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.