Friday, August 31, 2007

Style & Writing for Existing Franchises

A snippet from a recent script review, Mickey's superb Atomic Blitz.



Existing franchises - if you have a burning desire to write a spec for someone like Bond, don't write a Bond spec. Redefine the rules, create your own franchise that's similar in genre ONLY but distinctly different in every conceivable way from the franchise you want to write. Yet, you celebrate the style and spirit of that franchise in your own way, on your own terms (usually by rebelling against it and being proud of it), which is exactly what we have here. Ultimately, in the end, I think you'll find yourself more creatively satisfied by your own creation as opposed to climbing onto someone else's bandwagon.

When Bourne: Ultimatum came out, Matt Damon said, "The Bond character will always be anchored in the 1960s and in the values of the 1960s. Bond is an imperialist and a misogynist who kills people and laughs about it, and drinks Martinis and cracks jokes." No, Matt, Bond has something called STYLE, which you do not possess, and why Bond doesn't have to go find himself in EVERY film. I mean, come on, isn't that what screenwriting is at its core? A celebration of style? Entertainment? Emotion? Guys like Jeff Kitchen write in their latest guru books life-sucking formulaic approaches like fractal plotting, which focuses on a series of inciting incidents, conflicts, reactions, and resolutions, and backing them up "one level" and applying the same method to each sequence and act - BLAH-BLAH-BLAH. Screenwriting is about style. If everyone focused on JUST the horizontal plane of development in a story, we wouldn't have any jokes in comedies because they "slow the story down" or we wouldn't have any big action sequences in action films because they "slow the story down" or we wouldn't have any sex in porn because... well, you get the idea.

An over-emphasis on the horizontal plane robs the life and humanity and style of a film. Genres live off of very specific heightened VERTICAL moments that DO NOT always push the story forward, and those vertical moments are the very reason people pay to see those films. At the end of the day, no one gives a shit about fractal plotting, because it's ultimately about how well you manipulate the human heart whether it be through laughter, tears, or edge-of-your-seat action. Hitchcock said that the screen has to be "charged with emotion," and he's right. I think it's that emotional component that has to be given the most consideration scene-by-scene. How compelling / funny / exciting is that scene? And does the writer have any damn style? I didn't fall in love with The Godfather because of its great fractal plotting. I fell in love with its heart and style, baby.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Exposition with Pat, Part 3

Hey guys,

Here's the third
exposition article in a series from Pat, which has been focusing on James Cameron films. I'd like to add that the verbal and visual example was truly essential so that we could know what's going on and focus more on how the sinking affects the story.

Good job. Thanks again, Pat.



Titanic - early draft, 1997

Bad exposition – Lovett’s crew has just brought up the safe from the wreck of Titanic and is preparing to open it. We’ve already seen the subs, the ship, the ocean and the retrieval. We already know they expect to find something in the safe. This bit of dialog is cringe-worthy.

Well, here it is, the moment of truth.
Here's where we find out if the time, the
sweat, the money spent to charter this ship
and these subs, to come out here to the
middle of the North Atlantic... were worth it.
If what we think is in that same... is in that
safe... it will be.

Good verbal and visual exposition – Bodine shows the computer simulation and explains what happened when Titanic went down (since most of the audience probably knows very little about Titanic other than it sank). Very interesting and sets the audience up for the horror that they know is coming later.

Bodine starts a COMPUTER ANIMATED GRAPHIC on the screen, which parallels his rapid-fire narration.

She hits the ‘berg on the starboard side and
it sort of bumps along...punching holes like
a morse code... dit dit dit, down the side.
Now she's flooding in the forward compartments...
and the water spills over the tops of the
bulkheads, going aft. As her bow is going down,
her stern is coming up... slow at first... and
then faster and faster until it's lifting all that
weight, maybe 20 or 30 thousand tons... out of the
water and the hull can't deal... so SKRTTT!!

(making a sound in time with the animation)

... it splits! Right down to the keel, which acts
like a big hinge. Now the bow swings down and the
stern falls back level... but the weight of the bow
pulls the stern up vertical, and then the bow section
detaches, heading for the bottom. The stern bobs like
a cork, floods and goes under about 2:20 a.m. Two hours
and forty minutes after the collision.

The animation then follows the bow section as it sinks. Rose watches this dissection of the disaster without emotion.

The bow pulls out of its dive and planes away,
almost a half a mile, before it hits the bottom going
maybe 12 miles an hour. KABOOM!

The bow impacts, digging deeply into the bottom, the animation now follows the stern.

The stern implodes as it sinks, from the pressure,
and rips apart from the force of the current as it falls,
landing like a big pile of junk.

(indicating the simulation)

Cool huh?

Thank you for that fine forensic analysis, Mr. Bodine.
Of course the experience of it was somewhat less clinical.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Exposition with Pat, Part 2

(A continuation of our series on Exposition. Thanks again, Pat.)

Terminator 2
(James Cameron and William Wisher Jr., final script, 1991)

Bad exposition – this is so bad, Cameron had the good sense to cut it from the film. All it does it rehash stuff everyone knows already.


CLOSE ON SARAH. She is shackled, hands and feet, to the bed. Sunlight falls across her pale face. A hand enter frame, gently stroking her cheek. She wakes up to see --

KYLE REESE. Sitting on the edge of her bed, looking exactly the same as we last saw him in 1984. Scruffy blonde hair and a long raincoat.

Kyle..? You're dead.

He gives her a gentle smile.

I know. This is a dream, Sarah.

Oh. Yeah. They... make me take this stuff...

He puts a finger to her lips. Then silently unfastens her restraints. They gaze into each other's eyes. And in the look that his death and the horror she has been through since hasn't touched their love at all.

Hold me.

She melts into Reese's arms. Pulls him to her.

I love you. I always will.

Oh, God... Kyle. I need you so much.

She kisses him passionately. They are locked together in a timeless moment. PUSH IN TIGHT on Sarah as she buries her face in his shoulder. She shuts her eyes tight. Stay on Sarah as Reese speaks. He voice is strangely cold.

Where's John, Sarah?

Sarah opens her eyes and he is no longer in her arms. He is standing across the room. Pinning her with an accusing gaze.

They took him from me.

It's John who's the target now. You have to
protect him. He's wide open.

I know!

Don't quit, Sarah. Our son needs you.

(struggling not to cry)
I know, but I'm not as strong as I'm supposed
to be. I can't do it. I'm screwing up the

Remember the message... the future is not set.
There is no fate but what we make for ourselves.

Good verbal and visual exposition (combined) – John Conner and his buddy have ditched John’s foster parents. They’re gonna have some fun. These two short scenes give us about 10 years of background info on why Sarah’s where she is now and how she readied John for his future. The subtext is good, too, for it reveals John’s ambivalence about his mother. On the one hand, he’s embarrassed and ashamed. On the other, he loves her and admires what she’s done.


John furtively hunches before a Ready-Teller machine at the rear of a local bank while his friend Tim stands lookout. John slips a stolen ATM card into the machine slot. It is something he's rigged up, because trailing from the card is ribbon-wire which goes to some kind of black-box electronics unit he's got in his ever-present knapsack. He holds the pack between his knees and pulls out a little lap-top keyboard, which is also connected to the black-box.

John enters a few commands and the plasma-screen displays the PIN number for that account. He quickly enters the number on the Ready-Teller's keypad and asks it for 300 bucks. The machine whirs then begins dispensing twenty-dollar bills. Tim looks back over his shoulder amazed.

Easy money!

Where'd you learn all this stuff?

John collects the twenties as the machine kicks them out. A cool and professional electronic-age thief at ten years old.

From my mom. My real mom, I mean. Come on
(he grabs the last bills)
Let's go!

They sprint around the corner to an --


They huddle behind the building as John counts out Tim's share. He folds five twenties and palms them to the other kid. When John opens his wallet to put in his money, Tim notices a picture in a plastic sleeve.

That her?

John reluctantly shows his friend the Polaroid. It is a shot of Sarah. Pregnant, in a jeep near the Mexican border. John doesn't know it now, but he will carry the photo with him for over 30 years, and give it to a young man named Kyle Reese, who will travel back in time to become his father. Yes, that photo.

So she's pretty cool, huh?

Actually, no, she's a complete psycho. That's
why she's up at Pescedero. She tries to blow up
a computer factory, but she got shot and arrested.

No shit?

Yeah, she's a total loser. C'mon, let's check
out the 7-Eleven, whatya say?

John has tried to sound casual, but we see in his eyes that it really hurts. He slaps Tim on the shoulder and they jump onto his Honda. John fires up and they whine off down the alley.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

MM's Visual Response to a Verbal Tag

Hey guys,

Nearly a month ago, our very good friend, Unk,
tagged me so that I would, yet again, reveal 8 facts about myself. Well, this time around, I’d like to try something different. In the spirit of Visual Storytelling, I thought I’d reveal my current state of being visually.

And since I was tardy, I’ll give 16 pics.

Hope you enjoy them.



















Thursday, August 23, 2007

Exposition with Pat, Part 1

Hey guys,

Below is the first article in a 3-part series on expostion from our very good and very talented friend,
Pat (GimmeaBreak), using James Cameron films. Today, she explores Aliens, and I love it.

As always, thanks so much, Pat.



This is one of my favorite action films.

From Aliens (James Cameron early draft – 1985)


Burke explains some stuff to Ripley that happened while she was gone. Since the daughter wasn’t a part of the previous story, explaining why she wasn’t here either is ridiculous. I don’t think anyone ever thought about Ripley being married or having children. Neither was it necessary as a setup for the future encounter with Newt. Anyone with a heart would have reacted to the child the same way Ripley did.

Ripley seems healthier now, but still a bit brittle.

Have they located my daughter

Well, I was going to wait
until after the inquest...

He opens his briefcase, removing a sheet of printer
hard copy, including a telestat photo.

Is she...?

Amanda Ripley-McClaren. Married
name, I guess. Age: sixty-six time of death. Two years
(looks at her)
I'm sorry.

Ripley studies the PHOTOGRAPH, stunned.

The face of a woman in her mid-sixties. It could be
anybody. She tries to reconcile the face with the
little girl she once knew.


Cancer. Hmmmm. They still haven't
licked that one. Cremated. Interred
Parkside Repository, Little Chute,
Wisconsin. No children.


Ripley just awakened from an extended hypersleep. She doesn’t know how long she’s been out of it. Neither does the audience. It also gives us some clues about Ripley’s mental state and tells us how close to being “lost in space” she truly was.

How long was I out there? They
won't tell me anything.

Well, maybe you shouldn't worry
about that just yet.

Ripley grabs his arm, surprising him.

How long?

Burke gazes at her, thoughtful.

All right. My instinct says
you're strong enough to handle
this...Fifty-seven years.

Ripley is stunned. She seems to deflate, her expression
passing through amazement and shock to realization of
all she has lost. Friends. Family. Her world.

Fifty-seven...oh, Christ...

You'd drifted right through the
core systems. It's blind luck that
deep-salvage team caught you when
they...are you all right?


This one paragraph description of Ripley’s living quarters tells us what has become of her life. This is not the organized, efficient, strong Ripley who blew the alien out into space after having been the only one to survive the massacre.


Silence. Ripley, looking haggard, sits at a table in
the dining alcove contemplating the smoke rising from
her cigarette. The place is modest, to be charitable,
and there are few personal touches. Though it's late
in the day Ripley is still wearing a robe. The bed is
unmade. Dishes in the sink. Jones prowls across the
counter. The WALLSCREEN is on, blaring vapidly.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

From MM's “Secret” Script Reviews

First, let's talk about format. The first way to impress any pro reader is to illustrate a perfect understanding of how a screenplay FUNCTIONS. Are you with me? It has to look like a script, feel like a script, and act like a script. And then the story has to knock you off your seat. (If you don't have it, you need a copy of Trottier's Screenwriter's Bible, the newer 4th edition.) Okay, the Title Page - you should keep the entire spec in 12 pt. Courier font, including the title. Cut "A Screenplay". We know it's a screenplay. Get rid of the date of the draft. Never date your spec. Specs get old REAL quick in this town and that'll work against you. Your name and personal information should be in the lower RIGHT-hand corner, because if this gets printed it up, your personal information might be hard to see. Get rid of the title at the top of every page. We don't do that. The margins are all off, and you'll want to really check this. The left margin should be 1.5 inches, the right margin about an inch. Some go as low as half an inch. The action lines were good, but you should try to keep them down to 4 lines or fewer. The character's name should be 3.7 inches from the left edge and the dialogue should be 2.5 inches from the left edge. The margins for the dialogue were particularly bad, because dialogue should be no wider than 3.5 inches, although most writers keep it down to 3 inches. In your case, it's about 4 inches (or a little wider), which is pretty bad. You can't manipulate margins like that. The margins and the format are setup this way for a good reason, because one page should equal one minute of screentime. If you have lots of dialogue and the margins have been manipulated, a reader will suspect you're cheating because you're a weak writer who's using dialogue as a crutch and more often than not, it's true. As it is in your script, the 4 inch wide dialogue means that the talk is going to take up WAY more time than what we have in page numbers. You have 120 pages, but with the wide dialogue, I'll bet you'd have three hours of talk in the editing room. I recommend that you keep the dialogue down to 3 inches just to discipline you to use WAY less dialogue in screenplays. And this kind of story should be properly formatted and about 90-100 pages…


Okay, let's talk about unproduced screenwriters composing very personal stories. On my first read through this, I kept thinking, "I'll bet she's writing from firsthand experience," and the SUPER at the end (I think) validated my suspicions. I just want to be very careful here. I have always felt that unproduced screenwriters should certainly write about the things they love but the first few stories have to be ones in which they're not so attached to them that they can't be objective about the material and making changes. Neil Simon didn't get seriously autobiographical until much later in his career and I think there's a lot of wisdom in that. You need to be a serious master of the craft before converting personal matters into dramatic form so that you can maintain objectivity about what you should keep and let go. (You also have to be able to explain to friends and family how characters loosely based on them aren't behaving in any way like them.) Not only that, it's not until after you have some name recognition that people will really WANT to see a film about your personal life unless, of course, it's an unbelievably extraordinary story, which this is not. I also suspect that there might be a tug of war going on here in which a lot of the decisions you're making has more to do with being accurate to the facts as opposed to making decisions rooted in the principles of drama like say, main plot vs. subplot, conflict, tension, character depth, character arcs, etc. Are you with me? I'm saying these things, because I fear you'll resist any suggestions because "that's not how it was," when all along you should be making decisions based on craft.


Since Mr. XXX is the protag, you have to consider the Cast Design. (I wrote about it
here and here.) Mr. XXX is the sun around which all of these other characters rotate, and so (in order to give him depth) you have to A) create a variety of sides to his character and B) carefully construct the cast design so that he acts one way toward one character and a different way toward a different character. And what's missing with the characters, for me, is depth and style. You have very clearly read a number of guru books and reviews that talk about keeping the dialogue short, keeping the action lines short, keeping the scenes short, etc, which is great. At the same time, you're so cautious about keeping everything short that you sacrifice tension and style and personality and you rob the characters of some much-needed life. Forget about the books. You have to have fun. The characters have to be alive and you just have to let them flourish and you just flow with things and then go back and trim the stuff that's not essential… And you just have to create the characters and the environment in such a way as to ensure conflict and tension. Don't be afraid to explore just to discover great material with the understanding that you'll go back and clean it up later. (I have a great article about dialogue here. You may also want to look at my character development sheets.)


The exposition was, I think, the area that needed the most work. At times, it felt forced and hard to believe. Particularly early on in the story with the first mention of the XXXX. You really had me until you started explaining things on page 9 and I was disappointed because I wanted you to keep the mystery going for a little while longer. Make it a puzzle for the audience and let them try to figure it out instead of verbally explaining things in small doses, ya know? (I also felt that her relationship to XXX could've been kept a secret a lot longer.) You should forget about telling the audience, as you did on page 23 through that weak, exposition heavy dialogue, that "XXX, I'm you're dad," and just avoid having the characters say anything about their relationships and surprise the audience IN THE END. It's a bigger surprise to not know that they're related and suddenly learn that he's her father as opposed to being told he's her adoptive father and then learn in the end that he is, in fact, her real father. That's not as big of a deal. Do you see what I mean? When these characters are together, just toy with the audience, live in a world of subtlety and subtext and save the big revelations for the end. There are other moments in my notes where I talk about exposition and moments where stuff we already know gets repeated and suggestions on alternatives, etc...


A good friend of mine told me something recently:


“If we know WHAT a person does and WHY they do it, then we know WHO they are.”

(Thanks, man. You know who you are.)


There are very specific things I admire about how you handled the adaptation of your book. I always groan when a novelist insists on adaptating his/her own book because 9 times out of 10, that novelist will fill the script with VOLUMES of voice overs by the protagonist just so many favorite passages from the book will make it into the film. Richard Russo did it with his Empire Falls adaptation on HBO and it was a total disaster. Even Steve Martin couldn’t resist the temptation with Shopgirl but at least he had the decency to keep the voice overs down to a bare minimum. A novelist falls in love with his/her own words, nothing wrong with that, we ALL do it, but the excessive use of voice overs is typically weak screenwriting, (you gotta “show don’t tell”) and the simple fact that you resisted this temptation makes you an advanced student in my book...


By the way, you forgot to write my FAVORITE PART of a screenplay - "FADE IN:" but I forgive you.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

MM’s Exposition Article #2

Hey guys,

I just had to throw another article into the ring. I’m starting to feel left out of my own exposition study! Hehehe...

FYI - starting this Thursday, we're going to get a 3-part exposition series from our good friend
Pat (Gimmeabreak) all using James Cameron films. It'll be really great fun.

Hope you enjoy the article.




I was annoyed with Road to Perdition before it even started.

Sam Mendes opens with a shot of the boy, Michael Sullivan Jr., looking out over the ocean. He says in voice over (God help us):

“There are many stories about Michael Sullivan. Some say he was a decent man. Some say there was no good in him at all. But I once spent six weeks on the road with him in the winter of 1931. This is our story.”

Wow, kid, no shit. I was wondering whose story I’d be watching. I’m glad you're here to tell me these things. Thanks for the heads-up about the road trip, too. I'll keep an eye out for that. By the way, Mr. Mendes, I’m sure a lot was said about the Corleones, too, but at least Coppola endeavored to make us feel like we’re getting an insider's view to a secret world without resorting to ham-handed voice overs telling us that people TALK about the Corleones.

File this under “non-essential exposition about nothing.”



How about Chinatown, the startling Act III revelation, and all those words Evelyn DIDN'T say to reveal her sordid little secret?

Of course, this scene was not originally written as we see it in the final film. In fact, following the now classic slap scene (“She’s my daughter!” Whack! “She’s my sister!” Whack! “She’s my daughter and my sister!”) Evelyn was supposed to deliver this big, long-winded piece of exposition about her past:

-- my father and I, understand,
or is it too tough for you?

Gittes doesn't answer.

... he had a breakdown... the
dam broke... my mother died...
he became a little boy... I was
fifteen... he'd ask me what to
eat for breakfast, what clothes
to wear!... It happened... then
I ran away...

to Mexico...

She nods.

Hollis came and took... care
of me... after she was born...
he said... he took care of her...
I couldn't see her... I wanted to
but I couldn't... I just want to
see her once in a while... take care
of her... that's all... but I don't
want her to know... I don't want
her to know...

... so that's why you hate him...

Evelyn looks slowly up at Gittes.

-- no... for turning his back on
me after it happened! He couldn't
face it...
I hate him.

Naturally, it got cut because it would've ruinously slowed the pace of the scene. Thus, the long-winded exposition was replaced with:

-- my father and I, understand,
or is it too tough for you?

He raped you?

Evelyn shakes her head “no.”

Then what happened?

I ran away…

…to Mexico.

Hollis came and took care of
me. I couldn’t see her… I was
fifteen. I wanted to but I
couldn’t. Then…
(a pleading look)
Now I want to be with her. I
want to take care of her.


In fact, I would agree with what McKee had written on the subject:

“This exposition not only slowed the pace of the scene, but more importantly, it seriously weakened the power of the antagonist, giving him a sympathetic vulnerability. It was cut and replaced by Gittes’ ‘He raped you?’ and Evelyn’s denial – a brilliant stroke that maintains Cross’s cruel core, and severely tests Gittes’ love for Evelyn.”



Nothing in the world quite like a good montage to show the passage of time while also feeding the audience little bits of exposition. I love montages. It's the ultimate show-don't-tell technique, and in Raging Bull, Scorsese gives us a sequence of such cinematic elegance all under the guise of “home movies” and scored to the always stirring “Intermezzo” from Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana. We see what would be the last happy moments of their lives, the marriage of both Jake and his brother, Joey, a few kids are born, a few knockouts in the ring, which pushes the story forward to the height of Jake LaMotta’s boxing career and the precipice before the fall.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Exposition with Kevin Broom

Hey guys,

Our very good friend,
Kevin Broom, posted an exposition article on his blog. His non-verbal example comes from Miller's Crossing, and the good and bad examples comes from The Princess Bride. Just great! You can't go wrong with The Princess Bride.

Thanks so much, Kevin.


Thursday, August 16, 2007

Exposition with Joshua James

Hey guys,

Next up, we have an article from our very good friend - the playwright and
dialogue master, Joshua James.

The good verbal exposition brought back memories of those articles we wrote about The Godfather for the
blog-a-thon. Ahh, good times, good times...

But I loved your bad example. Man, I thought the EXACT same thing.


Good job. Thanks so much



Exposition gets a BAD rap . . .

Below is simply my humble opinion . . .

There's the idea that if a character in a film is talking rather than doing, that's exposition and it's
unwanted in the film world . . . which is besides the point, because talking is a form of doing, speaking IS an action . . . now whether or not it's the CORRECT action for one's story, that's another thing.

But I would make the argument that everything, EVERYTHING that happens in movies is exposition, be it two people sitting at a cafe speaking or robot monsters tearing off the head of the Statue of Liberty . . . everything in storying is, in one way or another, exposition.

That's my view.

But let's accept for the moment, for the sake of argument, the idea that exposition is one character
giving another information, background or contextual information, which can be good.

What's one example of GOOD verbal exposition?


Micheal and Kay at Connie's wedding, the opening sequence.

Johnny Fontane arrives.

Micheal tells Kay the story of how his father saved Johnny Fontane's career. That his father offered to buy out Johnny's contract and the band leader refused. His father put a gun to the man's head and assured him either his signature or his brains would be on that contract in one minute.

Because his father is Johnny's Godfather, and for Sicilian's it's a special role, or something to that
effect. I believe this is also where we hear that Italians believe the world is so harsh, that's why
they need two fathers, on birth father and a godfather.

Fantastic story, and chilling, too . . . because we haven't met the Don yet, and in a way we're happy he saved Johnny and yet, we're frightened of him, too.

The movie would be less without it, and I'm of the view that today's current trends would not allow that much "exposition" in a studio picture in the beginning . . . but that's me.

BAD example of verbal exposition.

Wow. So much to choose from. How about the whole of SPIDERMAN 3. Just kidding. Nah, I'm not. No really, I'm kidding. No, I'm not, that movie blows, even the non-verbal parts.

Okay, let's be serious. Bad example of verbal exposition.

Let's take a film I just saw LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD.

Not a bad picture. A lot of fun in parts. Good actors, well shot. Cool action sequences. RIDICULOUS
story. Really ridiculous. I mean, almost insulting, filled with bad exposition.

Here's an example: (minor spoilers)

The setup - the FBI has sent out a bunch of cops to pick up hackers because someone hacked into their database. They have a list and they send for everyone. Note: all this happens not in McClane's
presence, but in ours, we the audience are part of the FBI's efforts to figure out, what the fuck is going on, are you with me?

So McClane picks one up and a bunch of acrobatic thugs try and fail to kill them. That's the first act that starts the movie. Okay.


McClane finally has his face to face with the main villian (Timothy Olyphant, or however you spell it) - but it's not face to face, it's actually computer screen to computer screen.

Justin Long, the computer geek along for the ride, saves Timothy's image (notice how I just saw this
yesterday but can't remember anyone else's name, but I'll never forget Alan Rickman's character was called HANS in the original?) on his computer.

They email the picture to the main guy at the FBI (cool bad guy from TRAINING DAY and ONCE WERE WARRIORS) and the FBI guy goes "Holy shit, that's Thomas Gabriel (I had to look the villian's name up on imdb), we know him, he used to work for us!"

McClane goes "He used to WORK FOR YOU?"

The FBI guy goes, "Yeah, he was head of blah blah blah"

And proceeds to tell us that this guy was the one who told the government their systems could be hacked, walked into a meeting of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and proved it by hacking their system from his laptop, was fired for it and left in a huff and no one has heard anything from him since.

So I'm in the audience, listening to FBI GUY tell McClane this and I'm going "What the fuck? Your whole system has been hacked, you made a list of these geek hackers who could do this, and not ONCE HAS THE NAME OF THE GUY WHO TOLD YOU IT COULD BE DONE, PROVED IT COULD BE DONE AND WAS FIRED FOR PROVING IT COULD BE DONE, NOT ONCE HAS THAT NAME COME UP?!! WHAT KIND OF FUCKING FBI GUY ARE YOU?"

Of course, with this administration, it's somewhat believable, but for an audience member it smelled of bad exposition. The filmmakers didn't want to tell us this until later, so they didn't, which would have been fine if they hadn't have spent so much time showing us how the FBI was trying to figure out who hacked the system in the beginning and not once does this fucking guy's name get mentioned, not once.

Bad verbal exposition.

Now for my example of GOOD NON-VERBAL EXPOSITION.


Easy because the movie is non-verbal throughout . . . tho the characters have their own language, we don't speak it and it matters little because we know what their plight is . . . fire gives them warmth and light and they've lost their fire.

Hero gives a speech on how he will travel with his buds to find fire and bring it home. But the words
matter little, because by that time, we know . . . we see the people shivering and dying, we know that now that fire has gone, they are all doomed unless fire is returned, we know all through single shots.

And as a bonus track, later in the movie, in a form of non-verbal exposition . . . Rae Dong Chong
demonstrates to the Hero the difference between making love like an animal and making love like people do . . .

Not that I think there's anything wrong with making love like an animal . . . but it's good to know
there's a lot of variety to the act . . .

Joshua James

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Exposition with Miriam Paschal

Hey guys,

Ya know, I've introduced
Miriam Paschal so often, I'm running out of things to say. She's an exceptionally hard worker and good friend. Those of you in Scribosphere may recall her great movie breakdowns. Everyone else would know her from her wonderful presence on TriggerStreet where you can also read three of her screenplays.

I must say, Mim, I loved your non-verbal example.

As always, thanks so much.





I love the Legally Blonde movies. Reese Witherspoon is so cute and perky without being overly sugary. She turns into a real person at just the right moments. The humor is great. Stifler's Mom, I mean MILF, I mean Jennifer Coolidge, is an awesome sidekick. But the exposition in LB2 is just terrible. It's like they didn't even try. They just went with every cliche they could think of.

It starts out with Paulette, Margo, and Serena looking at a scrapbook that one of them has made for Elle. It basically rehashes the first movie and gives a little explanation of what happened between number one and number two. There's a picture of Elle. We hear (voice over) one of them say, "She could have been a playmate." Another one says, "She's a lawyer. That's even better." Wow. Elle's a lawyer. We could have seen her entering a great big law firm, but no. We got to hear, "She's a lawyer."

Another picture: "Oh, that's the day she passed her LSATs." Obviously she had to pass her LSATs if she's a lawyer.

And here's a souvenir. Paulette asks, "Is that the key to her first office at the firm?" It says under the key, "key to first office."

Okay, this is barely passable. It's cute. The pictures are full of color and detail. And it recalls perfectly the tone of the first movie, just in case any of us forgot. The scene that really reeks of bad exposition is the one that moves the entire plot forward. Yes, it's the plot dump.

The introduction is at the end of the previous scene, when Bruiser barks urgently at Elle. "Oh my God, I almost forgot," she says. And when we find out what she almost forgot, this line makes no sense. There is no way she'd forget something as important (important to Elle) as her dog's mother.

Cut to the plot dump scene. The private detective says, "You want me to what?" Could there be a worse line? It screams to the audience, "Exposition is coming up." Who doesn't hate it when one character says, "You want to what?" or "Let me get this straight." And he leads her all the way through the scene. "You want me to what?" / "For your dog." / "I'm the highest paid, most sought after private investigator in Boston." / "May I ask why." / and the piece de resistance: "You want to send an invitation to your wedding to your dog's mother." Duh. Do we need this synopsis?

This reminds me of that new show, "Are You Smarter Than A Fifth Grader?" I think a fifth grader could have written a better exposition scene than this one. Maybe it should have been set in a restaurant and become one of the classic family dinner scenes. They seem to work well.



The scene is the family dinner, but I want to preface this with the character introductions. All the main characters are introduced very economically and with as little dialogue as possible. It's mostly visual. We see Olive watching a pageant, which will become the focus of the movie. I watched my DVD with the commentary on and Jonathan Dayton says that the first image is not something you want to throw away, which is why he started with Olive's eyes.

Then we get to meet Richard, Dwayne, Grandpa, Sheryl, and Frank. Each scene shows the contradictions that give them depth. Richard is a motivational speaker who can't motivate his audience to show up. We're not sure about Dwayne, but he's counting down the days to something, so we figure we'll find out later. Grandpa is a drug user, which is a contradiction in an old person. Usually drug users don't live to be that age. Sheryl wants to be a good mom, but she smokes and lies about it. And Frank just tried to commit suicide. Inner turmoil is always a good indicator of character contradiction.

Then they all come home and have dinner. Michael Arndt, the writer, said he wrote the script with the idea of shooting it himself, so he made it as low budget as possible. He said if he had been more imaginative, the exposition might have been more visual, but he had six characters and six back stories and the best and cheapest way he could think of to get them all out was a family dinner scene. The commentary then went on to reveal that the family dinner scene has a long and respected history in the movies. Arndt mentioned Italian movies and then Alien was mentioned. There's a family dinner scene in that, after Kane mysteriously recovers and just before the alien breaks out of his chest.

So this family dinner scene is a tried and true way to get your exposition out. I would also like to mention my favorite movie, Back to the Future, in which the exposition is also handled in a family dinner scene ("Oh that's so stupid. Grandpa hit him with the car."). The directors, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris said that the producers and studios wanted to cut this scene to the bare bones and get on the road faster, but they felt it was important to let these people talk, and they fought to show the whole scene.

The scene in Little Miss Sunshine works because some of these family members are meeting after many years or have never met. Later on we learn that Richard is Sheryl's second husband and not the father of Dwayne. Her brother, Frank, has never met Richard's father, Grandpa. And he has not seen his nephew, Dwayne, or his niece, Olive, in many years. He has just tried to commit suicide and everybody is curious about that. The conversation is very natural and believable. Arndt pointed out that one of his favorite lines introduces the scene. "Honey, there's a bucket of chicken in the car. Could you go get it and I'll make a salad." That speaks volumes about their lives and values.

There's not a lot of humor in this scene. Grandpa is the funniest with his "not again with the fucking chicken" line, but the main tone is warmth between the family members and also distance. They love each other, but they frustrate each other and they don't understand each other. Yet despite this frustration and lack of understanding, they will stand up for each other to the bitter end... quite literally as we will see later in the hospital.



So I was going to have both my examples of good exposition come from this movie, but there are so many good family dinner scenes to choose from. The main backstory that informs Marty's decisions happens over family dinner, but the opening scene, when the credits play, gives us Doc Brown's backstory.

There is sound in this scene, but it's completely unnecessary. You can turn it off and get just as much out of it.

It starts with clocks: hundreds of clocks. There are vintage clocks and modern clocks. There is a Harold Lloyd clock with the man hanging off the arms of the clock, so we get some foreshadowing right away. We see the newspaper articles of how the old Brown mansion was destroyed, which we will learn later happened when Doc sank all his money into building the time machine.

We see the pictures of Thomas Edison and Ben Franklin, Doc's heroes.

Then we see the Rube Goldberg machine that Doc has built to streamline his morning routine. Well, it's not a classic Rube Goldberg machine, but it's inspired by one. However, something is wrong. The coffee pot pours hot water onto the hot plate in the absence of the pot...and coffee. Strange.

The TV comes on and the morning news leads with a story about stolen plutonium. You could argue that the dialogue is a little important here, but behind the newscaster is a visual with the radiation symbol and the words "Plutonium Theft?" I could still leave the sound off.

The toaster pops up burnt toast. The bread looks as if it's been there for days. Dog food is dispensed into a dish that is already overflowing with uneaten food. Where is the dog? And his name is Einstein because that's what's written on the dish. Now we wonder where is the man who lives here and, more to the point, where is his dog?

The machine carries the empty can to the garbage, where more empty dog-food cans pile up. Past the garbage can, Marty's feet enter the door and we see his hand put the key back under the mat. So this is not his home. He's a visitor. He comes in, looks around, and drops his skateboard, which rolls across the room to the bright yellow metal plutonium container.

So we know this is a man obsessed with clocks, or time. He admires inventors. He's an inventor himself with his time-saving machine. He's taken his dog and been gone for days. And he stole some plutonium. What could be more intriguing?

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Art of Exposition!

Hey guys,

We have been looking for 3 examples of plot dumps in film:

* One BAD example of exposition.
* One GOOD VERBAL example of exposition.
* One GOOD NON-VERBAL example of exposition.

Post an article on your blog OR submit one to me by
email, and I'll post it here.

Below are all of the articles so far. Hope you enjoy them.

Much more to come!




[Key: BV = Bad Verbal; GV = Good Verbal; NV = Non Verbal]

10/7/07 - by Pat, Part 4
BV - Dune
GV - All the Presiden't Men
NV - Erin Brokovich

8/29/07 - by Pat, Part 3
BV - Titanic
GV - Titanic
NV - Titanic

8/27/07 - By Pat (Gimmeabreak), Part 2
BV - Terminator 2
GV - Terminator 2
NV - Terminator 2

8/23/07 - By Pat (Gimmeabreak)
BV - Aliens
GV - Aliens
NV - Aliens

8/21/07 - By Mystery Man
BV - Road to Perdition
GV - Chinatown
NV - Raging Bull

8/18/07 - By Kevin Broom
BV - The Princess Bride
GV - The Princess Bride
NV - Miller's Crossing

8/16/07 - By Joshua James
BV - Live Free or Die Hard
GV - The Godfather
NV - Quest for Fire

8/14/07 -
By Miriam Paschal
BV - Legally Blonde 2
GV - Little Miss Sunshine
NV - Back to the Future

8/12/07 - By Alan Lopuszynski (Part I and Part II)
BV - Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants (pt 1)
GV - Terminator (pt 2)
NV - Aliens (pt 1)

8/10/07 - By David Muhlfelder
BV - North by Northwest
GV - The Hospital and Network
NV - 2001: A Space Odyssey

8/6/07 - By Bob Thielke
BV - Goodfellas
GV - As Good As it Gets
NV - Godfather II

8/3/07 - BY Len Massaar
BV - V for Vendetta
GV - You Can Count on Me
NV - Rosemary's Baby

8/1/07 - By Mark Haslett
BV - Star Wars I: the Phantom Menace
GV - Raiders of the Lost Ark
NV - The Virgin Spring

7/19/07 - MM's Exposition Examples
BV - Lester's Superman II
GV - Donner's Superman II
NV - Marie Antoinette

Women in Art & Film

Friday, August 10, 2007

Exposition with David Muhlfelder

Hey guys,

Many of you know our very good friend,
David Muhlfelder. As of today, he's written 664 excellent script reviews on TriggerStreet. (Those of you in Scribosphere may recall his great review of The Senator's Wife.) He has also written 5 superb screenplays, which have all been Top Ten favorites (as rated by his peers).

I loved what David wrote in his two good verbal examples. He said, "It's not so much what the narrator says, but how it's said juxtaposed with the images onscreen. We get all the back story and set up, but the combination immediately pulls you into the world of the film." Beautiful. I couldn't agree more.

Thanks so much, David.




In the film North By Northwest, Hitchcock uncharachteristically brings the story to a screeching halt for an unnecessary scene that introduces us to the United States Intelligence Agency. It is in that scene that Leo G. Carroll rather awkwardly explains to his colleagues (But mostly to the audience) that Roger Thornhill has been mistaken for the fictional George Kaplan, and that they're not going to try to rectify the situation in order to deflect suspicion from their real agent who's working on the inside right under Van Dam's nose. The only "necessary" piece of information in that scene is that George Kaplan doesn't exist. The rest could've been dealt with in an exchange of looks, or by not answering the question "So, what do we do now?"


Paddy Chayevsky's The Hospital and Network both begin with a VO narration (Done by Chayevsky himself in The Hospital). In The Hospital the narration takes the form of a medical case history (With occasional aside comments) over images of a patient being admitted and moved through a busy hospital. Most of the narration is very technical and would only be understood by a doctor. Towards the end of the sequence, the narrator shifts gears to recount the details of a young intern's sexual trysts with a female lab tech. It ends with the patient dead in a hospital room, and the narrator saying something like "All of this is to show how the bed in room 806 became available." This is followed by the intern calling his girlfriend to tell her that he had a real bed for them. The opening credits follow over a still image of a comatose patient in the foreground bed, and the intern and his girlfriend going at it in the background.

Similarly, in Network, the narrator begins by recounting the ups and downs of anchorman Howard Beale's career and personal life. All of this is done over images of the nightly news anchors of the time. Again, the language of the narrator is specific to the TV industry. While not as technical as The Hospital, it is framed in talk of ratings and shares. It ends by informing us that Beale is fired and it has fallen to his best friend to tell, and that the two men got drunk. This is followed by a cut to Beale and Schumacher drunk in a bar, trading war stories.

What makes these good verbal expositions? It's not so much what the narrator says, but how it's said juxtaposed with the images onscreen. We get all the back story and set up, but the combination immediately pulls you into the world of the film. In The Hospital it's medical science colliding with the chaos, bureaucracy and inefficiency of a busy New York hospital. In Network it's the dispassionate, analytical reduction of a man's life to his TV ratings, juxtaposed with the real man. I think it's the best use of VO on film, and no writer could get away with it nowadays. But then again, not many writers can write like Paddy Chayevsky.


2001: A Space Odyssey. The first line of dialogue isn't spoken until nearly thirty minutes into the film. The Dawn of Man sequence shows the apes as they were before the monolith arrives, and how its arrival changes their behavior and sets the evolutionary process in motion. It's all capped by the scene where the ape, triumphant in battle, hurls his bone club into the air and it becomes a satellite, signaling that we are now at the beginning of another watershed moment in the evolution of mankind.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

ScriptShark Coverage Faux Pas

Hey guys,

Today, just a quick interruption of our exposition study to share a review I posted last night of Ger's hilarious script,
Journey to the Island of Killer Dinosuars!, which was the latest Screenplay of the Month nominee on TriggerStreet. Although his script did not win (lost to Stephen Garvey's hilarious The Ten-Timer), Ger garnered some praise and generally high marks from ScriptShark including an "Excellent" rating for his dialogue.

Yet, there were some fairly thoughtless comments and "Needs Work" ratings in their their coverage that just... really irked me.

Hope you enjoy it.



Let's Spank the Shark


"The screenwriting mechanics could use a bit of a polish. The sluglines on page 1 are in the correct format (i.e. EXT. OXFORD UNIVERSITY – DAY) but then are truncated so they only read 'CORRIDOR' or 'PRENDERGHAST’S OFFICE.' The correct formatting pops in every time the script moves to a new location, suggesting that the author merely doesn’t know that the full slugline needs to be used for every scene, regardless if several successive scenes are taking place in the same building. Other than that, the rest of the script seems to conform to industry standards."

Bwaaah ha ha ha ha ha ha WOO ha ha ha ha ha...

Are you kidding me?

Please, God, tell me that you guys ARE JUST KIDDING. Right?

First, let us assume that you already know quite well (and that I only have to write this for the sake of newbies on TriggerStreet) that the most accessible and widely-followed format book in the industry is Dave Trottier's Screenwriter's Bible (the newer 4th edition). Right? Because you reviewers, of all people, should know exactly what Ger was doing on page 1. With "CORRIDOR" and "PRENDERGHAST'S OFFICE," Ger's using a perfectly acceptable industry standard technique that we in the biz call "secondary slugs," a.k.a, "SECONDARY HEADINGS," which Trottier explains IN GREAT DETAIL. Go buy the book. You'll love it. Thus, if you have scenes taking place in the same building or the same general location, writers are quite FREE to use Secondary Headings as much as they like. Not only that, writers can use Secondary Headings for scenes taking place inside and outside that same building, too. Because if Trottier says it can be done, well, it CAN be done. Period.

Let me ask you - how would you handle multiple conversations taking place in different locations at the same party? Like, for example, the wedding reception at the beginning of The Godfather? Secondary Headings - BY THE BUFFET TABLE, ON THE STAGE, IN THE PARKING LOT, etc. How would you handle long tracking shots like the great ones we’ve seen in Stanley Kubrick’s films? Secondary Headings. (I love long tracking shots. There was always a point to Kubrick’s tracking shots, too, you know. Kubrick was, in essence, marrying his characters to their environment and saying, “Hey, look, these characters are products of their environment” or “They are being horribly affected by this environment.”) How would you handle the third act dogfight sequence in Top Gun? Start with EXT. BLUE SKY – DAY and then fill it with Secondary Headings - INSIDE MAVERICK'S TOMCAT, ABOVE THE SEA, INSIDE MIG TWO, etc.

Secondary Headings have had a long and treasured history in cinematic storytelling. There was Lawrence Kasdan with Raiders (I'll never forget those Secondary Headings in that famous opening sequence like "HALL OF SHADOWS" and "CHAMBER OF LIGHT" and "THE SANCTUARY" - didn't know those rooms had names, did you?). Spielberg also used them prolifically in Close Encounters. And there was Ted Tally with Silence of the Lambs (probably the most famous and chilling Secondary Heading in screenwriting history - "DR. LECTER'S CELL"). There was William Goldman with All the President's Men, and John Milius with Apocalypse Now, and Robert Towne with Chinatown, and Paul Schrader with Taxi Driver, and Randall Wallace with Braveheart, and Scott Frank with every script he's ever written but lately Minority Report and The Lookout, and of course, a classic - Herman J. Mankiewicz & Orson Welles with Citizen Kane.

Do I really need to go on?

And you probably knew this, too:

Secondary Headings are so popular right now amongst the pros that some ONLY write Secondary Headings and NO Master Scene Headings AT ALL. Like the Coen brothers. Fargo is one that comes to mind. Or take, for example, their latest script - No Country for Old Men. It's so downright minimalist without any primary slugs at all that it's just plain weird-looking. (I can't say I approve of this, but hey, they're writing for themselves nowadays.) I recently did a review of a Billy Mernit screenplay. (And you guys KNOW who Billy Mernit is, right? He's a published writer and pro reader at Universal.) I didn't mention this in the review, but he didn't use ANY primary slugs either. This is the trend. (Of course, this means nothing to us. We have to continue to follow industry standard format as outlined in Trottier's "Bible" and prove to all those intelligent industry people how well we understand how a screenplay FUNCTIONS. Once we become "established," THEN we can take a left turn at Albuquerque and do crazy things like not write any Master Scene Headings.)

But you guys already knew this because you're not out of touch with current trends, nor ignorant about format or the history of our craft.



It is high time someone with a wealth of script knowledge sat down to teach you reviewers when to use the "N/A" slot for a wide variety of subjects in that stupid chart at the top of your coverage, because it is beyond absurd that you would apply the same narrow principles to every story in every genre.



Since when did protagonists have character arcs in slapstick comedies? Since when did Monty Python characters have arcs? How about Inspector Clouseau? The Marx Brothers? Abbott and Costello? Martin and Lewis? Chaplin?

The most you can hope for in slapstick comedies are characters who have “blind obsessions,” individuals who fail to see their own flaws or the dangers of their own ridiculous fixations. Got that? Blind obsessions. Ridiculous fixations. Moliere’s life-long career in the theatre was built on that one fundamental, lampooning the ridiculous fixations of the social elite. (And the actors would always play those characters seriously, as if they had no clue they were being ridiculous, and that had us rolling in the aisles.)

Consider the comedy-gold combination of the money-fixated Max Bialystock and the producer-fixated Leopold Bloom. Or Oscar Madison living with the germ-obsessed Felix Ungar. Or the war-fixated General “Buck” Turgidson in Dr. Strangelove. Or the sex-obsessed teens in countless movies. Or any of a number of Woody Allen characters. And Inspector Clouseau was obsessed about being the greatest detective in the world but it never occurred to him that he was always the dumbest man in the room. He fumbled his way into foiling the plans of countless bad guys without ever realizing what actually happened. Then he’d get decorated with honors for his brilliance, and that, my friends, was the big cosmic joke. The moment truth gets revealed, the moment Clouseau realizes he has flaws in his personality and that he needs to change (thereby giving his character an “arc”) will be the very same moment the comedy will die.

And thus, in the latest Steve Martin / Pink Panther incarnation, we had a failure of colossal proportions, because Inspector Clouseau gets outed in the media as the bumbling idiot he always was, he actually REALIZES that he IS a bumbling idiot, he APOLOGIZES to different people if he made them look silly, and then he SOLVES the big case thereby proving to the world that he is, in fact, a brilliant detective.


Question - can protags in slapstick comedies have arcs? Yes. Is it essential that every protag in every comedy has an arc? ABSOLUTELY NOT. And that's ESPECIALLY true if those comedies are within a franchise, which is exactly what Ger is writing.

The point is this - many of these kids work long and hard (sometimes years) studying their genres and getting their scripts right and there is no excuse for being ignorant about their genres in your coverage. At all. And there is absolutely no excuse for being wrong about format when you could easily look it up. You owe it to them to give them the kind of thoughtful analysis they really deserve.