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Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Ken Miyamoto: How To Give Notes on A Screenplay

Anyone who is serious about working in the entertainment industry - as a writer, director, producer, actor, agent or executive - needs to develop the skill of giving "notes" on a screenplay.


Recently, my friend Ken Miyamoto, wrote an answer to the question, How can I become better at critiquing screenplays? on the question and answer site Quora.com. I'm reprinting his answer in full here.  Ken takes a very no-nonsense approach to giving notes which comes from years of experience reading scripts with an eye to what could actually get made by a traditional studio.

 Ken Miyamoto writes:

To give effective notes, you have to do what most studio and production company readers (I'm a former studio reader myself) do: Look at a script from a somewhat objective perspective.

I say somewhat because a reader is told what the powers that be are looking for as far as genre, tone, concept, etc. So there is a slight subjective angle in that respect because there is a predetermined set of immediate likes and dislikes. If a script comes through that takes a more comical tone, when the powers that be are looking for straight on horror, thriller, or action, there's an issue and the script will likely be tossed aside.

Regardless, readers have to learn to push aside their own likes and dislikes as much as they can and look at the scripts coming through with a more objective perspective.

  • Will this sell?
  • Is my boss going to want to pump millions of dollars into this?
  • Is the concept original enough or is it just another knockoff of Taken?
  • Does it have strong leads that are going to draw in major talent?
  • What's the demographic for this script?
  • Is it contemporary and does it jive with the current industry?

These questions and SO MANY more have to be taken into account.

So, that said, if you're looking to critique screenplays better, either from a peer to peer situation (Writing groups), a mentor position (Teaching classes), or even from a professional position (Script reader, assistant, etc.), you need to take the above approach and run with it.

The key thing is, you need to disassociate your own work, your own visual styles, your own habits, and your own likes and dislikes, with this script you're reading. You need to look at it from a purely objective standpoint first and foremost.

So if you hate romantic comedies and you're reviewing a romantic comedy script, you have to look beyond your subjective viewpoint of the genre and ask yourself questions like:

  • Would this be a popular rom com for those that love them? 
  • Hey, my wife loves these types of movies. Would she love it?
  • Is this a concept within that genre that I haven't seen before?
  • Are the characters in this rom com original and new, or at the very least, do they offer a different approach or different angle on what we have seen before in these types of movies?

Then you can move into...

  • Is the script well written?
  • Is it easy to follow the story and character arcs?
  • Is the dialogue strong?
  • Is there a true beginning, middle, and end or do they introduce a concept and seem to not know where to go with it?

Those are all objective questions for the most part.

Secondly...

The biggest mistake people make while critiquing scripts is when they just look for what is wrong with the script.


This especially happens in writing groups and with peer to peer or friend to friend exchanges. "Well, you do this wrong here, that wrong there, this character was written terribly, this didn't make sense, etc."
The best way to critique a script is by finding not only what doesn't work, but especially what DOES work.

 "You know, you're struggling with format a bit. You need to tighten up the dialogue and scene descriptions big time. This character doesn't have a great arc. BUT, this concept is AMAZING. This other character is written perfectly and brilliantly. I like this, I like that, I LOVE the surprise in the second act, etc."

You see the difference? Instead of focusing on the negative and what they did wrong, you equalize by FINDING the strengths of the script as well. That's what real script readers have to do because if maybe the script is written horribly, but the concept and/or some character and/or the dialogue is great, then you can give it a Consider rating based on those elements. Then the powers that be can take a look and say, "Wow, love that concept, love the dialogue, love this characters, etc." That may lead to an assignment for the writer, a possible option to develop the concept further, etc.

Now, let's keep it real here folks. A vast majority of screenplays out there outside of the film industry are terrible. Some people just aren't ready or just don't understand how to concoct a compelling story with compelling characters. So that said, what you REALLY don't want to do is blow smoke up someone's ass. You don't want to sit there and tell them everything is great. Which brings up another angle to your approach...

Conversely, don't make your notes a long glowing accolade, saying how you love it all.

That doesn't help people. If anything, it destroys their chances of realizing their dreams because you didn't care for them enough to offer the truth, at least what you think that truth may be.
So find the good AND the bad. I've read thousands of scripts from novice to working writers. And even the many bad ones had some elements I could point out that worked or at least were on the right track to working. Some were batshit crazy, I'll admit, but a majority of the time you can find both the good and the bad elements.

Now, here's where the subjective part does have to squeak in a little bit...

You have to bring your passion of film into play when critiquing scripts. The majority needs to be objective, but the subjective reaction needs to be present as well. Why? Because it'll help them in the long run. It'll enhance your notes, saying things like:

"Dude, I LOVE prison movies. Love them! It's been so long since I've seen a good one, and man, you nailed it."

Or on the flip side...

"Dude, I HATE romantic comedies. Hate them! And there's a reason for it. It's always the same formula. Guys meets girl. Guy gets girl. Guy loses girl. Guy gets girl back. That's what you wrote. Frickin' shake it up, man! You know what romantic comedy I DID like? 500 Days of Summer. Why? The guy doesn't get the girl!"

If you inject that passion of film within your objective notes that point out what works and what doesn't work, you'll be like a saint to them, whether they realize it or not.

Lastly...

Know what you're talking about. If you haven't read a lot of scripts, don't watch a lot of movies, and don't know at least a little about the current film industry, just say, "Hey, I'd love to help but I just don't know enough to help you." You can do more harm than good.

And if you do know what you're talking about, at least somewhat, go into it void of any ego. Another common thing in writers groups or some similar dynamic, is that writers are writers. We're insecure, whether we want to admit it or not. So when many writers are given a script with the writer saying "I need your feedback", well, they feel it's their time to step up on that pedestal with a little power and grandeur, and they'll exploit it.

In short, don't be an ass. Reread any notes you're giving before they are given. If they aren't offered in a positive light (With both the good and the bad), are one-sided as far as just naming the wrongs, and are full of dictations as far as what direction you think the script should go and if they don't go that way, it'll fail? You're being an ass.

If you start quoting Robert McKee, William Goldman, Syd Field, and whoever else, basically trying to talk smart and position yourself on a higher plain of knowledge, well, you're being an ass.

So in short, point out what works and what doesn't work, make sure you know what you're talking about in the first place (You have to love movies, you have to know a little bit about the current film industry, and you have to be either writing scripts or have read a lot of them, preferably both), keep an objective perspective while still allowing your subjective passion for film in at times, and don't bring in any ego with you, which translates to again... don't be an ass.

P.S. Studio coverage forms are a great broad stroke approach for giving people feedback. They also allot for notes to be a little more specific on. For the Wisconsin Screenwriters Forum, I created a hybrid studio coverage form for our WSF Screenplay Feedback Program. Think of it as studio coverage on steroids, offering writers the essential guidelines and expectations that most studios and development companies are looking for.

It's a copyrighted form, so don't go charging people and using this if you like it. But it might just make your critiquing experience a little easier because it puts everything into a context and certain perspective. It's not the end-all-be-all, but it'll get writers thinking when they read the reactions to these questions.

FEEDBACK FORM 

Ken Miyamoto has worked in the film industry for a number of years, most notably as an intern for director Randal Kleiser, as a Sony Pictures studio liaison working directly with major Film/TV productions, and then in development as a script reader/story analyst for Sony Pictures. He is currently a represented and working screenwriter with many studio meetings under his belt (Sony, Disney, WB, Universal, Dreamworks, etc.), a previous development deal with Lions Gate in 2007, and recent studio writing assignments, one of which is currently in post-production. Ken, his wife Amy and two sons, relocated back to Wisconsin in ‘06 to raise his boys close to family.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Technology and Science Documentary: Bear 71

I've written a lot about how to make a better science video, and about storytelling in the age of rapidly changing technology. For all filmmakers, storytellers, and artists interested in the exciting new opportunities of emerging technology: Watch this interactive documentary told from the point of view of a grizzly bear. Not only will you be blown away by the engaging interactive elements...the story itself will make you cry. It was part of the New Frontiers section of the Sundance Film Festival this year.

It only takes 20 minutes. CLICK THE LINK BELOW!!!

Monday, February 6, 2012

Interview With Todd Farmer

Todd Farmer
I first became aware of Todd Farmer around 2001. I was one of the writers on Halloween: Resurrection, and he had written Jason X. Both films were coming out within months of each other, and I was anxious to see how the movies would match up, head to head. While Resurrection ultimately did better at the box office, Jason X was undeniably a better horror flick, with genuinely inventive scares. Later, as my career meandered into other genres, most recently action and fantasy (Conan The Barbarian 3D, Hercules, Rambo 5), Todd went on to become a horror legend (My Bloody Valentine, Halloween 3, Drive Angry.)

I had a chance to catch up with Todd, and ask him some questions about Horror and the craft of screenwriting. Like the very best scribes in any genre, Todd is concerned, first and foremost, with respecting his characters, maintaining authenticity, and protecting the quality of his work from "the suits."


SH: You may be the only writer to write BOTH a Halloween movie and a Friday the 13th movie. To you, what are the differences between the character Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees? Do they behave differently beyond wearing a Shatner mask and Hockey mask, respectively?

Michael - the sociopath
TF: I was just thinking about this recently. In fact, I've written for Freddy, Pinhead and the Miner as well. My first slasher work was with FREDDY VS JASON back in the pre-SCREAM days. Followed that up by strapping a rocket to Jason. Later came the Miner, Michael and recently Hellraiser outlines, I've had a pretty good run with the icons and feel honored that I have. But that said, wow. All these years and no one has ever asked that one. After so many films in each franchise, filmmaker inconsistency has left both Michael and Jason with multiple personality disorder but at their heart I think they are both different and definable.

Jason - the psychopath
Jason is a psychopath. Michael is a sociopath. Jason knows the difference between right and wrong but chooses revenge. While Michael kills without emotion or morality. Jason likes killing. Michael is indifferent. Jason's like a baby duckling which fixates on the first thing he sees except when he sees you, he's going to kill you. Michael, however, makes choices. Jason is a hunter. Michael is a prick. Jason is a wolf who stalks and kills his prey. Michael is a cat who likes to play with his food first. My opinion, of course.

SH: How is writing a horror movie different from writing other genres (Thriller, Action, Sci-Fi, Comedy, etc.)?

TF: While there's always an exception, the simplest way to define horror is to look at the villain's goal. If the villain's goal is to kill with a weapon other than a gun and/or eat the hero, then it's likely a horror. Any good horror will have elements of action and even comedy, but the line between horror and thriller is very fine. Silence of the Lambs, Se7en, Misery...thrillers as defined by agents and media but several have made the argument they are, in fact, horror. The distinction isn't story or character. The distinction is money. Production value and casting. And every year the line blurs a bit more.

While horror is funny and others push the boundaries of taste and morality, all horror should scare you. Either physically or psychologically. The misconception is that horror should be dumb. That the characters should be dumb. It and they should not. Horror should be treated with the same respect as every other genre. Moreso even as Horror tends to make more money than most other genres. Especially now.

Todd Farmer Unmasked


SH: Where do most run-of-the-mill horror scripts fail?

TF: By disrespecting character and story. By disrespecting the audience.

When I started, horror was small and most studios looked down their noses at it. Dimension and New Line were your goto studios outside the indies. Most horror was written by n00bs because back then an A-Listers didn't filth themselves in the horror genre. What this meant was, many horror flicks were written by writers still in progress. As a result characters and stories suffered. Suddenly there was this misconception that horror should be dumb. Low brow. That only the lowest common denominator liked horror.

Then SCREAM came out. And SCREAM was not dumb. In fact, SCREAM changed all the rules. A movie that flopped its first weekend. Just over 6 million. But it went on to make over 100 million. Suddenly every production company and studio had a "genre" wing. Although even while cashing the checks it was a struggle for said companies to embrace the word "horror". But "horror" kept making money. Once the Williamson ripoffs ran their course, THE RING changed the game again. Then came torture porn. Then 3D which bled into all genres. Next came found footage, started years ago by Blair Witch and re-birthed by Paranormal Activity.

These days horror is getting respect in both character and story. You wanna see a screw up? Look at Devil Inside. (SPOILER) It's a good movie. A good horror. Without an ending. It was a cheat. Good story, great characters and sets ups that never pay off because of a gimmick. You think Paramount would dare end G.I.Joe the same way? "Hey! Let's go get the bad guys!" Fade to Black. Roll Credits. Nope. Because they would never dare disrespect the audience like that. But they'll do it with the horror genre.

SH: Why do you love horror movies?

TF: I don't. I love good stories and good characters. I love great movies that manage to survive the movie-by-committee, overdevelopment industry. I have no loyalty to a sports team. I appreciate talent. No loyalty to a political party. I appreciate intelligence. Nor do I have loyalty to a genre. I have loyalty to good story telling and good characters. That said, I am a champion of both horror and the audience. It annoys me greatly that so many studios are kept afloat due to horror, yet they refuse to acknowledge it publicly. When the bombs drop and the Revolution begins, I say we eat the suits first.

Pinhead - preparing to make a "suit" suffer


SH: What are some little known horror films that have inspired your writing?

TF: Four tiny unheard of films have made me who I am: Jaws, Halloween, Alien and Aliens.

Smaller known. Hmm. In the Mouth of Madness. Audition. Suspiria. And Halloween III.

SH: What kinds of producer/executive notes can ruin a horror movie? What kind of notes can help?

TF: Ego notes are the worst. Some execs give notes because they think they have to give notes. It's transparent too because they cannot give you a logical reason. It's just this random note so that they can tell the wanna-be actress blowing them in their leased BMW, "See how Bruce Willis just climbed into that red car? Yeah, I said it should be red."

The best notes are notes that aren't at gun point. I'll take a good idea wherever I can get it. I have no ego. But film by committee is a moronic way to do it. Stories should have one storyteller. I prefer that storyteller be the director. Once in production the director should be King. Granted there are some not so great directors in positions of power but I'm currently trying to push legislation to have them all beheaded. The point is, a filmmaker should have the final say. Not an exec or producer or even the studio.

If you pay me to build a house, it's your money. I'll do what I can to make you happy but I will not sacrifice the structure of the house. Nor would you expect that. But execs don't think that way at all. While admitting they cannot write or direct they have no problems telling writers and directors what to write and what to direct with no concern for the structure of the house. "When it's your money, do what you want. When it's our money, do what we tell you."

The Miner - My Bloody Valentine


SH: Do you write scripts in genres other than horror?

TF: Not often. It's frowned upon. Writers write. Story is story. Characters are characters. But the lazier agents/exes find it easier on themselves to put writers in labeled boxes. Notice though how those same agents/execs work on all genres. I love fantasy. Grew up reading it. Playing D&D after football games. Movies like Armageddon complete me. I consider Real Steel a sequel to Rocky. Fifth Element and Princess Bride and Lonesome Dove have dinner with Empire Strikes Back, The Freshman and Groundhog Day in casa de Farmer. I brush my teeth with Defending Your Life and go to bed with Ferris Bueller. And Lussier and I wrote Drive Angry which is a genre hard to define. While I do have non-genre stuff currently moving forward, I actually have no desire to ever fully leave horror.

SH: What is the single scene in one of your produced movies that you feel is the scariest?

TF: Hmm. Had to think about that one. The scene leading up the the nitrogen face freeze and smash in Jason X is a front runner, but I'd have to say the scene in My Bloody Valentine which begins with Frank meeting the Miner. We designed the top of the scene to be utter distraction. Complete with a little dog, a little person and lots of sex and nudity. The scene was designed to be so surreal that when Frank finally opens the door to his truck the last thing you expect is a pick axe. Just my opinion but that results in an additional 5 minutes of fear for a poor naked girl. And for the record, Betsy Rue, I heart you.

SH: What unproduced original screenplay of yours are you most proud of? What is it about?

TF: So many. I love everything I've written. Otherwise I wouldn't do it. I wrote a big budget time travel action with Bruce Willis. Loved it. Lussier and I wrote Three Days of the Condor in High School for Silver Pictures but we couldn't get it past the gatekeeper. I know without question Halloween 3D is a killer script. My first spec after Jason X was called Riddle Me This. A Thriller. Hensleigh was attached to direct years ago but the option ran out while he was making Punisher. But I haven't given up on any of these stories or characters.

 Good story is good story, gatekeepers come and go. We just have to wait them out.

SH: After writing horror films for so long, do horror movies still scare you?

TF: Everything still scares me. The day nothing scares you is the day you should get out of horror.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Common Mistakes of the First-time Screenwriter

Over the last 25 years I've read countless first time screenplays. In my rewrite class at USC's School of Cinematic Arts, I see 8 fresh "first time" screenplays a semester. Here are the most common flaws and mistakes that I see:
  • The writer doesn't rewrite. (See this article on the Rewrite Process) Most first timers think their first draft is "good enough." 
  • The writer doesn't listen to notes. Most first time writers aren't willing to listen to honest criticism. They just want to be told that their script is great. This is why most professional screenwriters refuse to read first time scribes. (See: Josh Olson's No I will Not Read Your Fucking Script
  • The writer hopes his/her first screenplay will be a winner. It takes thousands of hours and years of hard work to learn the craft of screenwriting. Everyone's first screenplay...well, sucks. Have you heard a story of someone's first screenplay, one they dashed off in "21 days," selling for millions? Sure you have. Hollywood is full of stories. 
  • The CHARACTERS are weak. More than any other specific flaw, first time screenplays have weak, underdeveloped, ill-motivated characters. Protagonists are passive. Antagonists are cliches. Supporting characters have no complexity. It is difficult to see what any of the characters' objectives are or why we should care about them. 
  • The stories lack TENSION. The first rule of screenwriting/filmmaking is "keep them in their seats." This means keeping the audience's attention, through the emotions of hope and fear, focused on what will happen in the future. Most first time screenplays get muddled and lose tension; and then the reader tosses the script aside, not caring how it will turn out in the end. 
  • Too much focus on "idea" and not "execution." Most first time writers think they have a "brilliant idea for a movie" and take a half-assed shot at writing the screenplay. If there is one consistent lesson to be learned on Quora, whether about startups or screenwriting, it is that "your idea means nothing." This isn't exactly true, but it's mostly true. (See: Does Your Idea Mean Nothing?
There are lots of books out there on first time mistakes that get more specific:

Your Screenplay Sucks!: 100 Ways to Make It Great by William M. Akers

How Not to Write a Screenplay: 101 Common Mistakes Most Screenwriters Make by Denny Martin Flinn

Lastly, if you are hellbent on selling a spec, read Ken Miyamoto's advice, "Write To Sell, People!"

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Ted Talks for Screenwriters and Filmmakers.

I am a big fan of Ted.com, which offers 20 minute talks on a wide array of mind bending and inspirational topics. There are three talks in particular that may be of interest to filmmakers and screenwriters:

The first is J.J. Abrams's "Mystery Box." 

Abrams traces his love for the unseen mystery –- a passion that’s evident in his films and TV shows, including Cloverfield, Lost and Alias -- back to its magical beginnings.




The second is Shekhar Kapur's "We are the stories we tell ourselves."

Where does creative inspiration spring from? At TEDIndia, Hollywood/Bollywood director Shekhar Kapur ("Elizabeth," "Mr. India") pinpoints his source of creativity: sheer, utter panic. He shares a powerful way to unleash your inner storyteller. 




And the third is James Cameron's "Before Avatar ... a curious boy"


James Cameron's big-budget (and even bigger-grossing) films create unreal worlds all their own. In this personal talk, he reveals his childhood fascination with the fantastic -- from reading science fiction to deep-sea diving -- and how it ultimately drove the success of his blockbuster hits "Aliens," "The Terminator," "Titanic" and "Avatar."




Thanks to Mark Hughes for reminding me of these talks in his Quora Answer.  Be sure to check out his blog at Forbes magazine.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

"Have You Seen Notorious?"


So, while teaching my rewrite class at USC, I was talking to my class about the movie "Notorious," and how the plot device (the Nazi plot involving radioactive powder in wine bottles) isn't what keeps the audience in their seats. All the audience really cares about is whether Grant and Bergman will get back together in the end.

I noticed the class staring back at me blankly, and at first I thought they had heard this worn out example of McGuffins and main tension too many times. Then I realized...

...They thought I was talking about "Notorious B.I.G."  None of them had seen the Hitchcock film.

I don't know what to make of this.  Am I out of touch?