Sunday, March 25, 2007

David Mamet

Just a quick note.. David Mamet, the noted playwright, screenwriter, and director, spoke on NPR's To The Best of Our Knowledge this weekend. It's well worth listening to. Check it out by clicking on this link, and then finding the RealPlayer link on the page. Mamet's segment starts about a minute into the broadcast.

The Actor's Job

Years ago I took a beginning stage acting class. The teacher one day asked us to play the part of someone looking for a five dollar bill. We looked around, put index fingers to chin in looks of questioning and sudden realization, jumped into action and looked behind the chair. Then the teacher said, "Okay. I've actually hidden a five dollar bill in the room. Find it." You've never seen a room full of grad students move so fast.

The lesson: acting is not imitating. It's doing. Actors want a role they can get inside: something that makes sense, holds drama, and lets them experience life from a new perspective. The last thing they really want is a screenwriter to act like a puppeteer. They don't want you to tell them what to do. They want you to create a compelling character through a series of actions. Then THEY want to interpret them.

Let's take the scene we talked about earlier, when Ratso Rizzo invites Joe Buck to stay with him. Do you think it's full of action lines telling us about the subtle details of their faces? Nope. Do you think it's full of dialogue where they hash it out? Nope. It's dead simple. Six lines or so. Then screenwriter Waldo Salt hands it off to Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight. And he wins the Academy Award for screenwriting.

What he's handing off to these genius actors is, of course, some genius writing. These are great characters not because of how they're described, but because of the situations they're in. Rizzo is dead lonely. He's broke and starving. The only guy talking to him wants to kill him. He needs to convince him to stay with him, or he'll die alone. Joe Buck's more or less in the same situation, and he's finally got a place to live if he can push his pride down one more time.

Don't tell the actors what to imitate. Just give them juicy roles to explore for themselves. That's what makes the drama spring to life.

Screenwriting is just the first step in a long creative and collaborative process. Working with filmmakers quickly teaches you that EVERYONE, from the actors, to the directors, to the gaffer, is trying to tell the story using their own creativity. Screenwriters have a very special role at the beginning of this process. You're creating the space for these other professionals to express their own creativity.

Saturday, March 24, 2007


One thing I find repeatedly, both in my own writing and with clients, is that there's a huge tendency to explain what's going on. This is especially true when the script is emotionally intense. Bob can't just sign the divorce papers in the third beat of act II. No. Bob, driven by his irrepressible rage at his unfaithful wife while subconsciously also allowing himself to begin thinking about Maizie, the sincere but homely doughnut shop clerk, in a new way, heads to the lawyer's office, almost gets in an accident, where his rage bubbles to the surface, and then he suddenly realizes he's at peace.

It goes without saying that the first is easier to write. And easier is always better.

But there's a deeper reason for STICKING WITH THE CONCRETE. That's what's on the screen. That's what the audience sees. Not only does the human mind gauge actions and characters. It does it better than you can explain. And it does it instinctively.

When you explain the internals in the synopsis (or, horrors! in the action lines), you're working against yourself. You're actually sapping energy from the structure of your story.

But it's right there on the page!

But the movie viewer doesn't have your
script in his lap.

Take a look at Joe Buck and Ratso Rizzo. What do they do? Not a lot. Steal some food. Go to a party. Try to get paid for sex. What we all do everyday, right?

We're drawn in by what they don't say. There's a series of actions, and they're written with a strong through-line. This tells the writer how they'll react. It tells the actor how to approach the part. And it tells the viewer how to look at the movie. The single biggest reason Midnight Cowboy works is that we know what drives the characters. Once you get that nailed down, step back, and just let the characters steal fruit, or sign the divorce papers, or flirt with the doughnut girl. It's a whole lot easier.

It's hard to let go of that level of control, of course. That's why I'm going to talk about the actor's job in the next post.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

MIdnight Cowboy

I watched Midnight Cowboy last night. It's a wonderful film, and the screenplay won the Oscar in 1969. It made me think about tools and character, and just how important it is to REALLY think about character, and then use what you've learned to bring your character to the screen.

Midnight Cowboy tells the story of Joe Buck, a vain and naive kid from Texas, who moves to New York to try his hand as a gigalo. Once there, the rich women aren't the easy pickin's he'd been planning on, and he sinks into a seedy world with probably the only friend he truly ever had, the hopeless loser and petty thief Ratso Rizzo, played by Dustin Hoffman.

Both characters are defined by their inability to see their problem. Neither can admit that they're truly lonely, and that they, in many ways, hate themselves and have no real prospects. This is what keeps them in the plot. When a religious closet case asks Joe if he's lonely, he can only bristle at the questioner's directness.

A lot of screenwriters get their characters asking about each other's problems because that seems like the easiest way to get them out in the open. But that dialogue homogenizes the characters, and makes it too easy for them. If they can describe the problem, it just isn't that big. Worse yet, the answers are clear.

How does Waldo Salt (the screenwriter) use his characters to get over this problem? Neither have any real prospects. Neither have a good reason to leave their condemned apartment except to steal some food. Neither can admit his place in the food chain. These are some hard characters to write.

Take the movie's opening. You get this long sequence of Joe trying to say goodbye to a town that's not really interested. You get a long bus ride to New York, with more more or less meaningless contacts. And Joe listening to his portable radio. At first you think: what the hell. Nothing's happening. Then you realize it's all coming from Joe's perspective. The greatest sop to his loneliness was the young mother asking for a piece of gum for her child, and the old woman who won't let him turn the light off. He's frickin' lonely. Does he say he's lonely? Nope. And before you know it, old Waldo's got his main character in New York with very little dialogue.

Let's take Ratso Rizzo. The guy's more or less scum. He hustles Joe for twenty bucks the first time we see him. He invites Joe into his house. Very few characters could explain why he does this. Rizzo definitely not. But he does it, and WE understand why. He says it's ostensibly to make up for ripping off Joe. But he's just made it clear he doesn't really care about that. When Joe pushes him, he plays the respect card: I'm inviting you. I don't do that kind of thing. How dare you refuse? And Joe, who's got nowhere to go, accedes. In five minutes or less, Joe Buck goes from wanting to kill Rizzo to living with him. No attempt to explain. But it makes perfect sense.

Take another plot point. By the midpoint of the film, it's been established that Joe just isn't going to make it as a gigalo with women. But that's what the movie's about. So what are you going to do? What's a character trait that Joe has that can move this forward? His clownishness -- the cowboy hat and the bandana around his neck -- actually work to his favor in a certain setting, and it gets him an invitation to an underground party full of whackos. There he meets a woman who's enough of an explorer and free spirit to more or less take Joe up on it on a whim. It's twenty bucks. No big deal. It gets us to the next plot point, and it makes perfect sense.

By solving the problems by turning to his characters' main traits, the screenwriter made sure that both his story and his character were true to themselves and entertaining within every ten page beat.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Tools and Character

Now we've identified a set of problems in our story with X's. And, by describing and building out our characters, we've got some solutions. Wha?! We do?!

Yes, we do. One more rule for a good story, not only must the story be identifiable throughout, so must the character. Think about it. What would happen if you watched an action film all the way to the climax, and then the hero got himself out of his pickle because of something that wasn't established earlier? It would seem like a cop out, right? Characters need to be organic, and they need to grow. The audience wants to explore them, whether they're fighting aliens or dealing with a divorce.

So take your X's. And take your list of character traits. What can your character DO to solve the problem? Find a trait and try matching it to a problem, then brainstorm possibilities.

Inevitably, action and visual convey information much better than dialogue. They are also more entertaining. Let's go back to the hedge fund trading issue -- an issue that's complex and difficult for the audience, but necessary for the plot.

What's the hedge fund trader like? He's ambitious, driven, ruthless, greedy. He's a womanizer and he's got a penchant for expensive gadgets. His weak spot? He feels guilty about his mother, who lives alone and misses him, but he never has time for.

How do you match these two problems?

Bob the hedge fund manager is in his office. He stares at his computer screen.

His secretary arrives with an important file. He tells her to get out.

He watches the numbers on the screen tumble.

His wife calls. He doesn't answer.

The numbers fall further. Beads of sweat form on his forehead.

His mistress calls him from the restaurant. He's late.

As the price on the fund drops to 25,000, he sends in his order.

As it goes through, he holds up his hand in triumph. The phone rings again.

He picks it up, expecting his wife.

"What do you want?"

His mother answers, "Bobby? Is that you?"

He shuffles to get off the phone, but fails to notice that the price is now moving in the wrong direction.

We know all we need to know, and we've learned more about him.

Next time: The instinct to go with dialogue.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

"X" marks the problem.

If you've been following along, you've probably got a rough idea of your story. In the last installment, we broke the story down into short paragraphs that look at each ten minutes or so. We then measured those beats against our one-word THEME and our one-sentence DESCRIPTION.

And we put an X next to each short paragraph that didn't necessarily sound like it came from that story.

You may have one X, or none. You may have a page full of X's. You may well have not been able to break your story down into ten-minute beats. No worries. Here's where the fun part comes in.

CHARACTER. We all think we know what it means. It's the guy on screen, right? Well, kind of. Actually character is a lot more than that.

Character is a set of traits that lets an audience engage the story. It's why they care. It's how they identify. New writers almost always take this stuff for granted. Don't.

We're talking about making a character sympathetic or likable. Hannibal Lecter is neither. But he's a great character. Why? To my mind, there are two reasons.

He has a POSITIVE GOAL. He's himself, and he's intent on showing his superiority at every turn.

He possesses DRAMATIC POTENTIAL. We can experience what he experiences vicariously. This is the quality that turns something horrific and nasty in real life into entertainment.

I think just about every good character has these two traits, but character is pretty much an infinite field -- just like human nature.

Take a moment and write down everything you know about your character.

Now write three things you DIDN'T know about your character. How do you do this? Imagine it, yo. It's all in there.

Think of as much as you can. Take some time with this. Why?

Because these traits are the tools of a screenwriter. Find what's unique. Find what's exciting. Find what'll keep your character from having to stop the plot and teach us all about the intricacies of hedge funding.

We'll apply these to your X's in the next post.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Building a coherent story.

Writers write because they feel something deeply. There's an assumption that if you feel something deeply, it must be coherent, strong, unified -- a masterpiece just waiting for you to reveal it. There's something to this, of course. If you feel a pull to write, there's a core there that speaks to you. But I've found that the subconscious is a lot less demanding audience than moviegoers. To communicate to them, you need several kinds of unity.

THEMATIC UNITY means that you stay with your core issue.

PLOT UNITY means that the struggle you set up at the beginning builds and develops consistently throughout the piece, and that the ending is appropriate to the ending. If you don't satisfy this requirement, it almost doesn't matter what you do to please the audience. The piece will feel incomplete.

From previous exercises, we have:

The opening.

The ending.

The ONE WORD theme.


The ONE SENTENCE description.

Got it? For the next step, pull out your original description of your story. For today, just do one thing. Break it down into small paragraphs that each cover approximately ten minutes each.

When you have these ten minute plot beats, measure them against your one word theme and your one sentence description. Does this beat sound like a story about "manhood" in which "A young Mexican husband fights for his wife's honor"? Does it sound like a story about "love" in which "a young computer programmer finds the man of her dreams in a cafe"?

Now, the discipline is important here. If you look at a beat and say, well, no, I don't really see my theme or story, but I need this long to get Karen out of the factory job and into the drug-fueled gambling binge in Monaco." Or maybe, well, no, it doesn't fit my theme or description, but if I don't explain the intricacies of hedge fund trading here nobody's gonna get my story. Guess what. You don't have that much time. Film audiences demand unity. They demand entertainment. They demand you move the plot forward. Every ten pages. Period.

EVERY TEN MINUTES must move the story forward, and reinforce the unity.
This is frickin' hard. Do what you can with the piece now. If you just don't know how to get through a particular beat (part) of your story, just mark it with an X, and we'll talk about it next time.

And feel free to leave comments or ask questions below!

Saturday, March 3, 2007

More Synopsis..

Now that you have the beginning and the end of your script in front of you, realize that you have something very valuable in front of you: what your script is about.

If you've been writing for more than three days, you'll realize that this is the answer to the worst question in the world, whether it come in a studio meeting or at Thanksgiving from your aunt. What's your script about?

Divorce yourself from what you know about the script (or think you know). Look at the beginning and the end. Does it match what you thought? Ask your friends what the script's about. Are they with you on this? If you have general agreement, you're doing well. If you don't don't despair -- BRAINSTORM.

Which script actually interests you more? The one on the page or the one in your head?

Have you learned something about the script you didn't know before?

In talking to friends and the little editor in your head, did you come up with anything even better?

Keep asking the hard questions. It's NOT as easy as it sounds. Dig into your assumptions. And come up with two gifts to yourself.

A single sentence that encapsulates the script.

A single word that captures the THEME of the script.

More soon.