Friday, April 24, 2015

The Death of a Major Influence on my Screenwriting-Filmmaking

When I was in college, I asked another student what she wanted to do when she graduated and her answer was that she wanted to be a film critic.
“You want to review movies for newspapers or magazines?”
She corrected me. “No, I don’t want to be a film reviewer. Reviewers respond to movies they watch for an audience who may be undecided about seeing the film. A film critic writes for an audience who will appreciate a deeper understanding of what they’ve already seen.”  

Film critic Richard Corliss died yesterday. 
He was both a movie reviewer and a film critic. Before my fellow student alerted me to the difference, Corliss was the first film critic to influence my outlook on movies. As a teenager, and then as a college student, I was a subscriber to "Film Comment,” a glossy magazine about movies, published 6-9 times a year. Corliss was not only a writer and the managing editor (from 1970 - 1982), he was the guiding visionary behind thoughtful writing about film that evaluated the output from Hollywood, but placed a special emphasis on European cinema as well.
One of my favorite annual articles in the magazine written by Corliss featured a recap of the previous year’s offerings, not a list of "Best Films of the Year," but what Corliss recalled were the Best Scenes, or Best Moments in Films during the previous year. 
Even writing about film back then, Richard Corliss had a deep understanding and a prophetic appreciation of where film was heading toward in the future – that visceral would prove to be more powerful to modern audiences, even if what was memorable were fragmentary -- scenes/sequences/aspects of the production --  rather than the overall quality of the entire movie.

Somewhere in my cellar, there are boxes of saved magazines of at least fifty issues of Film Comment. Over the years, and four different houses, I could never part with my collection. It felt like I would be throwing out treasure maps rather than just old magazines. Note I write, treasure map, not "treasure" because I believe the definition of "gold" must always be reserved for the movies filmmakers actually create. 
But the magazine “Film Comment” was for this young filmmaker, the road map that helped point the way to the treasure.
Yes, Richard Corliss was a film reviewer, but he will always be, in my mind, a film critic. He was the first writer about film who challenged me to think deeper, and see differently, what I had already seen. 

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

"A DAY OF THRONES" -- An EXCERPT From a Billiant Crictic on GAME OF THRONES


Sunday was the premiere episode of Game of Thrones Season 5. And the first episode did not disappoint, even with my high expectations! But rather than reading the words from a GOT fan excited to have the series back, I thought I'd highlight how I prepared for the GOT season premiere. 
Followers of my blog know that I've been a subscriber for more than a decade of the DVD-Laser Disc Newsletter, authored by media critic, Doug Pratt. His monthly periodical covers a selection of recent movies and TV shows released on Home Video, and his reviews focus on both the creative and technical quality of the content. My previous interview with Mr. Pratt can be read here. 
What I probably admire most about Pratt's thoughts on movies and TV content is the complete absence of cynicism in any of his reviews, despite the fact that he's been a professional critic for a long time. Ranking #2 on the Pratt admiration list would be his ability to write concise, but deeply thoughtful and insightful reviews.  He gets more impact from a dozen words than almost any writer achieves with three times the word count. I was reminded of his talent when I read his April, 2015 Newsletter, which led with his thoughts on GOT Season 4, excerpted below -- 

A Day of Thrones

          A sword is removed from its sheath and its metal is so fine that the ‘twang’ reverberates, with great subtlety, for several seconds, beneath the other sounds. There is the most beautiful fork in a path that you will ever see. You never know which character is going to die. The camera begins on the ground as marauders are about to attack a fortress, and it moves high in the air, far above the eight-hundred-foot wall behind the fortress and to the other side, where another, more

massive army, is gathering to attack the same fortress. A conqueror frees the slaves of a city, only to learn that the elderlyslaves want to go back to their masters because they know of no other life, and the younger slaves have no understanding of the discipline required to live in a liberated society. 

Every year we spend a day watching Game of Thrones. It is one of the most transporting, most blissfully relaxing, and most exciting days we can have. Television and movies have been merging for quite a while now. Television was originally the repository of the ‘B’ film productions, augmented by what was left of vaudeville and what was thriving on radio. It took a long time to mature. With a few exceptions, TV had to wait for the financial development of pay cable, where the impositions of censorship 
could be relaxed because it was no longer being broadcast everywhere. It was only then that the maturity of content could quantitatively enhance the literary qualities of the program material. The next great advancement was more directly a spinoff from feature films, the development of relatively inexpensive but persuasive special effects. The special effects on TV may not be quite as elaborate as they are in the movies—an establishing shot in Game of Thrones seems to last about one-third to one-half the time that an establishing shot lingers in the Lord of the Rings movies— but they are good enough to set the tone and the fantasy without pulling the viewer out of the magic. 
The magic of special effects has been applied with great success to period dramas and to contemporary action programs, but just as viewers tend to number a few fantasy motion pictures as their most cherished movie experiences—such as Star Wars or Lord of the Rings—so, too, is the cable TV series, Game of Thrones, which is still busily unfolding at a year per fold, is going to be numbered among the greatest and most compelling motion pictures in everyone’s memories.
             No matter how perfect a TV show will appear, there always seems to be a couple of things that should have been fixed before they were shared with the public. Since a movie is a complete work, the makers can afford to tweak it and get it as right as they can before releasing it, but since these shows are being written as they go along, a dead end or unwise choice will occasionally get past the guardians of such matters. 
As with the previous seasons of Thrones, there are creatures, basically very large, wolf-like dogs, that follow and protect the heroes, but their presence is highly erratic. They seem to disappear when the writers don’t want them around (even though the heroes could have greatly benefited by their presence) and then suddenly show up when the writers do need them. 
There is also another point, specifically in Fourth Season, where two characters, who have not seen one another in a long while, are about to meet near the end of one episode, but then do not appear to have met or even come close to having met in the next episode, something, obviously, you wouldn’t notice as much if you’d waited a week between watching the two. A simple additional line of dialog to explain why they change their course would have stopped the change from being so jarring. But these minor flaws are greatly outweighed by the magnificence of the plotting as a whole, based upon the novels by George R.R. Martin. As we mentioned, no character is safe. The show never settles into an easy or repetitive story device. Characters rise to power in some kingdoms, and fall from power in others. To summarize Fourth Season for the sake of mnemonic brevity, Peter Dinklage’s character is arrested and placed on trial for a murder. The dragons enter adolescence and become more unmanageable. And the forces in conflict in the north sort themselves out in the face of a greater threat, culminating in an episode-long battle similar to the battle episode in Second Season (Jun 13). The show’s visceral satisfactions are enormous—there still is plenty of sex, as well as totally gut-spilling violence, the many special effects and action sequences, and so on—but it is equally rich in well-considered reflections on power, relationships, inner spirituality, obligations, romance and every other aspect of existence. If you love movies as much as we do, this is what you live for.

Friday, April 10, 2015

My Response to an Insightful Post about the path to Writing Professionally for TV by Greta Heinemann

My Response to a wonderful Post by Greta Heinemann, which is excerpted below. The original post was on Scripts and Scrbes   

10 Things I Have Learned on My Way Into Two TV Writing Fellowships

(that may or may have not made a difference on getting in)


Greta Heinemann

My partner in writing-related crimes, writing coach, Lee Jessup, recently asked me if I would be willing to volunteer as source of information for Kevin at Scripts & Scribes. Kevin was looking to find somebody who could offer an inside POV on the TV Writing Fellowships and who ideally was right in the thick of it. I’m currently in the incredibly lucky position to be a fellow in not only the CBS Writers Mentoring Program, but also one of the Humanitas New Voices winners. I firmly believe that information is the true holy grail of our business and I constantly find myself wishing that paying-it-forward was higher on everybody’s agenda, especially because I am the lucky beneficiary of some of those rare amazing humans who went out of their way to let me learn. Naturally I was excited to pass some of this on to you, in hopes you can make use of it.

Before I dive in, a disclaimer: Everything in this article is based on my personal experiences and takeaways and by no means is it meant to answer the question of how one gets into a fellowship. That’s something only the people behind the fellowships can truly answer (and they do so every year on countless panels, so go hear them speak there). I’m just a writer unable to resist the temptation of putting my own experiences into written words.

As I said, I believe information is the holy grail of our business. Consequently I make it a point to read all the books and articles, listen to the podcasts, go to the panels, do the Googling, do the watching, have the coffees; in short, do everything to learn, no matter how little the takeaway seems. But while knowledge is amazing, if it is not translated into easy-to-follow instructions or lists, it’s often intimidating. Fine, maybe it’s not intimidating to you and it’s just because I’m German that I need rules and lists in my life, but either way, I have compiled a list of things that I have learned along the way and that I try to hold myself responsible to.

5.  Be as interesting in person as your material is on the page

I just recently went to a fellowship panel where Jeanne Mau, VP Current Programs CBS Entertainment and part of the CBS Writers Mentoring Program selection committee, stated the obvious and was quickly backed up by her counter parts at ABC, NBC and FOX: Your letter of intent is incredibly important, so don’t half-ass it. (Jeanne probably found a more elegant way of paraphrasing the half-assing part, but you get the idea.)

My first job in America quickly taught me that the entertainment industry is more a “people business” than it is a skill set based business. If you have to choose between a handful of excellent people, you will pick the most memorable and relatable one. The one you won’t mind getting stuck in an elevator with. Please don’t misinterpret this as nepotism. I will never get tired of telling the world that I almost didn’t apply to the Humanitas fellowship because I had several extremely talented friends who were recommended to the program by very important showrunners or knew somebody in the selection committee and I assumed my chances were zero-times-zero because I had neither. I did it nonetheless because I’m stubborn, and was brought in solely based on my material and my letter of intent. A lot is about who you know, but gladly that’s not always everything. Back to the letter of intent.

This letter is your opportunity to explain why you are special and different than the other extremely talented writers (and there are plenty) who are competing with you. Keep in mind that most of the fellowships are also attempting to fix the diversity problem in this town by nurturing diverse and traditionally underrepresented talent. While that doesn’t necessarily have to mean that you have to be of color (I’m German – we’re famous for being rather un-diverse to say the least), it means you have to have a unique, diverse life story. And I may go as far as to assume, given the selection committee has to read thousands of applications, that you better catch their attention in the first two sentences if you want them to read on.

I can’t tell you what exactly the magic mustard is that goes in a perfect letter of intent, but I can tell you that if you’re drawn to this crazy career there must be something off enough about you to spin an attention-grabbing story around it. (If not, you can always start eating only potatoes to finance your writing education, get starch poisoning and use that as story – it might work. I haven’t tried it yet.

6.  You can’t control the outcome of a meeting but you can influence it by being prepared

In retrospect this is one of the biggest lessons learned while going through the quite nerve-wrecking interview process for the Humanitas New Voices program, later the CBS interviews and now every workshop in the program, general meeting and hopefully soon staffing meetings.

If you’re in the incredibly lucky position of getting called in for an interview you have to be prepared. You need to know whom you’re meeting with, you need to know how to talk about yourself and what you want out of the meeting.

I was incredibly lucky because my first make-or-break-it interview (for Humanitas) was with Carole Kirschner, who – after Googling her twice – I learned had written a book about how to break in and how to give good meetings along the way (Hollywood Game Plan, I wouldn’t push it if it didn’t save my ass). Now, as a good German, I appreciated Carole’s lists and rules so much, that I (obviously) read the book and prepared myself meticulously by following it step by step. Last but not least, if you’re set to meet with a woman who wrote a book on how to give good meetings she’ll likely be impressed seeing somebody do exactly how she laid it out herself. If you’re smart, you’ll go buy that book now, but in the meantime here are some CliffsNotes from my end:

* Make a personal connection with the person you are meeting (more on this in a moment)

* Be able to tell your unique “how did I get here” story in less than a minute and in an entertaining and memorable fashion.

* Be able to talk about your writing, your life, the other person’s work, little stories, the specific opportunity you’re talking about, etc.

* Direct the conversation in a way that allows you to (in a Slick-Rick-non-pushy-way) slip in why you’re the right person for this opportunity.

* Have questions or a specific “ask” prepared. If delivering a specific “ask” always present it with an easy out for your counterpart (No I won’t read your script!)

* Have shows to talk about (you’re writing for TV, dude – the least you can do is watch a lot of it)

* Have some new projects up your sleeve to talk about (nobody likes a one-hit wonder. If you can’t say what you’re currently working on, you’re not working enough (see point 2 – Writers Write.)

* Be fucking grateful! (More on this later).

A word about nerves: I’m in the incredibly blessed position of having pretty good ones because I’ve gone through nerve-wracking interviews during my immigration process with the Department of Homeland Security and consequently am not as afraid of Hollywood Execs. If you’re incredibly nervous A) try to remind yourself that they want you to succeed (they think you’re talented otherwise they wouldn’t have brought you in) B) be well-prepared so you know what to expect (if you listen to podcasts featuring the people you’re set to meet it almost feels like you know them walking into the room) and C) take a chill-pill (a non-drowsy one please!

9.  There’s no shortcut or overnight success. With or without fellowships.

This is a two-parter. One: When Lena Dunham broke out with GIRLS, I briefly made the big mistake of comparing myself to her. We’re the same age and both made an ultra low budget feature hoping to break in. How come she’s now the awkward, naked female Woody Allen of HBO and I’m not her bad-ass, blazin’ guns, completely not neurotic counterpart at FX? Well, tough shit.

Hollywood keeps telling tales of overnight success because they make for a good story and nobody wants to talk about hard work. Yes, THE IMITATION GAME was Graham Moore’s first screenplay. Yes, Nic Pizzolatto went from novelist to TRUE DETECTIVE practically overnight. Yes, Mickey Fisher’s EXTANT was discovered through a writing competition (or at least I think so) but they are the exception. For every YES out there, imagine how many NOs there must have been and how hard these lucky ones mentioned above had to work to maintain their reputation. This counts big picture, but also small picture – for every selected TV writing fellowship  fellow, there are hundreds if not thousands of writers who didn’t make the cut. Chances are, they’re you and me. When that happens, I remind myself of Ron Meyer and of how many people turned down Vince Gilligan and Breaking Bad – see if it works for you.

The second part to this: One step after another is still forward. I try to remind myself of that, as I am preparing myself for what’s to come. I’m pushing for staffing this season and my reps and support system are pulling hard (which I am incredibly grateful for) and I’m ready to do everything it takes, but yet the stars may not align and it might just not be enough. There’s always a good chance that by the end of April I’ll be done with CBS and by June I’ll have completed my Humanitas pilot and that will be the end of my current adventures. What then? I don’t know the exact answer, but what I do know is that I’m preparing pitches for development season and a second script (alongside my Humanitas pilot) to be roll-out ready by June. I’m lobbying for assignments and after Sundance and HBO I’m also back speccing and prepping my submission materials for another round of fellowships. It all goes to say that no matter what opportunities are given to me, I know I have to keep generating more.

10.  Be humble and grateful. Be good to each other.

Let’s go back to the Gen Y issue I mentioned earlier (and I’m not excluding myself)—Don’t be an entitled, fucking idiot. Be grateful and be humble. Know that everybody giving you the time of day, no matter how low or high up on the totem pole, is doing you a favor, so be appreciative of that. Send a Thank You note. Send cookies. If you can’t afford to send cookies, send potatoes or a hand drawn post card. I don’t care what you do, but please, please be grateful and never be above things. Don’t refuse to pick up that coffee. Lend a hand where you can, even if it’s just to clean the office after lunch or wipe that whiteboard.

There’s nothing more soul-crushing than seeing somebody who has been given an unbelievable opportunity be entitled or complain about something while somebody who’d truly appreciate it is waiting on the sidelines.

Also, get ready for this insider tip: There’s not a single ungrateful person in the CBS workshop (everybody there is awesome – shout out!!!), so I suspect being humble and grateful might appeal to the decision makers. Got it?

Lastly, be good to each other. Life is too short to backstab and while the good ones do not always succeed in the short game, we will in the long one, especially if we stick together!

If you made it all the way through this article and the 10 fellowship related questions (hyperlinked) A) congratulations I’m impressed and B) Find me on Twitter if you still have questions. @ImmersiveG


I really believe there’s some great things that Greta Heinemann writes that will benefit everyone making their way through the entertainment industry. 
I especially found points #5 and #6 original and insightful. 

(#5) Many creators forget that what they are selling is not only their work, but themselves. 
It’s not just projects connected to the fellowship Ms. Heinemann talks about, if you write in the entertainment business, working with people is part of the process. If this is something that proves to be difficult, then one should figure out how to do better; or channel their creativity in a different direction… like writing a novel because such a pursuit will limit how many people you need to deal interact with in a respectful and productive way. 
(#6) This point is a nice blending of the old affirmation about letting go with the parts of life you can’t control, but also emphasizing the essential aspects you should seek to control to be successful.
I often run across people who are too caught up in the spiritual aspect of “letting go,” in lieu of not doing their homework/or the hard work that enhances the chances that what you can’t control breaks in your direction. 

My only critical note would be a single sentence Ms. Heinemann used in her introduction --  

I believe information is the holy grail of our business. 

I actually disagree with this one line. 
I believe information in the entertainment business is the exact opposite meaning of the term “Holy Grail.” 
If I was to throw out a basic definition of the term, I would use something I just grabbed from wikipedia -- “A grail, wondrous but not explicitly holy.” 

Information about the entertainment business, even useful, trustworthy information, is out there, not hidden, and can be had by those who make even a nominal effort to find it. Therefore, even though it might appear to be a bridge to success in the entertainment industry, I don't belive it to be the Holy Grail.

The Holy Grail in the entertainment business is -- Creativity
This is why there are fellowship programs like the one Ms. Heinemann is participating in. 
The hope is that what will be discovered with such programs is the one thing that is impossible for companies to mass produce, like a DVD, or an iphone. 
The Holy Grail that has a hundred knights searching across the land is the discovery of the rare talent for Creativity. So it can be nurtured, celebrated, and sanctified by being transformed into creative content...
On a DVD... or streamed on an iphone.  
Not information. Creativity 

Regardless of my critical response to the one aspect of Ms. Heinemann’s post, I implore anyone interested in the entertainment business to read her insightful words. There’s a lot of wisdom in what she has learned and what she is sharing with the rest of us! 

Friday, April 3, 2015

The Completely Rewritten
Published online For FREE!

04-23-15 UPDATE
Read Chapters 1-15 here
More to come...

(With Bonus Features not available anywhere else!)

Monday, March 30, 2015

How “The Jinx” became part of our Cultural History, but “All Good Things” is still a Boring Movie.

A Documentary Series and a Movie
Both Focused on the Same Man
Both Shot by the Same filmmakers
One Made History


Now that the media stampede reacting to the success of “The Jinx" is over, I want to compare the documentary series to the theatrical film, “All Good Things” (released in 2010), a “fictional” take on the same events depicted in the HBO showy series.
Because the documentary series and the earlier theatrical film were created by the same filmmaking team, it allows us a rare opportunity to gain some insight into the creative issues connected to a media project based on a real person/real event.
My basic question in comparing the two projects is this – How could “The Jinx” documentary series achieve creative and commercial success, while the theatrical film, "All Good Things," based on the same story, and shot by the same filmmakers, creatively fail on so many levels?  

“The Jinx” was a huge success, both commercially (over 1 million people watched the final episode of the documentary series), and with critics (who almost universally agree the series was a notable achievement in TV history). Perhaps more importantly, viewers reacted enthusiastically to the series with generally positive online comments. By the end of the documentary series the volume of social interaction rivaled the activity normally associated with popular Network TV dramas. 

The above is in stark contrast to the reaction of the film, “All Good Things.” The theatrical release was a burn-off by the distributor to fulfill the contractual obligation to the filmmakers (total Domestic box office gross was $578,000).

Critics and viewers of “All Good Things” generally had unfavorable reactions to the movie as well. Many acknowledged the film was  professionally produced, but was a “forgettable genre film,” with “a storyline that was both boring and confusing at the same time.”  
The key art for the one sheet used to market the theatrical release is a complete disconnect with the tone and content of the actual movie. This is a common red flag for a problematic project. The distributor’s marketing department is either confused about how to sell the film; or is instead very calculating in its strategy, opting for a “slash and burn” campaign meant to lure unsuspecting audiences to the first weekend and get as much money as possible before the bad word of mouth spreads about the movie. 

“The Jinx” focused on the tragic life of Robert Durst, an heir to a real estate fortune, who despite (or because of) his wealth, ended up being connected to three mysterious deaths (and a fourth if you want to count the suicide of Durst’s mother).

The final episode of the series concluded with Durst in a bathroom talking to himself (only his words being recorded by the microphone he was still wearing after his last interview with the filmmakers). Durst is heard saying to himself -- “Killed them all… of course.”
Whether the filmmakers caught the subject of their documentary confessing to murdering three people or his words were the ramblings of a mentally ill person, or both, is debatable. But Durst’s bathroom soliloquy was a dramatic conclusion to a six hour/six week investment by viewers. The documentary series had a “Hollywood Movie Ending,” rather than the circuitous dead-end climax of most documentaries dealing with real people and real events.
When Durst was arrested in New Orleans, a few days before the final episode of the documentary series aired on HBO, the event catapulted “The Jinx” to another level on the cultural list of achievements -- a TV event not only attracting a mass audience, but garnering newspaper headlines. The fact that the series could also be the impetus to Durst finally facing justice for a murder he has been able to evade for than a decade would be even more remarkable.

Every hour of the documentary series was impeccably produced -- the narrative structure cleverly constructed and skillfully edited. And the recreations of past events examined in the series were creatively conceived and executed.
Indeed, the quality of the HBO series was so top notch, perhaps the most shocking aspect of the project’s success may be that the director of "The Jinx," Andrew Jarecki, and the producer, Marc Sperling, were also the same filmmakers behind the theatrical film (Sperling was also one of the screenwriters, sharing credit with Marcus Hinchey).
How shocking? 
If one was unaware of the actual timeline of both projects, "All Good Things" comes off as a film that was thrown together quickly and shot after "The Jinx," to exploit the success of the documentary series. 

There are a lot of reasons that might explain the difference in quality between the two projects, and of course, at the foundation of it all is the theatrical film's bad script. But there's so much more, including the filmmaker's miscasting of the lead actor. 
Unfortunately, in the context of this post, I will primarily focus on a single factor, leaving the other issues to be examined in a forthcoming book on adapting real lives and real events into a screenplay.
The main character of “The Jinx” is Robert Durst. His “performance” in the documentary series ended up being the source of energy that kept audiences tuning in each week during the run of the series. Regardless of the documentary format, the magnetism of Durst’s presence on the screen can serve as a valuable reminder to all screenwriters of an essential basic in writing a quality script – create a main character readers/audiences will be compelled to read/watch from the beginning to the end.
But beyond the Durst Documentary reminder, is a lesson contained in the fictional film, “All Good Things” -- The professional screenwriter should never feel restricted in creating a main character that readers/audiences like personally, or root for.

The first (and perhaps) only creative obligation of the screenwriter, even when adapting a story based on a real person, is to make that protagonist captivating, fascinating, and exciting enough that his persona and actions will allow your script to standout. It does not matter whether we “like” the character. Examples of main characters in past movies/TV projects who aren’t necessarily likable, but are compulsively watchable are Tony Soprano, Travis Bickle, Melvin Udall, and Neil McCauley.

In “The Jinx” there was no one to write Robert Durst’s lines as he was being interviewed. No one directed him about how to “act” or behave in front of the camera. But the real Robert Durst proved to be charming, vulnerable, and, yes… likable. All character traits consistent with what perhaps enabled the real Durst (along with his access to money) to get away with murder.
Prior to shooting the documentary, the filmmakers had never met the real Robert Durst. Without any contact with the real person they were depicting in their theatrical movie, the filmmakers were forced to create a protagonist using their creativity and imagination. 
And they came up empty.
The main character in "All Good Things" is (for legal reasons) named David Marks, rather than Robert Durst. But the name change is not the only thing different between the two projects. The character of David Marks bears no resemblance to the real person he is based on. Marks is quiet, brooding, and boring. The real Durst we now know from the documentary series is charming, outrageous, and definitely not boring.

There came a point in the development of the movie script where the filmmakers apparently convinced themselves that the truly strange events of the real life case they intended to mimic in their screenplay would be all they needed to sustain audience interest and admiration. 
Unfortunately they ended up being wrong. If people want strange and unusual, they can watch documentaries airing on HBO. 
The story they had researched for years leading up to the writing of the screenplay did not lead to creative excitement on the page. Their fascination with the case, and with the real character of Robert Durst never made it to the page as a compelling part of the story they ended up shooting. 

And once they moved into production, the situation only became worse when the director, Jarecki, followed his creative instincts and shot a lot of the film as if it was a “serial killer” movie while at the same time never coming close to delivering what would be satisfying to fans of that sub-genre. The biggest problem was again, the content of the script, which couldn’t sustain Jarecki’s aesthetic, barely rising high enough to embrace the core conventional elements associated with a standard suspense-thriller.

Sadly what “All Good Things” ends up achieving is being a well-produced, bigger budgeted, “Lifetime” cable movie. I point this out not in a glib way, but with support for my view with a list below that contains the basic screenwriting formula generally used in all of the “women-in-jeopardy” storylines of a a bad “Lifetime” cable movie:

- Female lead meets a guy (male lead) who seems too good to be true.
- Everyone (or just one really good friend) who cares about the female lead tries to warn her not to move forward.
- Despite all the warnings, the female lead advances the relationship with the guy.
- Now that they are together, the female lead starts to develop her doubts about her guy. She tries her best to make it work, rather than simply breaking away.
- Female lead finally decides to break away. She fights back against the guy (who at this point is a "monster").
- Female lead either survives or dies in her struggle against the guy/monster by the end of the story.

The above, obviously with some variations, is pretty much the plot breakdown for not only the “Lifetime” women-in-jeopardy movies, but also the storyline of “All Good Things.”
At least the first half of the movie.
Another weird thing about the film is how it completely shifts gears with the storyline after the wife is killed.
This is a problem because cramming in all the formula plot beats outlined above into the first half of a movie really makes what is happening on screen predictable and boring.
So why do it?
The answer is because the filmmakers became creative slaves to the real events in the life of the Real Person they were fictionalizing.
Robert Durst  was suspected of committing two more murders after killing his wife, and the filmmakers needed to move on in the storyline.

Up to this point we, the audience, have been led through a plot that had the wife being threatened by Marks, while at the same time, we were also shown a handful of scenes where the Marks’ character is being victimized by his rich, powerful family. Both avenues play in a creatively vacuous way, but the thrust of the storyline still has us investing in the Marks character as a domestic wife abuser. That’s the thrust of the storyline.
But when the female lead is killed off (again at the halfway point of the film), we are now asked to follow the storyline as it starts all over again. Marks is now the… protagonist(?), and the backstory stuff with his family shows up in a few scenes so Marks can become more of the victim/protagonist of the story, rather than the antagonist.

But as the story progresses, viewers realize we’re still going to watch the Marks character move toward being directly connected to two more murders. This could all work... if what we’re going to watch is a “serial killer” movie. But as I’ve previously pointed out, the script has creatively prevented the project from going in that direction. 
The abrupt shift in plot and storyline is almost always a sign of creative desperation rather than innovation. When the main character shows up wearing a wig and women’s clothes, the film still continues to be boring all the way to the closing credits.  

Hovering over the development of the screenplay is another issue. 
I can easily imagine the endless development meetings about the script where the filmmakers were meeting their lawyer and taking notes about what they could and could not do creatively with the screenplay.  
Even though they had not met him, "All Good Things" plays like a movie that ended up being creatively afraid of what the real Robert Durst would do legally. They were so afraid of what the "monster" would do to their project he ended up scaring all the creativity from the filmmakers. 
Everything that is wrong with the theatrical movie seems to be the exact opposite of the documentary. The narrative power of "The Jinx" is the dance the filmmakers do with the real Robert Durst. They seek to understand him in all his complexities, who he is, and what he what kind of man he was when three people died. 
Because of this concerted attempt, the filmmakers wound up revealing to the world a multi-layered person and it made the story they told rise to a level of compelling entertainment. By the "third act," when the filmmakers confront the complex main character they have revealed to audiences, we were anxiously waiting to see how it would all end. 

Friday, March 13, 2015

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Wednesday, March 11, 2015

What is the one thing in Everyday Life often missing in badly written Screenplays?

Conflict is one of the key elements to any scene, any act, any plotline of scripted drama (and comedy as well).
I was reminded of this when I was going back and forth recently with a film director as we discussed collaborating on a project together.
He wanted me to check out the storyline that he had originally worked on and used this lure to get me to read -- From minute one it has conflict in every scene.”

It was a fantastic lure on his part because I did indeed read the work and found that the story had exactly as he had advertised -- 

“Conflict in every scene.”

I know it sounds obvious, but its amazing how many screenwriters take in the word “conflict,” and say to themselves something along the lines of, “duh, of course.”
Only to then move on to write their scripts in a way that is shockingly short of any conflict in the storyline, plot, between the characters, etc.  

When professional screenwriters fail in their efforts regarding “conflict,” they often fail by not making the conflict “organic,” which means they emerge with a screenplay where the conflict on the page reads/plays like it is often times written to satisfy a part of the storytelling process they know they must fulfill. 

Professional Screenwriters also fail when the “conflict” is interwoven into the storyline in a way that involves only the major character and has nothing to do with the other supporting characters beyond who the protagonist interacts with throughout the plot. This problem leads to stretches in the script where the reader/viewer is often bored because they don’t feel the same undertow of emotional tension, anticipation, and excitement running beneath the other parts of the screenplay/movie associated with the conflict focused on the main character.

But at least the professional screenwriter knows enough of his craft to maintain a level of conflict for the main character, even if at times it comes off as a token effort. 
Non-professional screenwriters are often mystified when the reader of their screenplay doesn’t want to go forward after reading the first twenty to thirty pages. 
Or the producer was bored reading their script and asked their assistant to read it first and provide coverage… before turning it down.
Obviously there are several factors why the above scenarios occur, but I definitely will put my money on the lack of conflict being one of the issues that is involved in almost all non-professionally written screenplays.

Professional Screenwriters know that any script should have a ghost haunting much of the plot of any story that keeps the reader wanting to turn the pages, and the viewer wanting to see what happens next. If that ghost had a Latin name it would be – 

Lex loci 
Latin. A legal principle, of whatever origins, now found in the English Common law, 
roughly translated as  "the law of the land."

In screenwriting terms, Lex Loci reminds all screenwriters of two goals when writing –

1 - Establish the rules of the screen story being told.

2 – Establish the main character, who is in conflict with the law of the land.

The above is where even the most celebrated professional screenwriters go off track when their stories fail to resonate with readers or audiences. 
I’m exactly like the producer I cite above, reading so many scripts from “unknown” screenwriters who want to become known, but don't write in a way that at least satisfies the two points above. 
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read scripts that have the main character doing the most mundane things, like for instance brushing their teeth. 
And that’s it. There’s nothing else attached to the choice of having a main character brush their teeth in the script.
That’s not to say that someone brushing their teeth can’t be a scene that ends up intriguing the reader.

In an episode from the brilliant series “Black Mirror,” titled “Fifteen Million Merits” ( written by Charlie Brooker and Konnie Huq) the main character wakes up and brushes his teeth and we see in this daily activity there is a decision, a challenge to what he will do. Here’s a link to the entire show, and the scene I’ve written about occurs at the 1:40 mark of the show. 

Even in the most mundane seeming actions in a script, Conflict is something that should permeate every aspect of a writer’s mind when constructing their story and executing the scenes in a screenplay. 
Conflict should be the ghost haunting the writer’s every creative step as he/she creates a screenplay that ends up being work that people will not only start, but end up finishing because they have to know how it all plays out. 

If you don't agree with me, that's fine. Maybe we should take it outside and talk about it some more...  

Saturday, February 28, 2015

“A good half of writing consists of being sufficiently sensitive to the moment to reach for the next promise which is usually hidden in some word or phrase just a shift to the side of one’s conscious intent.”

- Norman Mailer

Understanding what makes up the creative DNA of a screenplay is what enables a screenwriter to be “sufficiently sensitive to the moment” where great things can happen. The goal of the 21 E&EE Scene Checklist is to help set the stage for creative level jumps and breakthroughs in the work. 

- From "21 Essential & Elevating Elements in a Professional Screenplay."

Friday, February 20, 2015

Why Screenwriters should think about "Shelf Life" when Writing

Modern culture moves fast. 
Every professional screenwriter should ask themselves this vital question – 
Does your style of writing include words, references, phrases; that are specifically chosen because they are -- cool, hip, the bomb (Feel free to insert your own phrase for “cool, hip, the bomb.”)? 
If this is the case, I have two words for you -- Shelf Life

Nothing ages faster than pop culture. 
And with that in mind, I advise the Professional Screenwriter approaches their work in in a way that doesn’t invite the content to suffer from rapid aging. 

Many writers convince themselves that the power of their work is their “cutting edge” insight and sensibility to what is happening in modern society. They firmly believe that what makes their work sing is when they incorporate references to the latest in style and trends. 
Hopefully their skill set has a wider range of creative weapons to draw upon. Those who feel compelled to employ the latest pop culture reference, or draw on what is happening this minute, will discover their work is headed for a short shelf life.   
Play the long game. 
Go deeper with your content. 
Work for a creative payoff that you've setup. 
Don’t settle for easy pop culture references for a laugh. 
Don't be lured into the easy score of writing homages to past movies or TV shows as an excuse for failing to come up with something original. 
What may be cutting edge now, I promise you will have a very good chance of being considered quaint and obscure just a few years on. 
Write with the goal of creating material that is "timeless."

If the goal is to seem relevant to the latest generation of movie lovers, I believe writing in a timeless way is still the way to go. 
In a recent movie poll, young people, ages 20-29, list “The Shining”  (Screenplay by Stanley Kubrick and Diane Johnson, based on the book by Stephen King) as one of their top five favorite horror movies. 
The original theatrical release of "The Shining" was 1980.  

Yesterday’s Madonna is today’s Lady Gaga. 
And Tomorrow’s Lady Gaga will be here before we know it… She’s probably already here and somehow I missed her arrival being announced in US magazine because I was too busy writing these words. 
When it does happen, how much you wanna bet much of media world will immediately rush to write their Dead-Artist-Walking obituaries of Lady Gaga. And when they do, don't look away. Pay attention because that is what the end of the road looks like for the cutting edge screenwriter trading on the latest hip phrase as a substitute for real content in their screenplays.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

You Lost Me when you wrote... "The End of the Three Act Structure"

The End of the Three Act Structure????

I was trying to finish my work on two projects when I came across an email with the headline -- The End of the Three-Act Structure

I couldn’t resist following the link where I discovered the article was posted on a website run by Write Brothers Inc, a company that specializes in selling software products to screenwriters. I applaud WBI for supporting their sales effort by featuring posts written about different subjects related to the craft of screenwriting. 

With that said, the content of this particular post was so objectionable I decided to break away from what I should be doing and write a response. 

The End of the Three-Act Structure, was written by James Hull and can be found hereHull modestly describes himself as “an animator by trade.” Actually he has many impressive credits as an animator including the big studio movies, "The Crood" and "How to Train a Dragon." Unfortunately, the subject of his post is not on the craft of an animator.  He chose to write about an important, fundamental area in the craft of screenwriting.

The main point of his argument is –

“The time has come to obliterate Aristotle's stranglehold on narrative fiction. With the amount of information and different perspectives available to Audiences today, a simplified beginning-middle-end approach simply doesn't cut it anymore. Complete stories consist of four major movements, not three.” 

A few sentences later, he attempts to support his opening statement – 

“The standard in modern screenwriting paradigm calls for splitting up the Second Act into two halves, labeling them 2A and 2B. For all intents and purposes, as long as everyone on the production agrees with this naming convention, there isn't anything about this approach that could prevent the successful conclusion of a film. The question becomes if the final product finishes with a glorious and well-celebrated run or peters out over the first weekend, adding weight to the already great discarded landfill of pointless stories.”

Perhaps Hull’s motives in writing his post was to be provocative and/or to come off as creatively progressive. Regardless of his motivation, his words, (not only the ones I’ve included, but other passages throughout his post) and ideas are flat out wrong. For starters, what he specifically perceives as the three-act structure seems to be written in almost complete ignorance to the way professional screenwriters use the three-act structure in approaching their craft. 
For example, I have no idea where he gets the notion, “the standard in modern screenwriting paradigm calls for splitting up the Second Act into two halves.” 
I am a professional screenwriter, and I have worked with dozens of professional screenwriters on studio projects as well as independent movies. I’ve also been involved with over fifty different film projects as a producer, working to develop the screenplay with the writers. And with all that experience, not once have I ever come across any professional screenwriter or any industry professional who believes “the standard in modern screenwriting is to split the second act into two halves.” 

There are several different approaches to the three act structure, but anyone who has experience in professional writing is aware that the second act, like the first act has different creative markers along the way that are used to signify creative shifts in the storyline or plot. These markers are usually perceived as guides to the screenwriter as he makes his creative choices. I use such terms as “First Act Spin” and “Second Act Tent Pole” to define these creative markers or guideposts. And nothing I’ve come across creatively resembles “splitting the second act into halves.” 

In his post, Hull goes on to write –

“Don't assume that both halves are dealing with the same thematic stuff. Don't assume that this "Special World” somehow carries with it some intrinsic meaning because of its position between the beginning and the end.”

His reference to thematic stuff and a special world clearly reveals that Hull has completely mixed up story structure with other aspects of storytelling. Both creative areas he cites have almost no meaningful bearing on the rhyme or reason associated with the approach to story structure. 

As well as being an animator by trade, Hull apparently also teaches classes on "story" at Calfornia Institute of the Arts (CalArts). So I presume his writing on this subject is being taught to fledging or beginning writers who are attempting to take up the craft of professional screenwriting. Despite what Hull writes online, the three-act structure in writing professional screenplays has not been retired. In fact the creative standard for a storyline/plot continues to be the three-act structure. 

Even when one examines screenwriting rebels who have been produced, and whose work has been celebrated as ground breaking in the area of storyline/plot structure, close scrutiny reveals a rebel with a deep understanding of the traditional three-act structure, not a rebellion borne from ignorance.

One example of truly a different approach to the three-act structure would be Stanley Kubrick, and the film “Full Metal Jacket.” Kubrick was one of the screenwriters, as well as the director of “Full Metal Jacket,” (the other screenwriter was Michael Herr; and the screenplay was  based on the book, “The Short Timers,” authored by Gustav Hasford). 

I can’t comment on the structure of the screenplay developed prior to production, but the final version of the movie released to audiences has a storyline/plot which unfolds in a way that is very much a different, atypical approach to the traditional three-act structure of modern professional screenwriting. 

That’s not to say that “Full Metal Jacket” can be used by Hull as an example of a movie with “Four Acts.” In fact, the uncommon approach on display in “Full Metal Jacket” is a storyline that still falls under the traditional three-act structure, but is creatively distinctive by the elongated duration and creative conclusiveness to the film’s first act. It was Kubrick’s unique approach to unfolding the storyline in “Full Metal Jacket” that was at least partially responsible for the lukewarm, critical response to the film upon its initial release in 1987. Of course, the critical standing of the film has risen in ensuing years, which has been the typical pattern of almost all of Kubrick’s films. 

Professional Screenwriting continues to push the boundaries of narrative structure and there is no reason to believe the three-act structure is on the endangered species list. Nor should the three-act approach be threatened out of existence by the notion that it is out of date or no longer is the best approach to constructing a screenplay for a commercial audience. What Hull apparently is not aware of is that the three-act structure embraces many creative elements that push a storyline forward, not just what he sums up as the “beginning, middle, and end.” 

****For the record, I would have responded to Hull’s post on the site of his posting, but it did not allow comments.****