Dec 092009

I stumbled across this great list of random screenwriting tidbits while checking out, a collection of video interviews with major screenwriters.  This is good stuff.

27 Golden Rules

Everyone has an angle, a rule, a strategy to get themselves to write well.  Get the advice from writers who have made it work for them.  

1.    ”You’ve got a good character when you know what he would say at any moment or to any question or any situation that arises.” -Stuart Beattie
2.    “A lot of the time, it’s more interesting what the characters are not saying than what they are saying.”  -Alex Kurtzman & Roberto Orci   

3.    “Every time you’re in a scene, you’ve got to know, ‘What’s the point? Why am I doing this scene?  What am I saying?’ As soon as you say it, get the hell out. That’s it.”  -Peter Tolan

4.    “All you have is your voice and your unique take on the world. If you can follow that and forget about everything else, that’s where you’ll achieve success.” -John Hamburg

5.    “The most valuable thing I did as a writer was to take an acting class.  And once you understand what the actors are looking for, that’s how you write.” -Paul Attanasio

6.     ”Everybody wants to say cool dialogue. That’s all there is to it.” -Sheldon Turner

7.     ”When I’m writing, I think, ‘I want an actor to read this and say, “I have to be the person who gets to say this out loud.” -Callie Khouri

8.     ”I think discipline is the most important muscle for a writer. You do have to get into a certain rhythm, writing-wise, to convince yourself to do it every day.” -Simon Kinberg

9.     ”I think that the most important thing is to write something that you passionately believe in that you see really specifically. Be true to that.” -Nick Kazan

10.     ”I think what marks bad dialogue against good dialogue is the absence of subtext. You have to have it.” -Billy Ray

11.     ”I think working creatively around other people working creatively creates its own energy.” -Jim Uhls

12.     ”I spy; I talk to people. I will watch a lady at Rite-Aid. I’ll tend to listen to her and how she speaks and I’ll emulate it.” -Nia Vardalos

13.     ”I keep a huge amount of notes and notebooks, and of characters I see or things I hear or ideas or dreams or whatever. I collect those things.” -Jose Rivera

14.     ”I keep asking myself, ‘What’s the worst thing that could happen to this character?’”  -Paul Haggis

15.     ”It’s so important to give yourself permission to fail when you’re trying anything creative.” -Susannah Grant

16.     ”Part of the craft of screenwriting is to write in such a pithy way, it’s almost a combination between a poet and a journalist.” -Robin Swicord

17.     ”The skill, to me, is knowing when to follow the outline, and when to not.” -Ed Solomon

18.     ”We feel like it’s not enough to make people laugh, we want to make them feel something.” -Peter and Bobby Farrelly

19.     ”If you are not intending to write something that’s never been written before, then you’re wasting everybody’s time.” -David Seltzer

20.    “Writing drunk is so much fun. That’s why you can’t do it.” -Scott Rosenberg

21.     ”You’ve got all these weird rules in this parallel universe. It’s fine to have weird rules; they just have to be consistent rules.” -David Goyer

22.     ”First and foremost, I think if you write a really compelling story everyone will want to be involved in that.” -Ted Griffin

23.     ”Jack [Klugman] gave us the key, and it’s one sentence: ‘What do I want?’ And that’s critical. That’s all you need to know.” -Babaloo Mandel & Lowell Ganz

24.    “Some writers are just not capable of [outlining] they just don’t like it. I work the other way, maybe it’s my legal training. There’s no tried true way.” -Jonathan Hensleigh

25.     ”Words are the last things that people do. They have the thought, they have the fear, they have another thought, they want to run, and finally, they speak.” -Marshall Herskovitz

26.     ”You have to have the one screenplay that will change your life. It may never get made, but good material gets known in Hollywood.” -Bruce Joel Rubin

27.     ”I try not to have anything that is rigid or structured or restraining, because you never know where the scene will take you if you allow yourself to go there.” -Jeff Nathanson

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 Posted by at 9:36 am
Jul 152009

This essay comes from David Mamet’s insightful book Bambi vs. Godzilla: On the Nature, Purpose, and Practice of the Movie Business.  It should be required reading for anyone who has ever worked on a movie set.  Mamet just gets it.  Enjoy:

Hard Work

by David Mamet

Billy Wilder said it: you know you’re done directing when your legs go. So I reflect at the end of a rather challenging shoot.

The shoot included about five weeks of nights, and I have only myself to blame, as I wrote the damn thing.

Directing a film, especially during night shooting, has to do, in the main, with the management of fatigue. The body doesn’t want to get up, having had so little sleep; the body doesn’t want to shut down and go to sleep at ten o’clock in the morning.

So one spends a portion of each day looking forward to the advent of one’s little friends: caffeine, alcohol, the occasional sleeping pill.

The sleeping pill is occasional rather than regular, as one does not wish to leave the shoot addicted. So one recalls Nietzsche: “The thought of suicide is a great comforter. Many a man has spent a sleepless night with it.”

One also gets through the day or night through a sense of responsibility to, and through a terror of failing, the workers around one.

For folks on a movie set work their butts off.

Does no one complain? No one on the crew.

The star actor may complain and often does. He is pampered, indulged, and encouraged (indeed paid) to cultivate his lack of impulse control. When the star throws a fit, the crew, ever well-mannered, reacts as does the good parent in the supermarket when the child of another, in the next aisle over, melts down.

The crew turns impassive, and the director, myself, views their extraordinary self-control, and thinks, “Thank you, Lord, for the lesson.”

The director, the star players, the producer, and the writer are above the line; everyone else is below.

There is a two-tier system in the movies, just as there is in the military. Those above the line are deemed to contribute to the fundability or the potential income of the film by orders of magnitude greater than the “workers”—that is, the craftspersons—on the set, in the office, or in the labs.

On the set, the male director is traditionally addressed as “sir.” This can be an expression of respect. It can also be a linguistic nicety—a film worker once explained to me he’d been taught early on that “sir” means “asshole.” And, indeed, the opportunities for tolerated execrable behavior on the set abound.

I was speaking, some films back, with the prop master about bad behavior. He told me he’d been on a film with an ill-behaved star who, to lighten the mood or in a transport of jollity, took to dancing in combat boots on the roof of a brand-new Mercedes. “He did about ten thousand dollars’ worth of damage,” he said, “and this kind of hurt, as I’d given up my day off, unpaid, to go searching for a prop.”

There exists in some stars not only a belligerence but also a litigious bent. I have seen a man take a tape measure to his trailer, as he suspected that it was not quite perfectly equal (as per his contract) in length to that of his fellow player.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the prop master is giving up his day off to ensure that the wallet or knife or briefcase or wristwatch is perfect on Monday.

This is not a picayune instance but, in my experience, the industry norm. While the star is late coming out of the trailer, while the producer is screaming obscenities on the cell phone at his assistant regarding, most likely, a botched lunch reservation, the folks on the set are doing their utmost to make a perfect movie.

I do not believe I overstate the case.

Nevil Shute wrote a rather odd book called Round the Bend.

Its hero is an Indonesian aircraft mechanic. He is so dedicated to both his job and the ideal of aircraft maintenance that a cult springs up around him. He is taken as an example as a teacher and then as the avatar of a new religion. In the practice of machine maintenance, he has found (and Shute closes with the notion that he may have become) God.

Some business people feel that they can craft a perfect (that is, financially successful) film in general, absent reverence, skill, or humility, and inspired and supported but by the love of gold.

But the worker is actually involved, as Leo the Lion says, in ars gratia artisand takes pride in working toward perfection through the accomplishment of small and specific tasks perfectly. Like Shute’s hero.

Is the actor’s hair the correct length? (The two scenes are viewed by the audience seconds apart but were shot months apart. If the hair does not match, the audience will be jolted out of the story.) Are the villain’s eyes shadowed perfectly? Does the knife show just the right amount of wear?

I recall the homily of old, that thousands worked over years to build the cathedrals, and no one put his name on a single one of them.

We, of course, enjoy films because of the work of the identifiable, the actors, but could not enjoy them but for the work of the anonymous, the crew.

The crew is working in the service of an ideal. Faced, as they often are, with intransigence, malfeasance, bad manners, and just plain stupidity on the part of the above-the-line, they react with impassivity.

This might be taken for stolidity by the unobservant or self-involved. It is, in effect, pity.

I was taught early on that the dark secret of the movie business is this: All films make money. Their income, indeed, flows from on high, and the closer one is to the height of land, the more one gets. The farther from the source, the poorer. This is the meaning of the term of art “net profits,” which may be loosely translated as “ha, ha.”*

And just as there is gold in them thar hills (proximity to the source of the income stream), there is gold in the reduction of hard costs. This reduction includes legitimate business oversight, and may even extend, I have been told, to actual malversation of funds.

Also, we know of Pharaoh that he taxed the Israelites with harsh and unremitting labor, having them make bricks to build his palaces. He then decreed that they must gather their own straw. As did the Reagan administration when it killed the American labor movement.

The guilds and unions in the American film industry retain some strength and have the clout (at least in theory) to protect their workers against the depredations of management in that constant calculus of terror: Management: Submit or I will make all films in Hungary. Labor: Submit or we shall strike.

For any business folk in any business would be glad to take the workers’ work for nothing—they, in fact, consider it their right. They would, in American films, as in hard industry, be right chuffed to see the workers race each other to the bottom, and then, having impoverished them, take the work out of the country. (As, in fact, the studios do now, shooting, I believe, the majority of American films elsewhere.)

The unions, in addition to protecting their membership against the money, must also protect them against their own love of the job. For in the practice of the movie crafts, we see the rampant American love of workmanship—and just as the true actor loves to act, the true carpenter or seamstress loves that perfect corner.

The American icon, for me, is Rosie the Riveter. Norman Rockwell’s wartime masterpiece shows a young aircraft worker in her coveralls eating lunch. Her scuffed penny loafers rest on a copy of Mein Kampf.

Rosie the Riveter beat Hitler. Or, to be a little less high-flown—and in deference to the British, who were, as everyone knows, also involved in that late unpleasantness—there is a true and admirable American instinct of “getting it right.”

As I was musing on the same, pondering the star, paid twenty million dollars and ruining the roof of a car, and the prop master, paid twenty thousand and giving up his one day off for the beauty of the thing, I believe I actually began to understand Marx’s theory of surplus value: Q. Whom is the film “by”? Spend a day on the set and you learn. It is by everyone who worked on it.

*Q. From whence does the money originally come? A. We recall the ancient Jewish wisdom, “If you look hard enough, everything’s treif.”

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 Posted by at 5:18 pm
Jul 112009

A closer look at Active Voice vs. Passive Voice:

I always tell you to write in the active voice. “Bob runs,” never “Bob is running.”

Here’s an example from a script my students wrote, in active voice:

“Chase careens around a corner. He barely holds his footing, and sprints for the shed.”

And here it is rewritten in passive voice:

“Chase is careening around a corner. He is barely holding his footing, and then he is sprinting for the shed.”

Hopefully, you can all see how much more immediate the first example feels. It feels more “here and now.” The second one is a very clumsy read.

I found lines like this in the Forrest Gump screenplay:

“The feather floats under a passing car, then is sent flying back up in the air.”

The verb phrase “is sent flying” is in passive voice. The feather is the subject of the sentence, but something else is doing something TO it. In this case, it’s the car. The feather is not doing something itself.

To write it in active voice, we need to switch the subject around. Here’s how I’d rewrite it:

“The feather floats under a passing car, which sends it flying back up in the air.”

With this one little change, the car is now the subject of the verb “sends,” and the whole sentence is now in active voice.

Granted, it’s such a minor change, most readers wouldn’t notice it.  But if you are this vigilant with your entire script, the whole thing will feel more immediate and more gripping.

Making your script a more exciting read can only be a good thing.

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 Posted by at 1:59 pm
Jul 102009

A few quick tips you can use today to immediately improve your screenwriting:

1. Always write in present tense: “the dog barks, the car crashes, the boy screams.”

2. Write in the active voice, never passive. Active: “Bob runs.” Passive: “Bob is running.”

3. Don’t summarize. “Joe looks all over the house for his sister.”  That’s bad.  What does that look like? Does the audience just sit there and watch this kid actually look all over the house? Write the specifics. “Joe yanks the bedspread up, peaks under the bed. The light flicks on in the laundry room. Joe looks around, then flicks the light off.” Write the actions the way we’d see them unfold on the screen.

4. Write visually (related to the last tip). Make the readers picture it in their heads. Never write something that can’t be filmed. You can’t write “Greg grew up in a bad neighborhood, but studied hard and went to a good college.” How the heck do you film that?

5. Try writing in shots. Each time you imagine the camera changing to a new shot, start a new paragraph. And always keep your paragraphs short. For example:

Mark works frantically to open the lock on the door.

Sarah keeps watch at the corner. She nervously glances from the hallway back to Mark.

Mark’s sweaty hands slip from the rusty lock.

And so on…

6. Fight scenes: You’ve got to strike a balance. Writing a punch-by-punch description for a long fight scene gets old really quick. The alternative is to summarize the nature of the fight, and only give details for the important moments. (I know I said don’t summarize, but fight coreography is going to be handled by the director anyway. This is an exception to the rule). Here’s an example:

“Chase and Ogre engage in a scrappy fistfight, with Ogre’s size and strength giving him a greater advantage than Chase’s speed. Chase wheezes and gasps as he struggles for the upper hand. Finally, bruised and choking, Chase wriggles free and grabs a rock by the side of the road. Ogre closes in to finish the job, and Chase spins around, slams the rock into the side of Ogre’s face.”

A punch-by-punch description, while staying true to the rule of describing the action as we’d see it, can get lengthy and annoying. Here’s an example:

“Chase throws a punch, which Ogre easily grabs. Ogre retaliates with a quick jab and a heavy right punch that knocks Chase into the wall. Chase shakes out the cobwebs, charges at the Ogre again, this time swinging at his massive jaw. Ogre takes the hits like a statue, hardly moving as Chase swings away…”

As exciting as this type of writing may be, it really gets annoying for longer fight scenes. That’s a third of a page to describe 10 seconds of punching.

:) More tips to come.  Stay tuned to

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 Posted by at 5:57 pm
Jul 092009

Short films are a great way to exercise your filmmaking muscles.  They can be made quickly, and if you’re smart about it, they can be made on a tiny budget (or no budget at all!)

Here are some quick tips I prepared for the students enrolled in my Summer Movie Workshop.  There’s plenty more to talk about, and I’ll be adding more posts on this topic in the near future.

Things to keep in mind when you come up with your ideas for a short film:

¨ Keep it short — Keep it around 5 to 10 minutes (which is 5 to 10 script pages)

¨ A simple, strong premise. You’re only going to have 10 minutes to tell the story. A twisty crime drama isn’t going to fit into our time restrictions. Think of one simple, strong idea that provides a lot of suspense, humor, or drama. A perfectly happy couple is breaking up because she’s moving away. A father who hasn’t seen his son in years shows up at his graduation party. The simpler and stronger, the better.

¨ Use available locations. I know you’re probably sick of the school, but it really is a great location, especially in the summer. Empty hallways and classrooms (that you can fill with extras if needed), sports fields, the woods, cafeterias, etc. Think of all the drama that happens in your lives in these very hallways. And the school doesn’t have to be a school. We turned the hallway outside my classroom into an Emergency Room once.

¨ Make it something you can shoot. If you include alien spaceships and a bunch of explosions, you’re going to have a hard time making it look convincing. Most editing programs can do some special effects, but keep in mind that effects will make your editing time longer.

¨ Use characters that are your age. Nothing screams “Student Film!” like a 16-year old playing the Dad. If you want to use older adults in your movie, make sure you know someone who will play the part.

Sample Six Week Moviemaking Schedule

¨ Week 1: Planning — casting, locations, gather props and wardrobe, scheduling, shot lists and storyboards, etc.

¨ Week 2: Planning & Rehearsal — of course actors need to rehearse, but SO DOES THE CREW (where is the camera going to go? what shots do we need? etc.). Shot lists and storyboards finalized.  Schedule finalized.

¨ Week 3: Filming (follow your schedule.  shoot everything that takes place at a specific location before moving on to the next location)

¨ Week 4: Filming & Editing — if someone in the group can start editing while you finish shooting, you’re in good shape.

¨ Week 5: Editing & Screening — a rough cut is finished, and your whole team should watch it and discuss changes.

¨ Week 6: Editing & Final Movie — make final changes based on screening. Watch final film with all your friends.  Upload to youtube.  Burn DVDs.  Send the movie to everyone you know.

Strongly Recommended Reading:

¨ Writing for Short Film:

¨ Writing a Good Short Film Script:

¨ What Makes a Good Short Film?

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Feb 012009

A friend asked me recently for some advice for her daughter getting started in acting.  Here’s what I told her.  (She’s in the Philadelphia area, so a few of the links are local organizations.)

Before we get to the useful links, some advice:

Achieving fame and success as an actor, be it TV, movies, or theater, is a long shot.  Achieving that “superstar” success is like winning the lottery.  Even if you have the talent. Having the talent just gets you a lottery ticket.  There are probably hundreds of thousands of truly talented actors in the country… but how many actors can you name off the top of your head?

That said, there is plenty of work for actors, if they would be content to work without the stardom. Extras, small roles on TV shows and in movies. Off-Broadway and local theater. Commercials, corporate video etc. There’s a lot out there.

It is a cutthroat business at the upper levels. Agents, producers, everyone wants something. There are some people of good character, but you always have to be on the lookout. It’s important to have strong character yourself before you get into this business, so you’ll have the strength to make good decisions.

Also, there will be a LOT of rejection. It’s a simple fact of this business. There are thousands of actors competing for a handful of jobs. Everyone who ever made it as an actor first dealt with thousands of rejections.

Once you get a couple acting jobs under your belt, most likely as an extra, the next step is to get into the Screen Actors Guild (link below). But that’s for another discussion.

Okay, now to the good stuff:

Mike Lemon Casting  Big, reputable casting agency in Philadelphia. Good for getting started as an extra. Click on the “actors” button in the center for info about upcoming casting calls.

Headshots 101  The links on the side have great info. Check out all the stuff under “Headshot Basics.”

Screen Actors Guild — Young Performers  A page of resources for actors under 18 and their parents.  S.A.G is the official union for TV and Film actors. They have info for beginning actors too.

Greater Philadelphia Film Office  Philadelphia’s official filmmaking resource. Scroll down to the bottom and click on “jobs” or “hotline” to see upcoming cast opportunities for big and small films.

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Jan 252009

Here are some quick links to some extremely useful pre-production forms you’ll need while prepping your movie.  Find things like cast contracts, shooting schedules, and location agreements.  Invaluable for the indie producer.

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