Tuesday, December 17, 2013

This Is What A Rewrite Looks Like

What is the most important screenwriting tool?  (originally I answered this question on Quora)

For me, a "tool" is some process, habit or approach that can be taught. When I work with screenwriters at USC's School of Cinematic Arts, I can't help the students with talent or luck, which are by far the two most important factors in a screenwriter's success.

Likewise, I can't really teach imagination, stamina, or even self-delusion (important as they are). Practical knowledge of industry standards as well as willingness to listen to honest feedback are certainly necessary, but I expect both of these when a student walks into the classroom or an aspiring screenwriter asks me for advice.  What I can teach is a process.

The Rewrite Cycle

Anyone who takes screenwriting seriously must commit to a continuous, circular process of collection, collation, execution, and presentation.  As the saying goes, "all writing is rewriting." 

This process seems to work best in the context of a class, writers’ group, and/or group of trusted collaborators and fellow filmmakers. The strategies we go over in class are meant to be applicable to any professional and/or personal project a writer might encounter.


In this phase the writer must be extremely open to ideas. When first looking for stories to tell, he or she must write down any an all impressions, images, jokes, fragments, and half-baked schemes that could be the seed of a film. Whether the writer collects ideas in a paper notebook, a smartphone app, or Evernote, he or she must collect everything. I liken it to carrying around A Bucket and picking up and collecting anything that is shiny or odd.

In later cycles of the rewrite loop, collection is the phase in which a writer patiently collects every note, suggestion or criticism he or she gets from people who have read the current draft (sometimes producers, executives or directors.)  Some notes will seem helpful; some will seem unhelpful.  Some will be exciting and others infuriating.  The key is to collect them all patiently and without judgment.  Write them all down.  Treat every single note as a gift, one that will be unwrapped and examined sometime later.


When first starting a screenplay, the collation phase involves sifting through all the ideas collected in notebooks and "buckets." Which ones have potential? Which ones trigger excitement? Which ones keep the writer up at night?  "Collation" is a more focused and analytical step in the process, in which the writer uses knowledge of structure, tension and characterization to build the armature of a complete story.

In later cycles of the rewrite loop, collation is the phase in which the writer takes all the notes received from readers, collaborators and/or employers and sifts through them all. Too often beginning screenwriters either accept every note they get without question, or stubbornly refuse to take any at all. A veteran screenwriter does neither.

Instead, the veteran organizes notes according to character, structure, tone, and clarity.  He or she looks for notes that come up repeatedly for every reader, and notes that some catch but most miss.  Rather than reject suggestions that make the her bristle, the writer looks for deeper meaning behind the note.  If the readers aren't getting what was intended, does something earlier in the story need to be clearer?  Does plot complexity need to be simplified?  Are the readers tracking the main tension?  

Conversely, rather than take a note that initially strikes her as clever, the writer must ask herself if the change might require further adjustments throughout the script, perhaps creating more problems than it solves.  I often tell students to look for notes that are contradictory - some people suggest one thing and others suggest the exact opposite; this usually indicates they simply haven't made a strong enough choice somewhere earlier in the screenplay.

No note or suggestion can be taken at face value; the writer has to work and sift and ponder.

Ultimately, the writer comes up with a game plan for the rewrite. This often takes the form of a new beat sheet or treatment to organize all the changes. I like to use colorful index cards and map out the entire revision on a 5'x5' cork board on my office wall.   Did you think you only had to do this once?  No, you do this for every draft - for every loop of the cycle.


This is the part that involves a lot of typing, coffee, and returns to earlier steps. The writer pounds out the draft based on all the notes and ideas he or she has collected and collated. The writer keeps at it until it is in good enough shape to hand off to his readers.

In a classroom or in a writer’s group that is focused on a rewrite of a first draft, we generally break down a draft into pieces: either eight sequences, or four acts. We execute these rewritten sections weekly or bi-weekly, and share them with the group.  However, in professional situations it's better not to show work-in-progress to producers or studio executives, until there is a complete draft.


This could mean handing in the script to a professor, delivering the script to a studio, passing it out to a writer's group, or just showing the pages to Mom. The important thing is that this should be the writer's best attempt at a "finished" draft. But alas, no script is ever finished. The writer will get notes, and return to the collection phase as she gets more and more feedback... 

...and the cycle is repeated, again and again and again.

The Cycle

This Rewrite Process begins with the first draft and goes on with the second and third.  If the writer gets a manager or agent, they will also get notes.  If the screenplay is optioned or sold, the buyers will have additional thoughts and the cycle continues.  If an actor or director is attached to the project, they will have new suggestions.  As the project goes into pre-production, adjustments and compromises will need to be made due to budget, schedule, unforeseen opportunities and unmitigated disasters.  As the project is edited and re-shot in post, further changes must be made.  The script will likely go through rewrite after rewrite, churning through the cycle, all the way up to the premier.

The better the screenwriter can navigate this process, the faster and more effectively the writer can move through this cycle again and again, shepherding the core story so that each loop improves and clarifies the work, the better the screenplay will be.

Nested Cycles

What I have found is that not only do effective screenwriters work this cycle, but that they work on multiple projects at the same time...

Blue - Ideas, Pitches, Treatments

Screenwriters collect ideas while in the shower, driving their car, or reading the paper. They collate these ideas, sift through them and mull them over in their offices. They execute and present these ideas to friends and collaborators, usually over drinks and coffee and get feedback. They always have a bag of ideas brewing.

These ideas are developed into Pitches and Treatments.  These too are distributed and rehearsed, tweaked and re-imagined, presented to buyers and collaborators, only to get more feedback and more loops in the cycle.

Green - First Drafts and Spec Scripts. 

While ideas are brewing and pitches are performed, the writer is simultaneously polishing and rewriting completed drafts, hoping that just a few more turns of the wheel will make it good enough to sell.

Red - Scripts in Production 

Simultaneously the writer is working on projects that are actually in production. These could be short films, indie features, webisodes, or the current episode in a TV series. These projects are getting feedback from producers and directors and unit production managers, and the script is changing to fit the reality of filmmaking on the ground.

So, when one stage is done, another begins.  Once a film is made, the writer must be ready with a new script. Once a script is sold, the writer must be ready with a new pitch or treatment.  Once a pitch is abandoned, the writer must be ready with a new idea.  All these cycles have to happen simultaneously.

Software engineers will recognize the screenwriters' rewrite process as just a specific example of a general feedback loop, one that can be applied to any creative endeavor. 

An article Wired Magazine, Harnessing the Power of Feedback Loops, suggested that feedback tools can be used to make just about any human activity more effective.

But as I am only a screenwriter, not an engineer, a psychiatrist or a cognitive scientist, I'll just leave with 20 Great Writers On The Art of Revision.

I write this blog in order to connect with intelligent, ambitious, and creative people. If you leave a comment, you will inspire me to write more. If you liked the article, please share it.

Monday, December 2, 2013

On Camera Workshops For Young Actors

Scenes created in On Camera Workshops are often stilted and awkward, and recently Saturday Night Live parodied these "professional" services for kids. Watch Spotlightz and laugh.

As many of you know, I work with Deborah Lemen Studios and I direct scenes for Deb's On Camera Workshops. You can see the difference in the kind of work she does in scenes like this one...

I recently interviewed Deb and asked her about what makes her workshops unique.

How is your approach to teaching young actors different than other studios?

There are many on Camera Workshops out there in LA. Many do not spend time with each individual actor, preparing and rehearsing them for his or her scene. They do not shoot on professional cameras. They do not shoot on location, but instead shoot against a black wall.  They don't provide professional directors to work with the students. They are also extremely expensive and provide a result that looks nothing like a real movie or television program.  As a result, these filmed scenes are usually a bad showcase for actors.

After my workshops, actors get two scenes that look like clips from an independent film.

Why do your students look so natural on camera, as opposed to the awkward stagey-ness so often seen on young people's reels?

With intense study and practice in the classroom, on set and on camera, I  place special emphasis on training the actor to respond quickly and fully to all stimuli, enabling each student to make fearless, confident and ultimately winning choices.  This leads to more natural, more engaging, and more stand-out performances. Younger actors are taught with the same emphasis on craft and authentic human behavior as are adults.

I take special care with each student. Every young actor has specific needs and individual strengths. I don't rely on any one method at the exclusion of others. I take all I have learned from a variety of renowned teachers and I find an approach that is best for each student - both teen and child actors who may be learning these approaches for the first time, and young adults who may already be comfortable with a particular method.

I myself have studied with George Morrison and Jack Waltzer in New York (Meisner, Strasberg, Stanoslavsky, Adler.) In Los Angeles I studied with Peter Flood (Strasberg, Meisner,) and for 15 years in a Master Class with Ivana Chubbuck. I was founder of the Youth and Teen Division of the Ivana Chubbuck Studio, and I was the first to adapt the Chubbuck technique for kids and teens.  

So often kids, teens and young adults are taught wrote memorization and this can lead to stiff, stilted and unnatural performances. My students learn their lines rather than memorize them. They know what they are saying, and they listen before they speak. If the words are not there, I teach them to breathe, and the words come. In life we often do not know what we are going to say next. So if the words are not there as an actor, I tell my students"That is a gift". Often times something will happen and forces the actor to be present.  It forces the actor to be in the reality of the moment. Forces them to breath. To just... be.

I also teach script analysis. Each student - kid, teen, or adult - is taught to break down the script in Beats, Actions, Moments Before, Personalizations, Inner Objects, and Inner Monologues. We discus Doings and Previous Circumstances. Most importantly, I teach that after this rigorous script analysis, the actors Lets It Go. Once the work has been done (really done) it is inside.  The actor knows what it is that he or she wants and what to do to get it, or what to do "to win."

My teaching is about Human Behavior.  It's not about the words, but rather what is underneath the words

Why is it important to have experience working on camera as opposed to working in class.

There is a huge difference between learning how to be an actor in a classroom environment and actually putting it into practice. My workshop is an opportunity to test an actor's work in a professional environment, which can be distracting and overwhelming to actors experiencing it for the first time. We take what they know and what they have learned and we put it into action.

My On Camera Workshops give the student the authentic experience of being on a movie set: Real Locations, Award Winning Directors, Professional DP, State of the Art Epic Red Camera, and a Professional editor.  Students receive two edited scenes. 

I offer classes, for kids, teens, young adults and adults. The On Camera Workshop is a wonderful compliment to the acting classes. Everything learned in class is applied to the on camera experience.  After taking On Camera Workshop a student's work grows exponentially in terms of craft, but they also learn the practical skills that only comes from experience in front of a camera.

What is the advantage to having scenes shot professionally when building a reel? 
If one wants to be a professional actor they need to show their work to the world. Getting cast in a film or on TV will do that, but often in order to get those gigs or to even get your foot in the door you have to find a way to show them where your talents lie. That is what an actor can gain from your on camera workshop. They will ultimately leave with two professionally, directed, shot and edited scenes that promote their talents. It is perfect reel footage!

When professionals in the industry look at scenes shot professionally, they take the actor more seriously. They are able to see an actors look and talent without by bad picture or sound. If the scene looks like a movie clip, a professional can imagine casting the actor in a movie. The work will grab their attention. And that is what is all about, to have people understand an actor's talent, her beauty, and all the ineffable qualities that makes an her unique.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Connection - the film: In the beginning, there was the idea....

Jacques Thelemaque is blogging again, about his latest film...

Connection - the film: In the beginning, there was the idea....: So this is the first post to my blog about the journey to make my new film, "Connection". Why, how, where, when, with whom, etc...

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Publishing Screenplays as Ebooks: eScriptsHub

There was a time, and it feels like not that long ago, when screenwriters would go to Kinkos and run off fifty copies of their scripts in order to send them to agents, producers, and anyone else who might be willing to read them. Now there are numerous ways to showcase a screenplay on digital platforms, including publishing that script as an eBook.

I've investigated several ways of creating such an eBook. Some services advocate translating the script to a simplified novel (Aisle Seat Books), and other books and blogs tell scribes how to just tinker with a traditional script file and upload it to Amazon (see: How to Publish Your Script or Publish Your Screenplay on Kindle eBook, by London Tracy.)

However, nobody seems to have really found the right format, connected movie scripts with a viable market of readers, or provided an easy way for screenwriters to make the transition.  Ken Miyamoto thinks he's solved the problem.

If you have already read Ken's smart and entertaining Quora answers on the craft of screenwriting, you know he is a man who knows what he is talking about. I recently had a chance to interview him about his latest venture...

You have been a professional screenwriter for many years. What motivated you to create eScriptsHub.com?


As screenwriters, we pour our hearts and souls into our stories. We spend anywhere from a few months to a year or more on each script that we write. And what do we want to do the moment we finish that final draft? We want to take it to people that can get it made.

And then what happens? Most of the time… nothing. Because getting a film made is difficult. It’s damn near impossible. Even making a sale on a spec script is damn near impossible these days.

That’s what is unfortunately unique about screenwriters. We only have one platform for our work to be seen. On the screen. If the scripts aren’t produced in whatever fashion, nobody sees it. Our stories aren’t told. They are left in the void of our own imaginations.

So I started to think about the thousands upon thousands of great screenplays that will never see the light of day. They’ll never find an audience. That’s a shame.

Then I started to look at my own spec scripts, thinking, “Gosh, I’d love for them to have an audience.” Then I started to look at the current craze of ebooks and the idea that these undiscovered writers are self publishing their own ebooks on Amazon. Garnering hundreds of thousands of readers.

Thus my idea of eScripts was born. The thought was to create a hybrid of ebooks and movie screenplays. To create a format that popped off of the screen of those Kindles, iPads, and PCs.

eScriptsHub.com itself started as a drop page to my own eScripts. Then I began to think that if I really wanted this new format and platform to grow, we’re going to need to drive a universal format (i.e. the format I cracked) into the mix to offer readers some consistency. So I created the Hub to be a central gathering point for this format and platform, offering screenwriters everything they need and also offering readers a place to learn more.

How is an eScript different in format than a regular script?

Many of the scripts being self published on Amazon were converted PDFs. They look horrible on Kindles, Nooks, tablets, and PCs. That format and the fonts that we normally write screenplays with just don’t pop off of the screen like an ebook.

The format changes that I eventually made to eScripts came to me by chance. I eventually discovered that moving almost everything to the left margin made the read so much better.

And here’s the kicker. Because we are trying to find a new audience with ebook readers, it created the perfect hybrid for them. They are used to reading from the left margin. Their eyes are tuned to that scanning, as opposed to going from left margin to center margin back and forth, back and forth, between scene description, dialogue, etc.

Beyond that, with eScripts, we’re allowed to use chapter headings, images, and can allow ourselves to use an extra few lines or so here and there in our scene descriptions because we don’t have to abide by Hollywood standards.

Reading screenplays, because they are essentially just a blueprint or armature for a movie, is generally less fun that reading books or even plays. Why would ordinary people read eScripts?

I disagree somewhat. To me, reading screenplays is a whole new medium of storytelling for readers. A visual medium. It’s the perfect hybrid of literature and watching movies; two of the world’s most favorite past times. And eScripts are the truest form of that perfect hybrid.

Beyond that, the exciting factor for readers is that they can experience a whole story, told in visual flare, in just two hours worth of reading, if that, per each eScript. As opposed to the commitment of multiple hours, days, weeks, and sometimes months of reading an ebook.

eScripts are perfect for lunch breaks, late night reads before bed, while waiting for their flights in the airport, etc.

If the format is easy to read, would it make sense for development professionals to read all scripts in eScript format?

That would be a big leap for them. Creatures of habit. Personally, I think it would make a real difference, especially with the advent of iPhones, iPads, tablets, Kindles, Kindle Readers, Nooks, etc. But easier said than done.

Why would it be a good idea for screenwriters to publish their un-produced scripts as eScripts?

By all means, screenwriters should go the film industry route to try and get their scripts packaged, sold, and produced. The reality of it is that chances are that’s not going to happen. So if you’ve exhausted those attempts, and it isn’t happening, with self publishing your scripts as eScripts you have a Plan B. You have a secondary platform.

And who knows what happens then? The possibilities are endless. In the end, the short answer to this question is that it offers screenwriters multiple platforms instead of just one. And with multiple platforms comes multiple opportunities. And with multiple opportunities comes better chances for our dreams to come true.

Others have advocated translating a script into a traditional novel-ish format. (see: Converting Your Script To a Novel) Why do you think eScripts is a better way for the average person to read a script?

What if the average ebook reader has never read a screenplay before? That’s the core of this question. I’m a firm believer that reading screenplays is easier than reading a book, and within the format that I’ve come up with, there is a brief opening page that offers descriptions to the most common technical jargon found in most scripts. INT. EXT. Etc.

What really makes eScripts stand apart, beyond the freedom to use chapter headings, images, and what not, are the format changes I mentioned above. They look great on Kindles, Nooks, iPads, tablets, Kindle readers, etc. They are so much easier and vibrant to read.

With the deluge of self-publishing and millions of ebooks already out there, how is there a market for eScripts?

That’s the undiscovered country. It’s a new platform.

The key thing is marketing. You’re right. There are millions of self published ebooks out there now. But any successful author that has published hit ebooks will tell you that marketing is everything. If you don’t market, how can you expect to stand out amongst those millions of others?

It’s not about creating a whole new market. We as writers can’t do that. Only the consumer can. But a market can’t be created without product. That’s what I’m trying to do. Shepherd this format and platform and hope that down the road it takes on a life of its own. 

It’s a new dawn. A new age of technology. In the film industry, we are seeing a major shift for screenwriters. Gone are the heydays of the 90s and early to mid 2000s, when spec sales were at all time highs. Spec scripts are calling cards now. Samples. Rarely are they ever picked up and even more rarely are they ever produced. These days it’s all about the pre-packaged deals. Projects with existing fan bases are the ones that sell (Graphic novel adaptations, ebooks, novels, etc.). This leaves thousands upon thousands of screenplays left unseen. Rich concepts, stories, and characters without an audience.

It’s about time we screenwriters start doing something about that. 

You can read one of Ken's own scripts in eScripthub.com format HERE:

You can follow Ken on Twitter at @KenMovies.
You visit his blog at http://kenmiyamoto.quora.com. 
You can also follow eScriptsHub.com on Facebook and on Twitter as well at @eScriptshub.

I write this blog in order to connect with intelligent, ambitious, and creative people. If you leave a comment, you will inspire me to write more. If you liked the article, please share it.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Real Myths Are Weird

If you are a screenwriter, you already know The Hero’s Journey.  Every writer, agent, producer and executive in Hollywood knows all about Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces as popularized by Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey.  Perhaps you’ve analyzed “the refusal of the call” and “the symbolic death and rebirth” in Star Wars.  Maybe you’ve identified mobsters in The The Godfather as “Mentors," “Tricksters” and “Supernatural Aids.”  It's not hard.  We really can find reflections of the “monomyth” in movies as diverse as “Blue Is The Warmest Color” and “Iron Man 3.”

But… have you read any actual myths lately?  They're weird.  Really weird So weird they make me wonder if The Hero’s Journey, as interpreted by screenplay gurus,  ignores the uncanny, disturbing, and intriguing weirdness of the myths on which it is based. 

For example, take Gilgamesh.  First composed some 4000 years ago, it is our oldest story, and the mother of all mythic quests.  Yet it contains none of the clarity, simplicity, or easy classifications found in screenwriting books.  In his introduction to his recent translation Stephen Mitchell writes, “The more we try to fit Gilgamesh into the pattern of this archetypal journey, the more bizarre, quirky and postmodern it seems.” 

The story goes like this:  Gilgamesh is our hero, but he is also a tyrant, a rapist, an egomaniac and a coward in the face of death.  His counterpart, the yin to his yang, is not a princess or goddess, but a wild, hairy man, Enkidu.  The major female character in the story is a high priestess but also a prostitute who civilizes Enkidu by having sex with him for six days straight.  She then hands him over to King Gilgamesh, who first brutally attacks his “other half” but who then “takes him in his arms and caresses him the way a man caresses his wife.” 

Next, these two best-buddies set out to face a monster, Humbaba (which is what heroes do after all, slay monsters) but these particular heroes weep at the sight of Humbaba, they fail miserably in their battle with him until a god steps in and fixes the fight in their favor, and when the now-helpless monster turns out NOT to be evil at all, and simply the guardian of a sacred forest, they kill him anyway and clear-cut the old, sacred trees for their own glory and profit. 

All this, of course, angers the gods, and they respond by killing Enkidu and causing our hero, Gilgamesh, unbearable grief and suffering, mostly because he now realizes that someday he is going to die too.  So, egotistical a fearful as always, Gilgamesh goes on a long, painful journey to find the one mortal man who was given the secret to eternal life.  However, when Gilgamesh finally finds this man, all the wise mentor can tell him is that quests like his are pointless and that he should get over himself.  

As Mitchell writes. “By preemptively attacking a monster [who was a danger to no one], Gilgamesh brings on himself a disaster that can only be overcome by an agonizing quest that results in wisdom by proving its own folly."  This is a story with NO light and dark side of the force.  "In its refusal to side with either hero or monster, it leads us to question our dangerous certainties about good and evil.”  

Which is to say this story is weird.  It’s not the kind of thing that would make a good pitch to Disney.  And, if you spend time reading various original myths, you start to discover that they are all weird.  Did you know that sleeping beauty was NOT awakened with a kiss?  She was raped in her sleep and abandoned by Prince Charming only to finally awaken a year later to find two babies suckling on her fingertips.  Did you know that the story of the 12 labors begins with Hercules murdering his wife and children in a drunken rage?  Great stories are strange.  Myths are bizarre.  And, while all these heroes and heroines still reflect, at least in part, the generic features of the Hero’s Journey,  it is precisely the way these tales diverge from the norm that makes them memorable.  

It's also a good idea to remember that while all classic movies do reflect some aspect of the monomyth, all lousy movies do as well.  Stories - great, mediocre, and dreadful - all follow the same patterns.  The Hero’s Journey is not a recipe for success; it is a description of the collective building blocks of any story - including those for Gigli, Catwoman, and Troll 2… or for that matter, Star Wars Episode One.  The monomyth is a kind of symbolic and spiritual average, not some storyteller's "secret to eternal life."  Maybe instead of searching for "control, order, and meaning" in magical templates, what we screenwriters really need is to face the futility of "the quest," as did Gilgamesh, and embrace life's chaotic weirdness.

So, consider all this before you spend too much time with “step-by-step guidelines for plot and character development.” (Volger, back cover) Be less obsessed with fitting a story into a “Hero's Journey,” and more concerned with finding those excessive and inscrutable human experiences that cannot be so neatly contained.

I write this blog in order to connect with intelligent, ambitious, and creative people. If you leave a comment, you will inspire me to write more. If you liked the article, please share it.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Is the I-Pad a New Medium?

It's easy to dismiss the I-pad and I-phone as just another way to watch traditional media like movies, TV series and even webisodes.  However, some serious and well-established filmmakers think that these devices will allow them to tell stories in an entirely new way.  One such visionary is my friend and collaborator Neal Edelstein (producer of The Ring and Mulholland Drive) who spoke to me over breakfast about why his company Hooked Digital Media is developing content that will be delivered exclusively through free apps available at the Apple App Store.  He firmly believes that I-pads and I-phones are mediums in and of themselves.

A Magic Window

First of all, he argued, people interact with the i-pad in a way that is fundamentally different than a television, a movie screen or even a computer monitor.  This was the initial challenge and opportunity for Edelstein, who has already had success in both mainstream and independent movies.  "There is a greater level of intimacy when people hold these devices in her hand like a book, touch the screen with their fingers, put on headphones, and watch content while sitting alone in a dark room." The experience is more immersive, more one-on-one between the viewer and character, especially when, as in Edelstein's project Haunting Melissa, the character gazes directly out of the screen and talks to viewer herself.  (See: "Haunting Melissa" Both Scares and Innovates)

"People carry these devices with them everywhere they go and they [the devices] become like magic windows into and out of their lives.  They're personal. They encourage people to imagine what's beyond the frame. And they create a theater of the mind."

The Storytelling App

However, the differences between I-pad and television don't really start to emerge until digital media is bundled and delivered by an app.  Far more than a simple media player, each app, as Edelstein conceives it, is designed for each particular story, and so becomes a story telling tool that is as important as cinematography or sound design.

"The app controls when the viewer gets content and creates a clean viewing environment - a kind of screening room - that is specific to the story"  It allows the storyteller to bundle a range of elements - photographs, prose, video, music, and other media - and break up and reassemble the story in unique ways.  Individual chapters of content can be any length - sixty seconds or sixty minutes - and overall projects can be open ended. "We break up the story in a way that creates excitement and anticipation for each upcoming chapter, and present it in a way that takes advantage of the technology."

This created unique challenges as the structure of the project was developed in the screenplay. (See: Writing Haunting Melissa: An Interview with Andrew Klavan)

Dynamic Story Elements

For me, "dynamic story elements" is where our conversation gets really exciting.  Edelstein is talking about "much, much more than simply cutting up a movie into pieces and stuffing it into an app."  In his first project, episodes noticeably and intriguingly change upon second viewing. In future apps, story elements (image, sound, text) could change depending on what time it is, where the viewer is, what they are doing and who they are.  A scene could be told from multiple points of view, switching every time the viewer re-watches it, further drawing her into the world. The app itself can evolve with audience feedback over the course of the series, allowing the entire project to constantly respond to viewer habits and behavior.

And, ultimately we are just talking about the state of the medium today.  With the pace of technological change, it's clear that filmmakers' projects will become more non-linear, more interactive, more dynamic and more like an alternate reality game than traditional media.  The place where these technologies and storytelling will merge is likely to be the screen that you carry with you every day, the screen on which you already spend the most time reading, watching, photographing, communicating and interacting.

The storytelling itself may remain the same, Edelstein summed up, but "the environment of an i-pad app allows storytellers a new set of tools with which to tell them."

(Download Haunting Melissa)

Monday, August 5, 2013

Writing Haunting Melissa: An Interview with Andrew Klavan

    A major thesis of this blog is "Screenwriting means writing for anything with a screen." As many of you know, Haunting Melissa is a project developed exclusively for the iPhone and iPad, and unlike a movie or television program, it has been designed specifically for the way viewers interact with these devices. Its chapters and chapter fragments are released in sporadic and unexpected ways. Episodes are not the same upon second viewing. The storytelling is so inventive that many reviewers have suggested that director Neal Edelstein (producer of “The Ring” and “Mulholland Drive") has "re-invented filmmaking." (See: App-Only Horror Movie “Haunting Melissa” Challenges Traditional Storytelling)

    Intriguingly for both filmmakers and screenwriters, Edelstein told Tech Crunch that his company Hooked Digital Media is funding a wide slate of these kind of projects. “We want to empower creative filmmakers to use these devices and this technology. We will help them with that and financing,” says Edelstein. “I think it’s an interesting time in Hollywood because not as many films are getting made, but people are looking for different opportunities. We’re perfectly positioned to take advantage of that.”

    I'm always on the lookout for ways for screenwriters to get their stories told. But how does one write the screenplay for an App? 

    Andrew Klavan

    In order to find out, I spoke to the screenwriter of Haunting Melissa, Andrew Klavan. Andrew, also known by his pen name Keith Peterson, is an writer of mystery novels, psychological thrillers, and screenplays for "tough-guy" mystery films. Two of Klavan's books have been adapted into motion pictures: True Crime (1999) and Don't Say A Word (2001). As readers of Genre Hacks know, I encourage writers to work their craft in a variety of mediums, whether novels or teleplays, blockbusters or webisodes.  Andrew is in many ways the model of a writer successfully adapting to radical changes in the entertainment business and emerging technology, so I had A LOT of questions for him:

    You have written novels, screenplays and teleplays. How was writing a serialized story for an app different?

    It was very different. For one thing, it used elements from all those forms, but was identical to none of them, which was pretty interesting right there. So, for instance, you had the time for character development you get in television but, because the story was more compact and had a definitive ending, you also had the coherent character arc that's more common in a novel or a film. Because the episodes were sometimes relatively short, you had the kind of story density you get in movies, but the overall story was again more novel-like in length. Then, of course, you had those fragments and what Neal calls "dynamic story elements," things that actually changed within the story. That wasn't like anything else I can think of, but I tried to incorporate them into the plot so they'd have story-integrity, and not just feel like add-ons.

    There are elements in your screenplay for Haunting Melissa that one would never find in traditional TV or movies…the recorded phone messages and web-chats in particular. Why did you decide to include these?

    The intimacy of the medium mostly. You have someone sitting there with his iPad or iPhone - it's a very intimate experience. It's still something you watch, like TV, but it's just more like the experience of reading, just you and the story one on one. It sometimes made me nervous to do things that weren't strictly visual or film-like, but under the nervousness, I was pretty sure it would work because of the close relationship between the viewer and his device. Plus it gave us new ways of scaring people, scares no one had ever really used before. You know, a haunted social media feed - that's pretty cool. You can't really do that as well anywhere else.

    Sound design is extremely important to the experience of Haunting Melissa. To what extent did you consider sound while writing.

    Only a bit of that was me. As far as the writing goes, again, I depended on the intimacy for sound effects. I figured people would be wearing earphones and so on, so I knew I could do pretty subtle things: the whispering under the music and static and so forth. But so much of the sound stuff is down to Neal and his tech magicians too. I mean, this is true in any scary movie - sound is fifty percent of the effect - much more than the average audience member realizes - and that's not something a writer can supply. Neal was endlessly creative in providing a frightening sound atmosphere and he could take even ordinary moments and make them nerve wracking. I remember visiting him in the editing room, seeing how hard he worked on that stuff - it was amazing. I'll take some credit for the plot points that depend on sound, but that overall ambience was created after my role was largely over.

    In what ways did fiction writing inform the way you conceived and structured Haunting Melissa?

    It might piss some people off for me to say it, but it's just true: novel writing is far and away the hardest form of fiction writing and the one that, done well, requires the greatest number of skills and the greatest depth of skill. With the possible exception of cheap, jump-out-at-you boo-scares (although actually Joe Hill does those brilliantly in his novel Heart-Shaped Box), almost everything that's in film is or can be in novels, and there are some things in novels that don't appear anywhere else. Sure, some people can't translate their novel-writing skills to the various visual forms because they just don't get the structure or can't make the leap from read dialogue to spoken dialogue or whatever. But if I can say this without sounding too much like a pompous ass (maybe just a little like a pompous ass!) if you can write a good novel, you have a lot of tools with which to build any other story well.

    Screenwriters are used to writing in tradition three-acts for movies, or 4 Acts with a teaser for hour drama. Haunting Melissa seems to explode those conventions. How did you structure Haunting Melissa?

    Man, that's a smart question. I hate those! Make it stop! No, seriously, that was the thing that required the most thought: the structure. It wasn't TV and it wasn't film and it wasn't a novel, so how do you orchestrate the highs and lows, the climaxes and exposition and so on, at the same time drawing it out while making every moment compelling? I finally settled on an extremely modified three act structure with each act containing several inner acts like Russian boxes or like the spiral structure of some of those old epic poems. But then, because I knew the act movements would be so stretched out, I tried to attach each one to an idea, you know, so the audience could keep something in mind as we moved toward it. Neal had come to me with the idea of a girl in a house with a locked door, so I used that: Each act is keyed around the opening of a door, and each door leads us deeper into the mystery. I'm really proud of the structure, since I had to invent it and I love inventing stuff! But that said, I've got a totally new structure to use next time out that's much more complex and, in my humble O, even cooler.

    How many pages was the Haunting Melissa script. How did the time and effort compare to writing in other forms (feature, TV, novel, etc.)

    I can't remember what the page count was on my last draft - 130? 140? Something like that. The draft before that was much longer because I wanted to make sure there was enough material, then I slashed it back because it was just too long. It was harder to write than a movie, because of the length but also because of the thought that had to go into the structure. It wasn't as hard as a novel. Nothing is as hard as a novel. Calculus. Brain surgery. Climbing Everest using only your teeth. A novel is harder than all of them. So this was a bit more difficult than a regular screenplay, but easier than a novel. About the same as brain surgery - at least the way I do it!

    How specifically does Haunting Melissa exploit the genre conventions of horror?

    Well, this is the part about it I love. If Neal had come to me and said, "I have this idea for an app, and it goes beep when you press this button and bleep when you press that one," I would've been completely uninterested. But Neal loves ghost stories as much as I do, and his idea was that this was a way to tell a traditional ghost story in an original, non-traditional way. I mean, between the intimacy of the medium and Neal's innovative ideas for story delivery and dynamic elements, it was almost like we could turn your ipad into a haunted device, so you wouldn't just hear the story or see it, you'd almost live it. Neal and I also both share a love of a certain kind of eerie atmosphere, the shadow in the hall, the thing you see out of the corner of your eye. We're both less interested in shock and gore and boo-scares (though we'll use them if they work) than we are in things that are scary to their core, you know, ideas so scary that even when you just describe them, they make your flesh creep. Neal and I have worked on several projects together, and sitting around with him saying, "This is scary, this isn't, this is fresh, I've seen this before, how can we push this envelope?" is always one of my favorite parts of the job.

    Would you write another app? What kind of story do you would best match the platform?

    In a heartbeat, sure. I would say the platform lends itself most readily to genre, but then I'm a genre writer. Still, ghost stories, mysteries and eerie science fiction seem to me the best way to take advantage of a genuinely new technology, you can see the way the new elements can become a part of stories like that. Drama, romances, sweeping adventure — not so much, you know. But then, if a writer sets his mind to it, who knows? It's a brand new medium. It could be boundless.

    Haunting Melissa is available for free download the Apple App Store. Watch the teaser below...

    Friday, May 17, 2013

    What if they all did it like Amazon?

    For all of you interested in writing TV or developing TV, this is a very interesting development from Roy Price and Amazon.com. What would happen if all networks and premium cable allowed their audiences to choose their pilots?  Would that be a good thing?  How would you feel if YOUR pilot was chosen by an audience instead of executives and focus groups?

    Amazon creates online streaming TV with new production arm

    Amazon has recently released 14 new pilot episodes on its website created by its Amazon Studios unit and the e-commerce site wants viewers to choose which previews the company should turn into full-on, season-long shows. The 14 offerings range from well-known Hollywood entities, like the Sony spin-off Zombieland, to lesser-known creations a la the comedy Those Who Can't, which was generated from an online submission entry.
    What's the creative process behind these pilots? How did ideas get the green light? How has response been so far?  Listen to Roy Price, director of Amazon Studios: HERE

    Thursday, May 16, 2013

    "Haunting Melissa" Both Scares and Innovates

    First watch the trailer...

    Haunting Melissa is a new kind of viewing experience.  It's not a film (although it was created by the producer of Mulholland Drive and The Ring.) It's not a TV series (although it is serialized, appearing over the course of days, weeks and months.) And, it certainly is not a bundle of webisodes (though it is delivered by an app made exclusively for the I-pad and I-phone.)  Watching Haunting Melissa doesn't feel quite like any of these things.  It's something innovative, exciting... and very, very scary.

    Now go download the free App:  Haunting Melissa

    As a friend, collaborator  and  filmmaker with a burning interest in new technologies and new distribution models, I had a chance to observe Neal Eddlestein conceive, create and deliver Haunting Melissa.  Over the next couple days I will be interviewing Neal, and blogging about what this project could mean for independent filmmakers looking for new ways to tell stories, reach audiences and monetize their content.

    As a fan of the uncanny tone and intensity of David Lynch as well as the surreal supernatural horror of The Ring, I couldn't be more drawn to the story itself.  I was able to get a sneak peak at some of the later sequences, and they truly have the unsettling quality of both a hazy nightmare and a decent into madness.

    Interviews, discussion and analysis to come.  Stay tuned...

    Melissa Herself

    Wednesday, May 1, 2013

    Original Filmed Content For Apps

    This could very well be a brand new storytelling medium, and an opportunity for both film and TV writers/producers/directors to reach audiences in an entirely new way. My friend, collaborator, and fellow Quora contributor Neal Edelstein is leading the revolution. Check out the link below...

    Hooked Digital Media Launches; Will Produce Original Filmed Content For Apps