Invent

Screenwriting


The Disciple Program/ Hyperdrive/Orphan’s Dawn

OK, let’s talk about scripts. I mean, if you want to write them, you have to read them. Science fact. I’ve been working hard at my day job, so I have to fit in reading on the subway ride there and back. Basically the most uncomfortable environment known to man or farm animal. A New York City subway car in rush hour is the nadir of civilization and people don’t even give you enough room to hold a Kindle DX, but I persevere because I want to win an Oscar.

THE DISCIPLE PROGRAM

The spec script everyone’s been talking about for the last few weeks. Uncovered and championed by Carson Reeves at Scriptshadow, it received major attention and now writer Tyler Marceca is signed to WME. It all happened in the blink of an eye.

The script is fantastic. It’s purposeful and muscular, every scene has a dramatic element to it and the opening ten pages make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. The story is basically a version of THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, but it’s so well told it’s never anything less than riveting. (This goes back to what I was saying last week about execution.)

A couple of nitpicks are that it’s a little overwritten, a twist shows itself way too early and it doesn’t quite live up to the promise of the opening scenes. But they really are nitpicks. This script has already inspired me a great deal. Congratulations to Tyler, the talented swine.

HYPERDRIVE

Pretty solid sci-fi spec by Morgan Jurgenson and David Daniels about a famous author (who’s also a huge nerd) getting caught up in an intergalactic war exactly like the one he writes about in his books.

The tone is really flimsy, and the characters are a bit stock for my liking. They’re ‘playing’ with ‘genre conventions’. There’s a grizzled cop and his partner, an annoying wimpy sci-fi fan, a hot girl from space and some ugly space heavies. It plays out exactly how you imagine – it’s like MEN IN BLACK/GALAXY QUEST/ROUNDTABLE. Like I said, solid, but not inspired.

ORPHAN’S DAWN

Epic original sci-fi by Josh Friedman. This is a weird one. It seems like it’s adapted from a set of revered novels, but it’s all original. It’s about a man who is ostracised from his people on a city floating in space, left to live the life of a wandering something. I forget what. He must help a woman who will lead the ship to a new planet and start a new life for the millions of inhabitants. So basically, the plot of WALL-E.

Very well written, he’s got an awesome voice (though I’m not a fan of the asides to the reader), and it’s densely plotted and sharply realized. The one thing that confused me was near the end, a long scene involving a tightrope walk and grappling hooks attached to the sky of the city (the sky is made of fabric). It’s not bad, it’s just a really odd moment – he lives in a city that has giant anti-gravity drives and yet there’s no such thing as a jetpack and he’s jumping around like Cirque du Soleil. Still, it’s commendable madness to write this on spec and expect it to get made, but it’s so ambitious I see why it sold.

Comment


Concept versus Execution

Concept is your one stellar idea. You hang an entire story around it. It carries your title, characters and plot all the way to awesomeville and back again. Hollywood prizes high concepts above all else, they’re pretty much the currency they trade in and people’s careers have been made (and sustained) on them. So there’s a lot of emphasis, and rightly so.

Examples of excellent concepts are things like LIAR LIAR (a lawyer can’t lie), TRADING PLACES (rich guy and poor guy swap lives) and FINAL DESTINATION (death comes back for people he missed). Boom, you’ve got the movie in your head in one second. A thousand possibilities immediately spring to mind. Half your work is done for you – your concept is a series of ‘What If?’ questions and all you need to do is answer them. A good concept can even sell a bad script, because studios know they can fix the details later as long as the magic is there at the beginning. But here’s the thing… I think the details ARE the concept, or at the very least, they’re how you present it to the world. And presentation is everything.

Take a concept and look at two executions of it. Let’s say it’s the idea of entering a world inside the human mind. On the one hand you’ve got INCEPTION and on the other you’ve got THE LAWNMOWER MAN. Pretty big difference.

Execution lessons

Think about BACK TO THE FUTURE. That is a prime example of perfect execution. You name it, they nailed it. I like to think about the million other directions it could have taken. I remember seeing the film for the first time as a kid with my Dad. I was bouncing down the street afterwards, and I asked my Dad if he liked it. He did, although he was surprised they had a time machine but only went back thirty years. He thought they were going to visit Ancient Rome or somewhere, all these places throughout history (he would have made a shitty screenwriter). Now, with the concept they had (guy invents time machine, kid accidentally uses it), they had that option – but they restrained themselves and it was a great choice. Hell, the time machine itself was originally a fridge. Doc Brown was originally called Professor Brown, and he had a chimpanzee called Shemp. Eric Stoltz was Marty McFly. God have mercy on us all.

The point is, having an idea is one thing. Inspiration hits us all the time. But the execution of that idea is everything. What you chose to focus on, what you chose to leave out, how you take something that exists and give it a twist – this is just as important as the concept itself, maybe more so.

What I learned: This is where I’m at with a sci-fi thriller I’m writing. The concept has a lot to do with time travel, so I’m facing world of infinite possibilities and choices. It’s the easiest thing to overload a project with ‘cool shit’, but that’s a mistake. Do what best serves your concept and edit all the other stuff out. Take what you DO have and make it the best, most exciting version possible. That way you’ll be writing the next BACK TO THE FUTURE and not the next FREEJACK.

Comment


Ma’am, I answered your question.

John August is taking some heat on his blog for a rather frivolous post about how to write a script. People are getting all bent out of shape that he didn’t help out a ‘noob’ with the ‘basics’ (even though he has two sites and a podcast dedicated to that). Anyway, if this so-called screenwriter won’t come down from his ivory tower long enough to help out, then I’ll just have to pick up the slack. My credentials? I’ve been reviewed Scriptshadow! Can John August boast the same? I think not.

Here’s the incendiary message in full. I’ll break it down line by line:

Dear John August,
or whomever will read this,

That’s me. Hello.

I have a few questions, I have come up with a great idea for a movie and I am wondering how to get the idea out there.

Congratulations on your great idea. Getting it out there isn’t as easy. The right person (in Hollywood) has to hear about it. They also need to have lots of money, lots of power, like you as a person and be in a good mood when the hear it. So, persistence is absolutely the key. And being super cool.

I want to write a script for the movie. I can vision it so perfectly in my mind. How much do I need to type up? 

All of it. Do not write less than 90 pages or more than 110 pages. This is important. Some poor bastard has to read it at the end of a long day, so try for under 100.

How can I get it copyrighted?

You can do it online at the Library of Congress or the WGA. But don’t worry too much about this. Just by writing it, you’re the author, so it’s yours. No one will steal it.

Where do I go from there?

You have two choices, either rewrite your first script, or start your second script.

My idea is to send it straight to the movie companies but is that the best choice? I need some info on it.

You mean like the Majors? Unfortunately, they won’t be available as they are very busy. They won’t read your script for a number of reasons. Firstly, it opens them up to getting sued if they make a film even remotely like yours. Secondly, there’s just too much material out there. They use agents, producers and actors as a kind of filter for what’s good – before it gets to the Studios, someone, somewhere has thought highly of that project. Thirdly, they have a very large pool of established professionals that they can draw upon for projects. A better scenario is to use what contacts you have in the entertainment industry and ask them to read your script. If they like it, they might in turn pass it on to someone they know who can help you, and so on. Lastly, you can submit it blindly to a couple of management/production companies. This is like farting in the wind, but you never know, if it’s strong enough, someone might smell it.

If something could be set up how long would it take and how fast would this screenplay/script need to be written.

What, you haven’t written the script yet? This is all backwards. You have to write the script first, otherwise no one will be able to judge if the story is strong enough to invest millions of dollars in making it. You can’t just show up with a piece of paper. I wish you could, I have at least 175 great ideas for movies. But ideas are easy, what people love and what studios pay big bucks for is the execution of that idea.

If you are lucky enough for something to be set up, be patient. It will likely take about three years before the movie is released.

As for how fast a script needs to be written, it varies. For spec scripts, expect to have your first draft done in about 8 weeks, then give it as long as it takes to do the rewrite. Heck, spend a year and make it perfect. You’ll learn a ton. If you’re a professional who’s writing on assignment, I think you get less time, like six weeks for a first draft. I can’t remember. Check John August site for the exact info– oh wait, scratch that.

I am looking forward to a response.

You’re welcome. And hey, don’t be discouraged. Writing a script is a lot of work, it’s a thousand decisions and a hundred problems that all have to be solved, but it’s the most creatively rewarding and satisfying thing there is. Good luck with it.

Comment


Scriptshadow review

I’ve been reading Scriptshadow for a while, so when I was scrolling through my Google Reader yesterday, and this came up: Screenplay Review – The Augmented Geologist (Amateur Friday) I stopped for a second.

That’s my script.

Reading through the review and comments I am just as encouraged as hell. The script has sticking points which people seem to agree on, but they are things that are definitely fixable, and I would agree with most of the feedback.  What really caught my eye were the positive notes on the writing, which are generous. As soon as I sort out my structure, I’m gonna be deadly. Check this out:

But like I said, I think James is PACKED with talent. I wouldn’t be surprised if 3-4 years from now, you see him writing some big Hollywood sci-fi film. And hey, if he can get a handle on this story and give us something more mainstream and less existential, he might be able to salvage it. Either way, he’s a writer to look out for.

I you haven’t seen it yet, head over there and read the review.

Comment


BlueCat Screenplay Competition Analysis

I received two pieces of feedback from the BlueCat Screenplay Competition. It’s great to get stranger’s perspective on your script, they see it with clarity that you don’t have when you’ve been working on something for ages.

Note: I might change the title because of The Hunger Games. Here’s the feedback:

HUNGER STRIKE – Reader #5051

What did I like:

“The grotesque food descriptions throughout are consistently clear, yet not overdone.  They would be a pleasure for any set designer or prop master to execute for the screen.  The descriptions and imagery have an overall cinematic flare that justifies the screenplay medium and would work well either on the page or a screen.

Johnny’s reaction to Mitchell being taken (52-53) works as a realistic, emotional midpoint to the story and could easily be the highlight of the entire script.  Even though it’s an extreme, violent reaction, in the context of the moment, it feels reasonable and manages to organically capture the severity of the situation.

Additionally relating to Johnny, the detail that the police assume Johnny killed his wife adds a brilliant complexity to the story and the overall structure.  It’s the kind of detail that automatically explains why Johnny and Matt are the center of the story, despite only being EMTs.  This is clearly a situation that the police cannot and will not understand, leaving Johnny and Matt to fend for themselves.

It is a good sign when a script starts out with a P.G. Wodehouse quote.  In this case, it’s especially well-used, starting a horrific story with just a touch of dark humor.”

What needs work:

“While the grotesque scenes are well-written and interesting, they don’t really escalate over the course of the script and they rarely help Johnny and Matt figure out what’s going on.  Alternatively, the occasional newspaper articles feel like an unusually easy plot device compared to the script’s more powerful scenes.  Try to shift some of the plot’s progression onto the grotesque decay scenes to take some of the emphasis off the newspaper articles.

Give the Harvester a single name or identification within the description passages and use it consistently.  Over the course of the script, it seems as though the Harvester goes by at least four different names and it’s difficult to distinguish if these names all belong to a single character, or if they denote several separate monsters.

Consider introducing Doctor Kendrick earlier within the script, even if it’s just a brief moment when Matt or Johnny’s at or near the hospital.  The Harvester has a tendency to target Matt and Johnny only at home or at work and it might be an interesting detail for Doctor Kendrick to also be connected into the same world and locations that Matt and Johnny are typically in.

Clarify Doctor Kendrick’s explanation of the Harvester (78), how it came about and etc.  He tries to explain this information, but ends up being so crypitc or genuinely uncertain of what has really happened that he only provides information that a reader can assume based on seeing the Harvester in action.”

HUNGER STRIKE – Reader #6005

What did I like:

“Hunger Strike is a rip-roaring gore fest with a very compelling premise (and villain!). I’ll say from the start that I’m a fan of the horror genre, barring the more extreme torture porn, and I think you toed the line here very nicely. The beginning, as we’re learning about the harvester and you’re building the suspense, is sufficiently eerie and gross. The insects and maggots appearing out of nowhere added to the yuck-factor. You also have some great initial scares–the one that sticks out the most is when Johnny’s wife is kneeling in front of the hole behind their stove. You’ve built that up very nicely–nothing happens when Johnny looks in it, so we’re just waiting…and then The Harvester pops out. Well done.

Overall, your premise is interesting and not something we’ve seen for a while–after all, there’s nothing truly unique. Hunger Strike is reminiscent of say Candyman from the early 90’s. In a good way. You’re at your best when your characters are active and battling the horror in their midst. There’s some very intense scenes, especially when Matt and Johnny are fighting The Harvester for the first time in the tower.”

What needs work:

“That said, the story still needs some work. You’re a good portion of the way there, but it’s not quite “there” yet. You have a lot of threads, you just need to pull them together better.

First, your opening hook should start with a death and some indication as to who the villain is. To be honest, after the opening as it is, I thought I was reading some kind of dark comedy–what with the car flipping over the obese man who’s just eaten a cow eyelid. It all seemed a bit farcical. But more importantly, the current opening doesn’t clue us in to what kind of story this is going to be. From the get go you want to show us that this is going to be a supernatural slasher-fest. Of course, this is easy to fix. You have the seeds of it in the first butcher shop scene with the girl behind the counter (by the way, just call her Counter Girl, or something so we know she’s not important, really.) Just follow her out of the shop, and she starts stepping on cockroaches and perhaps a whisper from the Harvester in his disturbing cant, and as she whirls her neck slashes open. Then move on to the main characters. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that’s exactly how you have to do it. That’s just an example of what I mean about an opening that tells us what the story’s about.

The midpoint is also weak, but easily fixable. In any story–screenplay or otherwise–the more you stretch out the timeframe it takes place during, the less tension your story will have. That’s what happens at your midpoint. The protags have just had their first big battle with the harvester, he’s stolen Haley, there’s been chasing and death and mayhem and lots of building tension, and Rebecca shoots the Harvester and then BAM… three weeks pass. Huh, what? And the characters have done nothing during that time. They’ve put the battle and quest on hold,while they sit around.  I think you attempted to accommodate some logistics by adding the time in between, but it’s not necessary. Keep the freight train of your story going. Sure, you may need to re-arrange some things, but keep it moving. After Rebecca saves Matt, perhaps they can go look through her husband’s stuff and find out more about Starkand, or whatever you come up with. Just don’t lose the momentum, because we’re invested at this point.

In some places, I didn’t think your characters acted the way I would expect someone to. Instead, they felt more like they were acting the way you wanted them to in order to advance the plot a specific way. For instance, when Rebecca’s husband goes into what Matt deems as anaphalaxis shock, they rush to take him to the hospital…but isn’t Matt an EMT? Wouldn’t he have an epi pen in his bag? It seems like a no brainer. At the least, he would ask if they had one. Look for other instances where you may need to modify how your character’s react.

Finally, you descriptions were good, but could still be pared down. Especially the fight scenes. We don’t need a blow by blow in most cases.

That said, nice job and good luck!”

Comment


My sci-fi animated feature

I just wrote FADE OUT on my latest script.

Think WIZARD OF OZ meets STAR WARS and you’ll have a pretty accurate idea of the tone and scope. It’s based on characters from my comic strip, and is essentially a sequel story set three years later. The great thing is, I know these guys like the back of my hand, so it really adds a richness to the story. The characters are well defined and I’ve managed some very satisfying subplots.

Seeing as I was on a roll, I also rewrote my horror spec to get it into shape. Rewriting is NOT TO BE MESSED WITH and I had to fix so much stuff it was insane. Now it’s presentable. The weird thing is, I did so much work on the rewrite I feel like I finished two new scripts in the space of a week.

What I learned: This is a topic for another post, but I outlined the new script and it was a great help. I’ll do it every time from now on. Also – and I’ve heard people say this but never really believed it, because I never listen – knowing your characters well means they almost write their own dialog. And, it’s true. Finally, writers really do get better every time they finish a story. I can see the progress here. So keep going!

Comment


Learning how to write a script just got easier

There’s been some interesting developments in the land of screenwriting advice recently. Some sites are joining forces and others are branching out, which is great news if you’re like me and want to steal ideas from people that actually have them. Here’s a quick rundown:

Scriptnotes

John August has been running his invaluable (for stealing from) blog since forever, now he’s added a podcast with Craig Mazin. These two know screenwriting backwards and forwards and they’re eager to share their knowledge. It also helps that they have reassuring voices, their dulcet tones make you think everything’s going to be alright. WELL, IT’S NOT. Anyway, subscribe. It will be useful.

Blcklst.com

The Black List is an annual list of the best unmade scripts floating around Hollywood. Started by Franklin Leonard, it looks like he’s leveling up his empire as he’s added ‘Go in to the Story’ and ‘Screenwriting Tips… You Hack’ to the official blcklst.com site. These are the two best sources of screenwriting advice out there, and the Black List is hugely influential, so I’m excited to see them combine like Devastator.

#scriptchat

This isn’t recent, but I just discovered it on Twitter, so it counts. The hashtag #scriptchat is used by a bunch of writers to talk about screenwriting and give out solid advice about the industry. It’s great for finding out about specific stuff like what contests are worth entering and how to break in. I followed a transcript on the site and found a prod co. who opened their doors to unsolicited queries for a week, so I followed it up and got a request. BAM! You see that? That’s social media in action.

What I learned: There’s never been a better time to learn about writing screenplays. Those sites above, plus Scriptshadow, The Tracking Board and IMDb Pro will absolutely give you all you need in terms of help. So what I’m saying is, if you fail, it’s totally your fault.

Comment


Specific Rim

I read the script for PACIFIC RIM recently and came away impressed. Any movie that requires a two-page sci-fi glossary of terms at the beginning scratches me right where I itch. This is basically Voltron for semi-grown-ups (or Evangelion if you’re a nerd). In fact, a much more satisfying take on giant robots than Justin Marks’ VOLTRON script from a few years ago.

To sum up the (pretty basic) story, giant Kaiju (20-story hellbeasts with names like ‘Invidia’) are entering our world from another dimension and attacking any city they please. The only thing that can stop them are giant Jaegers (20-story robots with names like ‘Tacit Ronin’), who chop them up with swords, gattling guns, ion pulses and wave lasers. Take your pick.

One thing I learned from this Travis Beacham really concentrates on the build up. The first attack doesn’t happen until page 30 and the main protagonists don’t get involved in the actual fighting until page 60. I’d have had them scrapping it out by page 2. Time is given to setting up the backstory and the team-building, so that when the shit does hit the fan, it has some weight. Which is a gross image.

Only criticism I have is the overload of dream sequences. These are used for backstory and to visualize overcoming internal obstacles (like Inception, except not as BHHWWWARRRRRRMMMMM), but there’s too many for my taste.

Comment


Time

One of the biggest challenges writers face is finding the time to write, while still juggling their butt-numbing day job and butt-numbing personal life. At least, I think it is. I don’t know any other writers. I should say, one of the biggest challenges *I* face, is finding time to write, whilst still being able to watch two episodes of The Wire per evening. (I’m on a strict schedule).

Well, it ain’t easy… but it can be!

It all depends on when and where you write. I think I’m lucky, I can write anywhere – at home, in bed, at a loud bar, in a douchey coffee shop, underneath the Manhattan Bridge… it’s all the same. Just open the laptop and press them letter buttons. Some people need their special comfy chair or absolute peace and quiet in order to get the juices flowing. That’s sometimes hard to find, so if you don’t have those things, it gives you an excuse to put it off.

Putting things off is bad.

Always keep going. It’s the editing phase where you need to do some serious concentrating and that’s when you need to remove all distractions. Editing also works best if you can do it in big blocks, a whole day devoted to going through the script start to finish. Doing that sort of thing in short bursts will make you cry later because you screwed it up.

Plain old writing, however, can be tackled a little at a time. You’re just setting up the building blocks after all, and ninety minutes to blast through some pages is longer than you think. The sad fact that my concentration cannot last longer than two and half hours make a longer session redundant anyway. So if you can grab two hours a day to write, you have all the time you need. Caveat: Once you’re a professional writer, I’m sure things will change – you’ll need to write longer to get more things done, and that’s a whole other set of techniques.

Now I’m finding another problem – between work, The Wire, dinner, talking to my wife, The Wire, and sleep, I have almost no time to watch new movies. I can feel my movie knowledge fading away like Arnie’s biceps.

Comment


Watch Instantly

In an attempt to add to my movie knowledge, I’ve set a task for myself – I’m going through the IMDb Top 250 and watching every film on the list. I’m at 206 movies so far.

Watching classics all the time is like eating steak every night – it’s definitely awesome, but you get used to it. After 206 steaks, your guts bung up. The movies that make up the IMDb list are all a certain type: worthy, epic, long, and more often than not, by Clint Eastwood. (Gran Torino is in the top 100, higher than Return of the Jedi. FUCK that noise).

But hey, I’m a trooper, I can do this. Apart from the odd clunker (Pirates of the Caribbean?) there are some movies that have been a revelation, and so clearly influential it’s staggering. Rashomon, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Les Diaboliques, The Battle of Algiers, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Harvey and The General blew my goddamn doors off. Watch them if you haven’t.

There’s some I’m not looking forward to (Life is Beautiful, ugh. UPDATE: IT WAS AWESOME) and some I can’t wait for (Seven Samurai – UPDATE: IT WAS AWESOME), but it’s a good exercise for everyone who loves movies and needs to fill in the gaps.

If you want to play along at home and track your progress, there’s a site called icheckmovies that let’s you tick off what you’ve seen. My list is here.

What I learned: Obviously, the more movies you watch, the better you will understand what works and what doesn’t. It’s the most enjoyable way to improve your work apart from actual writing. There are definitely trends throughout the decades, and genres come and go, but there’s one thing all these films have in common: amazing characters. A great character IS a great movie in most cases. So if you can master that, you’re halfway done.

Comment

Visit my social profiles:

Scroll to top