Monday, August 31, 2015

Rewrite: How To Begin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(For my WEEK 2 lecture and the next step in the rewrite process, check out Rewrite: Revisit the Story)

Thursday, August 27, 2015

What To Write About

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I got an idea.

Friday, August 14, 2015

What Should I Write About?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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