Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Levin's Tips, Week 6 -- Let's talk about the First Act!

Hello everyone,

Let's make a quick analysis of the "First Act" and its components. The First Act is composed of the two opening Sequences of your movie. Usually, the First Sequence (the first 12-15 minutes of your script) sets up the the character and the Status Quo. If your script was a fairy-tale, the first sequence would be the "Once upon a time, there was a Hermit who washed his laundry in a river".

Then comes the Point of Attack. This is the "But one day, a GIANT SHARK emerged from the river and prevented the Hermit from washing his laundry!" This is the wrench that's thrown into the machinery, the problem that makes the movie change gears!

The Second Sequence is usually the protagonist grappling with the problem. For example, in our imaginary movie, this is the sequence where The Hermit tries to find different rivers to do his laundry (there are no other rivers!) or calls the cops (the cops laugh at him!) or simply tries to live in his filthy clothes (he can't, his imaginary friend complains about his smell and kicks him out of the house!) or tries to bait the Great Shark to the different part of the river with an otter he found downstream. (The Great Shark is displeased by the taste of the otter! Otter, it turns out, is an acquired taste!)

"The Studio vetoed the scene where the Shark eats the Otter. Apparently Otters are just too cute to be eaten on screen!"
Then comes the End of the First Act. This is a major turning point that launches your movie in a new direction. This is usually a moment of "This is what my movie is!"

Maybe The Hermit wages war against The Great Shark after The Great Shark eats the Hermit's Hut! Your movie is a battle for survival! It's a heart pumping thriller about the Man and the Beast because this little mountain creek is too small for both of them!

Or The Great Shark eats The Hermit's Hut and the rest of your movie is a low-key road movie through the woods, examining the relationship between The Hermit and his imaginary friend Mr. Goldfarb who has an insatiable craving for Oreos! (Mr. Goldfarb and his obsession with Oreos symbolizes The Hermit's desire to go back to living in civilized society.)

Or this is where The Hermit discovers The Great Shark can talk! It's a comedy in the tone of E.T. where the two friends seize each other up and establish a symbiotic relationship! (Watch out for the adorable scene where The Hermit not only gets to wash his laundry again, but he also washes the fins of the Great Shark!)

The Great Shark's name is Mr. Fizzles!
Either way, there needs to be a feeling of "Alright, off we go!" moment at the end of your first act. An explosive launch, a propulsion of momentum! Status-Quo should shift in a real way, your protagonist should commit to a road that s/he can't return from.

For example, there should be no more question of "Oh, The Hermit can just go back to his house..." NO! THINGS HAVE CHANGED FOREVER FOR THE HERMIT! Nothing will ever be the same! Either he has no Hut anymore to go back to or he just discovered a talking fish! Again: Nothing will ever be the same!

And, finally, let's have a quick talk about the Opening Image. This is an underrated tool when it comes to finding out what your movie is supposed to be, especially if you're doing a rewrite. This opening image should, ideally, distill the theme/tone of your movie into a perfect scene.

For example, is your movie a cynical, global biting satire about the gun trade around the world? Why not start it with a montage where we track a single bullet from its inception in an industrial factory in the West to its eventual destination: the head of an African Child Soldier. See it here.

Or your opening could be more dialogue driven. Maybe you're writing a low-key romantic comedy and your main character is a neurotic comedian obsessing over his mortality. Then, maybe, you can have him speak right to the camera and tell a joke that completely captures who he is. See it here.

While I'm at it, here is what I think is a bad example of an opening scene. Here is the opening minute or so of Interstellar. It establishes the world through narrative exposition (a device that will not be used consistently through the movie), introduces Cooper through a weird dream sequence where Cooper's plane is crashing (which makes it seem like the movie is going to be about Cooper dealing with his anxieties of flying or something). Of course it's beautiful as fuck because it's Christopher Nolan we're talking about here, but it's a rather lazy opening to what the movie is eventually about.

We told you never to badmouth Nolan ever again! NOW, PREPARE TO DIE!
Alright, well, that's it from me folks. Hope you've picked up a thing or two and somewhat smiled.

Footnote: Some people have commented that Sharks do not live in rivers. To that, I say, here is a wikipedia entry that might tickle your fancy

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Levin's Tips Week 5 -- Plot

What's the difference between a Song and just Noise? A song is still noise, essentially. It's just orchestrated and conducted to evoke emotion out of you.

Plot, as a concept, is similar. It's just a bunch of events. But if you make them connected and emotionally resonant, then you can make it sing.

So, what makes a good plot? Let's talk about two very simple, fundamental elements.

                               CHARACTER CARES

If it's not personal, it's probably not that good.

There is a reason in all the detective movies the protagonist is looking for his wife's killer. There is a reason Liam Neeson in Taken didn't go all around the world tracking down... just another client. No, he was looking for his child. In the Hangover, our gang aren't tracking down their best friend out of some weird obligation, they're doing it because it's his wedding on the line. In Bridesmaids, the entire premise is based on how our main character feels like she's being frozen out of a real important part of her best friends' life.

We talked about how one of the major objectives you have in your screenplay is to make your characters suffer. This is how you make them suffer. This is how you imbue an "event" with emotional resonance so that your plot sings. This also makes your character ACTIVE as he will WANT that personal thing very, very badly.

Of all movies, James Bond series gives a pretty good glimpse into this phenomenon by the way. When Bond has a personal stake in what's going on in addition to saving the world, the movie is suddenly much better. Golden Eye (his relationship with 006), Casino Royale (his relationship with Vesper Lynd), Skyfall (his relationship with M) are much better movies than Quantum of Solace and Spectre.

So if your character saves the world/does something objectively important and it still feels underwhelming, maybe you need to hit a place closer to your protagonist's heart. Walter White did a plethora of stuff more objectively important than what happened with his family, but very few things hit as hard as that personal story does.

                            ESCALATING OBSTACLES

Here's a sequence of events that really happened to me:

- I was writing in a coffee shop just like any other day.

- Fortunately, the writing was going great. I was writing the final sequence of a script and it was thrilling as intended.

- Unfortunately, my heart started pounding like mad and it got freaky after ten minutes.

- Fortunately, there were other people in the coffee shop and they were helpful and soothing. They said I must have drank too much coffee and that's that!

- Unfortunately, then they started to freak out, saying: "Holy shit, your heart is beating out of your body. I can see your clothes shaking!"

- Fortunately, someone who seemed to know what she was doing approached me and asked if I was feeling okay. I was elated and asked if she was a doctor.

- Unfortunately, she said "kinda" and proceeded to say that she believes in the power of prayer and knelt down and started to speak to Jesus.

- Fortunately, we called 911 and the paramedics arrived promptly.

- Unfortunately, even they were freaked out and put an oxygen mask on my face.

- Fortunately, one of the paramedics said "I know what to do!" and went for his bag.

- Unfortunately, it was the biggest motherfucking needle I ever saw and he said, verbatim: "Now you're gonna feel like something just punched you in the heart. Like in Pulp Fiction. You've seen that movie, right?" which freaked me the fuck out.

- Fortunately, just as the needle touched my sin, my heart rate -- after the needle put the God's Fear in me, I guess -- stabilized and I no longer needed the giant needle.

THE END. (Also, I'm fine. It was a silly thing.)

So, that's not what I would call a great plot (I'm a pretty passive protagonist) but it has one thing you need in a plot that works: Those twists and turns and escalating obstacles.

The audience know there's going to be an "all is lost!" moment in your movie. Your challenge is to make it much worse than they think it's going to be. Like, for example, they could be like: "Hey, at least the paramedics came! He's safe!" but then THAT gets even worse by the revelation of the giant needle.

Also, this doesn't mean make your movie an endless series of defeats. Every story needs to have balance and dynamism. We need victories that bring us to glorious highs and defeats that bring us down to deep, dark lows. Neither can exist without the other.

Alright, that's that. Next week, we're going to talk about the First Act!

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Levin's Tips, Week 4 -- Structure

Structure is a tricky thing, because it's very easy to mistake the map for the territory. Some of the worst scripts I have ever read were perfectly structured with eight clear sequences, but they had no life to them. It was like watching a funeral procession made of eight little caskets pass by.

Unless you're self-financing your feature, your script will go through some readers and they will write comments to their bosses, or maybe to you directly. Here's a comment that no reader has ever written:

"I loved this script. It made me laugh, it made me cry. The characters are indelible and feel like real people. The ending fucking wrecked me. I hope this gets made by someone who understands the material, it might even be an Oscar contender. BUT I couldn't figure out where the sequence 6 started and ended, plus the mid point turn was unclear. So, unfortunately, I have to PASS on this script."

Your end game is to write something that moves people, makes them laugh, scares them, [insert emotion you mean to evoke]. It's not to write a "perfect" script. So, these terms and concepts are just tools for you to bring life to your script. Not the other way around.

                                On the other hand...

Have you ever watched a movie and thought to yourself:

"Why is this plot even in the movie? Who cares about that bullet or whatever, go back to Batman!"

"What the fuck, it feels like this movie had 11 different endings! Oh wait, more Hobbits."

"Didn't they already introduce Deadshot? Why do we need a second and a third introduction?!"

"Oh wait, the movie just... ended? Really? I sat through this and it ended on... Joaquin Phoenix fingerbanging a sand woman?"

"Man, I really liked the first half with Seth Rogen and Adam Sandler, but this stuff with Eric Bana and the house is really dragging-- Holy shit, why is this movie almost 3 hours?!"

I'm a firm believer that this movie could have been a stone cold classic with just a little bit more structure.

You should know about Structure because that's how you fix all these problems.

For example, what does it mean when a movie "drags"? It means your character has been following the same goal in the same way for a long time, and maybe you need to throw in a curveball. So, the solution is clear: Your sequence/act is running too long. Remember how we need to be switched up every other 15 pages? You didn't do that properly.

Structure is also a good tool to get to that honest, authentic place where you evoke the emotion of your audience. For example, Community and Rick and Morty are deliriously anarchic and it might feel inconceivable that they are actually really tightly plotted... but they are.

So, I know this has been especially on the esoteric side of things but, to me, the Structure part is pretty clear: Keep your audience engaged, 15 pages at a time, build to a First Act Ending where your audience has that "Here we go!" feeling, throw them a curveball at the Mid Point they didn't expect that either focuses your movie or diverts it in an interesting way, then hurt your heroes until they bleed and are forced to change as the Second Act Ending comes in... and build to a satisfying Resolution that addresses the themes you worked through in your story.

So, yeah, do that friend, and you're golden!

See you next week with a discussion about Plot and how that fits into the scheme of things!

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Levin's Tips, Week 3 -- Character

People fall in love with characters, not stories.

There are dozens of predictable romantic comedies that only work because the characters are so well drawn and we want the central duo to end up together. There are thousands hours of  listless TV shows involving doctors, lawyers and cops that are just... existentially unjustified to exist at this point and time. But they work because the central character is amusing/fascinating/different, take your pick.

There is no easy way to teach people to create indelible, memorable characters. But, hey, here are two "tricks" I use. Maybe they'll work for you too!

                              Online Impersonation

No, no, it's way less sketchier than it sounds, I promise!
There are lots of sites (reddit being the chief one among them) that have personal advice/help forums.

So, let's stay you're writing a thriller about a stay home suburban man with a wild past who discovers an alternate version of himself, the road-not-taken version of himself who did not settle down and kept on roaming, is haunting him.

Let's say you have the structure of the story but this character, you can't quite get into his head. What does he sound like? What are the specific details that differentiate him from the rest of people? What does it mean to have had a crazy past and a serene present?

So, maybe you create an account on reddit and write a post asking for advice. Something like this.

Chances are, you will get a lot of advice from people who have been in your situation. They've been there. As they talk about themselves, you get a better idea of what it must feel like.

I know this sounds a bit morally fucked up or something but I feel like, or maybe I justify it by saying this, we sort of become our characters at the moments when we inhabit them, so it's okay?

So, there you go. That's character-building-exercise number one. Then there is...

                                       MBTI TABLE

If you haven't heard about the Myers-Briggs test, go here first. If you have the time, take the test.

I'm an INTP, my wife is ENTP. So, naturally, we get along... Just like Varys and Tyrion!
Now, I know many people think this is all bullshit, and it might be honestly, but if you have a bunch of characters and you want to figure out their voices, assigning them MBTI types works wonders. Of course, it's all broad outlines and you don't want to write stock characters, but it can be a helpful start in getting into their shoes.

So, let's say you created your characters. Then what? What do we do with them in, you know, the actual screenplay?


Choices reveal character.

Let's say your character is a brave woman.

The best way to convey this to the audience is to put her in a situation that %99 of people would get the fuck out of, but she doesn't. She stays and she helps.

Or, say, your character is logical and introverted. Then maybe you put her into Disneyland, but instead of enjoying the rush of the place like her friends, she chooses to figure out how a certain roller-coaster works on a structural level.

You see the pattern? Give her a choice that contrasts with what anyone else would have done.

And super-bonus points if you put your character in a situation at the beginning of the movie where he/she makes a certain choice, then, at the end of the movie, you put him/her in a similar situation and he/she makes the other choice, conveying to us his/her change.

The poster child for this is Robert De Niro's character in The Deer Hunter. At the beginning of the movie, he has a deer in his sights. He shoots, he scores. After his experience in the War, he goes hunting again. This time, he can't bring himself to shoot the deer.

But change is hard. In fact:

And once they do, they make different choices to prove to us that, yes, they have changed.

Well, that's that for now. Next week, we will talk about more heady stuff like screenplay structure and sequences. Stay tuned!

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Levin's Tips -- Storytelling 101

What does Transformers 3, The Godfather and Dude, Where's My Car have in common?

They're all stories.

                                   The Story

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

Let's break that down, shall we?

 "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?

But why? What happens if you bungle this up?

                                   Introducing: The Care-O-Meter!

Cinema is a visceral medium. 99 percent of the time, whether we like a movie or not depends on whether we gave a shit about the people/animals on the screen or not. Imagine the TV Show House if House wasn't interesting, would anyone have watched it and thought "Oh my, look at all those fascinating medical mysteries!" The intellectual component of it is definitely a part of what makes a story tick, but unless you have lovable characters/engaging situations, it's tough for the audience to care. Think of how your non-film-school friends/family members talk about movies. "I love the Joker, he was so fun! He was the best part of the movie!"

The Care-O-Meter is a tool we use in the class to help you identify which parts of your script are "cooking" and what parts are "falling flat". For example, you might discover people really care about those supporting character you have, and maybe you should bring him/her more up to the forefront of your story. Maybe people are really not feeling that funny set piece with the lions running around the circus.

What can you do to fix this?


The first photo that came up when I googled TENSION!
You've probably had this experience: A character is about to do something and you want it to succeed so badly. You're FEARING he/she is going to fail, you're HOPING he/she is going to succeed. Best movies evoke this in us and no matter how complicated they may seem, they can be traced back to that very simple "Someone wants something very badly and has trouble getting it!"

12 Angry Men: You're desperately hoping the Juror 8 is going to convince the others and fearing that the accused young man is going to be hanged/go to prison for the rest of his life.

Why did I choose this film specifically?

Because look at that poster helpfully spelling it out!

Of course not all tensions are life or death. But if you write a romantic comedy, you better make sure that we HOPE love will bloom between your central couple and FEAR they're not going to make it. The trick is go deeper instead of bigger. Whiplash, for example, makes you care about whether if a kid is going to become a jazz drummer or not SO MUCH that the entire movie feels like a heart attack.

Look at your script. Is there a way to heighten the audience's engagement with your story? Perhaps your antagonist isn't strong enough, so we don't FEAR that much. Perhaps your character doesn't seem to want that much from life, so we don't HOPE that much either. 90 percent of script problems can be boiled down to this Tension/Hope/Fear triangle.

And next time when you talk about your script with someone who has read it, pay specific attention to how they feel about it emotionally. Ask them where they felt most engaged and where their Care-O-Meter hit zero. This is essential for you to pinpoint the problem areas and the strong elements in your script!

On that note, feel free to check out some tips on How To Take and Process Feedback and How to Give Feedback.

For more on finding the story, check out Writing The Feature Script: Week Two - Finding The Story

For more tips from Levin, check out Rewriting (A.K.A. Welcome To The Rest of Your Life)

See you next week!

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Sceenwriting Is Rewriting: Interview with Jack Epps!

As part of the class I teach at USC, Rewriting The Feature Script, I encourage my students to read Screenwriting is Rewriting, by Jack Epps. Not only does the book mirror all the week-by-week assignments in my course, it is one of the most useful screenwriting manuals I have ever read (and I've read quite a few,) particularly for advanced students.

Jack Epps Jr. has been working as a screenwriter for over forty years. He is best known for co-writing iconic movies like Top Gun and Dick Tracy. He also did extensive revisions on movies such as Sister Act and Die Hard 3. Today, he is the chair of the writing division of USC's School of Cinematic Arts.

SH: Why do we need a book on "Rewriting" and how is this book different than all the other books on screenwriting?

JE: As professional writers know, most of our time is spent rewriting our own work or someone else’s work. The importance of first drafts is way over-rated. If you want to succeed as a screenwriter, then you better be a great rewriter or they will hire someone else who is a great rewriter. First drafts are fine, but they are only a sketch of an idea. The real work is done in the rewrites – that’s rewrites with a huge “S.” Knowing how to rewrite successfully is the key to a successful career.

Most screenwriting books only focus on the first draft and pay scant attention to rewriting. Screenwriting is Rewriting assumes the writer has written a first draft. The primary goal of my book is to focus on rewriting. There are chapters that review essential fundamentals, since it is the failure to execute these fundamentals that cause major script problems. The book is based on my years of professional experience as a screenwriter. Most of my time was spent rewriting. I expected to rewrite even before I began the first draft.

SH: Why do you distinguish between different kinds of rewrites or "passes"?

JE: One of the great mistakes aspiring writers make is they often try to resolve every note in one giant rewrite that usually results in a much weaker, flawed, screenplay. I learned during my career that it was much easier, and more effective, to execute a series of small focused rewrites rather than one giant rewrite. Each pass focuses on a different essential aspect of screenwriting. First, start with the major fundamental elements, and then work through the notes.

The challenge in writing the book was that every rewrite is different. There is no “one size fits all” approach to rewriting. I broke the book into eleven different passes so writers can choose which pass best fits their needs. They may also consider combining passes. This is not a “checklist” book. It’s a resource guide, and it is meant to be flexible.

SH: What are some common mistakes screenwriters make while rewriting? How can the book help?

JE: “Preciousness” is probably the biggest mistake an aspiring writer can make. They’ve written a first draft and they are enamored with it. They think it’s perfect, and not a word should be changed. In my experience, that’s not the way it works professionally. Another common mistake is that aspiring screenwriters often favor plot over character. Plot serves character. A great plot is essential, but it must serve character. Another mistake is to “throw the baby out with the bathwater” and start all over again on page one. Page one rewrites usually result in a weaker, less inspired, imitation of the first draft. There must be some gold that can be mined in the next draft. It’s important to know what works. Try to protect what works and revise the problems.

SH: Much of the book is structured around responding to notes - notes from producers, executives, and peers. Why is it so important to get feedback while rewriting a script? 

JE: It is really hard to have distance and perspective on your own work. Good notes give the writer perspective on how the work is “actually” being perceived—not how they “think” it is being perceived. But notes are not always clear or right. One of the challenges of rewriting is learning how to interpret notes. Notes are not always what they seem, and often the solution to the note is not what is suggested or apparent. I focus a lot in the book on interpreting notes. It’s also important to find people you trust to give you good notes, and to learn to let go and embrace the change necessary to take your screenplay to the next level.

SH: Manuals like "Save The Cat" are directed at amateurs who say to themselves "I've got a movie idea, and I think I'll write the script!" Is it fair to say that your book targets more advanced writers, students, and professionals?

JE: Rewriting itself is an advanced skill. My book is written for aspiring writers as well as professionals. I am assuming the writer is experienced and has written one or two scripts. For the professional, I hope it works as a way to help jump start their rewrite— to serve as a refresher. As professional writers, we often drift from away from screenwriting essentials. The book also serves as a refresher for professionals and helps them refocus their work.

SH: What is the best way to use the book when tackling a particular rewrite?

First, use the book to help organize notes and create a game plan to attack the rewrite. Secondly, decide which elements to prioritize in the first pass. It’s really easy to get lost in the middle of a rewrite, and the book can serve as a guide to help the writer work through their rewrite. I stress throughout the book how much work rewriting is, but I also hope it will serve as inspiration for those times when the writer feels like throwing in the towel. We’ve all been there, but it’s those writers to stay at it, and continue to dig deep, who will succeed.

Rewriting is hard work. If you stay at it, not only will you get a significantly better screenplay, but you will also become a much better screenwriter by going through the rewrite experience. You will definitely know what you “must” have before you begin your next project. The goal is to become a better, more efficient screenwriter. As I tell my students, writing never gets easier, but you can become more efficient.

Also on Genre Hacks...

Interview with Head of Amazon Studios Roy Price: How to Write for Amazon.

Levin's Tips -- Rewriting (A.K.A. Welcome To The Rest of Your Life)

Hey, you!

You wrote a script! Maybe it was your first! Let's get two things out of the way. Here's the first:


No, seriously. It's a huge fucking deal. I hope you're happy with it, but even if you're not... Remember: There was NOTHING on those pieces of paper/virtual agonizingly white screen of Final Draft and now there IS.

Revel in the miracle of that, friend! Last time someone did that, they wrote a bestselling book about him!

Oh, shit. Wait. There was also a second thing. Oh yeah. Now you gotta do a, GULP, a REWRITE. And, well, if you don't know what that looks like...

To some, like yours truly, rewrites seem like a labyrinthine process. Some people are creators, they are not fixers. They don't know where to begin. A blank page was blank enough, but how do you make a better marble statue out of the marble statue you have already carved? When you first carved it, there was nothing to destroy, it was just stone. Now it's a statue. Why should you risk destroying the statue you have so much time building?

Can't the marble statue you have already carved be good enough?

Chances are, it's not. In today's market, your screenplay needs to be A+ good to rise above the clutter. It's pretty, pretty rare for someone to write an A+ first draft. It's not impossible, sure, but then neither is winning the lottery.

Have you ever read the first draft of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind? It starts in a future where people travel in massive tubes. There is a whole subplot about Joel's ex girlfriend. It ends not on that poignant "Okay." moment. It ends in a future where people are getting sucked up in tubes.

The first draft of Back to the Future? Marty is a suicidal alien from Pluto! No, really.

The first draft of Birdman, the Oscar Winner? That last scene is pretty iconic, right? Emma Stone looks up, that ambiguity. I'm not the biggest fan of the movie, but there was something there. It at least reached for something ineffable... In the first draft: Last scene was Jack Sparrow and Johnny Depp talking about Pirates of the Caribbean 5.

In case you're still not convinced, BRUCE WILLIS WASN'T DEAD IN SIXTH SENSE until the 7th draft. YES. Sit with that for a second.

So, good. Glad to have you on board!



First steps are hard, especially if its your first time taking them. You look at your script now and you don't even know where to begin your rewrite journey. You need an anchor, a starting point.

Good news: It's already in your script. More good news: People will tell you.

You wrote this script from a starting point. Maybe that was thematic: You wanted to write about the injustices in the five different institutions of Baltimore. Or maybe you had a spontaneous image when you were walking down the street one day listening to Kanye West. Whatever it is -- an image, an idea, a memory -- there is a core to your idea.

And then you had to take that core and mushed it through the meat grinder that is your brain so that little letters and words can appear on the page. That core muddled a little bit, maybe. Some parts of it didn't turn out the way you wanted to.

Your anchor, your starting point, is that one scene where you fucking nailed that core. It's that miracle of a moment where, for a second, your vision is actualized. You point your finger at it and say: "This is what I wanted to write. This is my movie!" If you can't find it, the chances are the people reading your script can tell.

Hold onto that scene. It's going to be your key, your anchor. This is why Sean likens the rewriting process to an excavation. You're going to find your spot and dig deeper.

And you will do this in one of two ways. Either you're an Architect or you're a Gardener.


A Gardener writes from Inside Out.

They have ideas, memories, scenes and they shuffle them around, put them in a bottle and shake them until something special comes out. I saw Paul Thomas Anderson give a talk once and someone asked him: "How do you write?" He said: "I put two people into a room and make them have a conversation. Hopefully it's interesting. If it's not, then I put them in a different room. If it's still not working, I'll change one of the people. Maybe I'll change both."

The Poster Child for this method of writing is... George R. R. Martin.

He waters his garden with your tears.
The challenge for this kind of writer is usually molding the scenes and the tone of the script into a coherent, satisfying structure. This might end up forcing you to cut some wonderful character moments or even entire characters in order to write a screenplay. This is of course a maddening, cruel process but a necessary one.

Or maybe, you're an...


Talk about a script that needed a few rewrites.

An Architect writes from Outside In.

They build the World of the story first, then zoom into the scenes. They love charts and highlighters and cards and maps. They want to have the blue print before they start building the house. They know the ending before they start writing.

The pitfall for this kind of writer is to turn in stories that feel stiff. They tend to lean on their influences a bit too much when writing their first drafts. So, instead of the incoherence of a Gardener, an Architect might suffer from producing a work that is too predictable or perhaps with a tone too familiar to the movies that influenced it.

For those of you in our class, Sean is an Architect and I'm a Gardener. We deal with that dreaded Writer's Block different ways. He writes on index cards and re-composes his structure. I write fake reddit posts from the point of view of my main character and try to figure out what he or she should do in a scene. Different strokes for different folks.

Of course maybe you fall somewhere in the middle. That's alright too. Creative process is a fickle, schizophrenic thing. But knowing your process intimately will help you in the rest of your creative life. After all, in the class, we're not only learning writing as a craft, we're also learning HOW to write.

Alright, that's that for this week. Next week is going to be more about the nuts and bolts of it all (Story! Tension! Feedback!) as we dive deeper into the quagmire known as... Re-writing!

Also on Genre Hacks...

Monday, June 6, 2016

On-Camera Acting Workshops for Kids and Teens

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, April 18, 2016

Can Video Games Create Empathy?

An Intro To Narrative Video Games 
"How To Start Playing Video Games and Enjoy The Hell Out of This Beautiful Medium."

Another post by Levin
Video Games have always fought an uphill battle for legitimacy. Roger Ebert famously said they were not art. Even now, I meet people who flat out dismiss them as "stupid" or a "waste of time".

I believe Video Games are not only a legitimate medium of storytelling, they are, in many respects, an evolution of Movies and soon, pretty soon, they are going to take over as the dominant medium of storytelling because they do everything Movies do, and they do them better.

Here are some reasons why I feel that way and, if you have never played a video game, how you can get into this beautiful medium. But first, let's get something out of the way:


Pictured: Storytelling in 95 percent of Video Games.
Most Video Games use story as an excuse to get to the explosions, rather than using explosions for the service of the story. As a young medium with a young audience -- not to mention crazy expensive development costs that require them to cater to the most common denominator -- most games are focused on spectacle rather than an emotional experience.

So, no, in this article, we're not talking about those. Not that there's anything wrong with blowing shit up once in a while, just like there's nothing wrong with watching a Michael Bay movie once in a while to relax, but we're going to focus on games that have loftier goals.

Now that's out of the way-- Why Games?


Screenwriters are familiar with the note: "We need to be in her shoes in this scene!"

That is short-hand for: "We need to empathize with the character." Remember your favorite movie-going moments, you probably felt like you were right there. You knew what the character was feeling, you empathized with his/her plight or a terrible choice s/he had to make.

Well, good news: in Video Games, you are that character. You are not watching someone save the world, you are not reading about someone saving the world, you are saving the World. This added dimension of intimacy gives great meaning to anything you experience.

But saving the world sounds abstract, right? It's too big, it's hard to care. Well, how about deciding whether your friend should go to police after possibly being raped?

In Life is Strange, your friend Kate comes to you for help. During a party, she lost consciousness. A student named Nathan Prescott walked her back to her dorm room and probably raped her but she has no proof. On top of this, Nathan comes from a prestigious family and you know that if she accuses him, he's going to lawyer up and destroy her life. You know the police are going to accuse her of lying and she already seems incredibly fragile and she asks you: "Should I go to the police?"

You can tell her to go ahead. Or you can tell her to wait until you look for proof. There is no right or wrong answer. Me and my wife chose to tell Kate that she shouldn't go to police for now.

This was her anguished reaction.
Imagine this moment in a TV Show. Perhaps that's the wrong answer and Max (the character you're playing) is going to suffer the consequences. But, in a game, you will. And it will hurt.

We have another saying in the screenwriting trade: "Choices reveal character." As in, if you want to find out what a character is really made of, then put them in a bad situation. Give them a really difficult choice and their choice will reveal who they are.

In a game, you will reveal to yourself who you are.

                                                  A NEW WAY OF STORYTELLING

We are all familiar with the Murder Mystery trope. Someone is dead, there are suspects, the genius detective figures out how it happened, yada yada...

Her Story is a video game where you're the one trying to figure out the mystery. It looks like this:

What you can do, as the player, is write in keywords into the video archive. With correct keywords, which are essentially clues, you will unlock more videos and get access to more of the narrative.

By connecting one clue to the next, you untangle a web of mystery. The gameplay is deceptively easy as it simply consists of putting the player typing one word after the next, but the rabbit hole is deep and you will get lost in the where/when/who and why.

Pictured: How to play this particular video game.
The resulting experience is thrilling. Not only because you are put into the seat of the detective and have your "a-ha!" moment, but because the way the narrative unfolds is so unorthodox and unique. It's not linear or even non-linear. It's interactive, which is an element only a video game can provide.

Her Story also excels as that "empathy" part. It has a few tricks up its sleeve as to who you are.
                                                   GAMEPLAY AS SUBTEXT

It's tricky to make the gameplay enhance the narrative, just like how it's tricky to make the big action set pieces in a blockbuster serve the story and the character. As a result, most games, even those with amazing stories, are guilty of separating these two elements. You siege a castle, then get treated to a video of your character having a dramatic moment, then queue a fight scene, followed by another character moment and so on. The gameplay itself has trouble complementing the narrative... Except in some cases, the developers have found a beautiful way to merge them together.

In Last of Us, the gameplay itself serves as subtext. You play as a man named Joel who is escorting this young girl named Ellie across the country during a Zombie apocalypse. Joel has lost many people in his life when the shit hit the fan and he now actively resists talking/taking care of Ellie. He knows the less he cares, less it will hurt when he loses her again.

It also looks absolutely beautiful AND has explosions AND zombies.
The Last of Us's game play consists of the player acting as Joel and defending Ellie against countless varieties of zombies and scavengers. (In true Walking Dead fashion, it's always the latter that's more dangerous.) So, despite Joel actively trying to avoid forming a bond with Ellie, the game play is all about building that bond. Ellie doesn't know how to swim, so you pull her along wooden rafts. She is short, she can't climb certain obstacles, so you help her up. Sometimes, you save her from the grasp of a terrifying zombie. Sometimes, she saves you.

Thus, the game play has genuine meaning and complements the narrative perfectly. Rather than telling you, it shows you how the bond between these two characters develop.

                                  SO, WHERE DO YOU START YOUR JOURNEY?

If you have never played video games but you are curious, I super-duper recommend the three games I mentioned above:

Her Story doesn't require a strong computer and it's pretty cheap (it's 6 bucks online!). The gameplay is really easy to get into as you really just type in words into a screen.

Life is Strange is a longer game divided into 5 chapters. All five chapters cost around 30 bucks and you will need a good-ish PC or a gaming console to play it. The game play is on the easier side. It could be the very first video game you play and you will adjust to it pretty quickly.

It has a rather weak beginning (due to French writers trying to mimic American Teenager Slang that, thankfully, diminishes as the series goes on) and sort of a wobbly ending BUT playing it is completely worth it. It's emotional impact is almost unparalleled.

Last of Us is the perfect game. It has a better story than 99 percent of the movies/books/tv shows out there and really shows you what games are capable of. It's violent but not gratuitously. The only downside is that it's exclusive to PS 3 and PS4. And the gameplay is a bit more demanding than the two above, but if you're keen on figuring it out, I'm confident you will.

If your child/friend has it, simply borrow it, go to a dark room and play the beginning of the game. Trust me, it will be worth it.

Look! A whole new world!
And that's only the beginning. There are other beautiful, affecting games out there.

But for now, that's my 2 cents on this subject. I hope you enjoyed reading this post and maybe you will give gaming a chance. I am excited for you!