Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Writing The Short Film - Week Two

In Week Two of "Writing The Short Film" at USC's School of Cinematic Arts, students bring in exercises and read them aloud to the class. Each exercise focuses on a specific memory: a secret place they used to go, their favorite toy, a person who frightened them.

The idea is to look at story elements - environment, props, character - and notice what kind of specific details are vivid and evocative. Much of rewriting involves moving away from dull, generic, cliche choices and finding those that are pertinent, memorable and unique. Short films in particular, where there is little time for exposition, require finding visual and aural details that tell us everything we need to know in an instant.


Next, we discuss the first 32 pages Moonlight, in light of our definition of Story from Week One: a story is about someone who wants something very badly but is having trouble getting it.

Classroom Whiteboard

In this first section of the screenplay, it is Juan's story. Although the larger movie is about the boy, "Little," in three stages of his life, we (the reader/audience) experience the first act from Juan's point of view, as he tries to get the boy to speak, tries to find out where he lives, teaches him to swim, confronts his mother, and finally admits to the boy the truth. In this first section, we feel sympathy for the boy and his troubles, but we feel empathy for Juan as he tries to help him. We are "in Juan's shoes."

What does Juan want? He wants to father (to mentor, to protect, to teach) the sensitive child.

Why does Juan want this so badly? We see the relationship's potential when Juan teaches the boy to swim. We see what the boy faces without Juan in the abusive scenes at home with the boy's mother. This sets up the TENSION (see definition below): we HOPE that Juan can help and protect the boy, but we FEAR that the boy's home life and street life are too dangerous and abusive.

What are the primary obstacles Juan faces as he attempts to get what he wants? Well, Juan is the mother's drug dealer, as so, he himself is (ironically) the source of the boy's primary problem.

Juan's attempts to help the boy reach the highest point of tension in the final scene of the Act when Juan has to answer the boy's direct and unflinching questions. Am I a fagot? Do you sell drugs? Do you sell drugs to my mom?

It is also the moment of greatest empathy for Juan. We (the reader/audience) sit with him at that table, feeling his struggle to say the right thing. We know what Juan knows, and what the boy doesn't know. We feel Juan's struggle and heartbreak.

Screenwriting Term of The Week: TENSION

There are many forms of tension in movies, but tension always creates anticipation and anxiety about what is going to happen next. Tension is what makes you turn the page. Tension keeps the audience in their seats.

Tension is created when the audience can imagine or sense what is might happen next in the story, sequence, or scene, but isn't sure which way it will go. The story elements suggest several possible futures. We (the audience) HOPE for one outcome(s), but we FEAR another.

Classroom Whiteboard

There are many forms of tension. Cinematic tension can be created by music, editing, blocking and camera movement. Mystery tension creates a puzzle, whodunnit, or intellectual problem for the audience to solve. In a feature screenplay, there is overall story tension, sequence tensions, scene tensions and tension within individual beats.

Classroom Whiteboard

In this class, however, we will explore comic tension, romantic tension, suspense/fear tension, and more generally dramatic tension. In all cases, the writer leads the reader/audience to imagine something funny, romantic, or scary is about to happen next.

More importantly, while we can imagine (hope) for a good outcome we can also imagine (fear) a bad outcome, and it is not clear to us which way it's going to go.

In general, tension rises (i.e. the stake rise) when the possible good outcome gets better and/or the possible bad outcome gets worse. Likewise, if we have no sense of the future or if we feel like we know how things will turn out, the tension dissolves. To engage the audience, we must keep the tension high.

For example, in last week's short-of-the-week, The Lunch Date, tension is established right off the bat as we see an elderly, white woman in an environment filled with homeless African American men. We sense (as we are confronted by a homeless man who steps in front of the camera and speaks directly to us) that she may be harassed. As the story later plays out in the cafeteria, we see examples of dramatic, comic and even comically romantic tension, as we wonder what the conflict over the salad will lead to next.

Festival programmers who read screenplays and watch short films tell me that one of the biggest problems of most submissions is that they lack Tension!

Short Film of The Week

Ahhh, so hard to decide which to short film to recommend. If you are a USC film student in the mood for comic tension, watch George Lucas In Love.  It's set in at USC's School of Cinematic Arts and it stars my former TA (from back when I was a student in the 90s.)

If you are in the mood for intense dramatic tension along with edge-of-your-seat modulation of hope and fear, watch the short film Wasp

Since my students will start out making very short films with no dialogue, I thought I'd show this clever two-minute piece. Notice how it uses point-of-view, selective details, and the withholding of key-information to create fear/suspense tension, with a twist. 

For a variety of current short films try this collection of Award Winners.

For previous and subsequent classes, check out:

Writing The Short Film - Week One
Writing The Short Film - Week Three
Writing The Short Film - Week Four (and Five)

Next week I'll be lecturing about Plant and Payoff, Preparation and Aftermath. Please respond in the comments if you have questions or suggestions!

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Writing The Short Film - Week One

Another semester at USC begins, and this time I will be teaching a group of twelve graduate students about "Writing the Short Film." Of course, writing short scripts is really an introduction to scene and sequence writing, the building blocks of all longer-form movies, TV, and new media.

I love this class.

For many students (and many reading this blog,) this will be their first attempt writing scripts and working in standard screenplay format. The class covers fundamentals and assumes no previous experience. So, on the first day, I urge everyone to...

Read Screenplays

My students will start by reading the screenplay for Moonlight, but other readers can find other classic screenplays here: Screenplay Examples From Each Genre.

Watch Short Films

If you want to make short films, you should watch them... lots of them. It's easy to find great ones online. If you feel like binging, start with 9 Short Films Every Filmmaker Should Know.

In this blog I'll be showcasing one short film a week. To start, The Lunch Date is a classic example of a conflict and characterization student film, with a clear moment of "epiphany."

Write Scenes, Get Feedback

The structure of the class is extremely simple. Every week there is an assignment of 3-5 pages. Every class we read those assignments aloud and discuss them. This includes exercises and actual short film scripts for projects the students will actually produce and shoot in another class.

All blog readers should consider mirroring this process by forming a Writers' Group of 2-10 people, meeting regularly, reading work aloud and offering feedback. This introduces new writer/filmmakers to the most important and powerful screenwriting tool: The Rewrite Loop.

What you will discover, as you write short films is that "all writing is rewriting."

Learn Terms and Tools

Since this is ultimately a writing class, I'll be introducing all sorts of screenplay concepts and terms, from Plant-and-Payoff to Theme.

But the term and definition I always start with is the most basic: Story

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

In class, we discuss students' stories in terms of each piece of this definition. "A story is..."

"About someone..."  Whose story is it?  Through whose eyes, and more importantly through whose emotions do we experience the story? Who takes the actions that drive the story forward? Who changes as a result? How does that character's viewpoint allow the story to be told in a unique way?

Sometimes you write a first draft thinking it's a story about one particular character but discover that a different character is actually the one taking action, making decisions, and changing as a result. The feedback on your script might reveal that a different character is the one the audience actually cares about and identifies with. Take this feedback seriously.

"...who wants something..."  What does this protagonist want? What primary desire is forcing him/her/them to take action? Whether or not the protagonist gets s/he wants is the DRAMATIC QUESTION that the story tracks and ultimately answers. This WANT has to be very specific and concrete, so that the audience understands what is driving the plot forward.

Often in first drafts, the protagonist is passive. Circumstances don't force him or her to take action towards some sort of specific and concrete goal. Stuff happens, but all the tears, twists and tornadoes are not married to any clear objective, and so the audience loses interest.

"...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.

Often in first drafts, the story lacks tension because if the protagonist doesn't get what they want, it's not clear that it would be all that bad. Not getting what they want should be an emotionally devastating outcome for our hero. It should be, figuratively or literally, a matter of life and death.

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

Often in first drafts, things are too easy for the protagonist. Lucky coincidences help them along. Antagonists don't put up much of a fight. Problems are solved without much trouble. A former acting/directing coach at USC, Nina Foch, had sharp advice for writers on how to handle their protagonists. "Make Them Suffer!"

Of course, short films don't always take the form of "stories" according to this definition. Shorts can be driven by poetic tension, thematic tension, and cinematic tension. They can be experimental, didactic, experiential, commercial and otherwise non-narrative. However, in my own writing and in the kind of writing one does as a professional in film and TV, this definition has been extremely useful and almost universal.

Screenwriting Software

Anyone who is planning to make writing a central part of their filmmaking future should probably buy a copy of Final Draft, as it is the industry standard. However, for the purposes of writing scenes and short films, you can take advantage of all the free screenwriting software available, including CeltxAdobe Story, and Trelby. You can read reviews of all the available screenwriting software here: Best Screenwriting Software.

Next week I'll be lecturing about Dramatic Tension, so check out Writing The Short Script: Week Two.  In fact, you can check out Week Three and Week Four as well...

And, please respond in the comments if you have questions or suggestions for the class. :)

Friday, August 18, 2017

Instagram as a Writer and a Director's Tool

Filmmakers are using technology and social media in surprising ways. Recently, I spoke with Jingyi Shao, a writer/director who was once in my screenwriting class at USC, but is now a peer working with me in a writers’ circle. I share the conversation because I'm interested in how filmmakers use technology in creative ways. Feel free to comment and join the discussion...

Sean:                    So, you mentioned this in our writers’ group, but tell me about how you use Instagram as a creative tool, both as a writer and a director.

Jing:                     Originally I saw Instagram as a visual tool. As a director, I would use it in a multitude of ways. First, most obviously, you can follow your favorite filmmakers - cinematographers especially like to post stills of what they shoot, post pictures of where they are, and post other images that just interest or inspire them. On one level you're looking for what you admire, but you're also seeing what they admire. It’s a very interesting way to quickly scan visual pallets of color, mood and imagery.

                             Then I started using it more as a practical tool for location scouting. Say you are shooting in Los Angeles, and you need a boxing ring. You can very quickly search for “boxing ring” on Instagram and scroll through several hundred pictures within a minute. Many have geo tags, so you can immediately go there. But also, you can see other people’s perspectives of these places. You might walk into that boxing gym and say, "Okay, I want to shoot this punching bag." On Instagram someone might have posted a shot from the floor looking up or from above looking down or from the perspective of the speed bag itself. You know what I mean? The images are both practical and inspirational.

                             Ultimately, Instagram inspires my writing because I can follow people's online “personality,” and see what they're interested in. Sometimes how they tag or how they caption their own posts is interesting and revealing. You get a peek inside their character: how they speak, what places they might go, and what they value. When we populate a screenplay with characters, we have to imagine the details: what foods do they like to eat, what clothes do they like to wear, what friends do they hang out with, what do they do on a Friday night? You can see all this within the app.

                             Of course, we could get into an argument about whether what they post is their “real” selves. We could ask… Is that just a public face? But since we're just fleshing out characters, we can just take the traits and details we need from what these people reveal of themselves.

Sean:                   It seems like Instagram is a great character building tool because regardless whether it is entirely “real,” all sorts of information about Instragram users is conveyed in the pictures they take, and the places they go, and the things they share about themselves. Screenwriters are often asked to write about characters who are nothing like them (the writers) at all, characters we don't have necessarily have an intuitive understanding of, and this is certainly a way to observe people we might otherwise not have direct access to.

Jing:                     Absolutely, and it's always those little details that seem really random, but in the right context, they become very powerful - details that enrich the story. When you approach a character abstractly and break down his reasons, motivations, and “Wants,” the story can become too logical. Every person has an inherent logic, but that logical pattern is revealed over time, with an accumulation of details. I feel like sometimes in writing, we start with that logical breakdown instead of discovering these organic and authentic patterns through observation. On Instagram, I can just observe complete characters.

Instagram is also a pop culture machine that can quickly divulge a lot of information about how people are living, behaving, and speaking right now.

It’s extremely fast. I think we work in a medium that is very, very slow. It's the slowest art form because it takes so much money and it takes so many people and you have to jump through so many hoops to get a thing out there in the world. I don't think it's a coincidence that so many of the films coming out of Hollywood are remakes. I think the people who have worked for decades to get their films made about what is important to them don't always have a clear idea of what young creators are paying attention to.

By that I mean that older Hollywood filmmakers make things that are important or powerful to them,  but these things might not be as relevant to young people of today as they think. There is more of a generation gap between film/tv leaders than other industries like music, art, fashion.  Because it takes less money and resources to create their music, art and clothes, the development in these other industries seems a bit faster and of the moment.

                             Sometimes I'm on Instagram and surprised by what I find. I'm like, "This has 100,000 likes?" Really? But if you spend a little time and look into it, you realize, "Wow, this is actually what's powerful to people. It’s what people are interested in. You actually start to understand it.

Sean:                   So, you see Instagram as a window into millennial culture, but also a window into pop culture - a kind of culture that isn't necessarily represented in movies yet. Movies are still working from a traditional template of characters. For you, Instagram gives you a whole new pallet of people, imagery, behaviors, and concerns that aren't being reflected in movies and TV right now.

Jing:                      Yes. Especially when you're a writer and you want to create something naturalistic and authentic. You have to be able to operate in that space. You have to include social media and technology in the story. In television, there are multiple episodes of shows like Atlanta and Master of None that deal with social media. It's essential to the experience of the character's lives. So to take that out or to leave that out would make it artificial and dated.

My conversations on this subject will continue…

Saturday, August 12, 2017


Filmmakers Alliance's amazing Master Class is now called INDEPENDENT FILM, NOW! and it returns on Saturday, August 26th at Canon's new facility in Burbank.

I will be part of the first panel discussion of the day.

"If you haven't ever been to one in the past, you've missed a lot of amazing and important information. If you have, come get the latest and most comprehensive overview of making films in the digital age."

Click here for tickets.

Filmmakers Alliance has supported the production of hundreds of independent shorts and features since 1993 and once again brings you INDEPENDENT FILM NOW - a state-of-the-union look at the indie film landscape, as well as an A to Z, step-by-step seminar for independent filmmakers, providing the KEY information needed to get your next project MADE and SEEN. 

INDEPENDENT FILM NOW is a clear, concise and complete view of independent filmmaking, helping you create a blueprint for your life as a filmmaker!