Tuesday, January 27, 2015

A New Class at USC

I recently tweeted the the whiteboards of a class I teach to graduate students at USC. The picture was clipped ant the point a bit obscure, so here is the full picture with an explanation.

The Story

A story is about someone who wants something very badly and is having trouble getting it.

More precisely, we discussed each story in terms of each piece of this definition. "A story is..."

"About someone..."  Whose story is it?  Through whose eyes, and more importantly through whose emotions do we experience the story? Who takes the actions that drive the story forward? This is the first big choice the storyteller must make, and there is always more than one answer.

"...who wants something..."  What does this protagonist want? What primary desire is forcing him/her/them to take action? Whether or not they get it is the DRAMATIC QUESTION that the story tracks and ultimately answers.

"...very badly..." Why does s/he want it so much?  What's going to happen if he/she DOESN'T get it?  This defines the STAKES of your story.

"...but is having trouble getting it."  What are the obstacles? Who is the antagonist, or what are the antagonistic forces that is keeping the protagonist from getting what s/he/they want?

Telling the Story

Once, these basic (but difficult!) questions are answered, we can take a shot at telling the story.  Brian McDonald, in both his blog and book Invisible Ink, claims that all effective stories have the basic structure of a fairy tale:

Once upon a time_____________
And every day________________
Until one day_________________
And because of this___________
And because of this___________
And because of this___________
Until finally__________________
And ever since that day_______

Does a fairy tale template seem too simplistic for your grown-up, complex story?  It's not.  Even three hour epics like The Godfather can be told this way.

1. Once upon a time there was a Godfather who ran a family business.
2. And every day the Godfather did favors and got favors in return.
3. Until one day, the Godfather did not grant a favor, and the snubbed rival tried to kill him.
4. And because of this the Godfather's sons took over the family business: Sonny started a war and Michael killed the rival.
5. And because of this Michael was exiled and Sonny was murdered in the war.
6. And because of this The Godfather made peace.
7. And because of this Micheal returned to take his father’s place, but the family was weakened by the Godfather’s sickness and eventual death.
8. Until finally the rival family bosses turned against Michael, and so Michael killed each and every one.
9. And ever since that day Michael was the new Godfather.

What we want to avoid when getting a general idea of our story is a series of disconnected events. "And then this happens, and then this happens, and then this happens." Telling a story as fairy tale beats forces the writer to think of the narrative as a chain of cause-and-effect driven by the choices of the protagonist.

Take a shot at telling your story in this way.

Hope and Fear

Legendary screenwriter teacher Frank Daniel taught us to continually orient the the audiences' emotions towards the future: the audience HOPES for one turn of events, while FEARING another. The basis of dramatic tension is anticipation. We let the audience know what potentially could happen, good and bad, and lead them to believe that either outcome is entirely possible.

Friday, October 31, 2014

"Stage Blood" in The Hollywood Journal

Check out a new piece I wrote for The Hollywood Journal to celebrate Halloween!

It begins, "It is twenty years ago, and I am watching Tiffany, apple-faced and wholesome, holding a straight razor and standing in a bathtub filled with blood..." Read on HERE...

It is twenty years ago, and I am watching Tiffany, apple-faced and wholesome, holding a straight razor and standing in a bathtub filled with blood.

“Are you okay? Do we need to stop?”

Soaking wet in only a thin cotton shirt, she trembles. She seems entranced by the blood running down her arms and legs. “No, I’m fine,” she assures me, her eyes suddenly sparkling. “This is perfect.” Then, possessed by something dark and unexpected, Tiffany stares right at me, and slowly runs the straight razor over her tongue.

The blood is fake; the razor is a blunt-edged prop, but several of the film students packed into my apartment bathroom cry out in alarm. I nearly drop the Super-8 camera. Later, when I’m hand-cranking the film, thin as correction tape, through the dim viewer, I re-watch this moment over and over, and each time I shudder.

By day Tiffany is a polite and prudent bank teller, but for that one moment she is Lilith, terrifying and sublime, rising from a crimson lake to take her revenge on the sons of Adam. Somehow, the stage blood has evoked a metamorphosis.

And, somehow this is all connected to the Halloween re-release of The Exorcist in 1979. Now I am thirteen-years-old, sitting in an auditorium with hundreds of civilized adults, watching a girl around my age gleefully abuse herself with a crucifix, splattering her bed-sheets and smearing the blood across her mother’s face. I look at adult faces in the audience, frozen and impassive. How is this happening? How is this okay? Much later, I will wonder if the horror, violence and perversity in my screenplays are just echoes of that primal childhood trauma.

All my memories of Hollywood are soaked in stage blood. I mopped up bloody footprints between takes on Slumber Party Massacre III. I trashed the blood-speckled plastic that wrapped Laura Palmer’s corpse. I combed through a draft of Halloween: Resurrection finding synonyms for “stab.” I counted the number of beheadings in a draft of Conan The Barbarian and decided to limit myself to six. I accidentally spilled a pint on the floor of my brother-in-law’s Jeep so that for years afterwards, every time it rained, his car would bleed.

I have been paid to write around twenty-five screenplays and teleplays, and not one of them didn’t call for stage blood. This really shouldn’t surprise me.

Blood is a metaphor older than language, originating on the walls of caves. Blood evokes ritual sacrifice and the fragility of human flesh. Blood means madness, panic, and transformation. Blood is the puncture of order and the gushing of chaos.

It’s the flood from the elevator doors in The Shining. It’s the stain on the teeth in Jaws. It’s not so much the pig-bloodied prom dress, but the look in Carrie’s eyes. What blood means, what I want stage blood to mean, is terror in the sublime.

But usually, it doesn’t.

Instead of poetic or uncanny, the stage blood that bubbles up in my credited movies and television often turns out campy, unintentionally comic, and only mildly grotesque. Still, I keep a vial of it by my writing desk. For me, Halloween will always be about the feeling I got when Tiffany let blood spill out of her mouth and run down her chin, her lips curling into a ghastly little smile.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Friday Filmmaker Finds, August 15th Version!

Blog Post written By Levin
Hello everyone, welcome to another Friday Filmmaker Finds!

First off, let's begin with a video essay on one of my favorite films: Blue Valentine. It's probably one of the most truthful movies on love since Annie Hall because it manages to capture both the ecstasy of falling in love and the eventual heartbreak with frightening authenticity. It's one of those movies where you're worried about the actors because it looks just so damn real.

In this video essay, our slightly lethargic but very informative narrator counts the insane things they've done to get to this "frightening authenticity". Or, maybe, really, it's not that insane -- it's just a lot of work that doesn't feel like work. I mean, think about it, in the last movie you shot, did you make the actors rent/decorate a house and then live in it for a month to ensure they established intimacy? I guess a better question is -- why doesn't every movie? Is it that the standard movie doesn't NEED this kind of authenticity or is it because most people are afraid to commit to a movie this much? I don't know. But it sure as hell makes a difference when they do. Check out this video essay here.

Also, this is the most misleading poster for any movie ever. 
Then there's this infographic from Fandor about the history of explicit sex on film. I've always been intrigued by how "low-culture stuff" (sex, violence) could be integrated into a higher form. I mean, hell, HBO made an entire channel out of it. But it's still really interesting to see a cheap exploitation movie like Deep Throat side by side with an acclaimed masterpiece like Midnight Cowboy. Are there stories, good stories, that could only be told through violence and sex? As someone who writes that kind of material, I'll say yes. In my humble estimation, Game of Thrones without the brutality of it all would just feel impotent and Blue Valentine without that sad sex scene would be somewhat toothless.

As for our short movie of the week; I'm somewhat cheating again. (If you remember, the last short movie of the week was the opening of the video game The Last of Us, which you should absolutely see if you still haven't.) This week's movie is technically half of an episode of Louie, but I think it's a great example of simple, efficient storytelling and a tribute to the late Robin Williams. I know most of you will probably watch it thinking about the dark undercurrent of the piece in relation to Robin Williams -- that's how I stumbled upon it -- but also pay attention to the structure of the piece. It's basically a set-up and a punchline but a great, great one at that. Never underestimate the power of simplicity and tremendous execution! Check it out here.

Hope you've had a great week and you have many, many great weeks in your future!

Levin Menekse

Friday, August 8, 2014

Tips on Writing Dialogue

Written by Levin Menekse
I feel like you can fake a lot of things when making movies/television. Illogical plot points can be salvaged by stupendously awesome visuals, subpar writing could be transfigured into powerful scenes through tour-de-force acting by Michael C. Hall and entire TV Shows can be built on just attractive people sniping at each other with witty banter and nothing else.

But you cannot salvage bad acting. Your movie could be the best looking, best written movie in the universe but if the audience doesn't believe your main character is an actual person, you've lost the battle. And the scary thing is ANYONE can spot bad acting. You'd need to be a trained professional to explain why the X camera move on the climactic sequence of Transformers didn't work, but my mom can watch one scene from the Taylor Lautner vehicle Abduction and figure out that Mr. Lautner doesn't have the "Acting Chops."

This image is displayed under the article: "The Twilight star's breakout role takes on the full gamut of human emotion, including traumatic displeasure at wearing a shirt."
I mean, seriously, there is an entire reddit thread about this phenomenon.

And now you're saying "Why the hell are you going on and on about bad acting? I thought this was going to be about dialogue!" Well, here is my point: Dialogue is a very similar Red Flag on the page. You can tell if someone is a writer or not simply by reading their dialogue. I don't know why exactly, but I probably read 200+ scripts for various studios and I could always, always, tell whether if I should keep reading or not simply by reading the first line of dialogue.

The Tricky Art of Writing Movie Dialogue

Movie dialogue isn't "real-life" dialogue. I bet you've seldom given an inspirational monologue or a triumphant speech, but those things happen by the dozen in every movie. You know how they say, movies are life without the boring parts cut out? Yeah, that includes %98 percent of the shit we say.

Sean likes to say "Movie dialogue is how people would speak if we had the chance to think about it a few seconds before the words left our mouths" and I completely agree with that. Adding onto that, here's something I realized recently: Watch how people talk in documentaries. In documentaries, people try to come off as smart, so they do actually think for a few seconds before they speak. Documentaries also tend to cut out the "boring" parts of the conversations, so you can figure out which parts of your scenes you should focus on.

Make sure your characters sound different from one another. Listen to people around you to nail down their character voices. On surface level, pay attention to their speech affectations -- who uses big words, who uses cockney slang and who uses both.

"I don't give a toss about your ignominious hair, you dippy muppet! Now, fetch me some delectable bangers!" 
Then, on a deeper level, pay attention to how people's interests/life views influence their speech. For example, I am much more likely to reference a video game than last night's football game. If a waiter drops a tray three times during the night, I'm not going to be like: "Hey, that waiter is like the linebacker from USC who wasn't able to hold onto the ball at all!" because I would have no idea what the fuck that means.

Also, something really important: Subtext. Subtext is what people are really saying when they're speaking. I'll give you an example from a movie I've watched the other day. This is a scene from Out of the Furnace which is an okay movie with great performances. All you need to know is that two characters were a couple once upon a time but that changed when he went to prison because of a terrible accident. She couldn't bring herself to see him in prison and broke up with him. Now he's out and she's in a relationship with someone else. This is the scene where he asks her to come back to him. Check it out here.

Now, this scene works wonderfully, for me anyway, because of the subtext. When she announces her pregnancy, Christian Bale doesn't huff and puff and act disappointed. He says "That's wonderful news!" with a broken smile. She replies: "Is it?" despite herself. What he really means is: "I know this means we're never going to be together but I'm glad you're happy." What she really means is: "I don't know if I made a terrible mistake by leaving you." Now imagine if those two lines were the actual dialogue. All of a sudden, something is lost, no? Also, what are the actors supposed to do with those lines? Their job is to bring to life what is between the lines. Give them that depth and they will be thankful.

And here are two big Red Flags you should avoid while you're writing dialogue:

The Crazy Exposition Dump - This usually occurs in crazy complicated science fiction movies with complicated worlds/rules. Either, the rules of the world are utterly labyrinthine and the author has to lay it all out before we embark on our fantastic voyage or the author created such a complicated world and wrote himself/herself into such a corner that watching the last twenty minutes are almost like reading a text book as everything is explained to you. For example, remember this guy?

"I prepared for this scene by reading the Phone Book over and over again."
Mr. Architect bored and disappointed an entire generation of movie-goers. What was supposed to be a 2001 Space Odyssey-ish revelation became a parody of itself. It was unclear, unemotional and visually boring. Trust me, if the original Matrix ended with this fella spouting gibberish, there would have been no second one. But "Hey!" you say, "The first Matrix had PLENTY of exposition! Morpheus basically explains the entire thing to Neo, that's the first half of the movie!"

Well, my dear friend, you are right, but what the first Matrix has is GOOD exposition. When Morpheus explains to Neo the reality of his situation, we're in a surreal, white room. It's visually striking, it upends Neo's world and it's extremely clear. ("The world you lived in all your life was merely a computer program designed to keep your mind enslaved.") Similarly, when Morpheus walks Neo through the crowded city and explains to him that anyone who is not unplugged can turn into an Agent at any second, the scene is visually dynamic -- The Woman in Red, the jarring Pause when she morphs into Agent Smith all of a sudden -- and what is being told is extremely clear. Check it out here.

So, when you need to dump exposition, do so with style. Make it visually awesome. Make it clear. Make it emotional. Bury it into a heated argument. Hell, make a funny situation out of it. Also, if you have to have exposition, have it in places where it would naturally occur. String theory isn't a casual conversation topic between strangers in a bus stop, but it's a natural conversation topic during the theoretical physic department's annual dinner party. Or, maybe it isn't, but you get

Pro-Tip: Notice how exposition works in real life. Keep your antenna's up for instances where you're in a situation where either you or somebody else is delivering information in an organic manner. You're going to be surprised how many times old friends come together and say: "Do you remember that time when..."

Scenes where people Talk and Talk and Talk: This is a funny thing because the writers of these scenes aren't necessarily writing "bad dialogue", but they are writing bad stories.

You know the saying "Kill your babies"? On a macro level, it means pruning your structure so that there are no tangential characters/unnecessary beats. On a micro level, it means shortening your scenes to their essentials and throwing out the rest. Something that almost all beginner writers do is write a line of dialogue SO AWESOME and SO INSIGHTFUL that they will fight tooth and nail to keep that in there even if this line of dialogue has nothing to do with the rest of the story.

Dialogue is only a piece of a Scene. A scene is a piece of a sequence. A sequence is a piece of an act. An act is a piece of your story. Story is what you're striving towards, what you're trying to make good. Story is what's important. Don't lose sight of that. Kill your babies for the larger story if need be.

If you can cut a line of dialogue and nothing changes, then you should probably cut that line of dialogue.

Unless your dialogue is absolutely, positively, indelibly brilliant.
Alright, well, hopefully you got something out of all this, even if it was a chuckle or two. Thanks for reading!

Levin Menekse

Friday, August 1, 2014

Friday Filmmaker Finds, August 1st Edition!

A blog post by Levin Menekse
Hello everyone,

This week we're going into the land of video games and animation. First off, let's start with this great analysis of Japanese Animator Satoshi Kon's editing techniques. The video is done by Tony Zhou, who you might know as the guy who analyzed Michael Bay's directorial style in his other video essay Bayhem.

Satoshi Kon isn't someone I'm familiar with. I only watched one of his features, Paprika, and didn't particularly like it, but this video is fascinating because it shows us how the medium of animation allows for some unique editing techniques. Check it out here. Another reason why you should check it out? This guy really influenced Darren Aronofsky:

On the left: A scene from Perfect Blue, one of Satoshi Kon's movies. On the right: A scene from Requiem for a Dream.
Secondly, I would like to direct you to a three part interview with Jim Uhls, who is best known for writing Fight Club. Well, actually, he is only known for writing Fight Club because the only other produced work he has is the Hayden Christensen vehicle Jumper. Considering he was such a pivotal part of Fight Club, which, one might argue, is one of the most influential movies of the past 20 years, it's weird how he never got another screenplay produced and, well, how he never had any ORIGINAL screenplay produced, ever.

I guess that is part of why this interview was intriguing for me, because he seems to be one of those people with a really unique, acerbic, violent voice who somehow exists in the industry but rarely gets to speak. His working habits are also peculiar; he talks about why he doesn't use traditional tools like outlining and how he "interviews" his characters when he's stuck. Bonus points: He also gets to tell a maniacal story involving a cat and an electric chainsaw when he's presented with a raw steak. It's definitely worth listening to.

Okay, so, this is where the video game part comes in. Look, I know there are people who have only seen Resident Evil movies and they are prejudiced when it comes to the artistic merits of video games as a medium. (R.I.P. Roger Ebert, but you were definitely wrong on this one.) On this note, instead of showing you a short movie like usual, I am going to throw you a curve ball and ask you to watch the first 16 minutes of Last of Us, a recent video game that does amazing things with the medium. It's basically your run-out-the-mill Zombie Apocalypse story but it totally elevates the material by using video game conventions and amplifies the emotional intensity. I think it's a great introduction to the medium as well. Here, take a look.

And on the heels of that, I present you this article which talks about how the best summer blockbusters of this year (Edge of Tomorrow and Snowpiercer) were greatly influenced by video games. For my money, I can't wait for more interaction between the two mediums, because I'm halfway through Last of Us and I very much prefer it to, say, The Walking Dead. It's one thing to watch others struggle with a Zombie Apocalypse, it's a completely another thing to struggle with a Zombie Apocalypse yourself.

Take care, and I hope you have a great weekend!

Levin Menekse

Friday, July 25, 2014

Friday Filmmaker Finds, July 25th Edition!

A blog post by Levin Menekse
Hello folks, welcome to another Friday Filmmaker Finds!

I'm kind of cheating this week and starting with something from a long time ago and something I assume many of you have already seen. But I really think it's something every aspiring artist/filmmaker needs to hear once in a while.

So, you know Ira Glass, right? This American Life. Looks like this:

If you've listened to his program -- it's on NPR and talks about real life stories with a whimsical and melancholic tone -- you know he's a stone-cold genius. If you haven't, here are some samples to establish that this guy knows what he's talking about.

And here is him giving vital, amazing advice. Now, there are more flashy versions of this on the internet with animated letters or in the form of hipsteresque life advice murals, but I think it's important to see the most unadulterated version of it, even if it's dry and in 240p. See it/listen to it/take it to heart.

And here is the "hipsteresque life advice mural" version.
And then here is a huge library of advice from the legends of filmmaking. Go ahead, choose your favorite filmmaker and see what his/her recommendations are for other filmmakers. They have everyone from Ozu to Spielberg, so rest assured, someone you like is on this list. You can hear about Charlie Kauffman talking about how "If you're in Charge, you shouldn't be the Insane One" or you can go for Michael Haneke and take his advice on: "How to Draw Scenes from your Slaughter-Filled, Sheltered Childhood".

This picture marks the only time Michael Haneke ever smiled
And here is the short film of the week. It's called Ice Cream and it's by Louie C.K, whose brilliant TV show you've been watching and admiring for the last 4 seasons. I love this because it's basically that familiar "Louie C.K. voice" in its infancy. This shows you even if you have no money to shoot a movie, your unique voice can still shine through the grainy, black-and-white, student-film-looking shots.

Alright everyone, hope you enjoyed this edition of Friday Filmmaker Finds! See you next week!

Levin Menekse

Sunday, July 20, 2014

A Filmmaker's Life: Win A Screenwriter's Package!

So, as part of a screenwriters package that includes a free copy of Final Draft, Dramatica, and a fully cast table read, I'm giving away a free screenwriting consultation. Click the link below for details.

A Filmmaker's Life: Win A Screenwriter's Package!!