You’ve probably come across a variety of blogs, books, and gurus who insist there are “rules” for writing a screenplay. (Maybe you’ve even read something to that effect on this very blog.) But are there really? Is there a secret formula for success? Well, yes… and no. Depends on who you ask. But maybe this is a better way to explain it.
Here’s one way to look at it. Screenwriting is like building a house. There are some generally agreed upon “rules” for houses: protection from the elements is a must. Generally a door to keep you and your stuff safe. Probably indoor plumbing and electricity. Bathroom and kitchen to make this a full service abode. Hopefully a window or two but otherwise…
The thing is, doors, electricity, and plumbing have rules. Doors need to be appropriately framed with headers. There are physical limitations to what you can do with electricity as well as safety precautions. Water flows downhill. If you want your sinks to drain and your toilet to flush, you’re going to have to install your plumbing correctly.
None of this has any bearing on the number or size of the bathrooms. None of it affects the shape of the house or the material you use. But there are definitely trends because some things are more effective or more efficient than others.
Point is: they’re all houses. They all meet the same basic requirements while expressing the art and lifestyle of the builder and the inhabitants.
Screenplays are similar, and many screenwriters will describe themselves more as craftsmen than artists. Yes, you need a creative mind, but you also need to know when to use a hammer and when to use a saw. Similarly, screenwriters need to be adept at understanding “the immutable laws of screenplay physics” as Blake Snyder calls them. Is your comic relief effective or overpowering? Does the story drag because the protagonist’s obstacles are episodic rather than escalating? Does the dialogue feel wooden because there is no subtext? Or maybe there’s no sense of urgency because your script violates the unity of time.
Or maybe your script feels cliched and predictable because itfollows the rules a bit too closely. (This would be the home building equivalent of a stamped out, mass production condo.)
And this is the final important thing to remember about the rules. Rules are meant to be broken.
Below are 2 examples of VERY successful movies that very clearly break screenwriting “rules.” I don’t care how much you want to bend the rules or try to contort things so they fit into some mold in a bizarro world. These are generally bad screenwriting choices, and yet, nobody cares.
Your Protagonist is not active enough.
Your protagonist should drive the story. Their decisions and actions push the movie forward. That’s why they’re the protagonist. Blake Snyder calls this “The Hero Leads.” And if your hero is just some schmuck who gets dragged from place to place like a cosmic lump on a log, Snyder calls him “Johnny Entropy.” But I have another name: Ebenezer Scrooge. Scrooge has probably gotten the most mileage out of doing the least work of any protagonist ever. Wikipedia lists 20 film adaptations of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and more than two dozen TV adaptations or episodes. But what does Scrooge actually do with all this screen time? Nothing. Absolutely nothing.
Marley, not Scrooge initiates the Christmas hijinx.Then the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future drag Scrooge on a time bending whirlwind. But apart from some tepid protests, Scrooge just goes along for the ride. Yes, at the end, Scrooge makes one massive 180 degree turn and starts giving his money away. But for the other 80 minutes of screen time, he’s as passive as Mr. Entropy himself.
The thing is, nobody cares. Since his creation 175 years ago, the audience has loved Scrooge’s largely unearned transformation from miser into philanthropist. And every ten years or so, a new production company capitalizes on Scrooge’s ability to do nothing and make cash. Do you always need an active protagonist? Well…
It’s important to hook your audience in the beginning of your script. Fifteen to twenty pages/minutes is a good rule of thumb. It gives you some time to establish your “world” before you hit your characters with the inciting incident. And when you analyze a story, most professionals look at scripts from the perspective of the protagonist’s conscious goal.
In Jurassic Park, a beloved, award winning, visually stunning, and financially successful film, you could make an argument for any number of main characters, but I think many people would agree that Alan Grant (Sam Neill) is the protagonist. What’s his goal? To make it out of Jurassic Park alive. Well that can only be his goal if the dinosaurs have already escaped their pens, which means the power going out is the inciting incident, which means, the inciting incident doesn’t actually happen until almost an hour into the movie!
Does that mean the power going out is the midpoint? Or should Spielberg have cut the first twenty minutes and had more screen time of Grant trying to save children from velociraptors. Or maybe you don’t always need your inciting incident in the first twenty pages.
You could make an argument for any of those things. But the bigger point is that Jurassic Park is a great movie and that the rules are not so hard and fast as they might appear.
As a filmmaker, it’s important to know the rules. Like a builder, you are part artist and part craftsman. The “rules” are more of a user manual than a blueprint. They’ll help you understand how a screenplay works without really telling you how to make one. So don’t cling to the rules like a Dickensian judge. Successful movies, like life, find a way.
Good news. I did not drop off the face of the earth, though my family and friends may have thought otherwise. I was just working on a feature film. Most of our work weeks were 60+ hours with one topping out at 84. But that’s still better than the shooting crew who mostly worked overnight (Starting at 4PM Monday and finishing at 7AM Saturday) and the special effects crew who worked a few 100 hour weeks. As I’ve said before, freelancing isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. But we did have some fun and we did make a decent chunk of change. Anywho, I’ll try to get some more posts out here in the near future.
A while back I wrote an article about “grips,” one of the first film credits the average movie goer puzzles over. But gripping isn’t my day job. I’m usually a video assist operator. Most people, even my coworkers, don’t really know what video assist entails. Well hold onto your BNC*, because you’re about to find out!
Do you ever watch the bonus features at the end of a movie and see the director watching a television monitor? That’s video assist. The video assist operator sets up that monitor. Pretty basic. More broadly, it’s the video assist operator’s job to get the image from every camera (no matter how many there are or where they are) to the director. In a nice, studio setting, it may look something like this.
This is a control room we built for Comedy Central. On a stage, with one camera, this may be as simple as connecting the camera to a monitor (with some BNC). Things get a little more complex if you’re riding around the street at seventy miles an hour or if one of your cameras is in a helicopter. In those situations, we use transmitters to get the image from the camera to the director.
Once upon a time, we filmed on something called “film.” This was a roll of cellulose coated with a film of photo reactive chemicals that had to be developed before you could see what you shot. Each day, someone would run the film to a lab where it was developed. Then they would race back with “dailies” for the director and producer to review. It worked great for about 70 years.
But in the 1950s, television and video came onto the scene. Television captured images electronically and recorded them onto magnetic videotape so there was no need to “develop” film. Although the quality was far inferior to film, people could now watch what they filmed immediately after they filmed it.
In 1960, Jerry Lewis used this new technology for his film The Bellboy. As both the director and the star, he couldn’t watch his own performance. He connected a video system to the film camera allowing him to instantly playback what was just recorded and make adjustments to his performance. This is generally considered the invention of video assist** and the first use of video playback.
In addition to getting the image to the director, the video assist operator records the action, allowing for immediate playback. This allows directors to re-watch takes without waiting for dailies. Directors may call for playback to check performances, look for continuity errors, see if a piece of gear was in the shot, check to make sure a stunt or effect worked, or watch something back in slow motion.
The video assist system is also used to record rehearsals. When we shot on film, this was a critical way to practice camera and actor movement without wasting thousands of feet of film. Today, most film production is done on digital video, but film crews still use rehearsals to practice shots before all of the lights, makeup, and effects are in their final places.
On a one-day shoot for a thirty-second commercial, playback may not be critical. But on something like a feature film that may take months and is generally not filmed in chronological order, playback can play a major role in keeping a film’s continuity. One intern I worked with said that video assist sounded like the film’s library. I kind of like that. (To be fair, the script supervisor is the film’s librarian, the video assist operator is the guy who has to go to the basement and find all of the old reference books…)
It’s important to point out that video assist is for reference only. When we shoot on film, the video feed or “tap” doesn’t have nearly the depth of field or exposure range of a piece of film. Video playback is not a completely accurate representation of what you filmed. In fact, oddly enough, video taps only record what isn’t on the film. The light entering the camera either exposes the film or goes to the video tap. Most things happen so quickly it doesn’t really matter. But several years ago, I was working with a producer to film gunshots for an action movie. When I played it back for him, he didn’t see the muzzle flash. I had to explain to him that was a good thing because it meant the muzzle flash was on the film. (Ugh. Tech talk.) And while that’s not the case with modern digital cameras, the video feed is a compressed version of what you’re actually recording. Much to the dismay of one producer whose intern deleted their favorite take, video assist operators do not record full resolution video files.
One other note is that for decades, video was recorded on tape. This led video assist operators to also be called video tape recorders or VTR. And while many ADs will still stay “let’s roll video” we moved on to computers about ten years ago.
In addition to the image, the video assist operator works with the sound department to get audio to the director. It’s critical to make sure all of the cameras and the audio are synchronized. Like watching a badly dubbed film, it’s disorienting and distracting to watch things out of sync.
This may sound like a simple thing, but let me give you an idea of what it’s worth to a production. A few years ago, shortly after we switched to high definition signals, quality, affordable transmitters were still in development. The transmitters we used, while great at long distances had a noticeable delay. (It takes some time to crunch down all of that video data, shoot it through the air, and unpack it back into an image.) This isn’t an issue if you’re filming across a football field. It is if you’re sitting ten feet from your actor and the actor on your television is moving noticeably slower. So after one frustrating day of filming on a new television show with transmitters that were less than a year old, our company shelled out $40,000 to upgrade to the latest transmitters.
Gak is a technical film term for stuff. And video assist operators have a lot of gak: monitors, switchers, speakers, cable, transmitters, hard drives, HDMI, BNC, barrels, patch bays, UPS’s, power conditioners, batteries, power cables (OSHA cords, P-Tap, Lemo, Hirose, 4-pin XLR), 3-pin XLR, mini XLR, intercoms, video printers, and on and on and on. Again, all of this is to get the image from the camera or cameras, synchronize it with the audio and give it back to the director for live viewing and playback.
It’s a lot of techno-wizardry and it can be kind of mesmerizing. Maybe that’s why everyone likes to look over your shoulder. Or maybe they just like watching TV. Whatever the case, the video monitors always attract a crowd. The director, assistant director, and script supervisor are generally at the monitor. The producers will often get their own set of monitors. Then there are the hair, makeup, and costume people who need to be sure the actors look their best. And you’ve got the additional assistant directors cueing background actors, the electric and FX department standing by for cues, the humane society looking out for their four legged actors, and a couple of groupies for good measure.
And of course, all of these people need chairs and coolers and tents and heaters if it’s cold and, frankly, before you know it, you’ve got a regular village on your hands: a video village, which has become the industry term for, well this.
One of the biggest positives about video assist, however, is that you always want to be near the director. So if it’s raining, you’ll be dry. If it’s cold, you’ll be warm. If it’s warm, you’ll be cool. And you’re generally the first person to know if craft service is serving something better than hot dogs.
24 Frame Playback
Video assist operators have one more vital function that isn’t related to anything else I’ve mentioned so far. We are responsible for every “on-screen” video display. Every time you see a smart phone or a television or a computer monitor, a video operator has provided that image. Here are a few of the riveting images I’ve put on screens.
Amazing stuff, right? The video operator works in conjunction with the director, props department, and editor or visual effects department to make sure the right images get on the right monitors. Sometimes, that image doesn’t exist yet, so we just put green or grey screens on the monitors. That helps the VFX department create the image in post. Green makes it easier to remove the image. Grey allows light to fall on the set and actors like a real television.
Video assist operators need to be careful about what they put on screen. One of my coworkers was troubleshooting an issue with his personal phone and forgot to delete the number when we went to shoot. Months later when the DVD came out, he was inundated by calls from curious fans who wanted to know who Jason Statham called in the middle of the film
The name, “24 frame playback” comes from the fact that film cameras used to film 24 frames or individual pictures a second. Televisions, however, display 29.97 pictures a second. So for every 1 picture a film camera takes, a television displays 1 ¼ pictures. (Oh God. Math…) Because the television is projecting light, that means ¼ of the television screen will appear brighter than in every picture the film camera takes. That’s why in old movies, you will see television screens flickering in the background. To fix that, playback operators force the television to display images at 24 frames, not 30.
Modern TVs and flat screens like your phone don’t display images the same way older TVs did, so we don’t actually need to create a 24 frame video. That’s why it’s anachronistic to call it “24 frame playback” when it’s no longer 24 frames and playback actually has another meaning. Sheesh.
For some more information about how a television actually works, check out this fascinating video from The Slow Mo Guys.
Roll the Credits
There you have it. Another one of those hundreds of names that scroll by at the end of a movie explained. While it’s true that most of the work of the video assist operator doesn’t end up one screen, the movie – and filmmaking – wouldn’t be the same without them.
*BNC, the ubiquitous tool of the video assist operator, is a type of connector for video cables. BNC is also refers to the cable itself. Many people erroneously think it stands for “British Naval Connector,” a rather shoddy backronym for an American invention. It actually stands for “Bayonet Neill-Concelman,” the connecting mechanism and the name of its inventors.
You’ll read a lot of blogs and books about how to get representation as a screenwriter or how to get a script sold. But most of these present general guidelines or suggestions. I’d like to share my own experiences with one particular script, and the lessons I’ve learned along the way. My one caveat is that this is only one script from one person. How applicable will this be to you? I can’t say. But here’s my story…so far.
I don’t recall exactly what instigated the idea, suffice it to say that everything kind of clicked. The script has a clear premise (housewife thinks mother-in-law is a serial killer), small cast, few locations, and it features several great roles for women—something Hollywood seems to be looking for right now. After receiving some good feedback on the first draft, I polished it up and took it to the next level.
I thought having a ballpark budget might be a good thing to know when pitching to producers. (I have subsequently learned they generally don’t care what you think a film would cost to make.) Since I’m friends with a number of production managers, I asked one to come up with a ballpark figure for me, and we landed at just under $1 million. Certainly a million dollars more than I have lying around, but not a high budget picture by any stretch of the imagination. She also pointed out that based on my cast of characters, my script would be eligible for certain breaks from SAG, the actor’s union. Armed with a script and some solid production information, I started talking to producers. This is where I learned the first big lesson.
A lot self help and motivational sources will tell you that when you undertake a new endeavor, you should be very vocal about it, telling your family, friends, and coworkers what you’re up to. The idea is that 1) it makes your endeavor more real, not just an idea. Telling everyone also creates peer pressure for you to follow through. 2) You never know who might take an interest in your endeavor and offer some advice or help. So I started talking about my script.
The first producer I mentioned it to (who did read it), said it was fantastic, I should frame it, hang it on a wall, and “forget it.” He had just finished a low budget feature and was currently being sued by the writer or director or someone and thought that it just wasn’t worth the headache.
The second producer I spoke to sounded very excited. I’d been working with him on commercials for years, and I knew that he produced ultra-low budget movies from time to time. He sounded very enthusiastic, told me to send the script to him, and said he’d be sure to get it in the hands of his director. I spoke to the director, too, and he also sounded interested. I have never seen or heard from either of them since. I did however hear that they’d apparently collaborated on another project recently. (Hopefully, it wasn’t a rip off of my script, but time will tell…)
Then I reached out to a friend of a friend of a friend who’d just written and produced his first film. He was nice enough to call me back and have a lengthy and informative conversation, wherein he also told me it wasn’t worth the headache. More importantly, he said I was looking at the budget completely wrong. The problem is, an ultra-low budget film isn’t expected to make back very much money, so producers and investors generally avoid them. Ultra-low budget films tend to get made by maxing out credit cards, mortgaging the house, or schmoozing a rich uncle. Otherwise, you want to look at the $6-10 million range. Still low budget for sure, but you either need enough money to hire A-list talent or have the script (or chutzpah) to convince people to shell out several million dollars for your idea. This brings me to the second big lesson.
Everybody hates risk. And in the extremely speculative world of filmmaking producers and investors mitigate risk by making sure a script is “pre-sold,” that is, they can guarantee a certain number of tickets will be sold. Projects can be pre-sold in a variety of ways. Star power is the most obvious. Throw an A-list celebrity on screen and you can (almost) guarantee a certain number of tickets. Intellectual property (IP), is one of the most popular things right now. If you can say Ironman comics or The Girl on the Train have sold X number of copies, you can be fairly certain your movie will sell Y number of tickets.
The thing that surprised me with IP as I continued to have conversations with producers was how little success you needed to show. Granted, they’d prefer to buy a New York Times bestselling novel, but I definitely saw a producer’s eyes go green when a fellow screenwriter mentioned that she’d sold a few thousand copies of her vampire erotica.
Another bizarre pre-sell that’s cropped up is large social media followings. Did your short film get a million hits? Do you have a hundred thousand Instagram followers? Is your fake Twitter account for an anthropomorphized self-driving car constantly trending? Maybe it needs it own movie.
Foreign markets are another major pre-sell. The rest of the world likes American movies and they often make more money overseas. That’s even (or especially?) true for movies that aren’t blockbusters. For some reason, China loves investing in American films. And as they say, a billion times anything is a big number. As long as your film has something to do with China, has a Chinese character, doesn’t malign communism, and doesn’t include time travel (yes, that is real caveat), you might be able to convince a producer that your script is worth a boatload of yuan (tariffs notwithstanding). That is, as long as it’s not a comedy. Which brings me to the next big lesson.
Don’t Write a Comedy Feature
Comedy doesn’t translate well. There’s a great documentary called Exporting Raymond where Ray Romano tries (with much struggle and hilarity) to produce Everybody Loves Raymond in Russia. But he had a major issue initially getting the Russians to accept the overall comedic tone of the show. In the movie, Romano explains why simple, stupid pop songs like Brittany Spears do so well overseas. It’s pretty straightforward to translate, “Oops, I did it again. I played with your heart, got lost in the game. Oh baby, baby.” Clever wordplay and cultural jokes don’t travel well. (Consider this anecdote about American football. On a film set, if there’s a mistake that requires another take, the assistant director will often say, “Flag on the play,” a reference most Americans will understand.
A friend of mine was working on a Bollywood film and every time he said “flag on the play,” the grip department thought there was an actual flag—a piece of grip equipment—left in the shot. How’s that for comedy?)
So if you’ve written a comedy, you’ve just cut off a big part of your pre-sold tickets. Not good.
The other problem is that even if a producer thinks you’re funny, producers are usually weird people. Successful producers like to keep the world at arm’s length or do drugs… or both. In any event, even if they like something they can be sure if the hoi polloi will like it. “How will it play in Peoria?” as they like to say. That gives you the opportunity to launch your (semi) successful standup or improv career into a script sale (a phenomenon you may have noticed). But if you, like me, don’t have that track record, producers will hesitant to take a chance on your script.
Give TV a Whirl!
One producer was nice enough to point out to me that television might be worth a try. For one thing, we’re in the platinum age of TV. For another, there’s far more work for writers in TV. Each show has a staff, as compared to the single writer for a feature. A “season” of TV (now often down to ten or thirteen shows), is also much cheaper than a feature film. Both of these are ways producers can mitigate risk on their investments. Which means TV is a great opportunity for new writers and comedy writers… assuming you live in LA.
I should also point out that as a new writer, it’s very unlikely you’ll be the showrunner of your own pilot. Producers are unlikely to pick up a pilot from an unknown writer because they have no idea if the concept has “legs,” if it will keep going for season after season. If it really is that great of a concept, they may try to produce the show, but they’ll almost certainly bring on a more experienced writer to run it. (Ironically, you need a pilot in order to land that first gig, even if it’s just getting coffee.)
That was something to chew over, and brought me to my final big lesson.
Producers (and agents and people in general) are very easily confused. If you pitch them a comedy feature, and they ask what else you’ve written, don’t say a horror television pilot. Their brains will explode. One of the difficulties all writers face is finding their voice. So even though you’ve only ever written hardcore slasher films, you may have a fantastic idea for a rom-com that just won’t leave you alone. And why not give it a try? Maybe you have a knack for it. Fine. Just don’t mention it in a general meeting!
It gets a little weird because I’m the first to acknowledge that people can be talented in many things and if you’re an adept writer, you should be able to shift gears to a new genre at least passably. In any event, it’s not recommended. I suppose that’s why writers have nom de plumes. (And yes, famous directors and writers can get away with hopping to new genres, but they’ve already proven that they know what they’re doing.)
One producer did, however, bring up an interesting strategy. So many middle of the road, mediocre movies are made for TV all of the time, you could probably use your slasher or raunchy comedy sensibilities to spice up something that would otherwise be a totally forgettable movie of the week.
Where’s that Leave Me?
Still writing (a good place to be for a writer, though never high paying enough). I still have my script, and I’m still pitching it to producers. Knowing what I know now, I probably wouldn’t have started out of the gate with this one. If you aren’t anchored in place and want to be a screenwriter, I would recommend moving to LA and lookong into TV.
If not, dramas based on intellectual property (true stories, public domain, folktales, that weird fan fiction your college roommate writes) might be your best bet. But one recurring theme I’d heard in my quest was, always pursue what you’re passionate about. That won’t guarantee anything about ever seeing it made, but at least you can enjoy it for the time (likely years) you’ll be working on it. I’ve also stumbled upon a handful of websites that screenwriters may find interesting.
The Black List makes your script available to producers, agents, and anyone else who pays to get on their site. It offers affordable coverage. Scripts that are well reviewed and build a buzz are published each year on an actual black list: a list of all the great scripts that weren’t produced in the past year. Before you think this is your answer to getting noticed by Hollywood, I should mention that one producer told me, “The Black List is huge.” So you may get noticed, but it’s also very likely, you will be lost in a sea of mediocre scripts.
I’ll be honest. I’m not a fan of IMDB as a professional resource. Their “verification” process is weak and opaque. (I’ve been in a production office with a producer screaming at them because they listed private, inaccurate information about a film that was in pre-production.) They also don’t seem to understand actual film crew categories. (There’s no such thing as a “camera/electrical” department and video assist is decidedly neither of those!)
But IMDB Pro can be helpful. It is a subscription service, although you don’t need any professional credentials to join. (Another bizarre feature.) In any event, it’s a good resource to see who represents whom, who owns or works for what company, and what films are in production. Useful data as you target your pitch.
Ink Tip is a kind of classifieds section for scripts. You can list your script for sale or you can browse what producers are looking for. You can also sign up for a free weekly e-mail that gives you access to 2 leads…for free. I have had some “success” connecting with producers through Ink Tip.
Many script services focus on perfecting your craft and tightening up your script. Roadmap Writer’s does that, but their bigger asset is connecting you with agents, managers, and producers. There are webinars, general meetings, and pitch sessions for you to learn about the business side of the industry. And remember, these are working professionals (not script gurus or professors). They can tell you, specifically, why they would never produce your script. Or, on the other hand, if they really like it, they may just add you to their rolodex. As of this writing, 51 screenwriters have gained representation through Roadmap Writers.
I’ll be honest. I haven’t really used Stage 32. It seems to be a kind of Facebook/LinkedIn for filmmakers. But like Roadmap Writers, they also offer pitch sessions, often with the same producers, agents, and managers. From that perspective, it’s another good opportunity to get face time with the very people your’e trying to reach.
This is a great site for following the news in Hollywood. Like IMDB Pro, you can use this to research scripts that are selling and, more importantly, who’s buying them. If you live in LA, they also have a jobs section (although it’s more for assistants than writers).
Last year, I wrote a post about Unity or Time (or why biopics have good acting, but are really boring). The basic problem is that real life is mostly boring. And even when you condense a very interesting person’s life into a two hour window, you’re violating one of the foundational laws of screenplay physics: your main character (real or fictional) is under pressure. If they do not achieve their goal soon, they will face serious, negative consequences. (Kind of hard to make that argument when your screenplay covers seventy years…)
John Lee Hancock’s The Founder sidesteps problem in two very clever ways. Overall, it is a very well put together film, and unquestionably worth your time. But if you’re struggling to make your “based on true events” story engaging, you should take particular note of how The Founder handles time.
The Founder tells the story of McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc (deftly and engagingly portrayed by Michael Keaton). One may argue that it is not a proper “biopic” in that it doesn’t tell Kroc’s life story. But that’s point number one. Ray Kroc is only interesting to us because he founded McDonalds (well, franchised it, but whatever… you have to watch the movie). We don’t care what his childhood was like, what he did during the war, or how he whiled away his golden years.* And Hancock wisely choses to focus on that one interesting “moment” of Kroc’s life: the founding of McDonalds.
The second, more interesting point, is in how Hancock handles time: he doesn’t. Intellectually, we know it takes time to get building permits, train staff, track revenue growth, etc. And all of this time, while Kroc is waiting to turn a profit, he’s sweating bullets. But Hancock never tells us how much time has passed. He never shows the changing of the seasons or ages Michael Keaton. So while the real events took anywhere form weeks to years, the pacing of the film feels like each scenes follows day after day and may only have taken a week or two. It’s entirely engrossing.
This all falls back on Robert D. Siegel’s expertly crafted script that continues to escalate and grow with each new scene. We’re not sure how long it takes for Kroc to realize he’s not making any money, and it doesn’t matter. The point is, he’s not making any money. This leads to a second infuriated phone call to the McDonalds brothers, Kroc’s wife finding out about the mortgage, and Kroc’s quest to reduce refrigeration costs (a plot point that instigates all kinds of other interesting complications). The story just keeps pressing onward.
Is this an accurate representation of Ray Kroc’s life? I can’t say. But I can tell you it’s a movie. And it’s a damn good one. So keep these two tricks up your sleeve as you work on your future projects, especially if they’re based on true events. When you get down to it, your audience’s time is the biggest factor you need to consider. And if they are emotionally engaged in your movie, they won’t be looking at the clock. It may not be a burger in thirty seconds, but it’s a service you should definitely aim to provide.
*Some mention of Kroc’s backstory (previous failed business ventures) is appropriately and entertaining revealed as backstory through dialogue in the second act of the film. It’s a great case study in effective use of dialogue and exposition.
As a work of fiction, even the most “realistic” screenplay will have some made-up elements. But there’s a bigger question about how to make aliens or time travel or ghosts “believable.” That’s where we get into “story reality.” What is the reality of this world you have created?
A lot of this has to do with how your characters react to the situations you put them in. If you walk down the street this afternoon and come across someone bleeding to death, how would you react? Call the police? Call an ambulance? Vomit and run away? Now what if you were walking down a beach in Normandy on June 6, 1944? You may vomit and run away, but you might also pull out a machine gun and start shooting Germans. Not a great option in the first example, but perfectly understandable in the second.
The problem is, if you create a fantasy world like Hogwarts or the Shire or Tatooine, your audience can only accept the “reality” of your story based upon how your characters act and react. Apparently, cutting off someone’s arm with a laser sword isn’t a very big deal in the Star Wars cantina. It may, however, be frowned upon at lunch in Hogwarts. Whichever the case, your characters need to react consistently to the “reality” that you have created.
That brings me to Zombie Honeymoon. I can’t necessarily recommend that you watch this movie. I watched it because seeing what doesn’t work can often inform you on what does work. Zombie Honeymoon (hilarious premise) was in many ways a hilarious movie. Newly married husband suddenly becomes a zombie and his wife struggles with the “reality” of that situation. The problem was, she had a very different view of “reality” than everyone else in the script.
The guy at the video store freaks out when he sees the zombie. The local cop is out looking for missing persons. And the best friend runs away when she realizes the husband is “undead.” It’s a consistent reality that aligns with our own reality. But the newlywed wife decides that she’s going to see her husband’s zombification through much as though he had been diagnosed with cancer or Alzheimer’s.
The thing to remember here is that by forty minutes into the movie, her husband has already killed half a dozen people. So instead of marrying Augustus Waters (The Fault in our Stars), she’s really married Michael Corleone (The Godfather).
The premise could still be resuscitated as a farce as the wife hides one body after another and tries to tape her husband’s ears back on for their double date, but it doesn’t. The new wife agonizes over “what to do,” leading to some decent performances and genuinely uncomfortable scenes as she hugs her decomposing husband. But her disregard for everyone else who’s died (including her best friend) and her casual acceptance that her husband is in fact a brain eating, murderous, animated corpse create a disjointed world that doesn’t follow the rules of its own “reality.” It was almost as though everyone else was hired for a horror movie and someone told her it was a Lifetime movie of the week.
Suffice it to say, a consistent “reality” is critical even if your script is reanimating corpses. For more thoughts on story reality and credibility in screenplays, check out these links.
Believe it or not, filmmaking comes with a lot of rules. And while artists may scoff at some seemingly arbitrary conventions, it’s important to know why they exist and how they can affect your audience and artistic vision. Today’s topic for discussion is the 180 degree rule.
Don’t cross the line!
The 180 degree line is an imaginary line that follows the action of a scene. (If you’ve never heard of it, it will make more sense as we go along.) For those of playing at home, you may recognize that 180 degrees is half of a circle. The rule dictates that your camera will always be on the same side of that line.
Who the F#€& came up with that?
Part of this is just physics. If you’re watching something (a sporting event, a street fight, paint drying) you tend to watch it all from the same place. If you want to change your perspective, you can walk to the other side of the stadium, but it’s going to take you a few minutes.
The ancient Greeks, who basically invented western civilization (and also theater) and are frequent this blog’s whipping boy, decided to set things in stone. Literally. They started building all of these amphitheaters.
You’ll notice that all of the seats are on one side. (It’s almost like half of a circle?!) The front of the stage makes a straight line, which taken as a whole, is called the proscenium. It is betwixt this line the actors and audience shall not cross.
Here’s another ancient theater with a much fancier proscenium.
In all of these cases, you can only watch the action from one side of the stage. As a spectator, whether you’re in seat B6 or FF139, you’re always watching on the same side of the line.
Now if we build a set on the stage, there would only be three walls. Much like this living room set from Malevolence: Bereavement.
When you build three walls of a set, the “fourth wall” is the proscenium. The audience must pretend that there’s a fourth wall. And that’s why an actor speaking directly to the audience (or looking straight into the camera) is “breaking the fourth wall.”
Millennia later, film followed suit, generally filming all of the action from one side of the line. In addition to following an established dramatic convention, it also makes it easier to film. The lights, camera, dolly track, sound mixer, additional second second assistant director and therapy dog all have a place to hang out without mucking up the set.
Moving from a wide shot to close ups, filmmakers need to make sure they stay on the correct side of the line. Consider two people sitting at a table, talking.
Sally, on the left, is looking towards the right frame of the camera. When you move in, she STILL needs to be looking to camera right.
Even in a closeup without Harry in the shot, she’s still looking to the right.
Similarly, Harry should always be looking to his left.
(Screen shots from When Harry Met Sally’s infamous restaurant scene.)
A simple situation like this is pretty easy and straightforward, but it would also make for a boring cinematic universe. The good news is, actors can move. And every time the actor or camera moves, so does the line. In fact that 180 degree line is more appropriately called the “action line.” And when things are moving, that line can go all over the place.
Long Steadicam or handheld shots like this work because the audience can follow the action in real time. It’s when you cut to a new camera angle that things can get confusing.
For example, if someone exits frame to the right, which direction should they enter the frame from in the next shot? If there are six characters standing in a circle, what is the direction of the action? If a character hands a prop to another character whose back is turned, should he be reaching camera left or camera right?
Fortunately, the script supervisor and director of photography should be keeping track of all of this. If you’re an aspiring DP or scripty, well, you’ve got some research to do. (I would recommend Joseph V. Mascelli’s The Five C’s of Cinematography to start.) But the intricacies of continuity and action lines aren’t the real reason I wanted to write about this.
Although this won’t really affect the writer, the 180 degree rule has some interesting psychological effects that influence storytelling. For example, if two people… or Matchbox Cars are chasing each other, they need to be traveling in the same direction.
If we turn one of the cars around, they may be headed for a collision.
Similarly, if your character drives from left to right on his commute into work, he should drive from right to left on his way home. Odds are, no one will ever notice whether or not you do this, but it’s one of those subconscious things that can disorient an audience if done incorrectly.
Mascelli goes so far as to argue that vehicles traveling west to east like an airplane flying from New York to London should move left to right on screen. I guess that wouldn’t apply to Australian filmmakers…
Once upon a time things that traveled from left to right were considered to be progressing while things that traveled right to left were regressing or retreating. (Presumably because most western languages are read left to right.) Curiously, that doesn’t seem to hold as much weight as it used to. The Eagles, the only team in the NFL whose logo faces the left finally won a Super Bowl.
(Look at those contrarians in the last column!)
And a not too distant political campaign with a right-pointing arrow didn’t end up working out so well.
The line can also effect how you feel about a character. The furthest you can get from the 180 degree line is 90 degrees. This is the most objective or voyeuristic point of view. You’re not part of the action, you are an outside observer.
(Not sure what’s happening on the cover of Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here, and I’m pretty happy at this distance.)
As you get closer to the line, you become more subjective to the point where characters are speaking directly to you (breaking the fourth wall), and you feel like you’re part of the story.
That’s a hefty workload for one little line.
When can you break the rule?
When ever you want! The thing to remember is that audiences have become accustomed to these conventions. Breaking the rule will lead to confusion and disorientation. If that’s the feel you’re going for, do it! Just make sure the audience can still follow the story. (Remember that post about empathy? You want to be sure you’re showing your character’s confusion, not just confusing the audience.)
But for 99% of what you shoot, the 180 degree line is going to serve as a tool, not an artistic choice. To get to the heart of your story as effectively as possible, make sure your audience is focused on the right thing, and don’t cross the line!
(Screenshot from The Big Lebowski via makeameme.org)
In this crazy business, you’re going to end up travelling for work. It’s as certain as Murphy’s Law or the phrase “It’s perfect” being followed by “Let’s do it again.” (As I write this, some of my coworkers are prepping for a schlep down to New Mexico to finish our current project.) If you’re lucky when you travel, you’ll have a one-night stay in clean and completely forgettable accommodations. If you’re unlucky, you may end up with bedbugs, a lifelong vendetta against a hotel chain, or brain surgery. (I’ll get to that.)
The second feature film I worked on set up shop in a Quality Inn. We rented roughly an entire floor for the crew to stay in and jury-rigged two rooms into an office. Productions will often rent designated office space in hotels (rooms with extra phone lines, printers, and a higher desk to bed ratio than 1), but you can only do that if you use a hotel that has office space to rent. (Something you should consider if you plan on being there for fifteen weeks…) Even as I was making the necessary renovations to our office, something about our hotel choice didn’t sit right.
For example, while waiting in the lobby for crewmembers to arrive, I noticed that a lot of people would come off the street to use the lobby bathroom… at the same time. Then there was the problem that the hotel was managed by Indians (from India), but the cleaning and maintenance staff were Hispanic. I realize this sounds racist, but it’s not really a recipe for success if your management and staff can only communicate with each through a shared, tenuous grasp of English. A minor request like, “Could we please get a second phone for the office, and, for the love of God, please fix the leaking sink,” would result in them replacing the phone (but not giving us a second one) and telling me there was nothing wrong with the toilet.
But production soldiered on and we made the necessary adjustments on our own. We removed all of the pictures to put up schedules, hangers for file folders, and dry erase boards. We disassembled the furniture and packed it into the closet. And we drilled through the walls to pull in that second phone line from the room next door. (This is what happens when you give creative people problems, free time, and power tools.)
The hotel did get its revenge. About ten weeks into the shoot, it became infested with bedbugs. Granted, this can happen anywhere, but as you can guess, the Quality Inn didn’t do the best of jobs handling the situation. First they denied it. Then they shuffled our rooms around much like the Catholic Church trying to hide a pedophile. And much like the Catholic Church, things didn’t work out great.
When we wrapped, the wardrobe stylist, who by this point had witnessed the rise and fall of several bed bug civilizations in the cast’s clothing, decided to just walk away and let the hotel deal with it. The baffled cleaning ladies dutifully threw the remnants of our film’s wardrobe into the trash. (It was a horror film, and frankly, torn bloody cheerleader outfits are not something you want to be seen carrying around.) For some reason, the staff thought this would be our procedure for checking out of all of our rooms. Two days later, when our poor production assistants were wrapping the set, the cleaning staff decided to empty out their rooms. They took fifteen weeks of accumulated living detritus (clothes, personal items, food, film equipment) and unceremoniously threw them in the dumpster. (They did pilfer some of the less bedbug prone merchandise like a rather nice poker set that only miraculously re-appeared in the break room after much cajoling and arguing in multiple languages.)
I did however get the last laugh. I was the last production person to leave the hotel and passed by our ramshackle office just as the hotel manager was opening the door. He had a look that was equal parts dread and disbelief, like some archeologist who had just pried open a newly discovered sarcophagus to exhume the discovery of his lifetime only to find it piled nipples deep with fifteen weeks of unspeakable film production horrors. I will cherish that look until the day I die.
On that same film, the producers quickly realized that they couldn’t keep our talent in the same hotel. Contractually, they weren’t allowed. Fortunately, even though we were filming eight miles west of west bumblefrack, there was a four star hotel within thirty minutes of the set. Unfortunately, they drew their staff from the same pessimal talent pool as the Quality Inn. Despite our block of rooms (which we wanted to keep and simply refresh when one actor left and another arrived) the staff decided to release one of our rooms when an actor checked out. That left me in the unenviable position of having to find another four-star hotel within the same hemisphere as our location.
I ended up in customer service hell, listening to prerecorded messages and repeating account numbers until I had apparently shouted enough profanity to merit live human intervention. The operator first recommended a cheaper hotel that was managed by the same parent company. It was only a few miles further away. I explained to him that I was contractually obligated to secure a four or five star hotel for my client to which he cheerfully replied, “Oh, we’ll we don’t use a star rating system, we use diamonds.”
“All right, how many diamonds is it?”
“Oh. Out of how many?”
“Ten.” Granted, he was not being graded on this exchange, but I wish to God he had been because that would come out to a D-.
He does get an “A” for effort, though, because he then tried to find me something that was at least eight diamonds (which is apparently equivalent to four stars) and triumphantly told me that there were some available rooms in “Reeding.” I could be wrong, but I am fairly confident that Reading, PA is named after Reading, England and despite its misleading spelling is pronounced “Redding” across the globe. For my own amusement, I asked where he was located.
So much for local service. We ended up shuttling the actor back and forth from New York.
More recently I stayed in the world’s most pretentious hipster hotel. The furniture was made out of repurposed wooden pallets, the wall fixtures were bare copper piping, and the room numbers were filthy plastic lamps that looked like they had been salvaged from a fleet of 70s era taxi roofs.
It gave the overall impression of crashing on a friend’s couch in a shitty, walk-up apartment. I would know because I’ve done it. (No offense, James.) The pretense was so complete, I genuinely thought they were pumping in artificial city noise. It sounded like my room was directly above a subway station, below a construction site, and wedged between a kitchen and a brothel. It wasn’t (at least I don’t believe so), but the hotel had somehow managed to find the least sound dampening material know to man.
The real coup de grace, however, was that several of the walls were painted black. Seriously. Here’s a picture of my room with all of the lights on.
It could have been helpful, since we were doing night shoots, but a friend of mine got up in the middle of the day to pee, walked into one of the walls, and gave himself a concussion. He later required brain surgery. No I am not making that up. You can look for my review here or just read it here.
Then there was the ultra-modern “W” in D.C. (Seriously, are kindergarteners naming these places?) This is the kind of place that is so chic that it takes you twenty minutes to figure out how to turn the light on. The evening I checked in, I had been working for fourteen hours in the rain and just driven an hour and a half to the hotel. I boarded the elevator with my luggage including a pillow.
Some bros got on after me. They were headed to a party on one of the upper floors, one of those those yuppy gatherings that is equal parts networking and mating ritual. Joking around, they asked why I was carrying the pillow. I think I said something to the effect of, “Because I have a knife on me and if you say anything else, I’m the only one leaving this elevator alive.” The rest of the ride was tense, but silent.
I also had to do battle with the bathroom, which was something I thought humanity had more or less conquered about fifty years ago. The newest rendition of the toilet, however, has no tank, so you have no place to set your phone, glasses, or shower beer. The massive, minimalist, walk-in shower was impressive as well, but also lacked any place to set your beer… or soap… or towel. That latter issue required you to either hang your towel over the door (getting your towel soaking wet) or leave your towel at the sink (getting everything else wet as you went to retrieve your towel).
Then there was the time I couldn’t sleep because of how loud the HVAC was. I took the vent off of the wall and shoved a pillow in it. Or the creepily friendly hotel manager who repeatedly invited me into his office to chat about gladiator movies. While it’s never happened to me personally, a handful of my coworkers have returned to the hotel after working fifteen hours and opened their doors only to find that the hotel has somehow rented their rooms to someone else and not bothered to tell them or deactivate their room keys. And in perhaps the ultimate absurdity, who can forget the time someone literally took a dump outside the production manger’s door? (No, it wasn’t an irate crewmember.)
So what do I look for in hotel? Cleanliness. For the love of God, I can sleep in the bathtub, just make it clean. In the first world, water and electricity are (I hope) a given. Refrigerators are nice and ranges can be a fun perk if you’ll be there for a few days. Location is also very important. Proximity to set is nice, but proximity to a bar and some dinner options is more important. Hotel bars can work, as long as the food is decent and not too expensive. If your crew has to drive forty-five minutes for dinner every night, it will be abundantly clear at call time.
For your own sanity, throw earplugs and a sleep mask in your travel bag. Even the best hotel can have noisy neighbors. And personally, I’ve found that while it is a pain to drag the slippers, contour pillow, and chia pet along for a shoot, those little touches of home can make a surprisingly big difference after a brutal shoot day.
Finally, no sharing! Sharing rooms is one of those red flags that should make you wary about working with a company. It’s a sign that they’ll be pinching pennies and cutting corners every step of the way. And do you really want to deal with that after listening to the producer’s nephew snore all night?
While it’s true that working out of a hotel can be a pain, it’s also a fun to work in and explore new cities. Get the all you can eat crabs in Baltimore, check out Bourbon Street in New Orleans, and try the edibles in Colorado. But no matter what happens when you travel for work, you’re going to end up with some interesting stories.
It can’t be helped. We exist in time/space. We’ve all been at work, staring at the clock, wondering when our time in purgatory will come to an end. But on a film set, the different circles of hell each have names and meanings. As a filmmaker (especially if you’re a production assistant (PA)), it’s good to know what these times are and how they affect your day.
Call Time (In)
This is the time you show up to set. For our example, let’s say call time is 6:00am. This is known as “general crew call” because it’s when most of the crew will show up. However, any good production manager will say, “Be sure to check individual call times.” Production will generally have a “pre-call” to make sure doors are unlocked, parking is sorted out, and the caterer knows where to set up breakfast. Your individual call time is listed next to your name on the call sheet (pretty straightforward). So with a 6:00 call time, a PA can expect to have an individual call time of 5:00 or 5:30. Even so, if someone asks you what the call time is, they’re probably asking about general crew call. (And remember, if you’re early, you’re on time. If you’re on time, you’re late. If you’re late, you’re fired.)
Depending on the day, other departments may have a pre-call as well. The grips or set dec may need to get in early to prep a location. The camera department may have a special piece of gear to prep for the day. But no matter how many staggered call times there are, there will always be an official general crew call.
First shot is when you get your first shot. (Duh.) The script supervisor is in charge of recording this. (On a small shoot without a script supervisor, however, an assistant director (AD) may record it.) Ultimately, this time goes to the 2nd AD who puts the production report together. An AD or producer may ask you when the first shot was. All you have to do is ask the script supervisor. (Fun note: The script supervisor is the official timekeeper of a film set and keeps a record of all of these times.)
Ah, the second best time of the day. Lunch is owed to the crew 6 hours after general crew call. In our example, lunch would be 12 noon (6 hours after call). Technically, production can break whenever they want, but there may be repercussions…
If production does not break after 6 hours, they owe the crew meal penalties (AKA money). This is why production almost always breaks after 6 hours and why ADs always freak out after 5 hours and 45 minutes. (Sadly, PAs do not get meal penalties and often end up working through lunch. But sometimes they do get to break early.)
What about those grips who were in at 5:30? Shouldn’t they break at 11:30? Yes. That’s why many call sheets will say, “All crew must NDB.” That stands for non-deductible break. As time permits (say the director needs to have a heart to heart with his star) crew members break away one at a time for a 30 minute break. That way they don’t go into a meal penalty, but production may continue uninterrupted. They will still break for lunch with the rest of the crew.
Production may also ask for a grace period to finish a shot in progress. This is only 12 minutes and needs to be asked for and agreed to by the crew. Then you may break for lunch at say 12:03 without going into a meal penalty.
Crews generally break for half hour lunches, but that clock doesn’t start until the last crew member (last man) is through the line. Let’s say lunch was called on time at 12:00, but the crew needs to be shuttled 10 minutes away to catering. It takes a further 8 minutes to get the entire crew through the catering line. So your half hour starts at 12:18. As a PA, it may be your job to watch the line and call last man. After that last man is through the line, tell the AD the time for last man.
Back in is the time lunch ends. In our case, that would be 12:48. The crew is “back in” at catering, so don’t expect to shoot anything until everyone’s taken that 10 minute shuttle back (~12:58). At lunch, after the last man is called, PAs will be asked to inform the crew. E.G. “Last man 12:18. Back in 12:48.” As with these other times, you may be asked to relay this info to and from production, the ADs, and the script supervisor.
First Shot After Lunch
Same as the first shot, just… after lunch.
(That’s a wrap…or is it lunch? Or both?)
“That’s a wrap. Everybody go home!” Ah, the best time of the day. When the first AD says those magic words, it’s time to start packing the trucks. This is the official camera wrap, but much like the official call time doesn’t dictate when you stop (or start) working.
Once the trucks are loaded and the crew is shuttled back to the parking lot, they are “out.” This is the individual wrap time and varies from department to department. Departments are generally (but not always) out as a group (e.g. the grips are out at 7pm). Most productions will assign a PA to each department to get out times. This information is relayed back to the 2nd AD for the production report. To simplify things, most productions have started using daily time cards that a representative will fill out and pass to the PA. That makes it easy to just run everything back to the office.
(Note: remember that 6 hour rule? If you continue to film 6 hours after lunch, production will owe another meal break or go into dinner meal penalties.)
The production report is a kind of mirror image of a call sheet. Whereas a call sheet is when you’re supposed to show up and what you hope to achieve for the day, the PR is what ended up actually happening.
At the end of the week, production will send PRs to each of the department heads. PAs often call these “cheat sheets” because crew members will copy the information on them to their time cards. But PRs have much more information on them than in and out times (injury reports, rerates, additional crew members that weren’t listed on the call sheet, etc.). Department heads (or their seconds) should actually be checking the PR to be sure that the information on them is correct. If you want to sound like you have a clue, call them by the correct name.
Now when someone asks, “Did we break on time Tuesday?” “What was call time today?” “When are we back in?” or “What was camera wrap last night?” you’ll have a vague idea what they’re talking about.
Bonus! Time cards!
To make this all a bit more confusing, times cards are filled out in 10ths of an hour on a 24 hour clock. Before your brain explodes, let me explain. First, a 10th of an hour is 6 minutes. 0:30=0.5, 0:18=0.3, 0:48=0.8. So 7:24 is… 7.4. Not that difficult.
A 24 hour clock simply means that Instead of going to 1pm, you go to 13.0. Just add 12 to the normal time. 3:24pm=15.4, 5:42pm=17.7, 11:54pm=23.9.
But wait, there’s more! If you bleed into a new day, you don’t reset the clock. So midnight becomes 24.0, 1am is 25.0, 2:12am is 26.2. (Last week, I wrapped at 31.0 or 7am Saturday morning.)
On set, everyone still speaks about time in the normal 12 hour, 60 minute way, but if you see a bizarre number like 14.6 on a PR, now you know what it means. (Also, it’s always morning when you start your day even if it’s 7pm… or 19.0.) As a nerdy form of masochism, check out the time card below and see if you can get the same results I do! (Notes: Even though I list the whole lunch time, only 1/2 hour is deducted from the time worked. Also, straight time is 8 hours, 1.5X is 4 hours, any additional time is 2X.)
One of the biggest issues I faced in college was coming up with ideas for scripts. Without too much self-pity, I have to admit that it’s difficult for college students to write a decent script. For one thing, they simply don’t have enough life experience. Production issues create another major problem. While film students may have brilliant ideas (probably not, but maybe), they don’t usually have the means to produce them. You can only shoot a dorm room from so many angles. Something that really would have helped and that I recommend all young writers do is find their muse.
In classical Greek mythology, the Muses were goddesses (or nymphs) who flitted down from the ether and whispered ideas to artists. The Greeks (who were also ridiculously chauvinistic) believed that there was a pure, objective form of beauty and that the Muses themselves embodied it. Naturally, this is what the artists used as inspiration for their work.
In subsequent drama, the muses are often portrayed as beautiful women whom tortured artists obsess over. In an amazing example of life imitating art imitating life, Maxfield Parrish, who had a major influence on the look of fantasy in the early Twentieth Century, fell in love with his model, Susan Lewin. But when his wife died and he didn’t marry Lewin, she went off and married someone from her home town (at the age of 71!). Parrish never painted again.
(Who would think the guy that painted this would have relationship drama?)
But your inspiration needn’t be a woman. (In fact it’s probably better if it’s not.) Nature may be your inspiration. Or music. Or old literature. Or Irish folktales. Or history. Or true crime. Or you may even just jot ideas down and pull them out of a hat like Mad Libs. I, strangely enough, stumbled on NPR.
To be clear, I’m not necessarily talking about the news broadcast. But NPR does a lot of in-depth reporting about human-interest stories, technology, and even book reviews. And delving deeper into these subjects often tickles my brain. How will this technology change the world in ten years? Why was this peculiar law written in the first place? How would this news story unravel differently if the gender roles were reversed? I stash away all of these ideas, characters, and psychological puzzles, and I let them simmer until they coalesce into my next idea.
Hey, that was my idea!
If you’ve read my posts about copyright, you hopefully have a handle on how to protect your work. But what do you do when you’re sitting in a theater and see a preview that seems an awful lot like that script you’ve been working on for years? Well, sadly, probably nothing.
One theory of creativity questions whether we can ever come up with an original idea or merely recombine things we have already experienced.
Even if you don’t fully agree with that theory, it’s not hard to see that the zeitgeist, the “spirit” or “attitude” that’s driving societal trends, will have a major influence on what artists create. Something happens and then BAM, eighteen months later, you’re inundated with scripts that are all about the same thing.
When I started covering scripts years ago, I read three scripts in one month that tried to tackle Die Glocke. It was a supposed Nazi time travelling machine that crashed outside Pittsburg in the 1960s. The scripts were all very distinct from each other. None of them had the same characters or general plot outline so none of them infringed on the other’s copyright. Sadly, none of them were very good, either. But it did have me wondering where the sudden interest in Die Glocke originated. (Sidebar, I’d stay away from moon Nazis, time travelling Nazis, and really any sci-fi Nazis when you’re writing.)
This wasn’t the first time I’d noticed the phenomenon, either. 1995 brought us Braveheart and Rob Roy, true stories about Scots fighting the English for independence. Then there was 1998 with it’s hyper-realistic World War II epics Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line. Okay, sure, lots of war movies come out every year, but 1998 also brought Deep Impact and Armageddon as well as Antz and A Bug’s Life. True, especially in the last case, studios may be intentionally trying to steal market share from their competitors. But scripts don’t materialize overnight. The inspiration for the stories, the drive to produce the stories, and the technology required to make the films all coalesced independent of one another, but at the same time. (Wikipedia actually has a page dedicated to so-called “Twin Films.”)
(Maybe we’d all be better off if one of these had been a documentary. Image via another fun article here.)
I’ve had to kick myself more than once for coming up with an idea, but getting beaten to the punch. (Not to say that my ideas, sketched out in a journal, would be as good as or even similar to the works that came out later.) In December of 2008, I made a note that I should write a dark comedy about cancer. I even wrote that “The Big C” would make a good title. In August of 2010, Showtime premiered The Big C. (Too bad you can’t copyright titles.) In April of 2013, I started jotting down notes for a TV series about pirates. It just felt like the time was right. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one. A few weeks later, watching previews before The Great Gatsby, I saw a trailer for the Starz series Black Sails. You can ask my wife, I nearly threw a shoe at the screen. In March of 2006, I scribbled down something about a love story for a musical I was brainstorming. It was about Aaron Burr…the man who shot Alexander Hamilton.
There is a silver lining to all of this. At least I can say with confidence that my ideas are not totally off the mark. In fact, they’re not even off the market. You can’t copyright cancer or pirates or American history. So long as my expression of these topics is different than the others, I’m still good to go. Furthermore, when pitching my own version of the famous Burr/Hamilton duel, I can use the success of Hamilton to entice investors. Of course, I have to be careful not to use any of the fictionalized characters, dialogue, or other original plot devices that the brilliant Lin Manuel Miranda used.
Should you watch movies that are similar to your idea? Of course. Everyone else is. If you pitch an idea about a theme park full of cloned dinosaurs to an investor, you better be able to explain how it’s different than Jurassic Park and why it’s worthy of their money. Watching similar projects will also inform you about what works and doesn’t work for a particular genre or story. It may even spawn another, better idea. Don’t be afraid that watching similar work will influence what you’re writing. It will. But if your project is so similar that it risks copyright infringement, you should probably quit while you’re ahead.
Obviously, if you have legitimate reasons to believe that someone stole your “original work of authorship” that was “fixed in a tangible form,” you should fight for your rights. But my bigger point about the zeitgeist is, don’t get too paranoid.
The biggest way to get over your slump is simply to keep writing. This is what you want to do, right? It’s very unlikely that you’ll come up with and execute an original idea perfectly on your first go. If you trust yourself as a writer, you’ll just get back to work with your next great idea and hopefully hit the market before the next guy. I’ve also noticed another peculiar phenomenon.
Ideas beget ideas. You’ll be in the midst of doing research for some project and suddenly get hit with another brilliant premise. Or you’ll finish a project just to realize it’s complete trash, but that one minor character you created is pretty cool and maybe, just maybe, deserves their own story. The muse can come from anywhere. You may also discover that your billion dollar idea that was going to make all of your dreams come true is just a massive pain in the neck. You might not be able to look at it for ten more seconds without vomiting. That’s okay. It may be a good idea (maybe not), but it’s not going to be your idea. And maybe, just maybe writing period educational pieces for children isn’t what your destined to do. The only way to find out is to try it and follow that muse wherever she or he or it leads you.