The Pope in the Pool

I just watched The Big Short last night. It’s a good film with some incredible acting and editing. It’s unique in how it blends drama and documentary—a feat that required breaking many of “the rules.” Despite that, it had a consistent style, which made it work.

But let’s be honest, a film about credit default swaps has a lot of explaining to do. For that they used Blake Snyder’s trick—mentioned in my last post—called the Pope in the Pool.

If you haven’t read it yet, I’m going to recommend again that you read Save the Cat. But to briefly sum up, when a script has to cover exposition (those boring plot points that you need to explain to the audience even though the characters already know what’s going on) you can distract your audience with something visually interesting.

In Snyder’s case, the Pope is swimming in his pool while receiving a security briefing. You’re so mesmerized seeing the Pope in a bathing suit swimming in the Vatican pool, you barely even notice the bone dry dialogue. (Hence, Pope in the Pool.)

The Big Short has three clear—dare I say gratuitous—examples. The first is the scene with Margot Robbie (a nice nod to The Wolf of Wall Street), then there’s Anthony Bourdain, and finally Selena Gomez with Dr. Richard Thaler.

The latter two examples work very well. Anthony Bourdain making soup out of his unsold fish was a visual example of how banks were repackaging securities to make CDOs. The line of betting at the blackjack table with Selena Gomez created a visual example of how investors would bet on CDOs to create synthetic CDOs.

Margot Robbie’s scene doesn’t work quite as well because there’s no visual correlation between what she’s doing (drinking champagne in a tub) and what she’s explaining (sub-prime loans). Had she been paying for the champagne, it may have worked better.

In many ways, the whole movie is an example of “Pope in the Pool.” It was dramatizing some dull, heady banking practices. It’s a shame this movie couldn’t have existed before the financial crash because people may have better understood the crisis they were creating. (This is one of the reasons people love science fiction. It prophesies what could happen if we don’t change our ways.) In any event, it’s a great example of how something boring and difficult to understand can connect to audiences in a meaningful way through effective filmmaking and visual storytelling.

A Roundabout Review of “Medici: Masters of Florence”

New screenwriters will often ask if they have to follow “the rules.” The short answer is, “Yes.” Why? Keep reading.

There are some great scripts that break “the rules.” But there are many, many, many terrible scripts that break “the rules,” and it’s easier to understand why the rules exist by watching some of these terrible movies (and TV shows). Medici: Masters of Florence, currently available on Netflix, is one of them. Here are some of my thoughts organized with the same headings used for industry standard coverage.

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STRUCTURE

You’ve probably heard of the three-act structure. I alluded to it in my previous post about Extraordinary Worlds. The purpose of the first act (AKA “The Beginning”) is to establish the characters and their needs. It builds empathy between the characters and the audience and gives the audience an idea of where this script is headed.

Medici starts by killing off Dustin Hoffman. We don’t know who he is. We don’t know why we should like him. Maybe it’s a good thing he’s being killed off. We immediately jump to Richard Madden (apparently Hoffman’s son) who is trying to decide how to respond to his political rivals. Again, it’s a little unclear who Madden is or why we should like him.

Hoffman’s death is cut together with scenes of Hoffman’s own funeral making the opening sequence even more confusing. Once we establish that A) Hoffman was the Medici patriarch, B) he is dead, C) Madden is his son, and D) Madden must now fill his ample shoes, Medici immediately jumps to a flashback.

In general, flashbacks are poor storytelling. Scripts are written in present tense because they happen now, and now is important. Flashbacks tell the audience that whatever happened then is more important than what is happening now. Well if then is more important than now, why not have your script take place then?

Although Madden’s hair is different and Hoffman is inexplicably alive, there’s no real way to distinguish now from then, continuing Medici’s theme of baffling confusion. This confusion is the bigger sin than merely using a flashback. The flashback not only fails to contribute to Madden’s contemporary story (his appointment to the signoria), but makes the show difficult to follow. And just when you thought the show was about to buckle down and do some proper storytelling, it dives into a montage.

Montages, like flashbacks, are generally poor storytelling. They can be used for a variety of reasons, but are most frequently used to compress time. In sports movies, you can’t show your heroes playing all 162 regular season games, but you can show a montage. When your warrior is training for the final battle, you don’t bore your audience with thirty minutes of calisthenics and meditation, you use a montage. In the pilot episode of Medici when Madden falls hopelessly in love with a laundress and drives a rift between him and his father, you should probably play that out for a few episodes. Well, they used a montage, and it was laughable. How can we possibly care about the love of his life when she’s only on screen for three minutes?!

Similarly (back to now), a surgeon who performed an illegal autopsy on Hoffman blackmails Madden. Madden informs his consigliere to pay the surgeon 100 Florins. When the consigliere pays the money, the surgeon demands 1000 Florins. Seems like a pretty important scene, right? We never get to see it! Madden’s consigliere just tells him about it in painful exposition a few scenes later. Why wouldn’t you use that scene?!

To sum up structure, there’s no real first act, the story is difficult to follow, the pacing is wildly off, and important scenes are not included in the script. Moving on…

CHARACTER

Hoffman and Madden may develop into interesting, likeable characters, but they certainly don’t start out that way. Madden is dour and brooding. Hoffman is, well, dead. In the flashback he kind of seems like a jerk. Maybe they’ll redeem themselves, but I’m not sure if I’ll watch long enough to see that. (Not all protagonists need to be likable, but they do need a redeeming quality. This is where Blake Snyder got the name for his fantastic screenwriting book Save the Cat.)

Madden’s lover (and most of the tertiary characters) are paper-thin. She’s posing for a group of artists only partially clothed. Despite all of the other eligible young men in the room, she and Madden are instantly smitten with each other. This leads to the aforementioned three-minute sex montage. (Now that I think about it, maybe it was just three minutes of sex. Again, the story was hard to follow.) In any case, it’s not the kind of deep reflection on the human condition that leads to memorable characters. Oh, by the way, she’s scared out of Madden’s life a few minutes later by his dad’s henchmen. (Another scene that is only talked about, not shown.)

There’s a brother, a not particularly intimidating antagonist, the consigliere, a cameo by the artist Donatello, and a handful of other forgettable characters who take themselves too seriously. The only entertaining person is Steven Waddington who plays a cheeky cardinal who bribes his way to the papacy.

DIALOGUE

But wait, it gets worse! If you’ve ever studied Uta Hagen (It’s bonus credit, but I do recommend reading Respect for Acting), you know that actors need motivation. When they lack motivation, your scene runs a very high risk of exposition. After all, if your characters have no motivation, they have nothing to do, and will just end up talking.

In Medici, there’s the awful scene where Hoffman’s rival sort of threatens Madden, but mostly explains that the signoria is rigged. Then there’s the scene where Madden’s wife explains that she’s been a loyal wife who wants to be part of his business decisions. But the one that really takes the cake is the scene between Hoffman and Madden about Hoffman’s legacy.

In it, Hoffman waxes philosophic about his legacy, complains about Madden’s desire to be an artist (another terrible example where “showing” would have been more powerful than “telling”), and explains his scheme for gaining power. Why have this elaborate, dull conversation full of exposition? Because it’s the middle ages and they have nothing better to do when travelling from place to place?

Now they could have been trying to convince someone to join their cause. Hoffman could have been scolding his son wasting resources on art. Or they could have been doing something visually interesting while having a boring conversation (another great tip from Blake Snyder that he calls “Pope in the pool”). Instead, it’s five mind-numbing minutes of exposition. C’mon, people.

The other thing that really kills the scene (while this isn’t in the writer’s purview), is Hoffman’s accent. Everyone else in the series sounds like they’re doing Shakespeare. Hoffman sounds like they pulled him out of a dock in the Bronx. The tough guy persona could work well, but the juxtaposition is distracting.

UGH…

On top of all of this, there was a painful and distracting soundtrack. It was almost as though they realized the show was horrible and were trying to draw your attention away from it.

With the difficultly of following the story, lack of empathy for the characters, and laughable dialogue, it was really hard to care. I ended up reading about the Medici on Wikipedia—which I found much more interesting—and frankly don’t know how the episode ended. More importantly, I don’t care.

This may not be a glowing review, but I do recommend you watch the pilot episode of Medici: Masters of Florence. It’s much easier to understand “the rules” when you see what happens if you break them.

Extraordinary Worlds

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Movies take us to worlds and times we could never see on our own. It’s one of the hallmarks of performance drama: spectacle. But writers must also deal with another world to make their characters engaging: the extraordinary world. The two occasionally overlap and coincide, but it’s critical to know the difference.

Right now, you and I are living fairly ordinary lives. We get up, regret our life decisions while fighting rush hour, play on our phones at work, come home, procrastinate from writing or working out, and do it all over again. It’s not particularly interesting. In fact, from a screenplay perspective, we call this the “ordinary world.” Then something happens. You get a mysterious phone call. You meet that special someone. An asteroid is discovered hurtling toward earth. All of a sudden, your routine has changed.

This event—usually called the inciting incident—is what makes your story. Without it, your script is just another, ordinary day in the office. When you decide to take action, you have left the ordinary world and moved to your “extraordinary world.” This transition or turning point also moves the script into Act II.

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But it’s important that you don’t mistake an extraordinary setting with an extraordinary world. What might seem extraordinary to us may be quite mundane to our characters. Luke Skywalker lives on a desert planet orbiting two stars. He’s a moisture farmer who works with droids and Jawas. He has a hovercraft. It’s all pretty incredible to us. But to him, it’s quite ordinary. If Luke never gets R2-D2’s message, there is no story. Two hours of moisture farming does not a good movie make.

On the other side of the coin, contemporary, realistic movies have much subtler extraordinary worlds. In Nebraska, David Grant takes his father on a road trip to Nebraska to claim his sweepstakes prize. It’s fairly mundane, and some people found the film boring. But David and his father’s lives change significantly the moment they hit the road.

The extraordinary world often involves a change in venue. In Star Wars, it’s when Luke leaves his “backwater” planet. In Nebraska, it’s when David and his father get on the highway. In The Lord of the Rings, it’s everything outside of the Shire. But this isn’t always the case.

In Office Space, Peter Gibbons doesn’t change his venue, but rather his attitude. In Juno, Juno’s extraordinary world is the world of being a pregnant teenager. In Limitless, Eddie Morra changes his life with a pill. The important thing here is that the character’s normal routine has been interrupted, and rather than crawl under a rock, they’ve committed to living in this new world.

At the end of a movie, characters often return to their ordinary worlds as changed people. Their experience in the extraordinary world has taught them something. The return to the ordinary world also gives the writer an opportunity to show how much a character has changed over the course of their adventure.

In Star Wars (although it happens two films later), Luke returns to Tatooine as a Jedi. In Nebraska, David and his father return home without the sweepstakes winnings, but they have a new truck, a new compressor, and a better relationship. In Office Space, Peter Gibbons returns to work, but this time it’s not in an office. (Limitless has a bad ending.*)

This extraordinary world is really what drives your story. Your protagonist’s reaction to these extraordinary events and circumstances are what define their character. It’s part of the premise: battling an evil galactic empire, taking a road trip with your father, dealing with teen pregnancy. Without that extraordinary event, there is no story.

So remember when you craft your next great script—whether it’s about a Jedi master or a paper pusher—to your characters, the next ninety pages of their story need to be nothing short of extraordinary.

 

*The ending to Limitless was rewritten and reshot multiple times without any improvement. But if you look at the movie from the perspective of Eddie Morra’s extraordinary world, there’s an obvious, satisfying solution.

In the beginning of the movie, he’s a poor, struggling writer. The end of the movie should reflect that point. Ideally, the biggest thing he would have learned from taking NZT was that he shouldn’t be taking NZT. It makes sense. After all, at the midpoint Eddie says, “You know what, let’s not invade Russia in the winter. Let’s go home, let’s pop a beer, and let’s live off the interest.” The movie should end with Eddie working on the great American novel the hard way. Maybe with a bag of cash under his bed.

Instead, there’s this vague ending where Eddie doesn’t really learn anything or change as a person. He’s still on top, but only because of the drug. And the only takeaway for the audience is that apparently mind-enhancing drugs are amazing.

Your Script is Too Long

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I think Robert McKee said, “Your story is as long as it needs to be, and then it ends.” Hopefully (for a feature), this is between 90 and 110 pages. I aim for 100 even. Some people will quibble with that number. They’re wrong.

I’ve read dozens of scripts and never once said, “If only this script were fifteen pages longer, I could recommend it.” Once you hit 90 pages, you’ve proven that your script has enough material to make a feature. Beyond that, you’re just adding days to the shooting schedule.

From a reader’s perspective, 120 pages looks intimidating. It’s thicker and heavier than the last script they read (and the last script they read was probably a heaping pile of garbage). Since most scripts are shorter, it also suggests that you don’t know what you’re doing. That’s two strikes against you before the reader even gets past the title page.

Think about it this way. 120 is 33% more than 90. In minutes, that’s 2 hours versus 1 ½ hours. A reader could already be at happy hour if it weren’t for your extra 30 pages.

All of this may sound arbitrary, but it actually helps your writing. Forcing yourself to choose the most important scenes, the best lines, the critical story beats will give you a tighter, better script. All those decisions you vacillate about in your rough draft will be crystal clear when you force yourself to make cuts. Do your characters really need to take that fifth trip to White Castle?

I’ve included a sample scene from my latest script here so you can see what it looks like before and after I trimmed the fat.

(To give you a visual, if this post were 33% shorter, it would end here.)

What if you are literally writing an epic? Fine. Go for it. But a professor of mine pointed out that you could cut 30 minutes from each Lord of the Rings movie and the ending would still be the same. (Don’t even get me started on The Hobbit.)

If you follow McKee’s story outlines and Snyder’s beat sheet, you’ll find that your script tends to fall in that 90-110 page range pretty easily. That’s what 100 years of filmmaking has taught us. I actually prefer if my rough drafts run 120-130 pages because I know I have more than enough material to work with. But when I trim the fat, that’s when I know I’ve got something worthwhile.

What’s This Script About, Anyway?

People like to joke that in movies there’s always a parking spot right in front of the courthouse/airport/lawyers office/spaceship the protagonist is trying to get to. There’s a reason for that. Finding a parking spot is boring. Nobody cares. I watch movies to escape the mundaneness everyday life. Unless your script is Parking Wars*, I don’t want to see people looking for parking spots.

Occasionally, I’ll see writers include this kind of stuff in their script. If it’s a neurotic Woody Allen-esque comedy, it works. Fast and Furious 17: The Later Years? Maybe. Schindler’s List? No. The bigger landmine you have to watch out for is accidentally getting on a tangent that you didn’t mean to.

I’m currently reading a novel that has multiple characters pray or mention praying at multiples times. So what? Well, this is purportedly a legal thriller. But when you have enough characters come to Jesus, you’re actually looking at a religious novel set over the backdrop of lawyerly intrigue. I don’t think this was the author’s intent. She’s gone on a tangent.

“But people pray!” you’re saying to yourself. “I’ve seen it. At least in movies.” Yes. They also park cars. But they always have a parking spot. If you have created a character who prays before meals and blesses themselves every time they hear an ambulance, prayer is just a manifestation of their character. If all of your characters pray, talk about prayer, struggle with prayer, use prayer to solve problems, you’ve just written a script about prayer.

I don’t want to knock prayer—or parking for that matter. Tangents can be anything: folding laundry, having sex, checking your email, playing Frisbee Golf, or going to the bathroom. If a character uses the bathroom, no big deal. But if they go multiple times, it becomes a character trait (Irritable Bowel Syndrome?). If multiple characters need the bathroom throughout the script, your audience is going to think someone poisoned the craft service table. They may have. But is that what your movie is about?

Here are 2 great exceptions that prove the rule. Hanna and Stranger than Fiction both include tooth-brushing scenes. Nobody cares about brushing their teeth. But Marissa Wiegler and Harold Crick do. Their meticulousness contrasts them with the rest of humanity and defines their character. This seemingly benign act is critical to the story. The prayer mentioned above? Not so much.

Remember, you’re writing fiction, not documenting daily life. Everything in your script is there for a reason. If it doesn’t contribute to the story, don’t put it in. Don’t confuse or bore your audience with mundane details. Don’t go on a tangent!

 

*I worked on Parking Wars. It was a “reality show” about fighting tow truck drivers. I thought I would die. Not figuratively.

How to Break into the Industry

 

When people ask me how I got into the film industry I tell them I must have made a huge mistake in a previous life. The less glamorous side of the industry and the stress of freelancing require their own post. But since someone asked me this very question Thursday (in between me wrangling seagulls and trying not to catch anything while filming in an infectious disease lab), here’s my advice. (Disclaimer: This is for newbies. If you’re in the industry and just want to be famous, I can’t help you there.)

INTERN

Yes, you’ll make coffee, empty the trash, and fight with copiers for free, but you’ll also learn more than any book or class can possibly teach you. More importantly, you set yourself up for success. If you do well, you’ll hopefully get hired as a production assistant. Then, you work your hardest and bide your time. Someday, a trusted crewmember won’t be able to make it to set, and you’ll be looking at a promotion. You’d be surprised at the number of producers, directors, and writers I’ve met who got where they are just because they were in the right place at the right time. (We sarcastically call this being the best… available.)

HAVE AN OPEN MIND

When you think of the film industry, you probably imagine a Hollywood director making a feature film. There’s generally only one director on a film, but every film has another hundred crewmembers. Do some research to learn about other crew positions (What the hell is a gaffer anyway?) and build a background in that field. Intern!

Don’t have any connections in Hollywood? Consider a city where you do. Atlanta, New Orleans, and Pittsburgh are some of the places that have been attracting production recently. A local guy who knows the fastest way across town and the best place to get Thai is worth more than a seasoned PA who thinks that the “Schuylkill” is a river.

Consider productions other than features. About half of my work comes from the commercial world. Every year, I lose another coworker to NFL Films or MLB Network. Countless companies produce industrial videos and business-to-business marketing material. It may not seem as “glamorous” as Hollywood, but the work is the same and the pay is often better.

BUILD A PORTFOLIO

If you’re still intent on being a Hollywood director, start with the directing (irrelevant of how far you may live from Hollywood). It’s never been easier to produce and distribute your own work. It will be a labor of love, and you should not expect to make any money. But you will learn a ton through the filmmaking process. It will also allow you to build a portfolio and connections. From there you could consider the festival route or pitch your next project to a company. Make a friend at an ad agency and direct their next spot. There is no single recommended or guaranteed route. The portfolio is critical, however. In a creative field, no one cares where you went to school. They want to see your work.

FILM SCHOOL?

The great scandal of film school is that almost nothing you learn in film school is applicable on a film set. You don’t need to know what “mise-en-scene” means to use a C-stand. (No one cares what mise-en-scene means, anyway.) But film school does make it easier to get an internship and make industry connections. If you have the money—or better yet, a scholarship—go for it. But if you do, make sure you intern! Spend time working on an actual set. You don’t want to graduate only to learn that you hate what you do and can’t get a job with a film degree.

If you haven’t caught on, I would say interning is the single best, most reliable way to get into the film industry. How do you find these internships? Cold calling production companies is one option. Ask friends of friends who might have an in. Check in with your local film office.

www.mandy.com is an industry website that includes a job list. It’s not great, but it’s an option. I’ve used www.craigslist.com both to get and post jobs. Be careful here because craigslist does advertise for porn shoots. (It’s usually pretty obvious.)

When you finally do get to set, try not to look like a deer in the headlights (especially, if you’ve gotten there through a friend of a friend). Here are three books to help you out with that. They’re all quick reads.

Strike the Baby and Kill the Blonde: an Insider’s Guide to Film Slang

More or less a dictionary, Strike the Baby gives you a good primer of film terms. It’s a great resource if you’re trying to learn about the different jobs on a set.

Movie Speak: How to Talk Like You Belong on a Film Set

Although it’s setup the same way as Strike the Baby, it’s a little less broad an more deep. Tony Bill augments his book with anecdotes and thoughts garnered from decades in the industry. He also has some good suggestions on how to break into the industry.

The Hollywood Assistant’s Handbook: 86 Rules for Aspiring Power Players

Some of this book is Hollywood specific, but it covers much of the work you’ll be doing as an intern or PA. For example: Don’t touch the celebrities is pretty universal. It was co-written by Pete Nowalk, the guy who created How to Get Away with Murder, so I’d say he knows a thing or two about “breaking in.”

Screenwriting VS Everything Else

When I first graduated college, I wrote a novel. It took about six months. The second draft took an additional three months. Today, it remains a total POS. (That’s a technical film industry term that means Piece of Shit.)

Then I wrote a feature film. That took about month. The second draft took about a week. Curiously, that also was and remains a total POS. But I did learn something. Screenwriting is very different than other kinds of writing. For one thing, there are fewer words involved.

In a novel, the writer must visualize everything for the audience. Here’s the description of the protagonist’s office from my novel.

It was long and thin, about eight feet across and fifty feet long. In a bygone era, it had been the hallway that led to the boiler room. To the left, a single row of cubicles lined the left side of the wall. Naked incandescent bulbs hung from the ceiling at ten-foot intervals giving the room a certain film noir effect. The floor was dusty concrete. The walls were actually steel and copper pipes with a layer of newer PVC piping over top.

Here is the same description adapted for TV.

INT. OFFICE AREA – DAY

Four rows of cubicles nestle amid water pipes and spider webs in the basement of the Transportation Building.

A little more succinct, no?

Thing is, I realized I was kind of a minimalist. My prose wasn’t winning any awards, so why inflict more of it on the world? Sure, a handful of people will read your scene descriptions, but your audience never will. In fact, production will pay a dozen people (Art Department, Locations Department, Wardrobe Department, AD’s) to build, decorate, and populate your world. If you, like me, are more interested in the story than the set pieces, why waste your time writing about the curtains?

The trade-off for this is that screenwriters must abide by certain “rules.” The most important one is that everything must be visible. Your characters cannot “think,” “realize,” “feel,” or “remember.” (“Chuck realizes this is the girl he remembered from earlier.” How the hell can you show that?) Characters can, however, furrow their brows, smile, laugh, cry, and stare into space. (“Chuck smiles at the girl wearing the same bright red sweater from scene 5.”) Dialogue, which might sound snappy—or at least benign—may come across as wooden or “on the nose” when read aloud. (“Oh, I see. You think I was trying to get your attention with this bright red sweater.” Always read your dialogue aloud!) And just because something happened doesn’t mean it’s interesting. It especially doesn’t mean it’s visually interesting. Screenwriting is a different beast.

Screenplays are always written in third person present tense. I don’t know why. I’ve been told it makes things more dramatic. Some people use the first person plural “we,” but that’s pretentious and can create problems. (Strangely, I find the first person present tense particularly absurd. This was the primary reason I couldn’t read The Hunger Games. “Strong arms lift me as I blast the head off a mutt… I begin frantically pulling people up off the ladder.” Is she writing in a journal while all of this is happening?!)

Bit by bit, I plan to break down some of the mystery of screenwriting for you. I’ll augment this with samples of my own work to help illustrate my point. For now, I’m going to recommend 3 screenwriting books to you. You should read them IN ORDER. Even if you have some background in film or screenwriting, I can’t endorse these books enough.

The Screenwriter’s Bible by David Trottier. Updated every couple of years, it’s currently in its sixth edition. It’s billed as 5 books in one. Depending on where you are in your writer’s journey, not all of the books will be applicable. But even if you’ve spent a decade on film sets and have a box full of scripts, you’ll find yourself dragging The Screenwriter’s Bible out every couple of months for formatting suggestions. Trottier also has a great blog www.keepwriting.com.

Save the Cat by Blake Snyder. Snyder, God rest him, has a very unique and accessible approach to analyzing and writing scripts. He breaks things down into simple rules, and while I don’t agree with all of them, the unique take lets you look at your scripts in a new light. He doesn’t go into formatting or most screenplay terminology, which is why this shouldn’t be the first book you read about screenwriting. He does, however, give you lots of fun tips and tricks, and a fantastic tool for outlining (the Blake Snyder Beat Sheet). It really helps you look at screenwriting from a different angle. And the tips can get you out of that writer’s block. Much of Snyder’s work lives on www.savethecat.com (Bonus credit. If you have free time, check out Save the Cat Goes to the Movies.)

Finally, the granddaddy of them all, Robert McKee’s Story. This is a master’s level tome and I DO NOT recommend it unless you already have a grasp on the basics of screenplay structure. At times it feels like a philosophy textbook, but the sections about clichés, diction, and “slice of life” are priceless. I don’t want to scare you away from McKee-this is a seminal work-but it’s not a good place to start.

Once you tackle those, you’re lightyears ahead of the next “aspiring writer” or “idea guy” you know. Check back in, and hopefully I can offer you some more insight.