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Thursday, September 3, 2015

What is a Sequence?

Levin
Hello everyone, welcome to a new series of posts where I will be defining common screenplay vocabulary. This post, our first attempt, will define "A Sequence". Other terminology we will explore will  range from "Plant and Payoff" to "False Ending Twist" and a myriad of other terms we use at the USC Cinema School. If you've heard the terminology used in a different manner, we'd love to hear about it!

Well, then, let's start with the million dollar question: What's a Sequence?

A Sequence is a collection of scenes centered around a central question. This question revolves around a Sub-Goal, as opposed to the Main Goal of the movie. For example, In Star Wars, the Main Goal of our heroes is to "Defeat the Empire, rescue the Princess!" but they have to build upon many sub-goals to achieve that end. "Will our Heroes escape from The Death Star?" is a sub-goal. "Will our Heroes destroy the Death Star?" is another such sub-goal.

Or let's take the recent movie, Nightcrawler, which you must have surely seen it by now because you love great movies, Bloom's Main Goal is to build his empire and get rich. Throughout the movie we see him rise as he achieves his sub-goals. At first, it's "Will he get a great shot of a crime scene?" then it moves to "Will he be able to sell his crime scene footage to a TV Station?" and so forth.

Building your movie using Sequences allows you to keep your main character active and changing your protagonists' goals is a good way to keep your audience's attention. After all, if your protagonist is after one thing the entire time using the same method, it's going to get rather stale. Imagine if Bloom in Nightcrawler spent the entire movie trying to get a perfect crime scene photo... That's rather simple, isn't it? But if he gets a photo, sells it to the news station, then, ultimately, evolves to creating the perfect crime scene... Then there is a sense of escalation, a sense of build upon his victories and defeats on his way to his Main Goal.

Each Sequence runs for 12-15 pages and you will usually find movies have Eight of them. Two in the First Act, Four in the Second Act, and, finally, Two in the Third Act.

Why, you may ask. How did this concept of a Sequence originate?


Back in them olden times, the projectors needed to switch film reels every once in a while. (Hence, that little cigarette burn at the right side of the screen) The projectionists found that if they did this every 12-15 minutes, the story came to an organic shift. And that's your little bit of trivia for the day!

Stay tuned in for next week's episode: "What is the 1st Act?"

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

How Does One Learn To Write Video Games?

Many of my friends, students and readers end up writing on projects other than movies. Video Games are one example. Games, although built by software engineers, also need very non-technical dialogue, characterization, and non-linear plotting from someone who has experience with such things. However, when they ask me how to get into the world of games, or how to learn how to write one, I have to tell them I honestly don't know.

So my question for my readers is this. How does one learn to write the "story" for a video game? More specifically, what are the best articles, books, and online resources for learning how to write screenplays for video games?


Please post answers in the comments or email me a genrehacks@gmail.com.

Thanks!

- Sean Hood


Monday, August 31, 2015

Rewrite: How To Begin

This is a summary of my lecture notes for WEEK 1 of Rewriting The Feature Script, which I teach at the USC School of Cinematic Arts.

First, you must surrender yourself to the rewrite process, an ongoing cycle of feedback and revision that I outlined in the post This Is What A Rewrite Looks Like. I know you kinda hoped your first draft was pretty close to the final draft. It's not. Don't believe me? Try this...

Find 5-10 people to read your script and give you notes. These are not the glowing notes you get from your mother ("I love it! You're a genius!) or the indifferent and vague praise you get from your boyfriend ("Yeah. It's cool I guess.") Rather, these are the detailed, engaged and honest-but-supportive notes you get from your collaborators.

These collaborators could be the other students in a class or the other members of a writer's group. They could be your agent, manager, and attorney. They could be the actors, editors, cinematographers and producers in an online group like Filmmaker's Alliance. The key is that these collaborators have some experience reading scripts, that you trust their judgement, and that they have good reason to put in the time and effort. This "good reason" is often just your willingness to give feedback on their scripts in return.

As you are listening make sure that you write down ALL the notes you get, even the ones that you don't agree with and especially the ones that seem to come up again and again. You'll collate and sift these notes later, but for now just gather as much feedback as you possibly can. If you can, find a perceptive and sensitive person who is willing to type up written notes, you've struck gold.

(For an expanded discussion of how to receive notes in a productive way, check out Getting and Processing Feedback. Then when you are in a position to give notes on other people's screenplays, check out How to Give Feedback.)

While other people are reading your script, print out a hard copy and sit down in a quiet place where you won't be interrupted for 2 hours. Re-read the script from beginning to end. While writing the first draft, we often are so focused on individual sequences, scenes and lines of dialogue that we lose touch with how the entire story plays over the course of 100 minutes. Use colored pens and highlighters to annotate the bits you want to revise later.

After you've re-read your script in one sitting, it's a good idea to ask yourself some tough but important questions. You can find examples of these questions in our handy Rewrite Questionnaire. 95% of feature screenplays submitted to festivals and contests, as well as to agencies and managers, fail in three areas: Character, Tension, and Development. Our 20 questions will help you focus on these areas as your rewrite.



If this is your 2nd or 3rd draft you may want to get a bunch of actors (or just people who are good at reading out loud) and have a table read. Feed your guests lots of wine and snacks as they read; make a party out of it. Actors especially are not shy about giving feedback, and you may very well learn more about your script in one night than you have in months.

Once you are finished gathering lots and lots of feedback, you are ready for the next step...

(...tune in next week)


Thursday, August 27, 2015

What To Write About

This is the continuation of What the F*ck Should I Write About?, in which I searched my notebooks for a new story idea, but only found ones that were utterly preposterous.

There are typical ways that screenwriters decide on story ideas. Often managers and agents will ask their clients to submit loglines so that they can pre-approve and co-develop the concept from the ground up. The logic is that agents and mangers have a better sense of which concepts might catch fire in the spec market and lead to a sale. The emotional downside is that writers can come to feel stifled when dozens of their ideas are shot down by their reps.

Similarly, students in classes or pros in writing groups will often pitch their ideas to their peers like a test audience. As readers of this blog know, I'm a big advocate of getting feedback at every stage of the writing process (see This Is What A Rewrite Looks Like.) What could more logical than getting out of one's head and seeing how an idea plays with smart, talented fellow writers?

The creative downside is that some stories emerge through the writing process itself. The logline of the first draft may be completely different than the logline of the 2nd or 3rd draft. Sometimes it's difficult to express why the jagged kernel of an idea is so compelling, and why a slick and snappy concept with a wicked hook inspires nothing but the urge to take a long nap.

Then of course there's William Goldman's rule, which applies to anyone who would try to tell you whether an idea is good or bad: Nobody Knows Anything.

So this time, instead of taking a poll or applying some complicated, statistical rubric, I just asked myself a simple question:

If I could only write on more spec script, what would it be?

It's a clarifying question if you ask it honestly. It doesn't need to be deeply existential, as if you found out you had a Year To Live. It's just practical. If I could write only one more movie, what elements would be most important to me? Would it be a genre movie, like so many I have written before? Would I break out and write a comedy or family drama? Would I try to reach a wide audience or some eccentric niche? Who would I write it for (because every story is a kind of love letter to our ideal audience)? Who would I write about? What would be their secret fears? What would be their deepest shame?

Of course, these questions tend to become fruitful and multiply. What kind of movie, if I could only WATCH one more, would I choose to SEE? What would it look like? How would it feel to watch it? What truths would it affirm, and what fate would it utterly deny? Would it be funny? Would it be sad? Would it be scary and sublime?

It's only natural when facing the blank page (well...blank screen) to look at the grim marketplace, to recall the movies that are actually getting made, to consider the odds, and then to think, "Why Bother?" But, there is twisted sort of Alice-In-Wonderland-thinking that can turn questions like these on their heads. 99.99% of original scripts never get made, so why not write one as if I couldn't possibly fail? It's this kind of anti-logic that ignites the passion that drove me to write in the first place.

So, I asked myself all these questions and you know what?

I got an idea.

Friday, August 14, 2015

What Should I Write About?

It's time to write another spec, and as always, this fills me with dread.

I'm trying to find an Idea. You know. A three sentence logline with a flashy hook, one that is both tremendously commercial and starkly original. However, all I find scribbled in my notebook (the The Bucket in which I keep all my Golden Story Ideas) are fragments, digressions, and visions for movies that are utterly preposterous.

First, there's "Hamlette." Over my August vacation I saw Benedict Cumberbatch play Hamlet on stage, and I loved the production. I thought, there hasn't been a movie Hamlet lately, not since Ethan Hawke's GenX Dane back in 2000. What if Hamlet were Hamlette, a woman? Sure it has already been done by Danish silent film actor Asta Nielsen, but what if I switched genders of several of the main characters. King Claudius, the villain, would become Queen Claudia, cruel as any grinning Disney witch. The Ghost would be Hamlette's mother, as terrifying as the vengeful spirits in Japanese horror. Hamlet's mother would be Hamlette's father, trading Oedipus for Electra. Hamlette and Ophelia would have a forbidden Sapphic edge.


Speaking of silent films, this Hamlette (as per my frantic and impassioned notes) would be inspired by the dark, expressionistic sets of Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Hamlette herself would be inspired by silent film sirens like Heddy Lamar and Louise Brooks, only more brooding, violent and existential. The movie itself wouldn't be silent, but perhaps the the play within a play would be a 20s silent film depicting the Queens murder in pantomime. The language would be a surreal mix of silent film subtitles, updated modern dialogue and Shakespearean soliloquy.

The last line about this Idea in my notebook is that the whole thing could be shot in stop motion animation. Hmmmm. Needless to say, this idea doesn't sound like what my agent is looking for, so I keep flipping pages, looking through other Ideas.

There are a couple more horror concepts. One is a kafkaesque spin on Gremlins, in which the characters find gummy, oily, spidery creatures called "Things," which turn out to be the "object causes of desire," that inexpressible Thing that we all feel is missing from our lives. Yet when the characters get precisely what they want, their lives become a living hell. There are all sorts of sketches of these monstrous Things growing larger and multiplying out of control.

The problem with this Idea is it feels too familiar  (another rash of creature-ids run amok?) and in my notes there are several references to both Buñuel and Lacan, which is always a sign that I'm in trouble...


I keep turning pages. There's a romantic, supernatural thriller called The Philosophers, but it's perverse to the point of being like a Lynch or Cronenberg film, and it's not so much a story as a haphazard list of possible episodes all inspired by the work of my favorite philosophers. Again, I realize that that any combination of  period costumes, expensive special effects, and the Ubermensch is going to spell disaster. I continue to dig.

There's a promising Idea of reworking Sleeping Beauty as film noir, in which Sleeping Beauty herself is a femme fatale bent on the Prince's murder. Unfortunately the sketched-out dialogue of knights in full armor speaking in the hard boiled language of Raymond Chandler quickly dissolves into farce. There's a sci-fi, apocalyptic take on the 60's TV series Bonanza. I'll put a pin in that one. There's a supernatural crime thriller about a bunch of con artists who make a billionaire widow believe that they are psychics and have contacted her murdered daughter. I can't decide whether the ghost actually turns out to be real or the con-artists are just turning on each other and fucking with each other's minds. Nahhh, either way it's way too pretentious. What about this story of a narcoleptic who is constantly falling asleep and waking up as a buxom swords-woman in a desert world of alien troglodytes? No. No, swords-and-sandals. I swore to myself, never again.

What the FUCK do I write about??? I close the notebook and pick up the next one on my stack. I'm sure there's an Idea in here someplace...


To find out how I solved this problem check out the follow up article What To Write About...

Monday, July 27, 2015

5 Things that make a Big Blockbuster Work


Hello everyone,

Lately, it seems like I've had the fortune and the misfortune of watching a myriad of Big Blockbusters. Some of them were pretty good (Kingsmen, Mad Max: Fury Road), others were somewhere in the middle (Jurassic World, Fast and Furious 7) and one was absolutely abysmal (Jupiter Ascending).

The funny thing is I watched all these Big Movies right after I attended the Nantucket Film Festival where I saw countless indie movies. I realized I can put into words what makes a good, high-brow drama but when it came to blockbusters I was limited to "Dude, it was fucking awesome!" despite it was obvious I enjoyed Kingsmen considerably more than, say, Jupiter Ascending. I feel like this lack of vocabulary is something that creates the rift between the critics and the audience, because an esteemed, scholarly film critic can't just write: "DID YOU SEE THAT GUY WITH THE FLAMING GUITAR?! THAT WAS COOL!" and print it. Despite this though, they know a good blockbuster when they see one. Notice Jupiter Ascending has a 40 metacritic score, whereas Mad Max has a solid 89.

So I decided to do some thinking and come up with some elements the good Blockbusters shared and the bad ones, thankfully, didn't.

1 - Make sure the Cool Shit in your Movie is Actually Cool

"Cool" is a pretty elusive concept. Dictionary.com has 29 different definitions for it, but just like bad acting, we know it when we see it. Case in point: A car jumping from one skyscraper to the next or the Dino WWE at the end of Jurassic World was cool for me, whereas Channing Tatum rollerblading on air (?) while being a dog (??) was decidedly not cool. And it's a weird thing because the line between "cool" and just plain "goofy" is a very, very thin line.

Case in point: Definitely goofy.
Obviously you need to give it to the Wachowski's, The Matrix is one of the best blockbusters ever made and the whole bad-ass trench coats and crazy karate aesthetic could have easily been goofy as fuck. But they pulled it off. Here is what it looks like when it is NOT pulled off properly. (That clip is from the Turkish TV Series Mr. Cloud. Not one of our proudest moments.)

In Jupiter Ascending though, they have a half dog rollerblading on the air. If you can't type it without being self-aware about how stupid it sounds, perhaps you shouldn't do it.

2 - Give Me An Action Sequence I Haven't Seen Before!

These types of movies are style over substance unless they are done by Christopher Nolan. And that's completely fine. The audience doesn't want a deep theme or characters, but that doesn't mean the screenwriter's job is easier. They have one job: Give us big set pieces we haven't seen before.

That sounds easier than said. How do you write a car chase that is different than the thousands of other car chases in the history of cinema. Well, see, that's where Fast and Furious 7 succeeded with their jumping through the skyscrapers sequence or the Drone Chase sequence.

Or how do you do a fight scene we haven't seen? Set it in the Westboro Baptist Church and have Freebird play over it!
3 - Stylish Characters 

Nobody in their right mind expects deep character work from a big Summer blockbuster. A lot of time you would spend on building characters interaction  are spent on the aforementioned car chases and such. And yet, some characters are obviously... better than others. Han Solo isn't more "deep" than the Anakin Skywalker of the prequels -- I would even argue that Anakin Skywalker is deeper than Han Solo -- but Anakin Skywalker is the cinematic equivalent of getting a root canal and Han Solo is a best friend/big brother/President for Life rolled into one.

I think the word is style. Galahad, for example, might not be a deep character, but the movie is very clear as to who he is: He's the ultimate old-school gentleman, both in the action sequences and during his interactions with the other characters. ("Manners Maketh Man") Here's maybe a choice that's more controversial: Vin Diesel's Dom in Fast 7 has style to spare. He's a cool, macho guy but we don't get this only from Vin Diesel's performance, but also from surprising character work. For example, when his lover Letty goes to her grave and ruminates about her lost memories... what does Dom do? He shows up with a motherfucking sledgehammer to destroy her headstone.

Strong choice. Strong style. Obvious in every character interaction and action sequence.

Weirdly, Eddie Redmayne's Balam Abraxas in Jupiter Ascending definitely has a lot style as well. He's the only interesting part of the movie, over-acting at an operatic frequency only by whispering and screaming at the top of his lungs. Does it work? Maybe. But both the screenplay and Redmayne definitely commit to the insanity of the ten thousand year old character.

Poor Balam only gets to poop once every ten thousand years!

4 - Know Your Style

Fast and Furious is aware of how goofy is and runs with the over the top action pieces. Mad Max: Fury Road attempts to deliver an adrenaline shot of insanity directly into your veins and peace out afterwards. The very meta Kingsmen can get away with (spoilers for Kingsmen) killing its main character half way through the movie.

Some movies can't nail what tone they are supposed to be. Avatar Last Airbender, a.k.a. shit in its cinematic form, is unrelentingly grim whereas Jupiter Ascending probably could have had less levity.

And then there are movies that have no idea what tone they are supposed to be at all. On that end, I give you Jurassic World that's 4 different movies for each quadrant of the audience. It's sometimes a sentimental Spielbergian drama about two brothers who discover how boring they are, sometimes it's a romantic comedy about a polar opposite couple, sometimes it's heavy conversations about what it means to weaponize animals and, during the Lauren Lapkus and Nick from New Girl segments, is an improvisational Judd Apatow comedy.

5 - Bonus Points for Something Unexpected

This is really tricky because Blockbusters need to be for everyone, so you can't ruffle too many feathers. Creative risks are discouraged, but, at least, on the visual front, directors can take on interesting visual challenges and give people something "they haven't seen before" -- see the insane single takes of Gravity or the weird dream imagery of Inception. But, on the content level, it's very rare when a hero does a morally dubious thing or the movie ends in a dark place. Because of this, personally, while I find myself liking blockbusters, I'm rarely surprised by them.

(Following paragraph is a spoiler for the Kingsmen) 

So imagine my surprise when Galahad got executed by the villain halfway through the movie. I love moments like these and, I assure you, there is nothing that delights a reader more than being surprised. I read for major studios and, %95 of the time, things went exactly as how I thought they did. So, if you can throw a curve ball... Do it.

This is especially great if you're writing a spec script. See, Spiderman isn't going to die halfway through the movie. Harry Potter is never going to be defeated. There are constraints to writing a piece that is connected to an IP (intellectual property) but, in a spec script, you can do things those big movies can't do! So experiment! Do crazy shit!

But nothing as crazy as the costumes in Jupiter Ascending, please.
Can you think of more elements/variables I missed? Have any favorite blockbusters that break these rules? Feel free to discuss these in the comments! Thanks for reading!

Levin

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Letter To A Screenwriter on The Ledge

Wait, don't jump.

Think for a second.

Your job is to write stories that make utterly ridiculous and implausible fantasies appear real. You've gotten really good at it. So good that right now your using the same tools of your imaginative craft to tell yourself a story about yourself. In fact, you've told so it so well that your ridiculous and implausible story about victimization, inauthenticity, and failure actually seems real.

It's not.

It's all cheap special effects, formulaic plot twists, and cliches cribbed from Save The Cat.

Step back, be your own best studio executive and demand a rewrite.

It's a movie in your head. It's not your life.

With love,

- Sean