directing. I’m fortunate enough to earn a decent wage by occasionally playing psychopaths in other people’s movies, allowing me the luxury of not having to depend on the movies I direct to put food on the table. I especially admire independent directors like Tom DiCillo and Alexandre Rockwell, who never stop trying to create their own way.

11. Let people do their jobs. Phil Parmet, my friend and cinematographer, told me that once. If you give your crew the responsibility and opportunity to do their best, and you appreciate their efforts, your film will only benefit from their collaboration. Hire the best people to fulfill your film’s needs, then trust them to do their jobs.

12. If the scene you are about to shoot is troublesome, take the time you need to figure it out. This may mean clearing the set of the crew and producers so that it’s just you and the actors. Sometimes the organic instincts of the actors can solve a problem in blocking or problematic writing. But not always. In any case, allow yourself to be surprised by your actors.

13. Actually, I have no rule number 13; it’s just my lucky number. I guess if I had to come up with a rule number 13 it would be: Break a leg. And don’t be superstitious.

You can read the whole article here.

First posted: 21 August 2013

Saturday, 8 July 2017

What Happens Just Before Show Time at the Met Opera, in 12 Rooms You’ll Never See

This is a New York Times video. Someone walked through the Metropolitan Opera back stage area with a steadicam on the busiest day of the year.

Take a look.

Friday, 7 July 2017

Book review: "Hello, He Lied"

Lynda Obst is a former editor of The New York Times Magazine. She moved to Hollywood in 1979, where she became a producer, author, and commentator on the film industry. She was involved in the development of Flashdance (1983), and produced The Fisher King (1991), Sleepless in Seattle (1994), Someone Like You (2001), The Invention of Lying (2009), and a stack of other movies and TV shows.

She recently published a book which is getting a lot of attention—Sleepless in Hollywood: Tales from the New Abnormal in the Movie Business. I haven't read it yet, but during my week by the seaside I caught up on an earlier work, Hello, He Lied, and Other Tales from the Hollywood Trenches.

It's an excellent title for a book, but not original to Lynda Obst.

People seemed to lie to each other as a matter of course. No big thing. "Hello, he lied" was a joke I heard about someone I knew during my first month at work.
But, as a great producer would, she recognized the potential of the phrase and put it to work.

In the book, Lynda shares what she learned during twenty years in the business, all that stuff we know producers do but don't know how they do it, such as how to pitch an idea, impress a suit, win a bidding war over a hot script, massage an ego, and how to dress on location, what to say to skittish directors, where to eat lunch, and how to produce a successful movie.

Although the book is written from a producer's POV, it contains some excellent material for writers. I will be talking about some of that in more detail in the near future. In the meantime, it's an excellent read for anyone who has ever wondered what is really going on in the movie business.

As usual, here are some quotes to give you a feel for the book.

  • This is the flip side of ambition: debilitating exhaustion and the constant threat of defeat. Therefore every crisis can't be taken too seriously or you won't survive.
  • It is just as important to move on in the wake of stunning success as in the wake of disaster.
  • A writer should bring a producer to a pitch meeting for social savvy, political leverage, and simultaneous translation for the artistically challenged.
  • Being quick on your feet isn't the same as being good on the page.
  • Good writers pitch badly and bad writers pitch well.
  • To me The Fisher King was a masterpiece about the healing power of grace. To Peter Guber (then chairman of Columbia TriStar) it was a summer buddy comedy. Fine. We were both right.
  • Bulletin to all Cinderellas, female and male: There are no rescues here. No fairy godmothers. No princes. No white horses. You have to do it yourself.
  • The corollary of never going to a meeting without a strategy is never getting off a jet without a strategy, never going to a screening without a strategy, never going to dinner without a strategy, never going to a breakfast without a strategy.
  • Flashdance, like its progenitor, Rocky, is a paradigm bull's-eye movie in that any movie where the hero reaches for and achieves his or her dream, particularly one with dance numbers, is bound to connect with, at the very least, the American public.
  • Never ask permission. It will not be granted.
  • Getting what you want is dependent on knowing how things work.
  • Learn to ride the horse in the direction it is going.
  • You must never look threatened as the big players come on. The march of the big players is the drumroll that announces the movie will in fact be made.
  • When a producer has information, he must never share it, except tactically. Ipso facto, gossips know nothing because they are not trading information for anything useful, unless they are gossip columnists.
  • Power is a place as well as a verb; it is inside the information tent.
  • If there are so many powerful people in Hollywood, why are there so many nervous people at Hollywood parties? Because they're all standing on shaky ground, and the calm ones stay home.
  • If you are in a war where the damage is beginning to exceed any possible gains, surrender, Dorothy. You will be astonished to learn how little you have lost, because no one will even remember what the spoils of the original war were supposed to be.
  • Beware of all people campaigning for your friendship. Especially if you're hot that week. Too much obvious effort is suspicious.
  • Beware of obsequious human beings. Everyone here has a strong, healthy ego. The most dangerous wolves are in sheep's clothing.
  • Beware of inappropriate personal revelations—these are often part of a campaign.
  • The fact that I know little or less about the man's point of view in Hollywood doesn't stop me from theorizing about it endlessly with my girlfriends.
  • The fuzzy model is always acceptable, of course, in writers. This is true also for men. Being kind of distracted, artistic, vague, sensitive—these are all excellent traits for writers. They bring out the maternal in the woman executive, the paternal in the male executive, and this is how talent gets embraced by its protectors: the agents who have to mediate between it and the exploitative buyers.
  • Style for women is a vital component of success. If you can afford it, Armani is the rule for crisp girls on the move.

These are just a few of the gems. There are wonderful sections dealing with handling pitches, meetings, script auctions, how to dress, how to keep stars happy, and ten commandments for women working in film. This book is highly recommended.

First posted: 17 August 2013

Thursday, 6 July 2017

The Hero's Journey

A movie is structure. ~Richard Brooks

Screenplays are structure, and that’s all they are. ~William Goldman

Screenplays are structure, the greatest ‘idea’ in the world is not enough to produce a satisfying film. ~Peter Jackson

Screenplays are structured stories, pure and simple. ~Christopher Boone

A screenplay is a story told with pictures, in dialogue and description, and placed within the context of dramatic structure. ~Syd Field

Screenwriting is all about structure (and other things). There are several major theories about structure, one of the more famous is "The Hero's Journey." You can learn about it by reading Joseph Campbell’s book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, or Christopher Vogler's book The Writers Journey

Or, you can learn about "The Hero’s Journey" from puppets, by watching this Glove and Boots video. (And find out why recent Adam Sandler films sucked at the same time. Bonus.)

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First posted: 15 August 2013

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Elmore Leonard on Writing

Elmore Leonard started out writing westerns, then turned his talents to crime fiction. He has written more than forty novels, including bestsellers Up in Honey's Room, The Hot Kid, Mr. Paradise, Tishomingo Blues, Pagan Babies, and Glitz: A Novel.

Many of his books have been made into movies. Unlike most genre writers, however, Leonard is taken seriously by the literary crowd.

Back in 2001 he wrote a short piece for The New York Times, called Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle.

He rewrote that in 2007 and published it as an 85 page book under the title Elmore Leonard's 10 Rules of Writing.

What follows here is the essence of his original advice. 


These are rules I've picked up along the way to help me remain invisible when I'm writing a book, to help me show rather than tell what's taking place in the story. If you have a facility for language and imagery and the sound of your voice pleases you, invisibility is not what you are after, and you can skip the rules. Still, you might look them over. 

1. Never open a book with weather.

If it's only to create atmosphere, and not a character's reaction to the weather, you don't want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead looking for people. There are exceptions. If you happen to be Barry Lopez, who has more ways to describe ice and snow than an Eskimo, you can do all the weather reporting you want. 

2. Avoid prologues

They can be annoying, especially a prologue following an introduction that comes after a foreword. But these are ordinarily found in nonfiction. A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want. There is a prologue in John Steinbeck's Sweet Thursday, but it's O.K. because a character in the book makes the point of what my rules are all about. He says: 

I like a lot of talk in a book and I don't like to have nobody tell me what the guy that's talking looks like. I want to figure out what he looks like from the way he talks... figure out what the guy's thinking from what he says. I like some description but not too much of that.... Sometimes I want a book to break loose with a bunch of hooptedoodle.... Spin up some pretty words maybe or sing a little song with language. That's nice. But I wish it was set aside so I don't have to read it. I don't want hooptedoodle to get mixed up with the story.
Killshot (2008)

3. Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue.

The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But said is far less intrusive than grumbled, gasped, cautioned, lied. I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with ''she asseverated,'' and had to stop reading to get the dictionary.

4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb "said"...

"... he admonished gravely." To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances "full of rape and adverbs."
Out of Sight (1998)

5. Keep your exclamation points under control.

You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. If you have the knack of playing with exclaimers the way Tom Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful.

6. Never use the words ''suddenly'' or ''all hell broke loose.''

This rule doesn't require an explanation. I have noticed that writers who use "suddenly" tend to exercise less control in the application of exclamation points.

Jackie Brown (1997)

7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.

Once you start spelling words in dialogue phonetically and loading the page with apostrophes, you won't be able to stop. Notice the way Annie Proulx captures the flavor of Wyoming voices in her book of short stories Close Range : Wyoming Stories.

8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.

Which Steinbeck covered. In Ernest Hemingway's Hills Like White Elephants what do the "American and the girl with him" look like? "She had taken off her hat and put it on the table." That's the only reference to a physical description in the story, and yet we see the couple and know them by their tones of voice, with not one adverb in sight.

Get Shorty (1995)

9. Don't go into great detail describing places and things

Unless you're Margaret Atwood and can paint scenes with language or write landscapes in the style of Jim Harrison. But even if you're good at it, you don't want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill.

And finally:

10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

A rule that came to mind in 1983. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them. What the writer is doing, he's writing, perpetrating hooptedoodle, perhaps taking another shot at the weather, or has gone into the character's head, and the reader either knows what the guy's thinking or doesn't care. I'll bet you don't skip dialogue.

52 Pick-Up (1986)
My most important rule is one that sums up the 10.

If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

Or, if proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go. I can't allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative. It's my attempt to remain invisible, not distract the reader from the story with obvious writing. (Joseph Conrad said something about words getting in the way of what you want to say.)

First posted: 14 August 2013