Sunday, April 30, 2006

Scene Anatomy: Throughline, Story and Beats

Scene work is important because it is what your actors will use to get through the movie. The strength of it helps your director figure out what the hell the movie is about, and gives fans stuff to quote (how many times have you seen somebody hold a mug and ask for a cover on that TPS Report with a smug grin?). It's also the subconscious difference between professionals and amateurs, between folks that get jobs and folks that want jobs they can't get.

Now, let's look at it from the three things that every scene must do: 1) Propel the character through the plot; 2) Solve the character's immediate dilemmas as they solve the plot; 3) Reveal the moment-to-moment actions of the character as he/she solves the dilemmas that make up the plot

Part one above is what is referred to as the "throughline". It's what the movie is really about: THE TERMINATOR is about a woman accepting her fate as the mother of the future savior of the world. The throughline is her transformation from timid, shy, lonely heart, to strong, brave lover and fighter. This level of the story is where themes come into play. Themes about faith, redemption, love, loss, betrayal. The things that make a movie watchable again and again.

Part two is the "story," the how of the transformation. We see her at home with her contrasting outgoing roomie, at her job as put upon waitress who can't get her orders right, as awkward third-wheel when she is stood up by her date, feeling sorry for herself at a local bar when she hears about the second killing and realizes that she might be next and all this entails as she embarks on her "hero's journey."

But scene work is composed of part three, above. It is those "beats" -- the ones talked about so much in screenwriting books and classes. They are the actions that a character undertakes during the course of the story. For example at the top of the scene at the bar after Sarah has been stood up by her date, she is drinking, then, in the b.g. she hears the TV anchor announce the second Sarah Connor killing, she asks the bartender not to change the station, then rushes to the phones to call the police when she realizes she might be in danger. The phones are out of order forcing her to leave the relative safety of the bar and head for the streets.

Broken down another way, Sarah's initial motivation is to alleviate her sadness and depression at being alone. She chooses to accomplish this by visiting a bar -- it's clear from this and earlier scenes that Sarah does not fit in in the world in which she finds herself living. This goal is interrupted by the plot when she overhears the television and her new goal becomes to seek help. Rather than alert the bartender to her dilemma she chooses to leave the bar and seek refuge elsewhere...most likely her home (but since Reese intercepts her immediately outside, she is forced to seek refuge in a nightclub).

These beats must speak to throughline, the "why" of the script, and story, the "what" of the script, because they are the "how" of the script. As you work on your screenplay/film/role you have to think of each moment in the story as it stands in relationship to the whole. This is very difficult, obviously, and is the reason it's best to work on screenplays in a group setting -- thus the birth of development hell.

One thing that connects these beats together and allows us to gain insight into character is something called "business." This is sometimes mistaken as "ticks" or "quirks," but I prefer to call this business and insist that my writers and directors call it that as well. The reason I do so is to emphasize the purpose of these story elements. I think ticks and quirks predispose a writer/director/actor to create odd characteristics (like nail-biting, or hair twirling) that fail to speak to theme or story. Business, on the other hand, is motivated by the needs of the given circumstances in a scene and directly reflect the throughline and story.

Really great actors reach for business instinctively (uncovering resonate bits through their training). It can be as simple as hiding behind a curtain of hair (especially if that hair and the act of hiding are metaphorically tied into the themes of the film and speak to the character's "secret" as in the fake blonde hair that Kim Basinger hides behind in LA CONFIDENTIAL -- hair that marks her as a Fleur-de-lys call girl, and a brunette masquerading as Veronica Lake). Or, it can be obvious as Jason Bourne's habit of flatly examining every aspect of the locations he finds himself in, which later is revealed to be his way of memorizing details that help him evade, detect or defeat his enemies, and achieve his goals and also reveal that he is, in fact, a super spy.

How does this help you write a better screenplay? Direct a better movie? Create a moving portrayal? By connecting business to the beatwork, to the story work to the throughline, a film can sing. Start with the big stuff in your first drafts and then work into the details. If you find yourself stuck or confused work from the big picture -- you may have a theme issue, or somehow the story you are telling isn't connecting back to your throughline. If you can find tons of business that feels right, but it doesn't seem to be leading back into your plotting, you may have a disconnect between plot and character. Character and plot are really the same thing, and the strength of the scene work is what shows you this.

Go. Get to work. I want my pages by Friday.

Saturday, April 29, 2006

A Breakthrough At Last

Having become completely derailed from book-writing, blog-posting, and sleep schedule by this short film, I finally experienced a breakthrough with the filmmaker. We met with a very well-known Line Producer and went through the story boards, shooting schedule and budget. As we were discussing how to make Los Angeles look like mid-town Manhattan DURING A FIRE AT NIGHT (for free, mind you), I saw a ray of light fall on the director's face. Oh shit. NOW he gets what a big chunk he's really bitten off.

I'm still in it with him to the bitter end, because that's the kind of film-ninja I am, but damn. Four months later and he's finally getting why I thought he was such a cowboy when I read the short. Go for it, I told him. I think everybody needs to reach as far as they can creatively, and following that up with some pratical know-how by actually creating the stuff you are writing about really invests you in the work. The more films you make the more you want to make. Don't let reality hobble you. Especially on a low-budget. I'm committed to setting a building on fire somewhere in LA and calling it Manhattan. Period. Hopefully this will not involve an actual blaze and the LAFD, but it may. Sigh.

There's a balance you have to strike as a filmmaker. On the one hand, you have sleep, peace, and happiness, and on the other, there's fame, glory and the envy of your peers. I have yet to see someone with all of these things at the same time. But that's the life of a filmmaker and welcome to it. A lot of people who move out here (especially folks who had real lives elsewhere) leave screaming because this business just beats the hell out of you. For some, (the ones who were bi-polar to begin with) the highs and lows feel like home, for others, it's best to keep your personal life personal and be ready for a ride. Cuz it's Vegas, baby, and you are rolling the dice every time you step out the door.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

I fell in a hole...

A very big hole.... This budget is kicking my behind. I'm helping a friend do a micro-budget short, but like a typical filmmaker my friend has got champagne taste and Kool-Aid money. I've worked on some really small films and some big films, and let me tell you, the differences are purely cosmetic. When, (and I hope for all of your sakes' you are out there plotting now) you decide to do a film, remember EL MARIACHI, BLOOD, GUTS, BULLETS AND OCTANE, SIX STRING SAMURAI and any other micro-budgeted film you can see. Your imagination is the limit. Make up your mind that you will beg, borrow or steal the amount of money you need, plan ahead, don't waste anyone's time or money, always write thank you notes, and don't burn bridges.

It is not really possible to plan for everything. If you know how much money you have, the amount you are "backing into," you're halfway home. On a microbudget, it's easier to start there, than to just budget for broke and throw in everything but the kitchen sink. There's no such thing as a "firm" number when you are thinking creatively.

That said, if you come across a filmmaker who has it stuck in his/her head that they have to know how much the film is going to cost instead of just putting their pennies on the table... RUN!

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Scene Work

The craft of filmmaking is complicated because there are so many things to master. I've talked about quite a few of them on this blog, and am always open to suggestions about things that concern you, my regular readers. E-mail or post a comment and I'll do my best to address your questions. I thank everyone who has referred a friend to the blog, seeing the numbers grow makes me want to write more and more!

Reaching into my bag of tricks, I decided to write this post about "scene work". In short, scene work is the micro-level at which a story works. In addition to understanding the interaction between plot and character, a filmmaker needs to understand the interplay within a character that gives traction to the emotional arc of the story. Following a character through the moment by moment choices that make up the meat of every scene is what attaches the audience to your story and invests them in its outcome.

I'm going to divide this bit up into a few posts which I will start tomorrow (I have some heinous budgeting work that I can no longer ignore). I haven't decided that best way to split the topic up yet, so, departing from normal template of giving teasers of the coming attractions, you'll just have to keep checking back in.... ;-)

Random asides: 1) Should I reset the template so that there are more than 3 posts up at a time? 2) Why is it that more people come to visit on Wednesday and Thursday? Is there some secret blog promotion I'm not getting?

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Packaging Your Spec

I just read the latest draft of one of my producing projects and it was fantastic. I can't tell you how happy I am. The writer took the last round of notes I gave him on the project, incorporated them and then went one better by rethinking his approach to each and every scene to incorporate all of the structural and thematic discussions we've been having. Now, the other half of my producing work can begin.

The homework for my writer is: take the scenes that I've marked for him and find actors to workshop with him. The scenes I've chosen are ones that I think define the film, the characters, explain the thematic or are in some way pivotal to the audiences understanding or enjoyment of the film. The reason I want him to workshop these scenes (there are about 5-7 of them) is because he absolutely has to understand how these scenes work -- what his characters want, their strategies, his approach to the material and the workshopping will give him a chance to really define the film before he has to sit in meetings with actors and DPs, etc. and talk about what he wants to do with the material.

My homework is to give the script to a casting friend of mine and start chasing down one or two actors through their managers and agents, as that is going on, I'll talk to friends who work in finance and acquisitions, and also figure out if there are any studios that might want to purchase material like what I'm developing. I know that this film is not a studio film -- it's a small, dark, tragedy. It's a great read, but not an easy sell. I can't wait to hit the bricks looking for money!! Joking. :-)

The act of attaching talent to a script is called "packaging" and it's how most scripts get turned into movies. It's also the way most people get screwed out of their credits and money in this business. Just like any other type of investment the first person in is usually the one who gets the worst deal. In this case, that's me and my producing partner. Since we have no cash invested in the project, we will have to negotiate our best deal possible while keeping in mind that every yahoo with $2 million wants a producing credit. Sigh.

Anyway, the casting director is a key piece of this. Some charge fees (up to $30,000 but around $2500-5000 is reasonable) to contact people on behalf of a filmmaker who has absolutely no contacts in the business, and some will demand a producing credit (best to avoid those folks unless they can set you up on face-to-face meetings with the folks you want to cast). The casting director we plan to use is a good friend, will work for deferred pay (meaning we will find out the her quote and agree to pay it when we start production), and has excellent contacts with talent (as opposed to managers and agents). I can't wait. This is the exciting part. It is fraught with danger and definitely time intensive, but a properly packaged film is irresistible to studios and distributors because it reduces their risk factors.

For the novice filmmaker packaging can be a confusing and emotional process. Just remember, the idea is to make movies and even for beginning screenwriters, directors and producers a film in the can is infinitely more valuable than a thousand workshops under the belt.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Sample Screenplays

When I first started out in the business I worked as an intern. Mostly I just filed things for other people and answered the phones with a sunny little Texas accent (went over real well with those hardened New Yorkers and jaded Angelenos, let me tell you), but my abiding joy was reading the spec scripts when they came in. I'm dating myself here, but one of my all time favorite scripts, the one that just completely blew me away and made me absotively sure I had to move to Hollywood was Andrew Kevin Walker's SEVEN script. Dark, moody, angry and ultimately about the triumph of evil over good, it was stunning in it's completeness. The day the spec hit the street, it was like an evil pleasure, an insider's read and a measure of how much a part of the game you were if you read it. Like AMERICAN BEAUTY, THE SIXTH SENSE, TRAINING DAY, that script made a mark on the game. When it came out a few years later, the film altered the landscape.

A really great spec can do that.

The above films are each great examples of genre films that have been so completely reimagined they feel like new subgenres in and of themselves. They aren't though, within their genres they utilize key features and turn them on their ears. In SEVEN, Walker's script took the thriller and combined it with the buddy movie. It introduced us to a retiring cop and his go-get 'em young partner, created a great puzzle with excellent stakes and clearly defined rules (the heart of every thriller), then wound us up about the hunt for the serial killer, the love story between Brad Pitt and Gywneth Paltrow, and then SLAMMED those two storylines together in a brilliant ending. The original spec was centered much more closely on the Morgan Freeman character, Mills, and I found it fascinating that the focus for the film version was more clearly split between the two detectives. It definitely made the death of Mills' wife more impactful.

Finding a great story to tell is difficult, but that's the writer's job. It's worth it, though. I'm working with a writer now who wrote a redemption tale set in New York. It's a great little story about father and son which has real resonance. Everyone I've pitched the story to tears up a little when they hear the particulars, and I can't wait to read the next draft of it. It's something that's almost strong enough to get him a rewrite gig. We'll do a little more work, focus the story a little better, and then do "polish" work making sure that his scene work is strong, sharpening up dialogue and going through each character's motivation moment by moment to insure that the entire film sings. I love this part of the work, in up to my elbows, using craft to fight my way to the finish. The writer I'm working with has excellent instincts and really understands his characters. It will be an excellent sample for him to use in the future.

If any of you have questions about a sample script (spec), let me know and I'll do my best to answer them. Best of luck to all of you. I'm headed to a secluded cabin on Thursday to work on the book, catch up on my reading and finish a spec I'm writing myself. I've had great feedback on the treatment, but there's a long road between treatment and spec, so I got to get to steppin'.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Breakdowns, Budgets and Scheduling

This is the nitty gritty of filmmaking. I encourage everyone out there, no matter what you are doing, to breakdown a short, budget and board it. You will 1) learn to love your producer, 2) appreciate specificity in your writing and 3) figure out exactly what you want to do with your life by surviving the only kind of trial that matters -- fire. Plus, you'll have a dvd full of proof that you know what you are doing!

If I can figure out how to post a page of the script with a color mark-up I'll do it (suggestions on how to do this are welcome). It's actually a really fascinating and informative process that teaches you a lot of the questions you need to ask and answer when you are making a movie. The recognized authority on this is FILM SCHEDULING. This book will teach you everything you need to know. It's clear, concise and has great examples to follow. I also recommend it to my writers before they work with independent producers -- the more you know the less advantage there is to be taken.

Essentially, you take out a bunch of different color markers and go through the script and highlight things -- cast, locations, props, visual effects, sound fx, playback (more on this later), etc.. There are some hard and fast rules here, but once you know them, you can feel free to improvise. After you've done coloring the script, you basically make lists of each of the elements and put scene numbers and page numbers next to where each one occurs. At this point, I hope for your sake you own Movie Magic Budgeting and Scheduling cuz the really crazy hairy part starts here -- actually scheduling and "boarding" the film. This program is expensive (around $700), and you almost need a class to really work it, but if you are serious about making your movies (as opposed to sitting around and waiting for some hot guy/gal to ask you to dance) it's something worth investing in, or at least cultivating a friendship wth someone who owns it!

Anyway, it's almost 1am, I just finished my breakdown, created very neat little tabs in Excel for Cast, Locations, blah, blah, blah, and now I'm sending that document, along with a PDF of my color markup, and the LOCKED and NUMBERED script to a line producer type to start budgeting and boarding it for me. I had fully intended to do that bit myself, but I haven't done it for 10 years, so rather than being irresponsible with my friend's money, I decided the better part of valor was to call in a favor and have someone else do it. Sigh. I hate not being a one-stop shop.

Television Season has Begun

Jane Espenson's great blog talks about the hiring "season" for television today. Great, long post with plenty of information for the novice and the not-so novice. The main thing she says, which I think should be pounded into every writer's head -- write the script until it's done. NOT to meet some arbitrary TV season.

There are people out there who are "precious" about their work. I hope none of you can be counted amongst their ranks. This is about being a professional. That means do the best you can, the highest quality you have to offer, and don't waste time doing more. That script/film/short/performance is essentially your golem. You shape it out of your imagination, talent and CRAFT. When people talk about your work they'll talk about it in terms of you -- e.g. "John Smith's too dark", "not edgy enough," "poorly written". It feels personal because it is. Not to scare you away, but please make sure you are putting your best foot forward. Look for feedback, take advantage of services that offer to read screenplays (yes, even for a fee). Check the credentials of the service, ask for references if you need them, but if you are on the other side of the country (or the world) from Los Angeles it's good to get a local read however you can. There are always going to be more notes, more suggestions, another direction. However, when you start to get consistently strong feedback, up the ante, send it to folks who aren't reading for a fee, if you get strong feedback there, then go for it.

Complications Ensue has a link to an excellent article about the business of television -- showrunning. The article basically talks about how the WGA has teamed up with some high-level producer/showrunners to teach writers how to produce. This relates to the reason I started my blog. I believe that everyone who works in the Entertainment Industry should know as much as they can about every aspect of the business. It helps to gain perspective on the process, and it's just good business. I've been planning the blog around these sorts of topics, and I hope that my writers, directors, actors, producers and executive/agent types out there don't drop off, or not read a particular post because it doesn't feel like it's "applicable."

That said, I'm going to be blogging a little bit more about demos, but I'll probably just use it as a talk about genre from here on out. The next little mini-series will be about budgetting and scheduling. Hey, if I gotta deal with it, so do you! :-)

Hope you are having a happy rainy Tuesday. I am so glad I'm no longer on the lot!! Days like today I used to flirt with the valet parkers so I could park in the guest lot, and then smile at the teamsters to get free cart rides to my office. I know, I know....

P.S. Blog traffic is up!! Now there are 12 of you! Hee hee. My evil plan to remake Hollywood has begun to take root....

Monday, April 03, 2006

Old Phonebooks

As a warm-up to a feature film I'm producing (hopefully) later this year, I agreed to produce a short film for a friend of mine. He wrote and will direct it and is putting in his own money and I'm providing the blood, sweat and tears. We've got enough loot to be comfortable that we'll get the thing made, but there definitely won't be a lot of money left over. I'm anticipating that the two of us will be asking for a lot of favors over the next few weeks. Our actor just got cast in a TV series, so we have to rush into prep over the next couple of weeks which means I need a crew TODAY. Since I've been slumming with the "suits" for the last few years, my production contacts are rusty. Luckily, last night while I was searching through a storage unit I keep chock full of old papers I came across a few phonebooks and some production crew sheets from films I made a few years ago. Yippee!! And my mom wanted me to "economize" and get rid of my storage unit!! Ha!

OK, I'm not really advocating that you keep every piece of paper your hot little hand comes across, but maybe invest in a scanner and save a few of them.... And definitely always save the phone books.

Read 'Em and Weep

Opening wide and hitting four demos is a neat little trick. From the AP via Yahoo:

1. "Ice Age: The Meltdown," $70.5 million.

2. "Inside Man," $15.7 million.

3. "ATL," $12.5 million.

4. "Failure to Launch," $6.6 million.

5. "V for Vendetta," $6.5 million.

6. "Stay Alive," $4.58 million.

7. "She's the Man," $4.57 million.

8. "Slither," $3.7 million.

9. "The Shaggy Dog," $3.5 million.

10 (tie). "Basic Instinct 2," $3.2 million.

10 (tie). "Larry the Cable Guy: Health Inspector," $3.2 million

Sunday, April 02, 2006


A writer I'm working with recently asked me how much visual information he should put into a scene. Since he will also be directing the piece, I advised him to make sure that he put in enough information to clue in his crew, to avoid questions about things that he already knows he's solved, but not so much that actors, financiers and distributors get lost and confused and give up on the script.

How will he know he's achieved maximum visualization? When he can have someone read it who isn't a visual artist and they finish it in one sitting. If your scripts are taking people more than one sitting to finish (or you have a failure to launch) but when you pitch it folks are excited about the idea, than you've got to re-jigger the pacing and reconceive the way you are getting into and out of scenes. There are a number of excellent posts about these things, so I won't go into that here. This one by Jane Espenson is great, this one by John August which is about different "styles" of screenwriting, I thought was interesting as well. If, on the other hand, no one is excited about your idea, or they get that curiously flat expression of someone who has no idea why you'd want to write that thing you're talking about, head back to the drawing board.

In general, a base line I adhere to and suggest to new writers is nail the emotional arc of the story first, then go back through and nail the pacing of the script. Things like visuals and dialogue polish are the fine picks you use on the sculpture after you've got the major pieces in place. Sometimes a scene will read "flat" because you haven't done the job of finding "business" for your characters. Do they smoke, knit, do yoga? If you have nailed the emotional content of a scene and the general pacing of a script, then do go back through and find places where a juicy visual, or a really sharp line of dialogue can elevate the drama.

But do that during the third or fourth pass of the script. Really. If the emotional arc of your character isn't working, it won't matter how big the action sequences are. And if the pacing doesn't work -- it' probably because the emotional arc doesn't function. Everything about the film services that arc, exists because of that arc. Everything. Especially the juicy visuals.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Who Is My Audience?

I just had an interesting discussion with a filmmaker whose film I'm producing. The question that came up (kind of over and over) is "Who is my audience?" We are making a comedy that has the distinct flavor of Alexander Payne. What does this means in terms of finance and distribution? It means that we have to keep the budget under $5 million unless we can find a movie star. Movies that are character-driven like ELECTION (as opposed to concept films like JAWS) rely upon communicating to potential audiences that a particular depiction of a particular character is worth them getting out of their homes and forking over their loot. In order to launch a film like this, you need to have strong word of mouth. Word of mouth is generated by folks who have seen the movie. A Catch-22 if there ever was one.