Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Patients

From way back in August 2010...

I am not a doctor and I don’t even play one on TV, but I have seen many movies with serious problems and read many screenplays with fatal problems. I'm not even a script doctor, so my job is not to cure these patients - just the blather on and on about them in my blog. Complaining is free, I might as well get in as much as I can, right?

A couple of months ago I went to a BBQ at Bamboo Killer Emily’s new house and everyone was talking about screenwriting and movies and the upcoming UFC fight (which is different than a KFC fight - me wanting more fried chicken and knowing I shouldn’t have any). One of the subjects was that insane writing you do the last day of Nichol submissions - “Sure, I can knock out an entire Act 3 by 11:59!” and then the horror of finding all of the typos and screw ups *after* you have submitted you script to the contest. I always say, if you want to find all of the mistakes in your screenplay, send it to someone really important and then reread it. Suddenly you can see all of the typos you’ve missed!

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It’s like that episode of HOUSE where he is sure the patient is fine and discharges him from the hospital, only to have the patient bounce back an hour later ten times worse... and maybe even *blue*... like some extra from AVATAR.

Our job is to make sure the patient is in perfect health before we discharge them from the hospital, and that takes patience.

Writing is rewriting. A script you finished at 11:59 on the last day for Nicholl’s submissions hasn’t been rewritten at all. Probably hasn’t even been proof read. Probably has all kinds of weird and confusing stuff in it - remember when you changed the female lead’s name when you were writing the script? How many places does she have the old name? Remember that scene on page 57 where the villain captures the hero and takes his gun... how does the hero get it back for the big shoot out at the end? Remember that scene where the guy buys the gal dinner in the cute little restaurant? How about three scenes before when he lost his wallet?

And those are the big obvious problems! What about consistent dialogue? Do all of your characters have a unique vocabulary and a different way of speaking? Or do they all sound just like you? Once you get the story down, there are hundreds of *details* in the way that story is told that must be consistent - character details, dialogue details, action details, etc - things that you will probably not get right on first pass... or even second pass! Things that you may not even notice if you do a quick read through before hitting the “send” button that sends your PDF to a contest or producer.

Being a freelance writer is tough - you have to be your own boss and impose your own deadlines. Having a deadline like the Nicholl or some other contest is a great way to get us off of our lazy butts and in front of that keyboard turning out pages. I understand the need for outside motivation tools... but eventually you will reach a point where there are no contests deadlines to spur you along and you have to finish screenplays on your own. This is not easy, but a skill you need to develop. You don’t want to be the writer who never gets anything finished... or gets an assignment and waits until the last minute and turns in a crappy draft. And because we are all human and those contest deadlines *are* great motivators, how about this: give yourself three weeks to rewrite your script before the deadline... which makes your first draft deadline three weeks *before* the Nicholl deadline. Then hold to that. Use the deadline to get you off your butt, and also leave enough time to polish your script before you turn it in.

This works on assignments, too. Mentioned this in a tip rewrite recently - I always give myself at least 2 days to do a quick rewrite before handing in an assignment... even if my deadline only gives me 2 weeks to write the script. On this recent assignment, the character of the detective changed completely in that little rewrite. The Detective character had been a last minute addition to the treatment before I turned it in: I had several people die, and policemen at each crime scene, and realized I could consolidate all of those policemen into one Detective so that instead of having a bunch of one day SAG cops, it could be one actor for all of those days... and we could find some recognizable character actor to play the role. So the Detective character got shoved into the story at the last minute, and when I went to script he was under developed. When I did a read-through on the script, his character didn’t pop. No character actor would want to play this role - it was boring. So I came up with a more interesting character for the detective and did a pass through the script changing and improving his dialogue, actions, etc - to reflect this new character. Another last minute pass turned a one line joke into something more subtle (and I think more funny) where the set up is 20 pages before the punchline. Now, this is *still* a first draft, and will go through many more rewrites, but I want to hand in something that makes me look good so that I don’t get fired...

I *have* turned in the rushed script before - and it was a big mistake. You always want the script to be *better* than they expect it to be. If your first draft reads like a first draft, there is no reason *not* to replace you later on with some other writer whose first drafts read like first drafts.

WHY 98% OF INDIE FILMS SUCK


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It gets even worse if you are making the film yourself. The Los Angeles Times had an article a few years back that said 98% of indie films find no distributor at all - not even DVD. They just end up in people’s garages. And one of the reasons why these films are no good is that the screenplays have obvious story flaws that should have been fixed in rewrites... only I suspect there were no rewrites. They were impatient and shot the first draft.

Which is less expensive: rewriting the screenplay or refilming the movie?

A couple of years ago I was invited to a cast & crew screening of a movie made by a friend... and the story was impossible to follow and made no sense at all. It was supposed to be a thriller, but it was muddled and characters were constantly doing stupid things to help the plot and the dialogue was awful, and just about everything was inconsistent in the story - as if this were a collection of completely unrelated scenes about unrelated characters that were put in the same file folder and lead characters were all given the same name and romantic interests given the same name, etc. So the lead character who hated guns on page 6 had a gun collection on page 23 and then didn’t know how to shoot on page 42 and then kills seven bad guys with six bullets in the big end shoot out. Okay - now imagine that with *every* trait the lead has, and then imagine all of the other characters being just as inconsistent. And the story being just as thrown together, too. This film was impossible to watch - even though the acting was okay and the cinematography was really good. The story was a mess. I just looked it up on IMDB - still looking for a distrib. Lots of shoot outs, there’s nudity, there are some minor names in the cast... but the story is so screwed up no one is taking it.

Don’t film a first draft! Rewrite the hell out of it so that it’s amazing, *then* film it!

Sometimes the problem may be that the writer thinks the script is ready to film, when it is far from it. This is why it’s good to get a second opinion from some outside source before you film it. Get some coverage on it or get some people to read it. Then, when you get notes - listen!

There are several blog entries about people I know who ask my advice on their projects... then completely ignore it. I always wonder why they asked in the first place, and it pisses me off to read a script for a friend and give notes on *real problems* and then have my time wasted when they don’t fix the problems. Maybe there’s the feeling that indie films are art from the heart of the creator without any meddling from the outside world - but a major story problem is a major story problem - fix it! And, all of these films that friends ask me for advice on are genre films (thrillers, action, horror) and not some artistic self expression piece that will play at art houses. If you want to see messed up low end horror films, check out Brain Damage.... then realize that these are the films that were in that 2% that were good enough to get distribution!

DETAILS MATTER

There’s a great scene in GET SHORTY (screenplay by Scott Frank, based on a novel by Elmore Leonard) where Delroy Lindo explains screenwriting to John Travolta...



Chili flips through the script a moment . . .

CHILI
You know how to write one of these?

BO CATLETT
There's nothin' to know. You have an idea, you write down what you wanna say. Then you get somebody to add in the commas and shit where they belong, if you aren't positive yourself. Maybe fix up the spelling where you have some tricky words . . . although I've seen scripts where I know words weren't spelled right and there was hardly any commas in it at all. So I don't think it's too important. Anyway, you come to the last page you write in 'Fade out' and that's the end, you're done.

CHILI
That's all there is to it, huh?

BO CATLETT
That's all.


And some folks think it’s just that easy... but the “tricky words and commas” is really the hard part. Once you’ve got the basics of the story, the way it is told and the details are what make that story live or die... and the first draft is a first draft. Filled with little problems you may not have noticed while writing it. You need to go back and fix it... Writing is rewriting.

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The first draft of your script is raw materials that must be refined into something valuable. You want to catch and correct the problems *before* someone else sees them. You don’t want them to judge your script on that raw first draft, because everything can change in the next draft or the draft after that - even in a two day quick read-through and rewrite your script can change. They might reject your script based on the first draft, not knowing that by the third draft all of the obvious problems will be gone and the script will be amazing...

The UFC fight at Bamboo Killer Emily & Mitch’s party was #114, and somewhere in one of the undercards leading up to the main event, favored-to-win Todd Duffee fought pudgy Mike Russow. When they stepped into the ring, we all thought it was a waste of time - Russow was downright fat and Duffee was rock hard. For the first two rounds Duffee pummeled Russow - just kept hitting the fat guy in the face and body *hard*. This fight was over. You wanted the ref to move in and stop it before Russow really got hurt. But somewhere in round two I noticed that Russow had taken a bunch of direct hits to the face... and was still standing. Russow wasn’t doing much hitting back, he was just getting hit - and it didn’t seem to be slowing him down. Everyone was sure that Duffee was the easy winner - he was landing punch after punch. But in round three, the fat Russow SLAMMED Duffee in the face and knocked him out.

Your script may win by a knock out, but not if you get impatient and hand in that first round first draft that’s fat and slow and looks like a complete loser. Be patient. Take the time to rewrite your screenplay before you give it to someone else to read. Make sure it is the very best you can make it before you send it out into the world. And whatever you do - make sure it is *great* before you film it. Once it is on film, it is too late to do anything about it.

Don't discharge the patient before they are ready to leave the hospital.

- Bill

WARNING: UK's M4M channel: 8/11 - 14:50 - Black Thunder - When the world's most powerful stealth jet fighter falls into enemy hands, only one man can get it back.

IMPORTANT UPDATE:

TODAY'S SCRIPT TIP: 3 Acts = Conflict - It's all about conflict!
Dinner: Togos Hummus sandwich.
Bicycle: Medium.
Pages: Had planned to do all kinds of work last week... and only did a little bit.
Movies: THE OTHER GUYS - This is the movie PINEAPPLE EXPRESS should have been. A cop comedy that has a basic cop structure to hold all of the gags together. The Tuna vs. Lion speech is worth the ticket price, and even though the first half is funnier than the last half, it has great running gags and call backs that keep it going. The story is wild Will Ferrell comedy, but is grounded with heart... you care about these two losers. Michael Keaton is great as the Chief who is the *opposite* of all of those action flick yelling Chiefs: he has a part time job at Bed Bath & Beyond to help pay the bills. Eva Mendez is hot - and that's part of the joke. Sam Jackson and The Rock had me laughing non-stop in their scenes. This probably isn't one of those films we'll be talking about ten years from now, but you can laugh at it now. Stay for the lesson in white collar crime in the closing credits.

6 comments:

The Moviequill said...

Great stuff, Bill. One of the items on my "bucket list" is to get an invite to one of Emily's bbqs one day

Pete Bauer said...

That's an awesome post, Bill. Yes, I keep saying that writing is the cheapest part of the film making process, so rewrite until you get it right.

I always look at the first draft as something I have to do, get those first words on paper, so then I can really "write" the script.

Fortunately for me, my wife is an excellent truth barometer. She doesn't really like movies, but she reads a lot. She's Jane Q. Public.

If she likes my script, then I know it's good. If she doesn't, I know it needs more work. And she's not shy either way :)

Emily Blake said...

My house is clearly a hub of creativity. I should have more parties.

rich said...

Wait. What's a comma?

ObiDonWan said...

a comma is like a Go Slow sign instead of a period, which is a Stop sign.

wcmartell said...

A "comma" is what that character who got hit by a bus is in... and not expected to live, when you didn't proof read the script.

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