- KILL THE PERFECTIONIST INSTINCT
Examine your process—how you write the script. Let’s say you’ve outlined your script. You’ve blocked out time and are coming at it with good energy. You barricade yourself in with a copy of Baudelaire’s Flowers of Evil, a twelve pack of Pabst Blue Ribbon or whatever it takes to get you rolling. The pages come out, but they look like crap. What the $#@*?! Why?! Remember the scene in Amadeus where Salieri gets his hands on Mozart’s music and discovers Mozart didn’t make copies? He wrote without corrections, in a single draft, touched by the hand of God.
God speaking to you lately?
There are going to be major rewrites, minor rewrites, polishes, trims, tucks… your script, in constant revision mode. The script is never done. Even with a micro-budget you’ll be debating well into the editing process everything from single lines up to full scenes that might not make the final cut. You’ll be changing the supposedly “locked” shooting script while on set. Not to mention the grief of deciding what makes it to the shooting script. You’ll be doing draft upon draft upon...
Kill the perfectionist instinct. It’s pointless to keep rewriting the same 30 pages. It’s counter-productive. Good writers lose confidence this way. They can’t let an unfinished scene go, and that’s a definite mistake.
Push forward. That’s the purpose of the first “discovery” draft, to say everything you want to say in rough form. If, at the end of Draft 1, you’re looking at 140 pages, so what? You'll know what needs to be changed on the front end of the script by the time you reach the back end. Don't censor yourself. Get to the end of the first draft and then refine. Say everything you want to say, no matter how many pages, and don’t try to be perfect. Push it out!
- WHY I WALKED OUT ON LITTLE CHILDREN
I made a vow: “If I hear that voice-over again, I’m walking.” There’s Kate Winslet approaching a playground: “Many times Mary would take her child to the playground.” Kate swings her kid in the swing. “She loved to swing her kid on the swing.” Kate looks to a gaggle of women chatting at the merry-go-round. "There would often be other mothers there gossiping.” Voice over, if used at all, should not describe what we're seeing directly. Good voice-over is indirect. It delves into the mind of a character for insight that is essential to the scene, insight we can’t see.
If you’re using voice over, examine the necessity of it. What's your voice-over adding that we can't discover visually? By just parroting what we already see you’re playing into the worst of what voice-over can be. Why not learn from the best instead? Goodfellas, American Psycho, Apocalypse Now, Forrest Gump all had voice over essential to the narrative. In each case, there would be no movie, or a greatly compromised movie, without it.
- WHY I WALKED OUT ON BENJAMIN BUTTON
Three Oscar wins, dozens of awards and nominations around the globe. Great blood lines with F. Scott Fitzgerald source material. Incredible effects, beautiful photography to the film. Brave performances by Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett—so what's your problem with this one, genius? Why walk on it?
Because it booooored me!
Biopics that shoot for an extremely wide segment of a person’s life, are mostly doomed to failure. Yeah sure, I understand that they had to do it that way for Benjamin Button to show the extreme reverse aging. But a bloated 150 minute movie is the result, where you have to hit each decade for a certain amount of time. Felt like I was trapped watching a slide show of Benjamin Button's life. "In the 20’s I was…” “In the 40’s I was…” Structurally perfect sequences, but dull. Like a rock skimming on top of water. We get surface but nothing of great depth. There isn’t time. You have to keep moving to the next decade.
So yeah, I walked out on Benjamin Button for… Paul Blart, Mall Cop!
Fat guy on a segway? Tha-tha-that’s entertainment!
- NO BEGINS TO- STARTS TO- CONTINUES TO
Jerry starts to move out the door…
Jerry begins to descend the front steps…
Jerry continues to stroll toward his car…
Get to the verb, please!
Jerry moves out the door…
Jerry descends the front steps…
Jerry strolls toward his car…
This, obviously, doesn’t include a situation like…
Jerry starts up his car. This is fine and proper.
Jerry starts to start up the car? Ah, no.
- FLASH VS. FLASHBACK
Flashback ping-pong—bouncing from FLASHBACK to PRESENT—is not ideal. Like voice- over, use FLASHBACKS sparingly, if there’s no other way to tell the story.
Understand, too, the difference between FLASH and FLASHBACK.
Use FLASHES for short time frames, to go into a character’s mind for a burst of recollection or memory. FLASHES appear as quick, sharp visions of the past, but are not flashbacks. You never actually leave the present scene; only go back in time inside the character’s mind, then return just as quickly to the present. Do not force the reader into reading the visual equivalent of ping-pong. If you can tell the story without any flashbacks, do it.
- FINDING “ME” TIME
Nothing derails a good idea so much as not being able to execute it. When will you write?
You’re married with kids. You’re up at 7, on your way out the door by 8. At the office by 9. The office gets the A-Energy. You’re outta there by 5, home by 6. Dinner and family time takes you to 9pm. At last…it’s screenplay time! But guess what: You’re played out. Not even B or C energy. Zero energy. Staring at the computer like a zombie. Screw it, reach for the clicker and that TIVO’d SportsCenter, and… you wake up about midnight and crawl into bed. And like Jackson Browne said: “Get up and do it again.”
Life intervenes. This is not unknown to you. When it comes to writing your screenplay, you’ve got to find time to write. It’s one of the most critical decisions you’ll make, and one of the least discussed.How will you find the time to write? Can you steal time at work? Will you write a couple hours a day, or five hours on Saturday? There is no one right answer, outside the necessity of energy.
I once read in Syd Field’s Screenplay: “You need two or three hours a day to write a screenplay.” Huh?! Wrong. What the Script God meant to say is it would be ideal if you were wealthy enough to have three hours a day to write. If you don’t and you can’t, does it mean you can’t write a screenplay? Of course not. How, and more importantly, when you write is up to you. Know your process. Know when you write best, how you write best, and tailor your screenwriting toward your strength. Game this. Bring energy.
Find “me” time, you might write a good movie.
- TAKING THE FIRST SOLUTION
You’re walking along trying to figure out a plot twist when it comes to you…yes! It’s her sister AND her daughter! You found the solution. Unfortunately, you’ve also found a cliché. Chinatown did the sister and daughter thing. You claim innocence. You weren’t even thinking of Chinatown when you came up with the idea. Doesn’t matter. It’s been done and you’re guilty of taking the first solution.
When you’re brainstorming, trying to come up with a plausible and original idea for your script, never take the first solution. Or, at the least, note the first idea, and then keep digging for ideas. Is there a better solution? Have a healthy distrust of the first solution.
- BE AN ADVERB HATER
Jimmy slowly walks down the stairs.
Anyone can write that! Want your script to stand out? Do a full spell check and proofread, yes. While you're at it, when the first draft is finished, pink highlight every verb in your script. Are they strong, action verbs? Can you make them stronger? Challenge yourself. Pick better verbs, dump the adverbs.
Jimmy ambles-rambles-limps-saunters-wanders-stumbles-hobbles down the stairs. Anything but walks slowly.
- GIVING IT TO MOM TO READ
Seriously? You gave it to your mother for criticism? Unless Mom is an agent at William Morris, I would seriously question the value of advice coming your way. Soothing as matzo-ball soup, do you really need to hear her tell you how great your script is?
When you finish the first draft, you’ll want to get the script—at a minimum—to an “inner circle” of people who will not bullshit you. You need people who know movies, who want to give critique and how to critique. Seek out professional advice if necessary.
An actor friend was enrolled at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. I went to one of his productions one night. Backstage, afterwards, I relate how wonderful I thought was his performance. He thanked me for my praise and being a good friend, and then proceeded to ask what I really thought of the play. See the difference? Ego is one thing; the burning drive toward wanting to do good work is quite another.
God bless her, but…don’t give Mom your script for critique.
- WHO DO YOU KNOW?
Comes the time to sell your script, the Unknown Screenwriter is often at a loss. What the hell can you sell this thing? The first question that needs to be asked is: Who do you know? Does your brother sweep floors at Paramount? Who does he know? Get him the script. Does your dentist’s assistant have a friend who works at a film production company? Get her the script. Friend got Finals at the Nicholl Fellowship and got signed with CAA? Get her the script… now.
Inside sales trump cold-calling, period. Before you write one query letter, before you cold-call production companies with a telephone pitch, before you try screenwriting contests or Pitchfests Screenwriting Expos, please ask yourself: Who do I know in the industry? Who can help me? Someone you know. Someone you know who knows someone. Often times, new screenwriters are shrinking violets. They don’t want to push or make demands.
If a friend can help sell a script you’re passionate about, ask them to help! You just worked eight months on this script. Do you believe in it or not? Make every call you have to make. Stop short of stalking. If someone says they can’t help, fine, but leave no stone unturned.
Control what you can control.
Who do you know?
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