Sunday, March 22, 2009

Screenwriting News & Links! 3/22/09

Hey guys,

I would've posted one of these sooner, but there hasn't been a lot in the way of screenwriting news lately. Besides, it seems we’re the ones making the news lately with little articles like
The Raiders Story Conference. In fact, I compiled a list of humorous blurbs from around the media and blogosphere, which I thought were kind of funny.

Hope you’re doing well,


New Screenplays:

Inglourious Basterds - July, 2008, “last draft” by Quentin Tarantino

Mirrors -January, 2007, draft by Alexandre Aja & Grégory Levasseur

Mary Rose - February 1964, draft script by Jay Presson Allen

(Hat-tip to


Funny blurbs about The “Raiders Story Conference”

I can’t believe MMoF wound up on Entertainment Weekly
What may be a holy grail of Indiana Jones artifacts was posted online on Monday: a 125-page transcript of the original story-conference meeting involving producer George Lucas, director Steven Spielberg, and writer Lawrence Kasdan. The blog, Mystery Man on Film, somehow got its hands on the alleged transcript, which features the filmmakers talking at great length in January 1978 about what would eventually become Raiders of the Lost Ark. The thing's a pure joy to read. In it, you can find the genesis of everything from Indiana Jones' name to his fear of snakes to his (possibly risque) romantic history with Marion Ravenwood.

One of my favorite moments in the transcript occurs when Spielberg is repeatedly transfixed with making Raiders' famous opening rolling-boulder-chase sequence feel like a Disneyland ride. "What we're just doing here, really, is designing a ride at Disneyland," Spielberg says on page 15. And guess what happened 17 years later, in 1995? Disneyland opened an Indiana Jones ride, or should I say, an amusement-park ride based on a movie based on an amusement-park ride. It's postmodernism at its best!

And The New York Times
Ever wonder what it was like at the meeting when a classic film was being born? If so, check out the Mystery Man on Film blog, which has posted what is says it a link to the 125-page transcript of the story conference for Raiders of the Los Ark that included producer George Lucas, director Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan.

Ain’t it Cool News
Kudos to Mystery Man on Film for fucking with my productivity.

Peter Sciretta at Slash-Film:
I’m not sure if it’s just the screenwriter hidden inside of me, but I find it extremely cool to read these conversations.

John August:
I’ve never worked with Lucas, but the snippets with Spielberg feel very accurate based on my interactions with him on JP3, Minority Report and Big Fish. He’s always looking for the little moments that click… The screenwriter’s role in marathon meetings like this is to listen and refocus the ideas. You’re trying to capture not just the plot points, but the enthusiasm. Fast forward a few drafts, and there will likely be torturous meetings in which every decision is micro-analyzed. But at this first step, the only goal should be mapping out the territory you want to explore.

SnarkMarket used the article to help create a new word
Retronovation n. The conscious process of mining the past to produce methods, ideas, or products which seem novel to the modern mind.

Pop Magazine
Rick is nerding out at the next desk telling me I have to link to this 125 page transcript of George Lucas talking to Steven Speilberg and Lawrence Kasdan about Raiders of the Lost Ark… Ummm, Enjoy?

NBC Local News in Dallas Fort-Worth
The behind-the-scenes treasure trove was posted by Mystery Man on Film, a blog devoted to the art of screenwriting… The transcript, whose provenance is a mystery, is a discovery worthy of Indiana Jones himself. Check out this inside view of two masters at work before the lawyers get in on the act and hide the document in that big warehouse where the Ark got secreted away among hundreds of identical crates.

Alex Epstein said
This is just frakking awesome.

Rob at Loose Logic wrote Did you fall out of your chair? I did!

Jonathan B.: Excuse me while I clean myself up. I just peed a little.

Nick at Phantom Leap This is the best thing the internet has given me in a good long while, and a perfect reminder of why we all owe so much of our childhoods to Lucas and Spielberg, no matter what they’ve been responsible for in recent years.

Jordon Lapp said Mystery Man gets it right when he says that one of the most important insights here is that they started not by plotting out Raiders of the Lost Ark, but by developing Indiana’s character.

The Writing Life You may not particularly like Kasdan’s work — or, for that matter, Lucas and Spielberg’s — but the level of detail and insider juice makes this a must-read for anyone with an interest in screenwriting. I mean, Syd Field ain’t even coming close to this.

Sweetney wrote “The transcript reveals, among other things, that George Lucas created an actual numeric, mathematical formula for storytelling on film. So awesome… Yes, I am so totally this geeky.”

Metafilter said: It also makes one wonder what happened to George Lucas, a man who once had a math formula for exciting cinema.

Some crazy film school professor loved it
Prof. Metcalf asked me to post this link to a post on “The Mystery Man on Film” blog, which focuses on screenwriting. The post deals with story construction vis-a-vis Raiders of the Lost Ark and has some good insights on narrative. The rest of the blog looks pretty good too!

Good Brownie
Once in a while, you come upon a post on some blog that really makes your afternoon. This one did it today for me. A real treat, especially for Raiders fans.

And Martin Adams
I always knew some day you'd come walking back through my door.

Hehehe… Anyway, on to the news.

Madonna Scratched Dustin Lance Black’s Oscar


The end of Paper?

Screenwriter Tom Cole Died
American stage and screenwriter Tom Cole has lost his battle with cancer at the age of 75... Best known for his film and stage writing, it was Cole's 1985 film Smooth Talk that helped launch Academy Award-nominated actress Laura Dern to fame after it became a surprise hit at the Sundance Film Festival.

Screenwriter Millard Kaufman dies at 92
Screenwriter Millard Kaufman, who co-created the cartoon character Mr. Magoo, was nominated for Academy Awards for his screenplays for Take the High Ground! and Bad Day at Black Rock and won a cult following as a first-time novelist at age 90, has died, a spokeswoman said. He was 92.

Mockingbird Screenwriter Horton Foote Died

Playwright Wrote Gentle Dramas, Mockingbird Screenplay

Delicate Prose Marked Work Of Screenwriter Foote
Playwright, novelist and screenwriter Horton Foote died this week. Foote was best known for his spare, intensely personal stories of small-town Southern life. His screenplays for the films, Tender Mercies and A Trip to Bountiful took that vision to an international audience. He won two Academy Awards and a Pulitzer Prize for drama.

Another Horton Foote article
For his screen adaptation of the best-selling Harper Lee novel "To Kill a Mockingbird," he won at the Oscars in 1962. That hit movie earned eight Oscar nominations in all, including best picture. And leading man Gregory Peck finally triumphed with his fifth lead actor nod. The role of Atticus Finch would come to define the actor to generations and topped the 2003 AFI list of screen heroes.

Salman Rushdie Trashes Slumdog
Rushdie wrote in Britain's Guardian newspaper that the central feature of the film -- that a boy from the Mumbai slums manages to succeed on the Indian TV version of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" -- "beggars belief." "This is a patently ridiculous conceit, the kind of fantasy writing that gives fantasy writing a bad name," the author of "The Satanic Verses" said in the article…

Four Sexy Female Screenwriters
"This is weird because we hang out a lot," she said. "We've seen each other naked."

So help me God, I do love screenwriters.

Sahara writer hit with bill
Sahara didn't just flop at the box office, it's cost novelist Clive Cussler a chunk of change as well. The author has been ordered by a Los Angeles Super Court judge to pony up nearly $14 million in legal fees after he failed to win a lawsuit against the pic's producer, Crusader Entertainment.


Watchmen writer Forms Company, Shows Scary Side of Belguim
Dark Hero Studios is actually the name of Hayter's new company (co-founded with Doomsday and upcoming movie adaptation Castlevania producer Benedict Carver), which has been created as a place to produce new SF, horror and fantasy franchises in whatever medium possible (They're looking at movies, comics and video games to begin with, but Hayter feels like he's got a great cookbook in him somewhere). (Update: Warren Ellis clarifies in the comments that he's written an animated Castlevania movie, not the live-action version.)

Watchmen Screenwriter Needs Fans To Rewatch Film
Watchmen dominated the box office last weekend. But if fans hope to see more like it where the source material is taken so seriously, they need to go back to the theaters again this weekend ... and bring friends. That's what screenwriter David Hayter told fans in an open letter that appeared on the Hardcore Nerdity Web site this week that while making more money would be great for the film, the scribe says it's more about creating an avenue for more films like Watchmen to be made. "You have to understand, everyone is watching to see how the film will do in its second week," Hayter said. "If you care about movies that have a brain, or balls (and this film's got both, literally), or true adaptations -- and if you're thinking of seeing it again anyway, please go back this weekend...

Q&A with Watchmen Writers David Hayter and Alex Tse
"It takes a lot of setup to introduce an interdimensional space squid, it just does… You can't just say, oh there it is, and look, there's my squid… The difference between the novel and the movie, and this is the real difference, is, we don't have the appendices afterwords. And the whole thing with that storyline is all setup in the Wizard magazine, the stories about the comic book, and it's also setup in Tales of the Black Freighter, to a certain extent - there's stuff about the secret island, these artists… That's all stuff that I would have to spend screen time explaining at the end of a movie where I've already spent two hours explain a lot. Clearly the movie does not shy away from piling information on top of you. But I felt that that was going to come out of nowhere."

"For all of the infinite possibilities of film, I believe, you have to be very circumspect about the number of magical things that happen in your movie." Hayter tangents onto X-Men and the mutant gene briefly, then continues. "You have Dr. Manhattan, who was your element of magic in the story, and then you have the squid, who came out of another dimension and could cast psychic waves of destruction, and that seemed like an extra bit of magic that came in at the end, and needs a lot of setup to justify it. So, it became obvious that if you use Dr. Manhattan, well, it's already setup, and he is the force, and he is the outside threat that has been throwing the whole world into chaos anyways, the has thrown off history. So in the end, it seemed to make sense."

Here’s another interview with David and Alex

WGA cutting 10% of employees

Nikki Finke: WGA Strike One Year Later

Training Day Writer To Pen And Helm "Last Man"

10 Steps To Writing A Horror Screenplay
1. The Hook. Start with a bang. Step right into a suspense scene. (”Scream” opens with a terrifying sequence with Drew Barrymore on the phone with a killer)
2. The Flaw. Introduce your hero. Give him a flaw. Before you can put your hero in jeopardy we must care for him. We must want our hero to succeed. So make him human. (In “Signs” Mel Gibson plays a priest who has lost his faith after his wife died)

Finding your audience - publishing tips and resources for young writers
Start small. The best way to get your work published is to be published. Look into smaller imprints or those just starting out, as they are often more likely to pick up new writers. School papers and literary magazines, community newspapers and newsletters, and even church publications are other possibilities. You never know who might be interested in your work unless you ask.

Know your audience. Every publication has its own bent. Publishers will choose pieces that are not only well written but are thematically in line with the type of work they feature. Take the time to read through a sample copy of the publication, making sure that your work will be a good fit. Most publishers will supply you with a recent copy of their journal or magazine; some charge a small fee while others require only a self-addressed, stamped envelope (SASE).

Become a strong writer, regardless of your major
2. A paper is not a text message. There are differences between formal and informal writing, just as there are differences between formal and informal attire. Do not confuse the two. Text message shortcuts might be acceptable to your friends, but they are not appropriate in a college level paper. Equally important: before you hand in a paper, be it a first draft or a final draft, remember to proofread, proofread, proofread.

Screenwriter Jonathan Nolan urges students to follow passions
“Be a lucky person,” screenwriter Jonathan “Jonah” Nolan recalled. That was the advice he and his brother, director Christopher Nolan, received from a famous British director about how to enter show business. “When I first heard it, it sounded smug,” Jonah Nolan said. “The more I think about it, the more humility I see contained in that statement.”

Matt Damon thinks the Oscars should be on a 10-year time delay

Interview with Green Lantern Screenwriter
"The trick for me," he continues, "is that I like super powers that are sort of impactful. I like punches and fights and stuff like that. Giving the Green Lantern ring that sort of impactful feeling as it's being used, is a bit of a trick, but it can be done and I hope that I've done it in this. I didn't want green beams fighting green beams. I wanted as many objects formed in those beams as I could. And the idea behind the screenplay, the subtext going on in the screenplay, is that Hal Jordan is sort of a natural, with his imagation creating things that go beyond beams. Hal is focused, but he's very imaginative. At least in the script there's a scene where, when he's not doing anything, he's making little objects with his ring like someone doing doodles. We'll see if that remians. The script was a little long, so they had to do some judicious editing."

“The writer is the first star of a film.” – Kamlesh Pandey

Forbidden Planet gets a Rewrite… because of the Internet
Scripter J. Michael Straczysnki and the higher-ups at Warner Brothers have decided to trash the writer’s first pass at drafting a follow-up/sequel/ to the classic Forbidden Planet and start over from scratch. The do-over is not due to a question of quality in the writing, but due to the fact that details of the storyline had already started to leak, even though actual production on the project has yet to be greenlit.

DiCaprio's Atari inventor bio-pic, the screenwriter talks
The title's been floated around as Pong, or Atari, and the subject of the film will be Nolan Bushnell, the scruffy 30ish "hippie" who invented Pong and Atari, the first great video game company, back in the 70s. South Florida screenwriters Brian Hecker and Craig Sherman came up with the idea of a bio-pic, got close to the family to get the rights, and are scripting it for Leonardo DiCaprio and Paramount, "since Leo is the right age...and the biggest star in the world," says Hecker, whose feature writing-directing debut, Bart got a Room opens in April.

Tupac Shakur's Screenplay Live 2 Tell Will Be Made Into A Movie

Fellow Script Columnist Dave Trottier on
The Paradox of Creativity
The great paradox is this: Constraints cultivate creativity. It’s true that your inner artist may grow frustrated by intrusions from your inner critic, but outside parameters are just the challenge your right brain relishes. Imposed parameters can be inspiring!

Interview with Duplicity writer/director Tony Gilroy

Alex Proyas Q & A

John Milius says most scripts today 'are garbage'

Adrienne Shelly's Widow Developing Her Final Screenplay
Late actress/screenwriter Adrienne Shelly, who wrote, directed and starred in the sleeper hit indie dramedy Waitress for Fox Searchlight in 2007, will have her final screenplay resuscitated by her husband, Andy Ostroy. Ostroy will develop and produce the project, The Morgan Story, via his A Films shingle, which he created in order to maintain and further his wife's legacy.

One of Italy's best screenplay writers worked with Fellini
The screenwriter Tullio Pinelli, who has died aged 100, worked with the director Federico Fellini, co-writing the first nine and last two of his films, including La Strada (The Road, 1954) and La Dolce Vita (1960). He also co-wrote films by Alberto Lattuada, Pietro Germi, Mario Monicelli and other Italian directors. He started screen- writing in 1943, having been considered one of the most promising post-Pirandello Italian playwrights… Born in Turin, the son of a magistrate, Pinelli, did his national service in a cavalry regiment and became a solicitor. As a boy, he and his brother created puppet plays. In adulthood he wrote plays, and opera librettos, one of which, Villon, in 1941, was for Carla Bruni's composer father. Meanwhile, Pinelli's young wife sent one of his plays to theatre critic Silvio d'Amico. He introduced Pinelli to a theatre manager, who commissioned a play a year from the dramatist.

Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman reflects on his directorial debut
The Oscar-winning scribe of 2004’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind says he’s felt fulfilled as a writer, so he didn’t feel the need to use that pursuit as a steppingstone to directing; plus, he’s never seen those jobs “as a hierarchical thing the way people in the business do ... I think that they’re very different jobs, and I don’t think directing is more important than writing. I think that you could make an argument in the converse — not that I would, but you could, but no one does.”

Screenwriting guru: Bad screenplay = bad movie

Who knew?

Wouldn't it be loverly . . . . or not
OK, fasten your seat belts, because this is one of those rumor-dogged projects where it's hard to sort out the fact from the fluff. But, after watching Keira Knightley sing in The Edge of Love this week (not particularly well, it must be said, though she looked smashing), I wondered what was going on with the My Fair Lady remake. This is, of course, a truly awful idea, except that Emma Thompson is writing the screenplay, and I have governed my life by the principle that anything Emma Thompson does is absolutely OK. (I mean, the woman writes her screenplays in longhand, for heaven's sake.) So I'm torn.

Fockers sequel will include 'children...conflict,’ screenwriter says


Lost Boys 3 Gets a Writer as the Frog Brothers Will Reunite


Screenwriter Hired for Dante’s Inferno
Last December, 411 slapped you over the head with the news that Electronic Arts was working on a third-person action-adventure game based on Dante Alighieri's The Divine Comedy simply entitled Dante's Inferno. Well, as it turns out, Universal Pictures recently hired screenwriter Dan Harris (X2: X-Men United, Superman Returns) to pen the script for a live-action film based on the Electronic Arts video game. Patrick O'Brien, Vice President of EA Entertainment, and game creator Jonathan Knight are both involved in the development of the film.

Julian Fellowes, screenwriter of The Young Victoria
Screenwriter, novelist, actor, director, and producer. Is there anything Julian Fellowes can’t do? The answer is navigate, or so he tells me as we sit in a huge multiplex cinema in Milton Keynes. I’m here thanks to an invitation to a sneak preview of his latest film The Young Victoria, a wonderfully lavish drama about the turbulent early years of Queen Victoria’s reign and her romance with Prince Albert. Julian’s here thanks to a satnav.

Aw, I love Julian Fellowes…

The Case for Writers as Game Designers
Writers, by their very nature, are often a difficult species to categorize. After all, given the sheer numbers of mediums, styles, genres and formats, the term “writer” could mean anything from best-selling novelist, to greeting card scribe, to the nameless copywriter penning the instructions on the back of your shampoo bottle. Nowhere is the unquantifiable nature of writers more evident than in the countless wordsmiths currently working in the video game industry. Yes, writers have now become an integral part of the game development process, a role as equally important as programmer, animator, concept artist or producer. Yet the uncertain nature of being a writer remains, with game scribes being classified as everything from screenwriter and narrative designer, to dialogue scripter and interactive storyteller. The truth is there really isn’t any given template for what a game writer does with tasks ranging from developing branching storylines for a triple-A shooter to creating snappy dialogue for a casual match-three puzzle game.

Shahrukh gets Hollywood writer for home production
Shahrukh Khan is going international with his next home production Ra.1. The star has roped in Hollywood’s famous writer and director David Benullo for writing the screenplay of his movie. Recovering fast from his shoulder surgery, Shahrukh is committed to Ra.1, a huge-budgeted SFX flick which he is making for his son, Aryan. According to sources, Ra.1 will be unlike any other sci-fi film made till now in India. And since Indian writers don’t have much experience of penning down such movies, Shahrukh got writer David Benullo from Hollywood, who has earlier written the screenplay of the movie Around the World in 80 Days, and is script writer for movies Hallowed Ground, Cupid and Shadow Man.


On the Contest Circuit:

Candadian Short Screenplay Competition Announces Top 25

HSI Announces Latest Contest Winner

IFFF Announces 2009 Screenplay Awards

Cowrite Announces Week 4 Winner

Call for Entries: 2009 Eerie Horror Film Festival Screenplay Competition

StoryPros International Announces Screenplay Contest Winners

ASA Announce Quarterfinalists

Script Savvy Announces January 2009 Contest Winners

All Access Announces Contest Finalists Announces Feature Contest Semifinalists

AWS Announces Contest Finalists

Vail Film Festival Announces Contest Winners

Nevada Film Office announces 2008 Screenwriting Contest Winners

Cinema City Announces Contest Results

The Movie Deal Announces Contest Winner

Cowrite Announces Week 3 Winner

AceFest Announces Great American Sreenplay Competition Winners


And Finally

Create your own Super Hero!

Here’s mine. Hehehe

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Timid Screenwriter

Hey guys,

Not long ago, I reread Stephen King’s how-to diatribe,
On Writing. In fact, I read quite a few grammar books as a refresher and to help spice up my articles for Script Magazine. With respect to King, I’m sorry. The more I read his book, the more I disagree with him. His book is more pokable than the Pillsbury Doughboy. 1) A Thesaurus is actually a wonderful thing. Rogets can INSPIRE breathtaking sentences! And 2) don’t even get me started on adverbs. King was horrifically wrong about adverbs. But the one area upon which we can agree is that timid writers suck the big one.

As I’m sure most of my brilliant readers already know, King trashed timid writers when it came to passive verbs and sentences:

Verbs come in two types, active and passive. With an active verb, the subject of the sentence is doing something. With a passive verb, something is being done to the subject of the sentence. The subject is just letting it happen. You should avoid the passive tense. I’m not the only one who says so; you can find the same advice in The Elements of Style.

(Oh, you mean that
little grammar book that’s SO pre-digital age and revised only 4 times since 19-frickin’-18? That one? Did you know that E.B. White was an essayist and writer for The New Yorker? In 1957, he wrote, “I felt uneasy at posing as an expert on rhetoric, when the truth is I write by ear, always with difficulty and seldom with any exact notion of what is taking place under the hood.” Even Strunk, the English professor, said, “the best writers sometimes disregard the rules of rhetoric. When they do so, however, the readers will usually find in the sentence some compensating merit, attained at the cost of the violation.” WHAT? You can break the rules? But back to King.)

Messrs. Strunk and White don’t speculate as to why so many writers are attracted to passive verbs, but I’m willing to; I think timid writers like them for the same reason timid lovers like passive partners. The passive voice is safe. There is no troublesome action to contend with; the subject just has to close its eyes and think of England, to paraphrase Queen Victoria. I think unsure writers also feel the passive voice somehow lends their work authority, perhaps even a quality of majesty. If you find instruction manuals and lawyers’ torts majestic, I guess so.

(But sometimes the passive sentence IS majestic. These are the times that try men’s souls. How are you going to improve upon that sentence? It’s perfect! If you wanted to make it active, you’d have to write, “We live in the kind of times that try souls.” Or maybe we should make the word “times” active since that’s what’s screwing with our souls? “These times try men’s souls.” Eh. “Times like these try men’s souls.” Ugh... We could make “souls” active. “Men’s souls must endure trying times as these.” Or how about: “Soulwise, these are trying times!” Oh puh-lease. Sorry! Back to King.)

I won’t say there’s no place for the passive tense. Suppose, for instance, a fellow dies in the kitchen but ends up somewhere else. The body was carried from the kitchen and placed on the parlor sofa is a fair way to put this, although “was carried” and “was placed” still irk the shit out of me. I accept them but I don’t embrace them.

(It’s not “was carried” and “was placed.” It’s “was carried… and placed.” Nothing wrong with that. Sorry! Back to King.)

What I would embrace is Freddy and Myra carried the body out of the kitchen and laid it on the parlor sofa. Why does the body have to be the subject of the sentence, anyway? It’s dead, for Christ’s sake! Fuhgeddaboudit!

(Funny that King writes “Fuhgeddaboudit!” as this kind of “offbeat,” rogue word was strictly prohibited by Messrs. Strunk and White. Slang and diction? Are you kidding? In fact, White decreed about thirty years ago that you can’t write slang because, “by the time this paragraph sees print, uptight, ripoff, rap, dude, vibes, copout, and funky will be the words of yesteryear.” Sorry, dudes! Back to King.)

…And remember. The writer threw the rope, not The rope was thrown by the writer. Please oh please.

May I ask a question? What if you’re writing a mystery and this is the sentence that reveals the killer? Wouldn’t you want to save that revelation for the end? “The rope was thrown by… THE WRITER!” No way! Damn writers! Or what if you’re writing a joke? “All of these outrageous, sexually depraved emails were written by… my mother.” Bwaah ha ha ha ha ha ha WOO HAAA ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!

Or what if you used the passive voice to emphasize a passive character like the way Germaine Greer did in
The Female Eunuch: “The married woman’s significance can only be conferred by the presence of a man at her side, a man upon whom she absolutely depends. In return for renouncing, collaborating, adapting, identifying, she is caressed, desired, handled, influenced.” The structure may be passive, but there’s passion behind Germaine’s words.

In any case, I do generally agree about active verbs, although exceptions can be made, kinda like voice overs. Just because someone broke the rules, the world shouldn’t get hysterical. To King’s bigger point, I absolutely agree that timid writers suck. In novels, according to King, timid scribes tend to embrace a passive voice.

I’ve always wondered how this translates into screenwriting. Naturally, everyone knows you must keep your action lines in the present tense and use active verbs because you are in the moment with the characters as you are watching a film. But what are other qualities that would characterize the timid screenwriter?

I thought of 10 or so qualities.


1) Avoids Drama, Tension, & Conflict – I believe the key to timid screenwriting is what King said, that the writer makes decisions so “There is no troublesome action to contend with.” This is what kills me about new writers. They dream and work hard to become a screenwriter, yet, they’re so reluctant to embrace drama. Hello? That’s screenwriting! And sometimes I think they deceive themselves when they’re writing happy warm scenes where all the characters are getting along because they’re feeling the happy feelings of the characters. And they assume the reader will feel those feelings as well. No, they won’t. That’s when the reader will be falling asleep because there’s no drama, tension, or conflict. That’s what a story is. FADE IN and something’s wrong. Or writers will just dip their toes into a conflict and then quickly get away from it, and I find myself telling them, “get rid of all that extraneous shit and dive right into the drama. That entire scene should be about the conflict!” Or in horror scripts, I’ll tell them to embrace the tension and fear and drag out the suspense to excruciating levels. That’s the fun of horror! There’s another aspect of avoidance. Some writers keep themselves distanced from the action, too. An important scene would take place off screen. Or we would have to watch important action scenes from a distance. Like a battle scene observed solely from a mountain or men going down into a tunnel filled with monsters or something, but we’d be watching the action only on TV screens in a newsroom. Put the reader in the middle of the action!

2) Passive Protagonists – Much has been written on this topic, and I’m sure my readers do not need this explained. Just as timid writers embrace passive sentences in novels, I think they also embrace passive protagonists in screenplays. This is where things are being done to the protag, as opposed to a protag being active and mixing things up. One of my cigar friends is in sales and he says he gets up at six a.m., works out, and then gets into his office to “make things happen.” That’s a good protagonist. There are exceptions to this rule. I have few problems with Forrest Gump or Benjamin Button. But I’d have to say that new writers should master the art of the active protag first before delving into exceptions. You need to be established before people will be willing to embrace an exception like that.

3) Weak Antagonists – Even pros make this mistake, which at times can be just poor decision-making. But sometimes, with new writers, I think they make certain decisions to weaken an antagonist because they want to be accepted SO MUCH as a writer that they water down the antagonist to make it easy on the reader. That’s crazy! Readers WANT to go on that wild ride. They WANT to feel that tension and suspense. Otherwise, what’s the point? Or maybe timid writers think that nasty antagonists will reflect poorly on their personalities because they want to be viewed as nice people. Fuhgeddaboudit! If you love stories, you must love a good strong nasty villain. Besides, the nastier the villain, the more satisfying the finale.

4) Excessively Pared-Down Dialogue and Action Lines – Some writers have read so much about “Show, Don’t Tell” that they’re almost afraid to write dialogue. Look, your characters need to be alive on the page! There’s nothing at all wrong with dialogue so long as it’s good dialogue, which for me means forgetting about realism and aiming for layers and
subtext. Also, some writers pare down the action lines to keep as much white on the pages as possible. There’s nothing wrong with action paragraphs either, so long as there’s a reason for every single word you write and you avoid incidental actions. Follow Dave Trottier’s principles of keeping the action paragraphs down to four lines or fewer. It’s all good so long as it serves an important purpose.

5) Wrong Emphasis in Action Lines – Sometimes I think that timid writers pay an extreme amount of attention to the action lines and descriptions of rooms and incidental actions as a way of avoiding conflict. This is about HOW the scene plays out. This is about WHAT happens, not so much all of the little details you’ll see on the screen. I once came across a script full of “maybes” in the action lines. “John (maybe) shoots Kate (or he stabs her or poisons her).” I said, “What the hell is going on with these actions lines?” Well, he had read an article that suggested adding “maybe” to the action lines because screenplays are a collaborative effort and this would invite collaboration. Are you kidding me? It’s your job to figure out the story! I told the writer to stand up, straighten his back, stick his chin out and write, “John shoots Kate.” There. Don’t you feel better?

6) Thin Plots – There’s nothing wrong with starting out on a simple plot. In fact, there’s wisdom in starting out simple. But that doesn’t mean you should stick with one plot and nothing else. To do this risks stretching your story too thin. Throw in a subplot or two.

7) Flashback Structures – With a few exceptions, I despise flashback structures. There was a time when I was actively writing reviews on
TriggerStreet that it seemed almost everyone had a flashback structure. I think this stems from a need to hook the reader early because they aren’t confident enough to think they can hold the attention of a reader through a normal 3-act structure. So they try to hook a reader by showing part of the ending first and then making that reader sit through 120 pages to actually see how the ending ends! Fuhgeddaboudit! Do the hard work. Master the 3-act structure.

8) Lack of Trust in the Reader – I touched upon this
earlier, but it’s worth repeating. An inevitable sign of growth in a new writer (and we all go through this arc) is in the area of trusting the reader. Newbies and timid writers who haven't developed the discipline of trusting the reader tend to over-explain simple things in the action lines or they over-explain obvious reactions in characters or they indulge in on-the-nose dialogue to convey obvious emotions we all know that particular character is feeling. Over time, you'll learn that you only need to explain something once (or not even explain it at all) and then move on because you know very well that your readers are with you, will get it, and will appreciate you more for trusting them.

9) Copy Instead of Create – Creating is what makes screenwriting so much fun! And I think timid writers tend to pull from scenes and techniques and style choices in other successful films (thinking that it will make their own story successful) as opposed to taking a concept and making it your own. Just because a certain sequence or technique worked well in another film does not necessarily mean that it’ll work at all in the context of YOUR story. Sit back and ask yourself: “What’s the best way to tell THIS story?” “How can I tell this story in ways we haven’t seen before?” Brainstorm about ways you can be different.

10) I Can’t Think of Another One – What are your thoughts?


Friday, March 13, 2009

MM’s Trilogy of Screenplays

Hey guys,

Last year, I put together a trilogy of screenplays, which is available to read under
my profile on TriggerStreet. (You have to register with the site to download the scripts, but it’s free.)

We thought we’d try an experiment, a la Paris, Je Taime. We’d get about 20 writers together, take a topic (like love), and give each writer only six pages to write anything they’d like to write about love. Then I’d compile them together into one screenplay and upload it onto TriggerStreet to share. We first did a script on
Love, which was extremely popular. So we followed that up with a script on Hate, and last December, we uploaded our third and final script on Fear.

I gave the writers only one week to turn in their six pages. It’s amazing what stories they came up with. I love it! And yes, you will find a short in each screenplay written by me. The other writers are some of the best on TriggerStreet. Of the three,
Love is probably the most popular and periodically frequents the site’s Top Ten list, although Hate is highly ranked in the 100’s. Fear has some quality work inside from great writers who were hand-picked by me.

check it out. Loads of fun!


Monday, March 09, 2009

The “Raiders” Story Conference

Hey, guys, you’re going to love this (and thanks, Viktor).

There is a
link now available to download the 125-page transcript (in the form of a .pdf document) of the original 1978 story conference between Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and Lawrence Kasdan for a little film called Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Some background first. Spielberg suggested that Kasdan write Raiders because he admired his Continental Divide script. Lucas agreed. Now, imagine with me: Lucas had just released Star Wars, the biggest film in the history of Hollywood and a cult phenomenon. Spielberg had just released Close Encounters of the Third Kind and before that, Jaws. Now Kasdan was called in to have a story conference with the biggest names in Hollywood who wanted to talk about their next blockbuster. The conference took place at the L.A. home of Jane Bay, who was Lucas’ assistant. They had 5 consecutive 9-hour days to talk about the story. This .pdf is a transcript from taped recordings of those meetings.

By the time Lucas and Spielberg setup these meetings with Kasdan, they knew for the most part what they wanted. This was just a matter of “okay, so, how do we tell this story?” Lucas did most of the talking. He seemed to be just talking through all of the ideas. He came across as, on the one hand, a strong driving force behind the film and on the other hand, a bit controlling. Spielberg occasionally threw in some exciting, funny, and even wacky ideas, which at times Lucas tried to dial down. But many, if not most, of Spielberg’s ideas would be used. Kasdan doesn’t say too much. I imagine he’s just soaking in everything he’s hearing, but he was certainly in sync with the filmmakers. He'd occasionally interject suggestions and also good questions about logic, characters, and plot.

Man-oh-man, Spielberg and Lucas were idea machines. They could’ve sat there coming up with Indiana Smith ideas forever. There were enough ideas generated in these meetings for two films, which they actually used for two films. I must say, it’s rather unusual to have meetings with a producer and a director and be given so many ideas. Not that meetings with producers and directors wouldn’t have a lot of ideas but I’m not sure you would encounter such a volume as this. For screenwriters, it’s a goldmine. If you try to forget the finished film and put yourself into Kasdan’s shoes and you have all these ideas thrown at you, it can be a daunting task. What do you keep? What do you throw away? How do you make all this work?

In any case, there were about 10 Screenwriting Lessons I took away from this experience and thought they might be worth sharing.

1) Before they ever discussed the plot, they figured out who and what their hero-protagonist is and how he'd be similar and also different from other heroes in cinema.

The story began with the character, which was integral to the concept. So much was said that it’s hard to condense, but here’s a taste:

(Key: G = George; S = Steven; L = Larry)

G — The thing with this is, we want to make a very believable character. We want him to be extremely good at what he does, as is the Clint Eastwood character or the James Bond character. James Bond and the Man With No Name were very good at what they did. They were very fast with a gun. They were very slick. They were very professional. They were Supermen.

S — Like Mifune.

G — Yes, like Mifune. He's a real professional. He's really good. And that is the key to the whole thing. That's something you don't see that much anymore.


G — He's the guy who's been all around the world. He's a soldier of fortune. He is also... Well, this gets into that other side of his character, which is totally alien to that side we just talked about. Essentially, I think he is a, and this was the original character and it's an interesting juxtaposition. He is an archeologist and an anthropologist. A Ph.D. He's a doctor, he's a college professor. What happened is, he's also a sort of rough and tumble guy. But he got involved in going in and getting antiquities. Sort of searching out antiquities. And it became a very lucrative profession so he, rather than be an archeologist, he became sort of an outlaw archeologist. He really started being a grave robber, for hire, is what it really came down to. And the museums would hire him to steal things out of tombs and stuff. Or, locate them. In the archeology circles he knows everybody, so he's sort of like a private detective grave robber. A museum will give him an assignment... a bounty hunter.


G — I think basically he's very cynical about the whole thing. Maybe he thinks that most archeologists are just full of shit, and that somebody's going to rip this stuff off anyway. Better that he rips it off and gets it to a museum where people can study it and rip it off right. That's the key also. He knows how to enter a tomb without destroying it. He knows what's important. He knows not to go in there like a bull in a china shop and destroy half the stuff that's valuable.

And later:

G — It's such an odd juxtaposition, especially going around. The first sequence is in the jungle and you see him in action. You see him going through the whole thing. And the next sequence after that you see him back in Washington or New York, back in the museum. Where he's in a totally academic thing, turning over this thing that he's got. Then in the rest of the movie you see him back in his bullwhip mode. You understand that there's more to him. Plus, it justifies later things that he... the fact that he's sort of an intelligent guy. Peter Falk is one way of looking at him, a Humphrey Bogart character. The fact that he's sort of scruffy and, not the right image, but...

S — Peter's too scruffy.

G — Yes. We'll figure a way of laying that out in his personality so it's easily identifiable.

S — Remember the movie Soldier Of Fortune with Clark Gable? There was a good deal of Rhett Butler in that character. The devil-may-care kind of guy who can handle situations. He's so damn glib he bluffs everybody around. People think that he's a push-over. He's challenged, and he always appears like a push-over. But in fact he's not. He likes to set himself up in these subordinate roles from time to time to get his way.

G — What I'm saying is that character just would not fit in a college classroom or even as an archeologist. He's too much of a scruffy character to settle down. A playboy, or however you want to do it. He's too much of a wise-guy, maybe that's a better way to say it, to actually be a college professor. He really loves the stuff, but he became too cynical, he's too much of a wise guy to fit into an academic situation, or even an archeological situation. He's really too much of an adventurer at heart. He just loves it. So he obviously took this whole bent that was different because it's just more fun. He just can't settle down. It's a nice contrast. It's like the James Bond thing. Instead of being a martini drinking cultured kind of sophisticate, he's the sort of intellectual college professor James Bond. He's a superagent.

S — Clark Kent.

G — Yeah. It's that thing, which is fun. It's the same idea, only twisted around a little bit...

On the name:

L — Do you have a name for this person?

G — I do for our leader.

S — I hate this, but go ahead.

G — Indiana Smith. It has to be unique. It's a character. Very Americana square. He was born in Indiana.

L — What does she call him? “Indy?”

G — That's what I was thinking. Or “Jones.” Then people can call him “Jones.”

2) A character arc? What's that?

There was also no discussion about an arc, and as you can see, they referenced characters that did not arc, such as James Bond, the Man With No Name, Superman, and some of Clark Gable’s characters.

3) A racy backstory can keep a plot moving.

Interestingly, the discussion about Marion was hardly as thorough as the one about Indy. For a while, they weren't sure what kind of girl to have as a counterpart to Indy. Lucas had first described the love interest as a blonde double-crossing German agent, which they ended up using in Last Crusade. Spielberg said, “She should have hair like Veronica Lake. You only see one eye at a time.”

There was talk about a big name professor who taught Indy everything he knew. Then there was the idea about this German girl, and for the sake of expediency, Kasdan suggested that Indy instead have an affair with the mentor’s daughter, which they loved. And then Lucas and Spielberg were off and running with ideas about how’s she’s been left in Peru and has this bar and is trying to get money together to get back to the States and loves (and resents) Indy to no end. In fact, Kasdan said he wanted Indy and this girl to already have a history when they meet because, “I like it if they already had a relationship at one point. Because then you don’t have to build it.” Hehehe

Then the discussion turned to how old Marion and Indy were at the time of the affair:

G — I was thinking that this old guy could have been his mentor. He could have known this little girl when she was just a kid. Had an affair with her when she was eleven.

L — And he was forty-two.

G — He hasn't seen her in twelve years. Now she's twenty-two. It's a real strange relationship.

S — She had better be older than twenty-two.

G — He's thirty-five, and he knew her ten years ago when he was twenty-five and she was only twelve. It would be amusing to make her slightly young at the time.

S — And promiscuous. She came onto him.

G — Fifteen is right on the edge. I know it's an outrageous idea, but it is interesting. Once she's sixteen or seventeen it's not interesting anymore. But if she was fifteen and he was twenty-five and they actually had an affair the last time they met. And she was madly in love with him and he...

S — She has pictures of him.

And now consider the dialogue of that scene in the film:

INDY: I never meant to hurt you.
MARION: I was a child! I was in love.
INDY: You knew what you were doing.
MARION: It was wrong. You knew it.
INDY: Look, I did what I did. I don't expect you to be happy about it. But maybe we can do each other some good.
MARION: Why start now?
INDY: Shut up and listen for a second. I want that piece your father had. I've got money.
MARION: How much?

4) Consider the debate about un-sympathetic protagonists.

At one point, they figured out that he’d go to Marion to get a pendant thingee, a puzzle of some kind that her father collected and will help Indy find the Ark. But she doesn’t want to give it to him. And she goes with him on this adventure. So then the question became, how does he get this thing from Marion to solve the puzzle?

They tossed around an idea about him stealing the pendant from her, which prompted a short debate about un-sympathetic protags:

G — It would be nice if they left in a huff, they fought or something. He left rather pissed. I don't think he would leave without the pendant. That's the only thing that bothers me about that.

S — So he goes upstairs and stays up, plotting how he's going to take it off her.

G — That makes him into a real rat.

L — That's all right. He never does it. What he does is just the opposite, save her life.

G — No matter how you do it, the fact that he thought about it is the rat part.

S — Rhett Butler was a rat.

G — He wasn't a real rat --

S — He proved himself by raising her family. Before that he was a gambler, dealt with cheap ladies.

G — There's a difference between being a rat and somebody who's having fun. He never hurt anybody.

L — I'm a little confused about Indiana at this point. I thought he'd do anything for this pendant.

G — But he still has to have some moral scruples. He has to be a person we can look up to. We're doing a role model for little kids, so we have to be careful. We need someone who's honest, trusting and true. But at the same time he's confronted with this difficult problem. We have a great thing when she won't give it to him. She doesn't like him.

L — What if you see them separate, and you see them both thinking about it, and it's clear that she's going to give it to him. Then he saves her and she doubts his motivation, was he coming to steal it? Or was he coming to rekindle the romance? It doesn't have to be crystal clear to her.

Interesting to me that they didn’t have a debate about un-sympathetic protags when they were talking about Indy having an affair with the underage daughter of his mentor. That builds sympathy how? But they’re terribly concerned about losing sympathy if we might watch Indy consider stealing the pendant from Marion. (Also, here, Lucas and Spielberg were both projecting their own unique feelings onto Rhett Butler. Rhett WAS a cheating rat and he never once redeemed himself with that dysfunctional family he created. He spoiled the hell out of his wife and his little girl, which was in part why she died.)

However, I think there might be some screenwriting nuggets here. What happens in the past, off screen, good or bad, does not affect sympathy. It’s what we see the character do in the present that determines how much we will or will not care about that character.

5) Consider how tension was always a high priority as they laid-out their plot for the film.

The first scene was all about building the tension to a big payoff, which was a boulder as Spielberg suggested. But you had to set that up first and work your way backwards. So going backwards, you create tension with the near betrayal against Indy when he put the map together and had to use his whip on the man that pulled out the gun. You have the fresh poison darts of the Hovitos. You have his entourage not going any further when they reached the stone sculpture of a Chachapoyan demon. You have tarantulas. You have the dead competitor in the Chamber of Light. You have the pit. You have the dart floor in the Foyer of the Sanctuary. And then you have the big payoff to all the big danger that all of these details setup.

The consideration in Act Two was about maintaining tension. Here are highlights of comments George made…

G - People are trying to kill him as soon as he arrives or maybe even before he arrives on the airplane. As soon as he gets there, there are knives coming out of walls, all these slimy characters are following him, all that stuff that happens in those places in the thirties…

…There's a lot of tension because we have established that everybody is trying to kill him. People are following him all over the place…

…The idea in the middle sequence was to create sort of a race, tension, who's going to find the Ark first situation.

So much of the tension and gags was a matter of backtracking. Consider how Indy is finally underground in the temple. He found the Ark and had it hoisted up. At this stage of development, the temple was not full of snakes. The Germans grab the Ark and seal Indy inside to die. So what do you do with Indy then?

How do you raise the tension and suspense in this scene and also find a way for him to escape? They first decided that the temple be suddenly filled with water and Indy floated up to a place where he figured out how to escape. This idea could be setup with Indy entering a sand temple and there's moss on the walls. But will audiences believe that there could be so much underground water in a desert? Lucas suggested setting that up verbally by talking about an underground water system. Nah. How about filling the temple with sand? Nah. Then Spielberg suggested that the Germans lower hungry lions into the temple to kill Indy, which would give him the chance to use his bull whip. Nah. How about rats? Or how about snakes? Hundreds of thousands of snakes. It could be a giant snake pit.

And then they were off and running about the snakes in the temple.

S — It would be funny if, somewhere early in the movie he somehow implied that he was not afraid of snakes. Later you realize that that is one of his big fears.

G — Maybe it's better if you see early, maybe in the beginning that he's afraid: "Oh God, I hate those snakes." It should be slightly amusing that he hates snakes, and then he opens this up, "I can't go down in there. Why did there have to be snakes? Anything but snakes." You can play it for comedy…

So then they go back to figure out when and how you can setup the snake joke in the opening sequence. A lot of screenwriting is backtracking, of setups and payoffs.

6) Consider their approach to exposition.

So Indy’s in Cairo with his friend. We're at a scene that we know will be full of exposition, that is, the Staff of Ra was too long for the Germans and they’re digging in the wrong place. So the question was, "what are we going to do to make the scene interesting so the audience doesn’t fall asleep?" And the idea was presented that this exposition could be done over dinner that’s been poisoned. As they pick up tainted food and gesture with it, we fear for their lives. They loved it. (And I've been saying this for years - great exposition is always given in the context of something else.) Okay, now that we have the setup, how do they figure out the food is poisoned and survive? A pet nibbles on it and dies. Okay, what kind of pet?

S - What if it's an animal we hate, an animal the audience can't stand. It's always after our hero and doesn't like him very much, like a mongoose.

G — A monkey is a perfect thing.

S — What animal don't people like?

G — A rat.

S — A pet rat.

G — It doesn't have to be a pet.

L — He's looking the other way, the rat comes up.

S — That's a pretty brave rat.

G — It wouldn't come on the table.

So then they’re off and running about this pet monkey. Why is the monkey here? Is it a family pet? Maybe it just attaches itself to one of the characters and won’t go away. Is it dressed up like a circus monkey? Perhaps it’s secretly helping a German agent? Well, what kind of bad things can a monkey do for a German agent? It was hilarious. I was rolling. But ya know, figuring out those details is crucial to a script. Finally, at one point, Spielberg suggested that the monkey humorously do the “Heil, Hitler” gesture. Lucas responds, “That's up to you and the trainer and the monkey.” Hehehe...

They had to be laughing as they were talking about this.

So we’re back at the dinner scene. The exposition about the Staff of Ra will be fed to the audience in the context of Indy possibly eating poisoned food. It’ll be a bad secret agent monkey that eats the food and dies. Spielberg had a hilarious suggestion that I loved:

S — …it would be funny if, as they're talking about this and the olives are between them, you see a hairy little paw is pulling olives off the plate, coming in and out of frame. Finally the paw comes up to grab an olive and begins slipping, like palsy. You use a little mechanical paw. And then you hear a thump.

Of course, the final result was the quick "bad dates" scene. All of that thought and work for something so quick. Welcome to Hollywood.

7) No idea is a bad idea when you’re brainstorming.

These guys were all over the place with ideas and there’s nothing wrong with that. As I mentioned earlier, many of the ideas discussed, like the plane crash sequence and mine cart chase, were used in the second film. So what helped determine which sequence should be kept and thrown away? Redundancies in concept. You already had a chase scene here, so why have another one here? Let’s come up with something different. You know? That kind of thing.

At one point, when the bad guys had captured Marion, they were debating what to do next.

G — What can he chase them with? What if he jumps on a camel?

S — I love it. It's a great idea. There's never been a camel chase before.

L — Is this camel going to chase a car?

S — You know how fast a camel can run? Not only that, he can jump over vegetable carts and things. It could be a funny chase that ends in tragedy. You're laughing your head off and suddenly, "My God, she's dead."


S — We still have the big fight in the moving truck to do. And now we have a camel chase.

G — We've added another million dollars.

S — Not really. How much trouble can a camel be?


8) Consider their approach to budget.

Keeping the film cheap was a way of testing the idea of Indiana Smith. Lucas said, “Part of it is the energy of making it reasonably low budget. It’s also a test of the idea. If it’s good, then we’ll be okay.”

9) Consider their approach to the ending.

G — If you follow classic dramatic plotting, that's what is going to happen. You put your biggest boom last, and you create as much tension as you possibly can.

I’ve also been saying this for years, what I coined, “The Big Bang Theory of Screenwriting.” If you’re going to have a big bang in the beginning, you sure as hell better have a bigger bang in the end.

There was a lot of discussion about the ending and ideas about how to make it bigger than the opening sequence. This involved a sub to a secret island, the ritual with the Ark, everyone getting fried, Indy saving Marion, a mine cart chase back to the sub, and somehow the entire island completely blowing up. Interesting how early concepts had Indy much more active about resolving the conflict and yet how strangely satisfying the ending is with Indy just closing his eyes.

And finally:

10) Consider the transcript as a whole, the sheer volume of thought, discussion, analysis, questions, and debate about the story before they ever sat down to write the script.

It’s like what
Billy Wilder said, “You always start with too many ideas.”

Raiders looked deceptively simple and easy and fun, but the story required so much more thought than you can imagine. The good films always make everything look so easy but they never are. And I suspect that many aspiring writers fail because they jump into their stories with too few ideas, without brainstorming first, without outlining, and without really thinking through the story. Certainly not to this degree as we see in these story conferences. And so the question is, “Have you put as much thought into your story?”

Let me conclude with this anecdote from

By August 1978 Kasdan had
finished his first draft and hand-delivered it to Lucas. When they met Lucas took the script, laid it aside, told Kasdan that he would read it later that night and offered him to go for lunch. During the lunch in the restaurant, Lucas offered to Kasdan to write the script for The Empire Strikes Back. Unfortunately, Leigh Brackett, the film's writer had passed away right after delivering her first draft and Lucas wanted someone to make revisions. "Don't you think you should read Raiders first?" was Kasdan's reply. "Well, I just get a feeling about people. Of course if I hate Raiders, I'll take back this offer," said Lucas. The next morning, Lucas called Kasdan and told him he was ecstatic about the Raiders script and he was very anxious for him to work on Empire.