Over the past few years, I’ve noticed people using the phrase “fast forward” to indicate a passage of time. While I acknowledge the dynamic nature of language and try not to ride a high horse about “proper” English, I do find this phrase particularly jarring and troublesome. I’d like to take a moment to explain my concerns and, I hope, encourage you to think twice before using the phrase.
Here’s a pretty typical example from Forbes. “I served as a translator for both language and culture over the years and gained a deep appreciation of the challenges of navigating caregiving, education and culture. Fast forward to graduate school: My interest in supporting child well-being led me to become interested in better understanding policy.”
For starters, there’s an issue of “point of view” (POV). In case you forget POV from English class, first person = I; second person = you; third person = he/she/it/they.“Fast forward” shifts the point of view of a story. Most stories are told in first or third person. So if you say “fast forward,” who is doing the forwarding?
If no subject is identified, “fast forward” operates in the second person POV with “you” understood. In other words, when I say, “Call me later,” I’m really saying, “You call me later.” So in the example above, who’s fast forwarding? You aren’t telling the story. The phrase makes much more sense when the subject of the sentence takes clear ownership. “Let me fast forward to graduate school.” “Can you fast forward to graduate school …” But if I have control of a story, why are you the one fast forwarding?
Then, there’s an issue of redundancy. “Fast forward,” used to indicate a passage of time, is often used in conjunction with another phrase used to indicate a passage of time. For example, “But relevance wasn’t the point — this was all about toughness. Fast-forward to May 14, when 10 people were gunned down at a Tops supermarket in Buffalo, New York” (MSNBC). Or “…President Donald Trump took a few steps in to North Korea and spoke about his friendship with that country’s leader, Kim Jong Un. Fast-forward almost three years. President Biden is in Seoul, emphasizing his friendship with new South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol” (NPR).
In both of these cases, fast forward is redundant. It is literally a waste of breath. The authors could just write “On May 14” or “Today.” Both choices are shorter and convey the same information. Brevity is a skill. Why use up our mental bandwidth for something you don’t need? If you can delete something, do it!
That being said, many writers will sprinkle in phrases to help set a theme. If you’re talking about movies, why not use “fast forward” as your time transition? And bits of jargon have been weaseling their way into our everyday language for centuries. In my introduction, I mention horses even though this essay really has nothing to do with horses. Below, I allude to plants. Considering the prevalence of video in today’s word, we can’t exactly prevent a phrase like “fast forward” from taking root. But there is a good reason I would caution against it.
Hollywood has done a great job convincing us that love at first sight is real, “smoking guns” exist, passionate speeches change people’s minds, and there’s always a parking spot directly in front of a courthouse. If you use the veracity of that last example to measure the other three, you can see how absurd some of these propositions really are. We don’t live in movies. We can’t fast forward and rewind at will, and we need to stop thinking that we can. “Sure,” you might say. “That’s a problem for tween influencers who want to star in reality shows. But I can tell the difference between reality and the movies.” Respectfully, I disagree.
Think back, if you will, to the early aughts, when one of the most powerful countries in the world invaded a sovereign nation under false pretenses. At that time, a paranoid Bush administration justified its torture of detainees not through psychology and jurisprudence, but through the Fox television show 24.Slate noted the troubling argument way back in 2008. Politicians, judges, and intelligence operatives were basing their actions off of a fictional television show with real-world ramifications. It’s hard for me to believe that fourteen years later, with the ubiquitous use of smart phones and social media, that our psychology has become less entwined with fiction, fantasy, and technology.
I need to reset here, briefly, because I am a fan of fiction. Fiction helps us explore questions and ideas that would not be accessible in a purely fact-driven world. Fiction helps us develop empathy. Understanding fiction helps us understand reality. But fiction is merely an analogy. Fiction and virtual worlds are not the same thing as flesh and blood, and I think it is incumbent on us to keep those lines distinct.
As we spend more time in the virtual world, manipulating images, audio, and video like gods, we need to keep the reality of our existence in mind. We can’t photoshop ourselves to be sexier, edit our conversations to remove faux pas, or fast forward our way through a traffic jam. I think acknowledging that fact, even in a small way, will lead us to accept the world we really live in and do our best to make this world a better place.
On #WorldEmojiDay, I’d like to talk about…pronunciation. Last year, I returned to school to study creative writing. Since most people with MFAs actually end up teaching English, Drexel University offered a writing instruction or “pedagogy” class. And it made me wonder, how exactly do you say pedagogy?
I’ve heard everything from to PED-a-GOG-y (rhymes with doggy) to PED-a-GO-gie (rhymes with hoagie) to to PED-a-GOD-gy (rhymes with dodgy) to PED-a-GO-gee (rhymes with Emoji—which is why I was thinking about this today). I heard that last pronunciation most frequently, but it kind of bothered me.
In my Merriam-Webster’s Rhyming Dictionary, the only words that rhyme with Emoji are Moji, shoji, anagoge, and Hachioje. Moji, shoji, and Hachioje are all Japanese and spelled with a “j.” As a native English speaker, “pedagoji” would not have been my first guess. Anagoge is Greek, like pedagogy, but it is spelled differently. Also… I’ve never heard of it.
But looking at the spelling and word origin, the similar Greek words, synagogue, demagogue, and even pedagogue, are pronounced with a hard “o” and spelled “gue.” Since pedagogy and pedagogue have a shared origin, “pedagoggy” does make some sense… although it sounds completely ridiculous. Seriously. Say it out loud.
That brings me to my initial guess. In the academic world, we study -ogies: biology, mythology, gerontology, psychology, geology, Egyptology, immunology, hydrology, chronology, neurology, archeology, et ceterology. Here the “o” has the schwa or “uh” sound, not the “oh” of emoji. It seemed to be the obvious choice to me. Psychology. Pedagogy. The study of teaching should rhyme with the study of the psyche or myths or gerons… or whatever. But that -ology comes from the Greek logia (study) or logos (story or word) while -agogy comes from the Greek agogos (guide). So maybe the unique pronunciation is an important distinction.
(Sidebar: I don’t see why anyone would go for pedagoagie.)
But that brought me to one of the more important lessons of modern, English pedagogy. Enforcing pronunciation, spelling, and grammar rules are actually a form of oppression. “Proper” English is a way of separating groups. It tells you where someone came from. It tells you if English was their first language. It tells you who had enough money to go to college and who had enough free time to study English. The reality is, most people in the world get along just fine with double negatives, dangling modifiers, and frequent switches in verb tense. A lot of the time, they don’t even use words. 😉
However you deploy English has less to do with what’s “correct” than what group you want to be a part of. English “rules” are actually guidelines that are very audience specific. Grant proposals, ad copy, emails, news reports, social media feeds, and blogs all follow slightly different rules. The most “well written” research paper in the world will not sell more copies of The Hollywood Reporter.
That can make English pedagogy a little more nuanced than your sixth grade English teacher may have claimed. There are trends and best practices, but the rules are actually kind of fluid. As far as the pronunciation of pedagogy goes, if you want to fit in, pronounce it however the cool kids do. You can justify pretty much any version. But if you want to be a bastion of liberty, forge your own pronunciation. Maybe that’s the best argument for pedagoagie.
Stories are critical to our understanding of ourselves and of the world. But stories are not TRUE. The world is chaotic and indifferent. Humans are contradictory and ever changing. Singular events like the migration of a humpback whale or a dance at senior prom or a parking ticket have no real meaning. In order to make sense of ourselves—where we’ve come from and where we’re going—we tell stories.
Seeing that humpback whale off the coast of Cape Cod may reignite your love of marine biology. Wonderful Tonight may perpetually remind you of your first true love. That parking ticket may be just one of the myriad ways the universe lets you know “the man” is out to get you. This is storytelling, putting the events of our lives into context and using them to shape our identities.
Some psychologists and anthropologists argue that storytelling is uniquely human, that it is, in fact, what makes us human. That theory may just be another story, but storytelling is certainly a strength. What is “Hamlet” or “the stock market” or “human rights.” You can’t feed a monkey the S&P 500, and yet it’s a critical part of our world.
Stories, however, can also be dangerous. Stories are not reality. They are not TRUE. Stories simplify things, omit details, take a certain point of view. As psychologist Jerome Bruner said, “To tell a story is inescapably to take a moral stance.” In her Ted Talk, “The Danger of a Single Story,” novelist Chimamanda Adichie explains the hazards of the stories we tell and the stories we omit. It is worth a listen. I’ll wait.
The danger of a single story is not merely that it limits our understanding of the world or that it limits what we think we are capable of. The biggest danger, I would argue, is that if we only hear one story, we start to think it is TRUE.
In 2020, we are being asked to re-evaluate many of the stories we have been told for decades, in some cases centuries. These stories address race, gender, patriotism, service, loyalty, victimhood, history, bravery, citizenship, equality, essentiality, responsibility, heroism, and many more things. They address our very identities. Remember, stories, by their very nature, are critical to our understanding of ourselves and the world. This process won’t be comfortable. That’s okay. New stories bring us to a fuller, more colorful understanding of the world. New stories bring us closer to the TRUTH.
I’d like to leave with this anecdote. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the United States was publicly, virulently white supremacist.
In part to thumb their noses at the White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant (WASP) establishment, a Catholic fraternal organization took Christopher Columbus for their patron. By the late 19th century, Americans had been celebrating Columbus as a mythic hero for 100 years. The WASPs liked to tell a story of Christopher Columbus discovering America but conveniently ignored the fact that he was an Italian (Catholic) funded by Spaniards (Catholic). Italian, Irish and other Catholic immigrants wanted to remind WASPs that Catholics played a major role in creating the United States.
A century after the Knights of Columbus were formed, we may question their choice of patron. Here is Kurt Vonnegut’s reflection on Columbus from Breakfast of Champions in 1973:
“As children we were taught to memorize  with pride and joy as the year people began living full and imaginative lives on the continent of North America. Actually, people had been living full and imaginative lives on the continent of North America for hundreds of years before that. 1492 was simply the year sea pirates began to rob, cheat, and kill them.”
What’s the TRUTH? Well, all of it. The world is chaotic. It is not simple and neat. It’s natural for us to associate these stories with our identities. To think that an attack on Columbus is an attack on our selves. But it’s not. It’s just a new perspective. It moves us to a fuller and more interesting understanding of the world. It moves us away from the dangerous, myopic belief in a single story.
Between all of that and some pandemic everyone keeps talking about, I haven’t really had time to advance my presidential campaign. You may think this is the point where I officially withdraw, but if you read my previous post… I was never officially running. I guess my point is, you won’t hear my stump speech any time in the near future.
Hopefully, we return to normal (or better) in the near future. In the meantime, I’ll see you online.
@wdavisliterary posted this on Twitter a few weeks ago: “The Four Horsemen of Procrastination”
It’s a solid observation, and it was meant in good fun. I did, however, have one quibble. Naps are part of the writing process. I cheekily said as much in my reply. She responded as well, saying that napping is “totally” procrastination. And To be fair, the act of napping is not the act of writing. But napping IS part of the writing process (the creative process more generally) as are showers, bike rides, long walks, and getting lost on public transit.
I’m not much of a fighter, but this is one battle I’m not going to take lying down.
Things are going to get Biblical
There are a lot of themes in the Bible, but the importance of dreams seems to permeate all 60+ books. There’s Old Testament Joseph and his famous technicolor dreamcoat; Jonah who was fast asleep before being thrown overboard to a whale; Job, whom God scolds for not listening to his dreams; and New Testament Joseph who decides to divorce his miraculously pregnant fiancé before settling down for some zzz’s. After a good nap (and some meddling angels) he changes his mind.
It’s this last point I want to emphasize. Joseph had a problem he wasn’t sure how to handle. After he thought about it for a while, he took a nap. The Psalms also speak about this magical, problem-solving nap. “…Meditate in your heart upon your bed, and be still” (Psalm 4:4). “Hear my cry for help… In the morning, Lord, you hear my voice” (Psalm 5:2-3).
The general theme here is that your problem is too big for you to comprehend. Don’t even bother trying to solve it. In fact, you’re better off getting a good night’s sleep. Somehow, miraculously, the problem will solve itself.
Research into creativity has revealed that there is real wisdom in ancient, well, wisdom. Your brain needs time to ruminate on ideas. In his book Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson refers to this as the “slow hunch.” Over time (minutes, days, years?) you slowly, subconsciously consider the same problem as you age, mature, learn, and change. You open yourself up to “serendipity” (another of Johnson’s terms), as your brain forms new, unexpected connections. (It had never occurred to me that when I did a bible study with my wife five years ago, I could use that information for ammunition in a Twitter argument about screenwriting.)
In his work The Art of Thought, Graham Wallas shares this reflection from the prolific German physicist Hermann von Helmholtz.
…happy ideas come unexpectedly without effort, like an inspiration. So far as I am concerned, they have never come to me when my mind was fatigued, or when I was at my working table… They came particularly readily during the slow ascent of wooded hills on a sunny day.*
Wallas goes on to describe Helmholtz’s three stage process: preparation, where you consider the problem at hand; incubation, where you do not think about the problem at all; and finally, illumination, where the solution simply pops into your head. Sound familiar?
Physical activity is great way to keep your neurons on their toes, but don’t worry if there aren’t any “wooded hills” near your writing desk. Johnson thinks dreams may be just as beneficial as fresh air. In fact, he wonders if that most analytical of dreamers wasn’t on to something.
Sigmund Freud, he says, had it backwards. Dreams aren’t repressed memories trying to come to the surface, but our brains searching for meaning through all of the clutter (sights, smells, conversations, thoughts, obstacles, emotions, etc.). Although the evidence is anecdotal, the sewing machine, the periodic table, and the theory of relativity were all conceived by people sleeping on the job. It’s not just science and technology. Artists dream up crazy stuff all of the time. Famously, The Beatles’ “Yesterday,” The Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction,” Frankenstein, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde all started in dreams.
Sometimes a Nap Isn’t Just a Nap
When it comes to creative processes, the best approach is not always head on. Ideas are ephemeral things and you may spook them. Instead, the research seems to suggest that one great approach is, well, napping. Now to be clear, you can’t use this as avoidance (which is what spawned the initial tweet). But what has actually proven to be very effective is gathering all of the pieces in your mind: the inputs and outputs, the technical hurdles, your fears, and in regard to writing, your subject and audience, characters, stories, motivation, and criticisms.
Hold them there. Look at them objectively. Write them down if it helps. Then, forget about them.
Go for a walk. Do some painting. Cook dinner. Take a nap. As long as you’re going to hit your deadline, take a day or two to just let everything simmer. And if you do, you’ll be surprised to see how things miraculously work themselves out.
I hear your protests, but don’t say anything now. Just think it over. Sleep on it. Get back to me in the morning.
*Miller, Susan. The Norton Book of Composition Studies. W.W. Norton & Co., Inc. 2009. 236
HBO recently released Craig Mazin’s miniseries Chernobyl. While nothing in this life is perfect, Chernobyl comes pretty darn close. From acting to directing to art direction to sound design, Chernobyl is a masterclass in filmmaking.
But the biggest story is probably the story itself. In the television world, screenwriters hold the creative power and, as writer and executive producer, Mazin made a variety of bold and effective decisions. For example, the explosion takes place in the first few minutes of the mini-series. He doesn’t make the audience sit through a lengthy first act or ordinary world, and it’s spectacularly powerful. But his reasoning behind the decision is what will really make things click for filmmakers.
In addition to the show, Mazin recorded a companion podcast with NPR host Peter Sagal to accompany each episode. In it, he explains his creative decisions. He shares insight about story structure, adapting true stories, portraying gore on screen, sound design, and even accents. It’s entertaining, engaging, and informative. It’s unfiltered information coming from a filmmaker at the top of his game.
Taken together, Chernobyl and the companion podcast are worth far more to aspiring filmmakers than anything you can find in a university catalogue. The podcast is free and HBO Now has a 7 day free trial. You have no excuses. If you want to learn about the craft of filmmaking, Chernobyl is a must.
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.
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.