There’s No Such Thing as a Free Lance

The vast majority of jobs in the film industry are freelance. That means you, as an employee, are only hired per assignment (commercial, TV episode, feature film, mayonnaise training video…). Technically, you work for Paramount or Fox or Comcast NBCUniversal, but only for a few days at a time. The closest comparable thing in the “real world” is an independent contractor. These people own their own businesses and enter into negotiations directly with a client. Roofers, plumbers, electricians, etc. are all often independent contractors.

There is a slight difference, however. Freelancers are technically employed by a company (just for a few days at a time). If an independent roofer falls off of your roof, he’s the one paying the hospital bill. If you fall off of a roof making a commercial, the production company’s stuck with the bill. While it leads to countless jokes and is confusing to literally everyone, freelancing is a distinct form of employment that affects things like filing taxes, applying for loans, and unemployment compensation. (For example, when a project ends, you no longer work for Paramount Pictures, but you weren’t fired.)

Supposedly, the term “free lance” comes from the Middle Ages when unemployed knights would hire themselves out as private ruffians. They were literally “free lances” AKA mercenaries. And that’s probably the most accurate description of what we do.Freelance cartoon 1

 

So what does the world of freelancing look like? Well, here are a few thoughts.

Who’s the Boss?

 People will sometimes describe freelancing as being your own boss. That’s patently false. As a crewmember, your department head is your boss. Even as a department head, the producer or director is your boss. And if you’re in a lucky enough position to be a director, art director, or even producer, the client is your boss. Point is, once you get into the trenches, there will always be someone above you telling you how to screw up your job. Negotiating these conversations (using your skills and experience to achieve what your boss wants) is one of the freelancer’s most critical assets.

The Schedule from Hell

Can you set your own hours as a freelancer? Definitely not. As with your boss, once you sign up for a project, your time is at the mercy of the production company (or client). Working a one day job? Production doesn’t care if they go for eighteen hours because they only need you for one day. You, however, may have another job tomorrow. And if you do have something to do, it’s incumbent on you to find out if your shoot will go for eighteen hours (production will often give you bad information) and have your own contingency plan. (Keep a babysitter on hold, notify tomorrow’s production manager you may be late/exhausted, and sell your concert tickets.) Again, once the job starts, you’re in it for the long haul.

If there’s an act of God (inclement weather, a location falls through, an actor is taken hostage by the mob…) your job may push. Producers understand that you may not be available when this happens, and they won’t hold it against you. But you won’t earn that paycheck…

And of course, once you buy tickets to a sporting event, schedule a vacation, or plan a date, you will inevitably get a call for the most exciting job of your life. My wife’s friends (who have filled in for me on many dates) have started subtly suggesting I purchase more tickets to the ballet.

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Right of Refusal

 The idea of being your own boss and creating your own schedule originates from the idea of that you have a right of refusal. If you work for a normal company and your boss assigns you a shitty job, you can’t really get out of it without quitting. But if you’re a freelancer, you just don’t take the shitty job. Great in theory, doesn’t always work in practice.

For one thing, refusing a shitty job is contingent on whoever calls you for a job being honest about its shittiness. (Unlikely.) But questions like, “Who’s the director?” “How many locations are there?” “How many cameras are there?” and “Who’s the client?” can give you an idea of what the job will be like. (Pro Tip: If the person calling you can’t or doesn’t want to answer your questions, it’s probably a shitty job! I have also noticed that the number of phone calls and emails I receive before a job is directly proportional to how shitty a job will be. Sadly, at a certain point, it’s too late to back out.)

Then there are the market forces. A job you’d never take “in a million years” might not look that terrible in early January when you’ve drained your savings account over the holidays and haven’t been employed for three weeks.

Finally, if you turn someone down enough times, they’re going to stop calling you. That’s not always a bad thing. Some people just attract shitty jobs. But you never know who they’re going to talk to. It’s s small world and a smaller industry…

Rates

 Rates are fairly standard by region and they tend to be higher for freelancers than full time employees. But part of the reason for that is, if you work for eighteen hours Monday, you’re probably not going to be working on Tuesday. It’s also important to clarify rates with new employers before you start. How is overtime calculated? When does it start? Are you paid for travel or mileage? Do you get a prep day? A wrap day? What about a kit rental? Depending on your department, this might be a slider, lights, lenses, filters, microphones, mixers, monitors, transmitters, tables and chairs, tents, props, or vehicles. Union crews don’t have to worry about this as much because everything is covered by a contract (except kit rentals), but it’s up to the crew to make sure the contract is followed.

Also, if you’re starting out, it’s a really bad idea to undercut other crewmember’s rates. It creates a race to the bottom, and you won’t make any friends. You’ll also quickly learn that you’d make more money at Starbucks.

On the plus side, rates are a good way to weed out some of those shitty jobs. For one thing, if a production manager offers you a shitty rate, it’s an indicator that a job will be staffed by inexperienced people with low standards. On the flip side, if you know this will be a shitty job, inflate your normal rate a little. If they say no, don’t take the job. If they say yes, hey, all least you have some extra cash for your pain and suffering.

Paperwork

 If you read this post about taxes, you know what the bulk of freelancing paperwork entails. In addition to that, it’s entirely up to you to worry about heath care and retirement plans. If you get in a union, you’ll at least have a group plan, but you’ll still be amazed at the amount of paperwork required to maintain it. And sadly, there’s no H.R. office down the hall that you can visit on your lunch break.Freelance cartoon 3

 

Speaking of H.R….

It’s hard to talk about the film industry without bringing up Harvey Weinstein. With big personalities, small crews, and offices that constantly change locations and bank accounts, it’s not surprising that the film industry is a high-risk occupation for sexual harassment. The past few months have shown that men are pigs in all industries, but the film industry has no overarching governing body to enforce best practices. All of the unequal power dynamics that existed before Harvey was outed still exist today. Sadly, it’s up to you to look out for yourself.

Should you Freelance?

Depending on what you want to do, you don’t really have a choice. When you envision a film crew on the sidewalk, everyone (grips, gaffers, sound mixers, PAs, etc.) is freelancing. Most scripted TV employs freelancers, but shows with permanent sets (talk shows, game shows, late night shows, multi-camera sitcoms) will have a full-time staff. If you want a full time position, you need to find a brick and mortar studio with an open position. But recognize that it is your workplace and job description from there on out.

The real perk to freelancing is the variety of jobs, people, and places you get to experience. For some personality types, it’s the only way to live. But it is a lifestyle choice more than a job description. Hopefully this post gives you some good food for thought before you join the circus.

P.S. Resumes

The majority of freelance work comes through recommendations. And freelancers get it. If someone asks you for a resume it’ll look pretty weird (usually just a list of credits).Freelance cartoon 4But if you apply for a “real” job after freelancing, you’ve got your work cut out for you. For one thing, most people don’t understand what freelancing is (a euphemism for unemployment?). And most jobs now require you to submit resume information online. How do you type in your employee history when you’ve had twenty-five employers in the last year? It’s not fun (though it’s not impossible). I highly recommend taking a resume writing or career-coaching course if you do go in that direction.

Getting People to Like You(r Characters)

We’ve all been there: trying to impress your love interest, trying to convince your parents your tuition money hasn’t been wasted, or even just trying not to be picked last in dodge ball. It’s hard to get people to like you. So how can you convince them to root for your main character, especially if they’re an anti-hero or, well, frankly kind of a jerk? This won’t necessarily solve your problems, but here are a few tips.

Save the Cat

Save the Cat Cropped

This first one comes straight from Blake Snyder’s highly recommended Save the Cat. Simply put, have your protagonist save a cat or do some other altruistic thing to endear them to your audience. You could have them literally save a cat like Ripley in Alien, give bread to starving children like Aladdin in Aladdin, or take on charity cases like Lucy Kelson in Two Weeks Notice. In cases like Aladdin where you protagonist is a thief, your “save the cat” moment might be more necessary. But no matter what, people will find it easier to root for your characters if they actually seem like decent people.

Flaws

Even though we need to like them, your protagonist can’t be perfect. Generally, your protagonist’s going to have some major flaw. That’s the source of their “unconscious goal.” The thing that they need to fix that they don’t know they need to fix. Lightning McQueen must overcome his ego (Cars), Dianna must overcome her naiveté (Wonder Woman), and Alan Grant must overcome his fear of children (Jurassic Park).

But your characters also need smaller quirks whose primary function is to make them more human. In Save the Cat, Blake Snyder calls this the “six things that need fixing.” In Kramer Vs. Kramer, Ted Kramer needs to learn to be a good father, but he also needs to learn how to cook and struggles to find a new job. He goes through the same kind of shit we do. Indiana Jones may be the coolest professor ever, but he’s terrified of snakes. These character flaws don’t always affect the plot, but they do make your characters more endearing.

Primal Struggles

This is another Save the Cat tip. Snyder uses it in reference to the premise, but a relatable premise creates relatable characters. As Snyder explains it, your premise should be easy enough to explain to a caveman. It’s primal: revenge, trying to impress a love interest, trying to escape a monster. These are things we can all relate to. Maybe you’ve never had to run from a T. rex, but you may have had to run from Rex. It was terrifying, and you can relate.

Ever been a renown neurosurgeon by day who transitions into a destructive narcissist at exactly 8:25 every night? Me neither. I’m not saying it’s the only reason Do No Harm had the lowest ratings for a primetime drama premier ever, but it certainly didn’t help. It’s hard to relate to a character that’s so specific and so bizarre.

Familiar in Fantasy

But that doesn’t mean that you can’t do fantasy. Far from it. Fantasy and science fiction give writers immense creative freedom to explore new worlds and examine what it means to be human in unique contexts. Otherworldly characters do risk alienating the audience. I mean, who knows what it’s like to be a vampire or a hobbit? But there are still ways we can relate to these characters.

The key is to focus on the similarities between your audience and your subject matter. I don’t know anything about the blood feud between vampires and werewolves, but I can relate to forbidden love. I’ve never had to throw a ring of power into Mount Doom, but I’ve had to face difficult situations that even my closest fur-footed friends could not help me with.

A few months ago, Merriam-Webster posted this fantastic article looking at the different artistic approaches between Star Trek and Star Wars. Trust me, I know a lot of trekkies, but Star Trek doesn’t have quite the same mass following as the Force. The article’s definitely worth a look (and it really emphasizes the importance of diction, which I discuss here).

Empathy

All of these tricks have one goal: building empathy between your characters and your audience. You want your audience to go on an emotional journey with your characters. That’s empathy. And it’s different than sympathy.

If you hear about a successful lawyer who was diagnosed with AIDS, outed for being gay, and then fired for being outed, you might feel bad for him. That’s sympathy. But you don’t know what it’s like to be him. In 2017, AIDS isn’t as scary as it used to be and most people really don’t care if you’re gay. But when you watch Philadelphia, you go on a journey with Andrew Beckett. You learn what it was like to get AIDS in the early 90s. You experience the fear and the stigmatism. That’s empathy.

To illustrate the point further, consider two of M. Night Shyamalan’s films. In The Sixth Sense, we feel empathy for Dr. Malcolm Crowe. We go on a journey with him. We, the audience, learn that Dr. Crowe is (spoiler alert) dead at the same time he does. It’s just as shocking to him as it is to us. That’s why it works.

In The Village, however, something felt distinctly off. There was just something about The Village that didn’t add up. Most of the characters knew that the village and the monsters were a trick. You know who didn’t know? The audience. It was a gimmick.

Audiences felt taken advantage of and they didn’t like it. Ivy Walker, the blind main character, never learned the truth. It’s hard to go on a journey with someone who doesn’t go on a journey. Sure, you might feel bad for her. You may have sympathy for her. She does live with a bunch of delusional, conniving sociopaths, after all. But it’s difficult to experience empathy with her because you’re going on completely different journeys.

“But wait!” some of you are saying. “Isn’t that just dramatic irony? You know where the audience knows something that the main character doesn’t?” Why yes. Yes it is. In this clip from Harold Lloyd’s 1930 film Feet First, you can see dramatic irony in action. While he’s stuck in the sack, he doesn’t know that he’s being hoisted up on scaffolding. The same is true about the cigar that is thrown out a window and later dropped in the man’s hat and the bucket of paint that is knocked off of the scaffolding.

But you only get an effective emotional payout—you only get empathy—when Lloyd and the other characters come to the same realization as you.

Othello is one massive play of dramatic irony. We all know Iago is trying to ruin Othello’s life. Othello has no idea. When he finds out, his life is destroyed and Iago gets his comeuppance. If Othello was just about someone’s life turning to shit, it wouldn’t be a very good play. It’s the emotional journey and Othello’s realization that he’s been duped that make Othello a great tragedy.

If Ivy Walker learned the truth about her asshole parents, flipped them the bird, and wandered out of the village into the real world like Truman Burbank at the end of The Truman Show, it might of worked. Probably not, but it would have been better.

When you get right down to it, it’s hard to get people to like you, especially with all of your flaws, if you’ve only got ninety minutes to do it, and you’re not even a real person. But these tips will point you in the right direction.

This Is Not a Pipe

Photo manipulation is nothing new, and for anyone growing up in the digital age, Photoshop has morphed from a proprietary digital editing program into a verb. Now, with a few intuitive swipes on a smartphone, you can turn your mediocre vacation photos into vintage “instagrams,” crop, distort, color correct, add text, and even add special effects to your videos. While most of this computing power is used for cheeky fun, everyone holds in their hands the ability to make photo-realistic, doctored images. “It’s only true if there’s pictures.” Not necessarily.

Until recently, audio and video manipulation were only possibly if you had a large team of special effects professionals at your disposal. Doctoring video and audio recording simply took too much computing power. Now, that’s no longer the case. Two new technologies will allow you to manipulate video and audio recordings with the same ease as Photoshop.

The first allows simple drag and drop editing of audio files. The most of advanced of these, Adobe’s VoCo, will seamlessly enter typed text into previously recorded audio files. Without recording any additional audio, you can generate a new file of Neil Armstrong’s famous moon landing that reads, “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” Or, “That’s one small step for a woman, one giant leap for mankind.” Or, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for your mom.” As long as you have twenty minutes of previously recorded audio file, the program can generate whatever new audio you want. This is particularly troubling for public figures who have days worth of audio files easily accessible to the public. In theory you could make an actor, athlete, or politician say whatever you want. The repercussions should be obvious and disturbing. For a more thorough explanation and example, listen to this podcast from RadioLab.

The second technology (also discussed in the podcast) is a motion capture technology that allows for real time manipulation of video images. This is similar to the motion capture technology Hollywood uses to create anthropomorphic creatures like Gollum or King Kong. Here you can see a sample of an edited video of President Obama. If you look closely, you’ll notice some irregularities where the program could not satisfactorily meld the two videos. But the bigger point is that this technology is becoming cheaper, better, and more accessible.

Is this the end of trust as we know it? Can we no longer believe anything we see with our own eyes? That would be the case if you accept film as reality. But film isn’t real life. I’ve said it before, and I’m sure this won’t be the last time I say it. Usually, I’m pointing out that theatrical feature films are more exciting, prettier, simpler, and more entertaining than real life. But for this post, I’d like to look at things from the other angle. No film, no matter how realistic or “unedited” it looks is reality. It’s just a film. Film isn’t real life.

In the commercial and theatrical world, professional filmmakers intentionally alter reality. They use all kinds of tricks to make things intimidating, pretty, ugly, or endearing. Makeup, costumes, and lighting turn a perfectly charming Emilia Clarke into the Mother of Dragons.

But these tricks are still in play even if you don’t use them intentionally. Here are two pictures of a friend of mine at a mud run.

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In the first, you can clearly see the falling rain. (No, those aren’t orbs…) In the second, you can see that it is still raining if you look at the water. But the change of angle and focal length means you can no longer see the falling rain. (This is the same reason why it sometimes looks like it’s barely sprinkling at rained out sporting events.) I didn’t hide the rain intentionally, but that’s the reality of the situation.

The important thing to remember is, consciously or not, all media is an interpretation of reality. When you’re on vacation and take a picture, it captures some part of the moment, but it isn’t a recreation of the moment. You’re limited by the abilities of your camera. You choose to photograph the Grand Canyon not the parking lot next to the Grand Canyon. You crop out the guy wearing that ridiculous Hawaiian shirt. And what about the people in your photo? Are they like my nephew, who for two years refused to smile any time someone pointed a camera at him? Or do they ham it up for the camera in the hopes of becoming an internet star?

This is nothing new. Film has been an interpretive art since its inception. Below are two of the earliest war photographs ever taken. These are from the Crimean War in 1855, twenty-three years before the first movie was made.

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Both show a scene of desolation strewn with cannonballs. But it’s the second one that would make photographer Roger Fenton famous. Simply put, it’s a more striking photograph. Fenton wanted to show the horror and destruction of war, but he was restricted by his cumbersome film equipment. His solution? Move the cannonballs onto the road to take advantage of the high contrast. Although it was much more labor intensive than Photoshop, it’s the same basic principle. He altered his photo for effect. He sought a deeper “Truth” that wasn’t reflected in “reality.”

In the late 1920s, surrealist painter Rene Magritte created this thoughtful painting called “The Treachery of Images.”

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If you don’t know French, the text reads, “This is not a pipe.” Of course it’s not a pipe. It’s a painting. It represents a pipe. Our brains conceive of it as a pipe, but it is not a pipe. The same holds true for all media.

A definition might be helpful here. Media is the plural of medium. The two definitions that come to mind are medium (size), as in the size between small and large and medium (fortune teller), as in someone who communicates between the living and the dead. Both of course share the same Latin route, medias, which simply means middle. It shouldn’t surprise you that our news sources are generally referred to as “the media.” They are the middlemen. They transport ideas from the source to us. But along the way, they must interpret it.

Media is also used in the art world to describe the material that an artist uses. You may see the phrase “mixed media on canvas.” This medium might be oil paint, latex paint, clay, canvas, silk, steel, analog audio recording, digital video recording, computer programs, or even food. The point is, the artist interprets the world through this medium. Film, as an artistic endeavor, is its own medium. But never forget that the six o’clock news, the news radio traffic report, and the Wall Street Journal all operate in artistic mediums. To explain in more detail, I’d recommend listening to Malcolm Galdwell’s Revisionist History podcast from a few weeks ago.

In it, he discusses this famous photograph from Birmingham in 1963.

footsoldier

It seems to show a police officer unleashing his dog on a black protester. But it doesn’t. The man in the photograph wasn’t part of the protest. He wasn’t a “Foot soldier,” as the Civil Rights activists called themselves. And the police officer hadn’t unleashed his dog on him. If you look closely, both men seem surprised and the police officer is leaning back, trying to pull the dog away. But that’s not what the nation saw.

This photo highlighted the brutality of the Jim Crowe south. It represented the discrimination, the institutionalized hate, and the lynchings. It shifted public opinion to the side of the Civil Rights movement, and it was all done on purpose. Bill Hudson, the photographer, chose this picture over the hundreds of other photos he had taken that day. The editor of The New York Times chose to put this story above the fold rather than any other news of the day. This is what a medium does. It takes the raw data, curates it, interprets it, and disseminates a cohesive message. In doing so, a medium must disregard data that fails to support its message or obfuscate its position. In its quest for “Truth,” it must necessarily deviate from “reality.”

To further clarify, look at Ronald S. McDowell’s statue inspired by Bill Hudson’s photograph.

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The figure representing Walter Gadsen, the student, is considerably younger and shorter than he was in reality. The police officer is emotionless and inhuman, reminiscent of T-1000 from Terminator 2: Judgment Day, which came out four years before the sculpture was dedicated. The police dog’s mouth is wide open, bearing vicious, anatomically improbable fangs. But remember this is a piece of art. This is not a pipe.

The push and pull between film as art and film as documentation will never end. But as a filmmaker and consumer of media, it’s important to acknowledge that film is a medium. It is not reality. There is no magic bullet, no enforceable code of conduct, no ten commandments of filmmaking that will ever make film purely objective. Reality is reality. Film is film. The best thing you can do as both a filmmaker and a consumer is educate yourself.

It’s important to learn about technology, to learn what is possible and how to spot a fake. But it’s also important to learn about art. You know—art, that thing that gets cut when we want to tighten budgets. Learn about artistic conventions. Learn to read the meaning behind how a frame is composed, how set decoration reinforces the theme, and how story arcs are constructed. Understand that models and movie stars are just people, too. Appreciate the complex and tragic story of Aaron Copland and Fanfare for the Common Man (examined here in another great podcast). See the allegory between Game of Throne’s White Walkers and climate change. Learn how Proust’s understanding of memory preceded neuroscience. Discover the 1920 play that introduced the word robot and the idea that robots are out to kill us. And, above all, recognize that just because you see a video of something doesn’t mean it’s reality. In fact it’s not reality. It’s just a video. And while there will be a degree of objective truth in it, there will always be a degree of the artist’s truth. After all, it is a video. It is not a pipe.

A Good Dialogue (Part 2)

Diction is the main component of dialogue, the building blocks if you will. But what are you building?

Lego Fail

(Seriously. What is that?) In part two of my post on dialogue, I’m going to cover some of dialogue’s broader structural challenges.

Originality

Your characters should all sound unique. In part, this is to separate them from the panoply of movie characters who ever have and ever will exist. But it’s also to give your own characters depth and clarity. I can’t tell you the number of scenes I’ve had to re-read because the characters all sound the same, and I couldn’t follow the dialogue. (Wait. Who said what, now?)

It’s not difficult to identify a line of dialogue from Yoda or R2-D2, but the majority of your characters will likely be human. They may even have similar socio-economic backgrounds and come from the same regions. So how do you make them sound different?

Even close friends don’t have the same parents. They don’t have the same siblings. They may have different tastes in food, music, or movies. They may be different ethnicities. All of these differences will affect their diction, which will in turn define them and shape their character. In Stranger Things, Finn, as the main character “everyman,” has the least noteworthy diction. Dustin has a lisp and is more likely to offer some comic relief, Lucas is notably more cautious than his friends, and El’s vocabulary is decidedly limited. The friends have similar backgrounds, ages and interests, but they are different characters with different diction. No matter how similar your characters are, they should always sound at least a little bit different.

Diction is the primary tool that will define your character’s voice. An easy exercise is to pick some common phrase (a reprimand, thank you, greeting, etc.) and figure out how each of your character’s would say it differently. (“Hello.” “Hi.” “Howdy.” “‘Sup.” “Good morning.” “Shut up. Where’s the coffee?”)

Realism

This one’s a little harder. Hamlet does not sound like anyone you’d meet on the street today, but hopefully he sounds like someone from sixteenth century England (or what someone from sixteenth century England thought someone from thirteenth century Denmark sounded like). You get some leeway for writing dialogue for characters from different times or places, but remember my admonition about accents. Don’t overdo it!

Assuming you’re writing a contemporary script or at least want contemporary audiences to understand it, you’ll want to capture contemporary diction. You can wander around with a tape recorder like Carol Solomon from In a World…, but you’ll find that “real” dialogue often doesn’t sound that good.

Another option is to pick a person, whether that’s a fictional character or an actual human that you know, and base your character’s diction on them. Would your mother actually say that? Would Michael Corleone? It’s a reasonable tool, but it, too, involves a lot of research and a strong understanding of your subject’s use of language.

The best thing you can do is read your dialogue out loud. Better yet, have some friends read it. Even better, have some actors read it. Does it flow? Does it make sense? Is it engaging? Does it sound authentic to the characters? If not, you’ve got some more work to do. And you may want to consider adding…

Motivation

Bad dialogue is often described as “wooden.” It lacks emotion (which may be the actor’s fault), but it also lacks motivation (which is completely the writer’s fault). Lines like “Hi, how are you?” “I’m fine,” are boring! They don’t progress the plot. In Save the Cat, Blake Snyder calls these lines “hi how are you I’m fine” lines. It really emphasizes the total waste of space and time that they are.

In this penultimate example of bad dialogue from The Room, Johnny buys some flowers (first 17 seconds).

That’s it. He doesn’t grow as a character. He doesn’t overcome any adversity. He doesn’t discover that his mild-mannered local florist is actually a sociopath. Despite the fact that the flower shop owner claims “You’re my favorite customer,” she doesn’t recognize him when he comes in. It doesn’t even feel like they’re speaking to each other. Now, perhaps in some brilliant way we mere mortals can’t fully understand, Tommy Wisseau is commenting on the superficiality and meaninglessness of relationships in a service economy where our existential aloneness is defined by endless “friendly” conversation. More likely, it’s just a terribly written scene.

The great Pulitzer Prize winning and Tony nominated writer David Mamet said, “People only speak to get something.” What does Johnny want from the florist? What does the florist want from Johnny? Sadly the answer seems to just be flowers. If Johnny fails to get flowers here, he can probably just go somewhere else. And the florist doesn’t seem to be hurting for business. Her bizarre dialogue attempts to impart some meaning into the scene, but ends up just confusing things. “You’re my favorite customer.” Who says that? Is she in love with him? Is she a serial killer? Is there some subplot I missed? The dialogue (in fact the scene as a whole) really isn’t necessary to the plot of the movie. The scene could have started at the end of the transaction (Johnny has just purchased flowers) or better yet, just showed Johnny arriving at the next location with flowers. The audience would assume he has purchased them. The dialogue doesn’t achieve anything.

Reaction

A dialogue involves two (or more) people. It’s important that characters react (verbally) to each other. When Darth Vader says, “I am your father,” how does Luke react? “That’s great, but can you give me a hand?” (Ha!) No! He says, “No. No, that’s not true. It’s impossible.” He’s in denial. It’s an organic, realistic reaction to learning that the man who just tried to kill you and may be committing war crimes across the galaxy is also your father. It is stage one on the Kubler-Ross five stages of grief. It feels real because it’s based in reality.

Monologues don’t make good dialogue. When are the other characters supposed to respond to someone who won’t shut their gob? Will they be writing strongly worded letters of complaint after the screening? When one character says something that merits a response, it’s important that your characters respond to each other (visually, if not verbally) to keep the characters and audience engaged.

Exposition

While you want to avoid all of that pesky pontification, at some point, you’ve got to explain why Luke is shooting proton torpedoes down an exhaust chute or how John Hammond managed to clone dinosaurs. But how do you do that without boring your audience to tears?

First, minimize it! If it takes ten pages to explain the backstory, your plot is too complex! Even if you’ve created some mind-blowing fantasy world, you’re going to have to ground it in our reality. After all, you want humans (not hobbits) to watch it. Keep the critical fantasy elements and make everything else as realistic as possible. Then you have less explaining to do. (This is one of the reasons I think Game of Thrones is so successful. While Westeros is fake, the medieval detail feels wonderfully authentic. And true fans will know many of the plots and characters are based on actual history.)

Second, find a way to explain things organically. There’s the classic briefing room scene.

Jarhead Briefing

Then there’s the neophyte character: the intern, new recruit, or padawan. This guy always needs things explained to them! But it’s a natural part of the story. Whether your story takes place in a scifi universe or just a technical field like undersea exploration, the neophyte character serves as a go-between for the audience. They get to ask all of the stupid questions the audience cannot.

If all else fails, put the Pope in the pool. I explain that in more detail here. Remember, film is a visual medium. If you absolutely can’t get away from a page of exposition, give us something interesting to look at: floor charts, a power point, a time lapse of corn growing. Set your scene someplace visually interesting. Ever wonder why detectives are always interviewing people in strip clubs? It’s not for the buffet.

Subtext

You may have heard of dialogue being “on the nose.” This happens when characters say exactly what they’re thinking. In reality, people rarely say what they’re thinking. They measure their words carefully to cater to their audience and evoke a particular response. People also exhibit a lot of denial and avoidance. If they didn’t, we would have no need for self-help books and alcoholics anonymous.

To give a more concrete example, spouses in failing marriages dn’t argue about the fact that their marriages are failing. They argue about finances, the children, and taking the trash out because their marriage is failing. The nagging wife doesn’t say, “Trash night’s Tuesday, right?” because she can’t remember when the trash goes out. She says it to mean, “You forgot to take the trash out again. I caught you asleep at the wheel. You are a failure, and I could totally marry someone better.” That’s not what she says, but that’s what she means. Well written and acted dialogue will have the motivation behind the line. That’s subtext.

In this scene from Game of Thrones, Littlefinger sweetens up his nephew, the Lord of the Vale, with a gift.

Then he proceeds to threaten Lord Royce. But he never actually threatens Lord Royce. Nor does Lord Royce threaten him back, merely saying that a hypothetical man may “cross swords” with another hypothetical man. Yet everyone in the scene knows what’s really happening. The soldiers all reach for their swords and the Lord of the Vale suggests his favorite form of execution: the “moon door.” Littlefinger could have said, “You betrayed me, Lord Royce. Lord of the Vale, should we execute him?” But he doesn’t. That wouldn’t have any subtext, and it wouldn’t make a very good scene.

The movie Hot Rod hilariously flips subtext on it’s head, making Rod Kimble abundantly aware of his inner feelings, shortcomings and completely ridiculous goals. “One day I’ll punch you right in the face, and then you’ll respect me.” Great comedy, terrible subtext.

Craft

Ultimately, crafting great dialogue is an artistic endeavor. It involves a lot of listening, careful word choice, research, and revision. But it’s not a mystery. These last two posts are intended to give you the tools necessary to break down and analyze dialogue. Now if you hear something that is “wooden” or “on the nose,” you know what that means, and, more importantly, you can craft it into something beautiful.

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A Good Dialogue (Part 1)

Most screenwriting books and teachers put their effort into story and structure. And rightly so. Story is the heart of the beast. But what if you have a fantastic story and terrible, wooden dialogue? My next two posts aim to give you some tools for understanding and crafting great dialogue. To start, I’m tackling the most important and least understood facet of dialogue: diction.

What is diction?

 Simply explained, diction is how someone speaks. Like a fingerprint, everyone has unique diction. Here are three obvious examples.

“Went to Wharton, was a good student, went there, went there, did this, built a fortune—you know I have to give my like credentials all the time because we’re a little disadvantaged—but you look at the nuclear deal, the thing that really bothers me—it would have been so easy, and it’s not as important as these lives are (nuclear is powerful; my uncle explained that to me many, many years ago, the power and that was thirty-five years ago…”

“I have of late—but wherefore I know not—lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises, and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy, the air—look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire—why, it appears no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors.”

“I’m not saying I invented the turtleneck, but I was the first person to realize its potential as a tactical garment. The tactical turtleneck! The… tactleneck.”

The answers are, of course, the always rambling and frequently incoherent 45th President of the United States, Shakespeare (specifically Hamlet), and Sterling Archer.

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You’re never going to confuse Trump for Shakespeare or Shakespeare for Archer, but what are the components of diction? How do you give your characters unique, memorable voices? How do you complete a logical syllogism? Read on.

Syntax

 Syntax is the structure of sentences. Long? Short? Proper? Inquisitive? Rambling? Take our fearless (clueless?) leader, for example. He generally speaks in rambling, vocabulary-challenged, run-on sentences. The first part of his quote has no subject (Who went to Wharton? Who was a good student?), is repetitive (Went to Wharton…went there, went there), and quickly jumps into a non-sequitur (Are we talking about Wharton or nuclear power?).

Hamlet, too, is a bit long-winded, but he does form a complete thought with subjects, verbs, objects, and the whole English 101 tool-kit. He’s speaking about one thing the whole time: his depression (buck up emo boy!) and how the entire world seems like a “foul and pestilent” collection of vapors.

Archer is a bit long winded, too, but only has one compound sentence. Then he has a sentence fragment, and for the final punch line, one word. His entire quotation is a setup for one joke. He also starts from a defensive position (“I’m not saying I invented the turtleneck”)—a place Archer frequently finds himself—and turns his misfortune into an opportunity—“The… tackleneck.”

An English teacher would probably yell at you if you wrote anything like any of these “characters.” That’s not the point. A character’s syntax doesn’t need to be “proper” or “correct,” but it does need to be consistent. As you analyze the sentence structure of real people or well-written characters, you’ll pick up on the unique things that create their individual syntax.

Now syntax can get tricky. When people are excited or angry, for example, they tend to speak in shorter sentences. A character giving a formal presentation will sound different than the same character drinking with her girlfriends at happy hour. But these differences show the depth of the character and your writing ability. Your job, as a writer, is to be sure that your character can encompass both voices.

Word Choice

Trump, of course, has “the best words.” An English professor may have an “exhaustive vocabulary.” A foreigner may have, “How do you say, limited talking options?” The point is, their word choice defines their character. Their background, level of education, job (think technical lingo), and age all affect word choice.

In the quotes I provided, Hamlet and Archer both make up words. Hamlet, who uses the phrases “pestilent congregation” and “ sterile promontory” struggles to describe the heavens, inventing the rather grand, but superfluous adjective “majestical.” Archer, however, invents a cheeky portmanteau for tactical and turtleneck: “tacktleneck.” Reeking of consumerism and brand identity, it’s in a decidedly different category than “majestical,” but totally in line with Archer’s character.

Word choice is pretty simple. Pull out the ol’ thesaurus to find just the right word for the occasion. And don’t limit yourself to nouns! Stephen King hates adverbs. Want a character to sound like Stephen King? Never give them an adverb. Use action verbs instead of “is.” “Is” is the most boring verb in English, yet most people will say, “I am running late.” Shankar, an aloof supervisor in my script Out of Time, would say, “I will not arrive on time.” He also refuses to contract words. “Can’t” won’t ever come out of his mouth.

Idiom

Idioms are the specific phrases and constructions unique to your character. What are the things that your character would say that no one else would even think of?

In the narrowest sense, this can include catchphrases: “Did I do that?” “Phrasing!” “Winter is coming.” “Wubba lubba dub dub!”

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But idioms are not restricted to specific phrases. The Brain, from Pinky and the Brain, had a handful of classic catchphrases, notably, “The same thing we do every night, Pinky, try to take over the world,” and “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” Pinky’s responses, however, varied wildly. “I think so, Brain, but Zero Mostel times anything will still give you Zero Mostel.” “I think so, Brain, but wouldn’t anything lose its flavor on the bedpost overnight?” “I think so, Brain, but then it would be Snow White and the Seven Samurai…” Although the specifics change, the shtick, taken as a whole, is part of Pinky and the Brain’s idiom.

In a broader sense, idioms are about style. Woody Allen and the late Don Rickles are both great comics with decidedly different styles. Woody Allen’s humor is always self deprecating. “Most of the time I don’t have much fun. The rest of the time I don’t have any fun at all.” Don Rickles, however, was always going after the other guy. “Who picks your clothes – Stevie Wonder?”

Trump is always talking about himself. Hamlet is full of angst and woe. He’s educated and playful, but one can never be sure if he’s serious. (One of the biggest questions about Hamlet to this day is whether he was actually crazy or merely pretending to be crazy.) Archer is also educated and playful. But he’s been educated in tactical weaponry not Greek mythology. His playfulness, which leans heavily on the sexual side, lacks Hamlet’s archaic language and moral ponderings.

Your characters, too, must present themselves in a particular way. Samwell Tarly, from Game of Thrones, can barely stutter through introducing himself. Danaerys Targaryen, however, has no issue going through that whole “Mother of Dragons…Breaker of Chains…” spiel. Darth Vader does not tell jokes. Kimmy Schmidt from the Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt will never let you down. Everybody has their own style, their own linguistic toolbox to fall on that defines them as a person.

Accents

 Accents certainly define a person’s background. They can be a great source of comedy or drama.

french knight“I’m French. Why do you think I have this outrageous accent?”

If you remember Jaguar’s 2015 Superbowl commercial, “All the villains are played by Brits. Maybe [they] just sound right.” And Frank Underwood from House of Cards has that down home, aw shucks, drawl that creeps into his voice whenever he’s speaking to the press. But it’s noticeably absent when he turns the screws on an uncooperative congressman. He drops the accent to chilling effect.

Don’t overdo accents in your writing! In Angela’s Ashes, the world’s most depressingly hilarious memoir, Frank McCourt perfects writing the accent. You’re not Frank McCourt. Don’t be a fecking eejit and overdo it. Your script may benefit from a “lobstah” or “verevolf” here or there, but frankly it’s difficult and annoying “readin’ lang passages ay text in some a bampot brogue.” Furthermore, word choices (howdy vs. hello, car park vs. parking lot, danke vs. thank you) will suggest an accent without getting overbearing.

So what?

Diction is more than a party trick. Smalls instigates the climax of The Sandlot (and reconfirms his general cluelessness) by mistaking Babe Ruth for “Some lady named Ruth.” Lieutenant MacDonald is killed in The Great Escape when he says “Thank you” in English to the Gestapo agent. Although only specifically addressed at the end, The Artist, a silent film, was about George Valentin’s inability to overcome his accent. And, of course, My Fair Lady is an entire musical about diction.

Diction may not play a critical part in your story, but it will help you craft unique, memorable characters. Character is defined by action, but choosing to speak is an action that cannot be undone. So when you give dialogue to your characters, pull out the old thesaurus and choose your words carefully… or wisely… or discreetly… or

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Whatever’s right for their own particular idiom.

P.S. I case you missed that last reference, here’s the whole clip from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. It’s 7:30 in.

When it Comes to Characters, Fewer is More

I recently sat down to work on another draft of a script. I had an idea for a new character, a professional mentor for my protagonist, someone who was really in his corner. And the kicker was, right when the going got tough, she would die, leaving our hero on his own. It’s a pretty standard movie trope (Obi-Wan Kenobi, Vitruvius, Mufasa), but I ultimately decided against it.

The problem is, it would have required me adding three more characters: the mentor, who was our hero’s boss, the mentor’s replacement, and the person who would appoint the replacement. Yes, I would have gained something, but at what cost? Like the timeframe of your plot, which I discuss in my previous post, you want your script to achieve its goal with as few characters as necessary.

Aristotle didn’t discuss a “Unity of Character,” but Greek theater had other conventions to restrict the number of characters in a play. Unity of Action also implies some Unity of Character. In any event, Unity of Character or the “fewer the better” has become an unofficial rule of thumb for effective screenwriting.

To be clear, you want the worlds you create to feel authentic. Your protagonist needs a family, friends, neighbors, coworkers, cashiers, and bank tellers. But it’s going to be easier to create that realistic world inhabited by three-dimensional characters if you have fewer, not more characters.

There’s a basic math problem. With any script, you’ve only got so much screen time. Do you want it to go to your main characters or a bunch of walk-on roles? Let me illustrate my point with two pictures of Amy Adams.

The first is an absolutely enchanting photo of Amy staring dreamily into space.

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Then we have a shot of her in the background(?!), out of focus, crowded out by extras, and upstaged by a bunch of Muppets!

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Both pictures are the same size. One is a great photo of Amy Adams. In the other, you can barely see her. Fewer characters means more screen time for your lead roles.

The problem isn’t so much with secondary characters (the best friend, the love interest) or tertiary characters (the boss, the comic relief), but with bit parts (the valet, the cashier, the security guard). How important is the line, “Here’s your receipt. Have a nice day.” or “Place all metallic items in the plastic dish.”? Blake Snyder calls this “place holder” or “Hi how are you I’m fine” dialogue. It’s the kind of thing anyone can say, and it contributes nothing to the story. Unless the receipt or the items going through the metal detector are critical to the plot, you don’t need to mention them. What if your security guard has some critical piece of information to deliver to your hero? Consider giving that line to a more important character. It gives them more screen time and makes them more integral to the plot.

Fewer characters makes the writing and acting better as well. Say your valet has one line. “Your car is ready, Mr. Anderson.” How do they deliver it? Earnestly? Concerned? Full of contempt? Deferentially? What kind of valet is this? A kindly old man who loves cars? A college kid with a summer job? An undercover secret agent?

The thing is, if your actor imbues this character with any personality, it will detract from the scene. The movie is not about them! But why would you write a character who you want to be as bland and forgettable as possible?

“But my protagonist is a rich snob who always stiffs the valet!” you’re saying. “I need that dialogue.”

Aha! Well, in this case, your “bit part” has a bigger role to play in your story. The way your protagonist treats your valet is a defining character trait. Gauging this interaction throughout the course of the script will show the audience how your protagonist has changed. Is he still stiffing the valet in the middle of the script? What about when the love interest is present? How does he treat the valet at the end?

Now that your valet has three or four scenes, it’s no longer a bit part. You have the opportunity to give him some personality. Maybe he even plays a role in your protagonist’s journey. Either way, the actor has something to work with, and your world is going to feel a little more realistic.

For my script, it wasn’t feasible to create three more fully fleshed out characters. I would have needed to add another ten pages or take screen time away from my main characters. For what it would have added to my script, it wasn’t worth it.

For your script, you’ll have to make your own judgment call. But remember, fewer characters means more screen time for the characters who matter. It’s going to make a more realistic world and engaging story. When it comes to good screenwriting, there are no small parts, only poorly written walk-on roles.

Unity of Time (or why biopics have good acting, but are really boring)

A few years ago, a biopic about Magaret Thatcher came out. Merryl Streep did a fantastic job in the titular role of The Iron Lady. She won several awards including the Oscar for Best Actress. But as a whole, the movie was virtually unwatchable. Halfway through, I started folding laundry, and by the end, I was scrolling through Twitter. The reason is that The Iron Lady violated an ancient, very clearly spelled out screenwriting rule: the Unity of Time.

Remember, drama isn’t real life. Your real life is probably pretty boring. You wake up. You commute. You suffer through work. You commute home. You play with your kids, watch TV, go to bed, and do it all over again. Not that gripping. When something out-of-the-ordinary happens (your daughter is abducted, you see dead people, an alien lands in your back yard) we have a story. Or at least the beginning of one. But in order to keep that drama, we also need a sense of urgency.

Imminent, terminal cancer like we saw in Breaking Bad (even if it’s mostly manifested as a cough) launched one of the best television shows ever made. An increased risk of Alzheimer’s at some vague future point probably won’t. Film happens now! That’s why it’s written in the present tense. And if nothing’s happening, your audience will tune out. The audience’s ordinary lives (i.e. Twitter) have just become more interesting than your movie.

This isn’t a new idea. Aristotle pointed it out over two thousand years ago. (I did say ancient.) For those of who you like classical learning, check out Aristotle’s Poetics. And if ancient Greek is a bit much for you, Michael Tierno did an excellent job updating it in Aristotle’s Poetics for the Screenwriter.

The key thing for this article is Aristotle’s Unity of Time. To sum it up, the action of the drama (screenplay), should take place in as little time as possible. I think it was Robert McKee who said that a script should be as long as it needs to be, then it should end. Fox’s 24 with Kiefer Sutherland took this to the extreme when each episode happened in real time. One season of twenty-four episodes covered a single day.

That’s a little over the top and the premise wore thin as the seasons went on. But you’ll notice many of your favorite thrillers take place over the course of a few hours or days. If your daughter’s been abducted and we see the seasons changing, it’s hard to hold suspense throughout the script. If the bad guys haven’t done her in over the past few months, she’ll probably be okay for another fifteen minutes. Sounds like a good time to check Twitter.

This is also the reason montages are generally weak storytelling. The “learning to play baseball,” “series of quirky dates,” “watching your business grow” montages get the point across, but aren’t good drama. Are you telling me that your emotionally immature love interests who fought like cats and dogs for the first twenty pages suddenly went on a series of fun, carefree dates to a musical montage and nothing interesting happened? That’s kind of whacky. I thought they were more interesting than that. And yes, you will see these kinds of montages all the time. That doesn’t mean you should do them. You’re better than that.

And of course, this is why biopics tend to be kind of boring. It’s hard to condense someone’s entire life (Whitey Bulger in Black Mass, Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady, J. Edgar Hoover in J. Edgar) into a compelling story arc. (The first half of Life of Pi literally made me want to throw a TV. In another post, I may tell you how that movie could have been immeasurably better.) At the same time, these movies often have fantastic performances. Now you know why those two things aren’t necessarily related.

Just this Thursday, I heard NPR’s Eric Deggans review the amazing true story of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. In it he praises Oprah Winfrey’s performance as “one of her best roles yet,” but criticizes the film for being “uneven” with “deeply affecting moments” that “don’t quite knit together into a consistently powerful film.” Does not surprise me in the least.

If you’re writing a script, and it’s not keeping readers on the edge of their seats, Unity of Time may be your problem. Add a concrete deadline. “Get that report on my desk by tomorrow morning.” “You have until midnight to deliver the money.” “Death Star approaching. Estimated time to firing range: fifteen minutes.” The added pressure tests your characters’ mettle and focuses your story. No time to stop and smell the roses with a Death Star on the horizon.

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Aristotle also advocated for unity of space and action, theories I may discuss in another post. But right now I think I’m going to advocate unity of blog subjects and see you in the next post.