Wednesday, August 15, 2018

What *Happens*? And What Happens Next?

From 2009....

The horror story of my life is that friends ask me for advice on their movie projects, then ignore what I suggest and make a film that is unwatchable and unsalable and wonder why. And it happens again and again and I always get invited to the screenings of these unwatchable films. A couple of years ago, a friend tells me his story over coffee, and instead of one of those pitches where he tells me the concept, this thing just goes on and on and on. I could have read the script in less time. But the big problem was - there was no story. It was one of those stories where nothing happens.

Now, because I usually write action and thriller stuff, you may think I mean a story where nothing blows up or there are no car chases... No, I mean nothing happens. One of my favorite movies from last year is THE VISITOR about an uptight college professor who discovers an illegal couple squatting in his NYC apartment, and learns to live again. Something happens in that movie. I also liked THE WRESTLER, where a washed up wrestler tries to make peace with his daughter and get his life in order after a health scare. Something happens in that film. I’m talking about a movie where the emotional conflict (if there is one) is buried so deep that it never erupts into drama, and there is no visual conflict at all - the “plot” of the story is to prevent something from happening by talking about it. A lot. So, by the end of the story, the event does not happen. The *concept* of the story is to prevent anything from happening - so nothing happens... and it’s not a dramatic debate that prevents things from happening, it’s a bunch of ho-hum scenes and conversations. You would think that the flaw here would be obvious. It wasn’t.

So I mentioned that it seemed like nothing was actually happening in this story, either from a plot standpoint or an emotional standpoint.

He began arguing that I didn’t understand the story, so I asked him: What are the big decisions the characters have to make in the story? Well, all the decisions are made before the story begins. So what are the changes that happen in the story? What happens... and then what happens... and then what happens next? He answered that nothing changes (happens), well, until the very end... except that isn’t actually a change because the characters make sure that the change is prevented, so nothing happens. Things stay the same.

Nothing happens, nothing changes...

He was reluctant to make changes to his brilliant script... and he never did. Maybe he's just anti-change. No change in the script and no change to the script. He filmed the story he told me, and when I watched it, nothing happened. Boring as hell.

So now he has this film where nothing happens, and my big question is: How could anyone miss something as basic as “something has to happen”?

Every year when I have to come up with classes for Expo, they want to know whether this class is aimed at Basic, Intermediate, or Professional screenwriters. This always confuses the heck out of me because when I see a movie that just plain doesn’t work about 9 times out of 10 it’s one of those basic things where they screw up. The dialogue may be filled with amazing subtext but the structure sucks, or the characters may have depth and are fascinating but they are not involved in any sort of conflict so there’s no story. Like in the novel WAR OF THE WORLDS it’s not the military that takes down the invasion, it’s something as simple as the common cold. Basics. So I always wonder if I should put my basic classes in the Pro section and my pro classes in the Basic section.

Whether the class is Basic or Pro, that class is at Expo and if you are having trouble with your screenplay you can take the class... and when you take the class you should pay attention and *learn something*. Use the information in the class to become a better writer. The issue with all of these people who ask my advice is that they ignore my advice. That makes no sense! I'm a professional screenwriter with a bunch of credits and a bunch of sold scripts and assignments that haven't turned into credits yet, so I have some idea of what works and what doesn't. Heck, why would you ask my advice in the first place?

Your script can’t be about nothing happening. It can’t be about making sure the conflict never happens - because that’s the same as having nothing happen. You must have a conflict, and you must have the characters deal with that conflict. That can be an emotional conflict (as long as your make it visual and dramatic) or a physical conflict (sharks and asteroids and other types of badguys). Something’s gotta happen! Action & reaction. If you remove the action you have no reaction... and you end up with this guy’s movie where people sit around and talk about what might happen... but never does happen.

It’s a basic!

Before you waste all kinds of money on equipment and tape stock and cast and crew and editing, make sure the script works. And before you even write the script, make sure the story works on a basic level. That it is about characters in conflict who must make tough decisions... and the characters and world are changed by the events of your story. And, you know, basic 3 Act structure stuff: Introduce your conflict, have the protagonist struggle with an escalating conflict, then resolve your conflict. And you don’t go 75 minutes with no conflict or with a crapload of subplots that have nothing to do with the story, then have the conflict introduced and resolved in 5 minutes and then ten minutes of happily ever after. If the sh*t hasn’t hit the fan by page 30, you’re stalling. Get in there and make sure something happens!

I have met Script Consultants at Expo who don't know half of what I know who charge $2,500 for the advice I gave this guy for free, but I'll bet if he told his mother the story, she would have said, "But nothing happens!" So now he has a finished film that no distribs are interested in and he will never get his money back.

Maybe that's what I should have done: charged him $2,500 for the advice? Then he might have listened. The reason he asked my advice in the first place is that he says he's a director, not a writer. So I helped him. Or at least tried. I don't think he realized how important his script problems were. Even after I told him. Maybe if I had charged him $2,500 he would have taken the problems more seriously?

I am concerned about this old script of mine I’m rewriting because a couple of new subplots may add a lot of fistfights and subplot conflict, they delay the *main* conflict from completely kicking in until about page 40 - ten pages later than I would like. Now, the main conflict is *introduced* pretty darn early, but the protagonist isn’t going to be locked in the conflict - trapped with no way to avoid the conflict - until about page 40. This worries me. I’m going to go back and see what I can trim here and there, but I’m afraid these two new subplots - one with someone attacking our hero (not *threatening to attack* - that’s not conflict, just the threat of it) and one where our hero finds out the last guy with his job was murdered and must find the killer before he’s next (this subplot is connected to the main plot) - can’t be trimmed enough to land the start of Act 2 at page 30. But at least I’m delaying Act 2 with fist fights and a murder plot - things happening that are both physical action and force the character to do many things he would rather not do... and which he will regret later in the story.

But I’m sweating all of this stuff in the script stage. My friend seems to only be sweating this stuff now that he can’t find a single distrib who wants to pick up the film, and had some trouble at his screening with other friends walking out after an hour. I mean, if your friends don’t want to sit through your film what are the odds that total strangers will want to?

The friends who stayed (I sat through the mess - looked nice, lots of creative camera work... But nothing happened!) you could divide into 3 groups: People who lied and told him it was brilliant (and you could tell that they were lying), people who were honest and said Nothing happened, it was boring, and people who were diplomatic and said things like "Well, it was in color!". By the way: if you get nothing but rave reviews and terrible reviews - one of those groups is lying and it's not the terrible reviews!

Before you rent the camera or write the script, look at your story. What happens? Okay, and then what happens? Okay, then what happens after that?

Something has to actually happen.

- Bill

Wednesday, August 08, 2018

Pitch Your Script In 5 Words

This challenge has been making the rounds, so here is a blog entry from *February of 2009* with the same challenge!

The greatest thread ever on the Done Deal website is getting close to 2,000 posts. It was started over a year ago by Quazworld with the simple title "Pitch your script in 5 words". Since then people have posted both serious 5 word pitches and completely silly joke 5 word pitches - but here's what is amazing: even the joke 5 word pitches are 5 word pitches that work! They're just for silly stories. So it's almost "tell a joke in 5 words" - which is also a major challenge. The jokes are all the worst movie ideas you could think of... but when you can make liquids spurt from my nose with only 5 words, you should be a writer.

Here was my post, the first day of the thread...

Pitch your script in 5 words:

Bomb ticking *inside* man.

(That's four)

Serial Killer's shadow stalks reporter.

Victim's kid reincarnation tracks killer.

Spy enters dreamworld, uncovers attack plan.

(Crap! Six.)

Innocent is assassin after CGI.

James Bond - amatuer detective's butler.

Ex-Quarterback vs. Drug Runners in Key West.

(I'm taking Key West as one word - I could sub Florida)

Time Travel Theives change past.

Girl's glue horse wins rodeo.

Four security cameras - Four killers?

Family reunion with half-gator cousin.

PS: Some of these scripts are on my website.


Okay, now it's your turn to pitch your story in 5 words in the comment section. Have fun!

- Bill

PS: Sorry I haven't been blogging as much, I've been trying to get caught up.

Wednesday, August 01, 2018

Garage Films

From August of 2008!

A couple of weeks ago I went to a screening of my friend's new movie... and left early. The film wasn’t very good... but it was a finished film, and I think his 6th feature.

Hollywood is filled with dreamers and schemers. At one point in time this blog was going to be called “I Know All The Losers In Hollywood” - but that danged SNAKES IN A PLANE movie changed everything. And sometimes it’s hard to tell the losers from the winners. I met this guy in a non-Starbucks coffee shop, and one day he just decided to make movies. He came to LA to be a musician and played in a couple of garage bands, when that didn’t work out he tried to be an actor, and when that didn’t work out he decided to make movies... starring himself, playing music. This guy is a character... and his story is amusing and maybe inspiring.

He wrote a script - that was autobiographical and wasn’t very good. Because he loved MAGNOLIA and had no idea how to end an autobiographical script since he is still alive, he ended the script with an unexplained rain... of cakes! The script also featured the lead character furiously masturbating in a coffee shop bathroom. I never used the bathroom in that coffee shop where I met him again. So, he has no money... but he goes to a church function and explains that he’s trying to raise money to make a Christian themed film... and finds investors! He rounds up enough money to buy a prosumer grade camera, some lights, and a laptop and editing program... plus enough to pay for meals and video tape and expendables. He rounds up actor friends and friends with some crew experience and makes his little film. No budget. A shopping mall escalator gets some new signage and becomes LAX - just watch out for security guards! He steals locations - shooting with no permit at landmarks with lookouts posted to watch for police. And he sings and stars and it ends with unseen people on ladders dumping cakes on him - symbolic of something. The film is nonsense... but finished. He’s at the gym one day and sees a TV news guy, tells him about his movie... and they decide to do a story about him.

After he’s on TV, everyone in town wants to see his movie, and he sends out screeners. But his film is, well, weird, and nobody wants it. But he manages to find an investor to put up the couple thousand he needs to make the next film. Oh, and he actually gets a once famous actress to work for free (it will be her first time in a film in 2 decades). This film is slightly less strange, but still not in any genre and not mainstream at all. Despite the has-been star, no one wants to see this one. But, as with all of his films, he finds a theater that will donate some weeknight to him and he shows the film to cast, crew, friends, and anyone on his MySpace friends list. Just show up and see the movie, then have some wine and cheese afterwards.

He makes his movies for a couple of grand, none of them get any sort of distribution... but he doesn’t seem to care. He makes his movies just to make his movies. That’s the fun part for him. He has a day job to pay the rent, and making little movies and showing them to friends in some donated theater is his hobby.

Here's the problem with the new movie - it takes place at a workplace over a single day. But there is no spark (no inciting incident - in screenwriter talk) - so it's just a typical day at work. Nothing different happens. That means that all of the drama has to be artificially induced. So one character gets a phone call from their doctor that they have cancer. Another character decides - for no reason - to attempt suicide. There's a big chunk of exposition about their life outside the workplace falling apart. One character may have AIDS... they get a phone call, too. There are a bunch of dramatic elements that come from *outside* the office and *outside* the story. They just come from nowhere to create a scene. And, though things like this *do* happen in real life, on the screen it seems completely forced. You can see the writer-director off camera forcing the drama. None of it is connected to anything in the workplace. Just an out of the blue phone call that creates a false dramatic event. The film was contrived and fake.

Here's the irony - I'm sure my friend thought it was more realistic because there was no big inciting incident. That it was more natural and less contrived... but it seemed 100 times more forced than DIE HARD. Because in DIE HARD, once the terrorist take over the Christmas party, everybody does exactly what a real person would do - even the terrorists. They react naturally.

Now, that doesn't mean the workplace drama would have been better with terrorists, but he needed *some event* that made this day *different* than any other day. Look at GLEN GARY GLEN ROSS - this is the last day of the sales contest - someone will win and someone will be fired. That changes a normal day of selling into *the* day of selling - you can lose your job if you fail. So everyone is hustling on *this day* and maybe backstabbing their fellow employees and maybe having a melt down when things go wrong. Okay, now that we are in this pressure cooker situation at the workplace, the differences between characters can easily explode into drama without any outside phone calls. That's not the end of the world - but it is the end of a career for somebody. There are stakes. There is a deadline.

My friend's film would have been a million times better if the story had begun with them getting a new boss. Now you have people kissing up in all kinds of ways, people dealing with new authority, etc. No phone calls required - the drama would come from that spark - that change - that thing that alters the status quo. But you *must* have something that alters the regular world and creates a dramatic situation... or else you end up grafting on drama from the outside. Sometimes what is real seems fake and what is created by the screenwriter to kick off the story makes it all seem more real, more natural, less forced.

After an hour of phone calls creating artificial crisis, I snuck out of the theater. Some other people had snuck out before me, but I was going to try to stick it out. Couldn’t. I’m sure that others left after me (actually, three other people left at the same time I did).
Now, I would tell my friend how to improve his movie - but he wouldn’t listen and wouldn’t care. He makes his little movies that way he wants. For him making the movie is all that matters. He doesn’t care if they never end up on a Blockbuster shelf and probably doesn’t care that some of his MySpace friends didn’t stay until the end.

*I* look at his films from *my* perspective and think that with a little change here and there - no terrorists or explosions, just a new boss as an inciting incident so that the film seems less contrived - he might make it into a festival or two and maybe get picked up by some art house oriented DVD label. Maybe not - but it’s worth a try. I think he and his unpaid cast and crew do a lot of work, and it would be cool if the films found a larger audience than the people who showed up at the screening in North Hollywood. But that’s from my perspective. From his perspective, he’s doing exactly what he wants to do.

But here’s the lesson I came away with when I snuck out of that theater after an hour of plot altering phone calls - he’s made 6 films for pocket change. He just does it. If *I* decided to just do it and make a movie for pocket change - with a better script - *I* could be the one with my little film in festivals and maybe on the shelf at Blockbuster. Hey, maybe you can, too! And if nobody wants my little film? Maybe I can talk some theater into donating a weeknight and post a bulletin on MySpace....

- Bill
eXTReMe Tracker