All Great Movies Have Unwatchable Lulls

I was thinking about how much of Star Wars IV that I don’t care to rewatch. Like the whole first 1/3. Up until Luke partners with Han and they leave the planet with Obi-Wan and the droids, it’s all exposition.  It’s all setup.  Same shit with Episode VI: Basically, I don’t recall or care to rewatch the entire sequence with Jabba the Hut.  And I don’t much care for the death of Yoda either.  It’s not until the battle of Endor that I really get into the movie. The irony with both films is that the endings were so much fun that I forget how bad the beginnings were and feel good leaving the theater.  That’s exactly where Episode V fails.  It doesn’t end on a high note, so it leaves you with a bad taste in your mouth so there’s nothing to distract you from how dull the entire movie was until then.  In fact, the whole entire movie is as exposition-y as the crappy parts of IV and VI.  That’s why it’s so crappy in my view.  It’ll make more sense as you read on.

When I look back at the Star Wars films, I realize how little I would appreciate them if I saw it as an adult. In fact, I was too young to understand a majority of each Star Wars movie when I saw it the first time.  By the time I could appreciate how movies rely on reveals and twists for hightened drama, I already knew the reveals, thereby neutralizing the drama, thereby neutralizing the entire Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back.

Then I wondered if I’m being too hard on new films as an adult.  If I saw any of my favorite movies, I could be hard pressed to enjoy them, because I might be a little too critical. (Like the video troll here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qp-E0KXQoUU, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZEClNaZh-EU, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KGGUX4_0HQY).  I think when I watch new movies, I’m going to remind myself that all my favorite movies have crappy sequences, even crappy entire acts, but I still appreciate the good in them.  So I might as well look for the good in a movie than expect a perfectly tidy or completely engaging film.

All Great Movies Have Unwatchable Lulls

Like the Matrix, which is just too exposition-y right up until he wakes up in the real world in the human farm.  From then on the movie is engaging. Until then, it was mysterious and at best interesting.

Terminator 2 has the significant lull smack in the middle, but then it reboots itself.

Speed actually is non-stop amazing until the final act, when it gets repetitive. That’s one instance that the beginning and majority of the movie was SO good that the failure of the third act actually pulled away from our memory of the film, reminding me how important it is that you leave the theater on good terms with the audience.

Jurassic Park is actually pretty boring until… Dennis steals the embryos and the nightmare starts, but we were pulled through by the general good feeling of exploring a new world.

Armageddon actually had like 10 minutes before even introducing the miners, then like 20 minutes before they were told about the mission at NASA. Basically, the movie started when they went through the tests (NASA approved). Before that it was exposition, setup.

Same with The Rock. It’s not until the The Chase that the movie comes into its own. Until then, we were being introduced to the threat, and introduced to the heroes, but they hadn’t engaged in the mission. After the chase, the heroes finally engage the threat and the movie begins.

It’s making me wonder if the setup is my least favorite part of every movie, or more clearly, it makes me wonder if I consider a movie to be the action sequences where the characters are actually engaging the threat, and every associated scene.  Everything else is setup – and not yet the movie I come back to see over and over again.   In this sense, “the movie” is the part I remember, the part I’m engaged with, the part I return to watch.  To me, setup is not part of “the movie”, although it is critical.

“I consider a movie to be the action sequences where the characters are actually engaging the threat, and every associated scene.”
–Glenn Duenas

I guess it’s really “characters in conflict”. But not just any conflict. Characters in conflict against a clear threat or clear villain.  It’s Characters in conflict on a mission.  Before that, conflict is just there but there’s no clear mission.  Rather, the characters haven’t engaged that mission.

I guess that’s what makes Terminator 2 work. The mission of the first half is survival, the mission of the second half is “save the future” (and survival).

When does the mission kick in in Avatar? Maybe you can tell me because I wasn’t really watching.  I clocked out mentally like 30 or 40 minutes into the film, some time (maybe a long time) before Jake decides to defend the Navi, which is what I figured (from the start) was gong to be the main mission.  So maybe I was waiting for him to engage his mission for way too long, and mentally clocked out before he did, so by the time it came I didn’t care anymore.

So what I learned today is how to express what I consider “the movie”, and my objective for making a “good” movie.  When I make a film, I have to remember to minimize Act 1 (exposition, the set up) and make sure the rest of the film has a clear mission that the characters are actually actively engaging.  It might be possible to create a movie that narrates the exposition, and starts with the mission, saving me and the audience all of Act 1.  But it might be too jarring.  We’re tuned to ease into a world, and it takes time to come to a liking of the character, so maybe that’s the purpose of the setup.  I’ll be thinking about that, while writing “the movie”.

I wonder if I could re-edit “The Matrix” with a “Previously on: The Matrix” recap of everything before the red pill and the blue pill.  I wonder if I could do the same with Star Wars IV and The Rock.  Could a stranger appreciate the movies as I do if they only had one or two minutes to recap?  I think so.  It would be no different than re-watching Star Wars with the context of already knowing who Luke and Obi-Wan are.  After all, it wasn’t until the second viewing of The Rock that I fell in love with it, and where did I pick up?  At the roach scene.  Maybe 10-15 minutes into the movie.  It’s the rest of the movie that hooked me.  Can I open a movie with a recap?  I think so.  Am I brave enough to try it on my first film?  Probably not, but I’ll keep it in mind for sure!

~G

P.S. Titanic, on the other hand, is an enigma.  It’s about survival (don’t you have any other themes, Jim?) because the opening sequence establishes that it all ends with a sunken ship, so the whole movie we know what will be the character’s objective – to survive.  So we had a mission — but not the real mission.  Because he instead gave us the whole forbidden love story to pull us through the whole movie.  But even so, the lingering threat was there – except in this case, the heroes didn’t engage the threat.  Well… until the last hour of the film as it’s sinking.  Like Jurassic Park it becomes a relentless tour de force for survival until the bitter end.  Which I guess is the part of the movie I remember most.  Interesting.  (Actually, the part I remember most is when she goes below deck and they’re dancing… and later make love… It’s the whole having fun part of the movie).  Or maybe it doesn’t have a clear mission which I why it’s not a movie I return to watch, ever.  But when I have, it’s strikingly gripping for some reason.  I guess it’s the strong characters and inter-personal conflict which heightens and is heightened by the whole ship sinking sequence.

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The Mandela Effect

Derren Brown proved that when giving a gift to someone, he could trick that someone into thinking they wanted a bike all along, when they actually wanted a leather jacket. (It was Simon Pegg actually, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sEmCQzueyEQ ; or as part of a Derren vs Celebrities video: https://youtu.be/PrlFGPB0rpg?t=7m30s ). He did this with the power of suggestion, using dozens of subliminal cues to trick his mind into thinking hard about bicycles while Derren was preparing to reveal a gift that was to come. The person’s mind was already in the realm of “what’s the gift” and “what would I like it to be” so as the subliminal cues were getting him to think about bicycles, his brain made the subliminal connections and rewrote his mental story to include the bike. When he asked what that person wanted, he said “a bicycle”.  Sure enough when he opened the box it was a bicycle.  But he went further because that person had written down their desired gift a few days earlier in a signed envelope that he kept on his person (in his wallet) since he sealed it.  The envelope said “leather jacket”, proving Derren has just altered his memory.

Why do I bring this up?  Because some people posit that memories can’t be wrong, especially when they’re strong memories.

According to Snopes (https://www.snopes.com/2016/07/24/the-mandela-effect/ ): “The Mandela Effect is a collective misremembering of a fact or event. … The term “Mandela Effect” was coined by self-described “paranormal consultant” Fiona Broome, who has written on her web site that she first became aware of the phenomenon after discovering that she shared a particular false memory — that South African human rights activist and president Nelson Mandela died in prison during the 1980s (he actually died in 2013) — with many other people. Then she began noticing other examples.”

The Mendella effect is the idea that we remember facts differently than they are AND the supposition that our memory is correct and the facts have somehow been modified by some paranormal agent. This paranormal activity is proven by the fact that multiple people have the same (incorrect) memory. Like the fact that so many people remember Nelson Mendella dying in the 1980’s, except he didn’t. How could so many people have the same incorrect memory if it didn’t happen that way? The universe must be mutable.

To assume human memories are like computer memory is completely non-realistic. We all know that… Or do we? I’m all too aware that my memory is constantly morphing. I noticed once as a preteen that I had distinct visual images of my old home – before I was 4, but upon seeing a photo album of the house again for the first time years, I noticed that my memories of my old home exactly matched these photos. PLUS, I had no memories of that home in addition to those seen in that photo album (except possibly one). I realized then that my brain had taken visual cues and created memories from them. I knew I couldn’t trust my brain anymore, and perhaps, that’s why I always second guess myself and seriously consider that I could be remembering wrong — especially when someone is more adamant about it than I am. It’s why I like to write down my train of thought when I write a report, or an email, not just the conclusions because I know that if I later tried to recall WHY something happened I could easily make up a memory to fit my conclusion.

I later learned about possible reasons for Deja Vu. That Deja Vu is the memory part of your brain registering the moment before the cognitive part of the brain interprets it; or possibly it’s the chemical reaction associated with memory recognition without the actual memory. Deja Vu usually is associated with a weird third person feeling, a sense of watching my body take actions instead of that sense of performing the actions myself, implying to me some brain chemical imbalance. So it’s either purely chemical or a brain sequencing failure. Either way, a memory is never more accurate than a piece of paper.

I’ll go further.  I’ve had instances where I’m recounting something that happened to me, and suddenly I can’t remember the next part. I get nervous about the next memory that comes to mind. I can never be 100% sure that the memory is accurate — especially if I know the outcome. That is, I have a gap in recollection and I know my brain can either recall an accurate memory or fill in the gap with a memory that matches my assumptions for why it happened.  In fact, I notice that I’ve told a few stories a handful of times, and because it’s farther apart each time I tell it, I remember less of the story, but I know bits and pieces. I’ve gotten into some situations with people who were there who remember different colors of objects or different versions of my story (usually quantities and sequences) from the previous time I told it. In those instances, I’m never really sure if I’m right — although I can usually gauge the strength of the memory and push back with my conviction. But because I HAVE caught myself creating memories of things I’ve done when I haven’t done them (probably because I’m thinking about the things I have to do at work when I snooze in the morning), I know it IS possible that I’m creating memories of things I wish I had done (in some cases) or memories of things I had-to-have done (in most) without actually remembering doing them.

So why would ANYONE believe their memory is superior to facts? to evidence? Because they don’t take an effort to estimate the chances of remembering the correct spelling of Berenstain Bears (it’s Berenstein Bears, right?) when you learned it as a child; which is probably well below 50/50 since we’re all extremely used to seeing the -ein letters together versus the rare but correct spelling with -ain.  And in the most frequent cases: Because they don’t consider that their friends probably recall certain events from a common incorrect story teller, which in many situations could have been they themselves!

Or maybe the universe is mutable and someone or something is going around changing the facts. Maybe it proves parallel timelines and that changes to our past by time travelers may create butterfly effect changes to some events in our current reality, but none significant enough to affect all events. And … I guess because consciousness is independent of our physical reality… WE have the correct memories?

Yeah, that sounds right. The Mendela effect proves it!

~G

P.S. I don’t really think anyone seriously considers this proof of the paranormal, but that it is probably a conflation of an interesting observation with paranormal extremists and/or trolls on the internet.

P.P.S. Don’t forget to watch the Derren Brown video(s) above.  if the link goes dead, search Derren Brown Simon Pegg.

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Lawrence of Arabia

What makes a great film?

  • Rewatch-ability?
  • Density of content?
  • Depth of journey?
  • Depth of character?
  • Spectacle?
  • Music?
  • Theme?
  • Duration?
  • Pace?
  • Philosophy?
  • Acting?

Four days ago I watched Lawrence of Arabia as a 30 year old adult. I watched it with new understanding of life and interest in the subject matter. I also watched prepared for a long duration, intermissions, and long shots. I lowered my expectations to virtually none: It’s probably going to be a slow and okay drama with some impressive imagery. And after four hours, my expectations were met, which thoroughly disappointed me. Yes, it was good at conveying the human condition with much of its paradoxes, but I didn’t leave blown away by spectacle, pace, theme, or story. The music was memorable but only in its two main themes, which were repeated again and again and again. And probably once more. And the acting was great, but dated.

Do I respect the film? Without a doubt. Was there value in watching the film? As a filmmaker, unquestionably. Would I rewatch it? No. I might re-read the script though, for I’m confident that the script is only 120 pages–which normally translates to 2 hours–but the pace and indulgence, dragged it longer. Was the cinematography amazing? Absolutely, save for some day-for-night shots which confused me. Mostly everything else was practical on set masterful photography.

Unfortunately, whenever you watch a 4 hour film, you’re forced to ask yourself: Is this worth 4 hours of screen time? Even when a comedy hits 2 hours, many believe it should have ended 30 minutes ago (25% ago). So when you get a hyped up film with a run time of 3 hr 48m, any pause in the film forces you to ask that question. As a filmmaker you start to wonder what the structure of the film might look like?

Structure

As best I can understand it, it was two films. The first half had a clear goal with a mediocre conclusion. The second half was a vaguely-compelling meandering open-ended series of events with a sudden conclusion. So sudden and unexpected that I had popped a caffeine pill right before the last scene expecting much much more.

FIRST HALF

Lawrence is a well-educated military officer with a fetish for history and culture, especially of Arabia. He gets reassigned from his post in Cairo to a position in Arabia (Iraq?) to serve Prince Faisal as a liaison. He then wins the respect of the natives, by apparently shedding his loyalty to his birth nation and adopting their culture, and eventually unites warring tribes in an effort to over-take Aqaba (on the southern-most part of the modern-day Israel/Jordan border) via land where they least expect an invasion because it requires crossing the desert in 20+ days (about as long as it takes for the camels to start dying). The “break into act 2” occurs when he first meets Prince Faisal, proposes the idea to him, and goes against his military orders and takes 50 of his men to go on the journey. The next hour or more is about him running into obstacle after obstacle and meeting and uniting a warring tribe on their journey (they meet the tribe after crossing the desert alive: they meet at Wadi Rum, modern-day Jordan, between Israel and Saudi Arabia, 37 miles from Aqaba). Toward the end of the first half, they finish crossing the desert and successfully invade Aqaba (in about 2 minutes of screen time) where, upon searching for their rewards, everyone’s intentions for conquest get challenged. Lawrence continues on to Cairo to tell his generals that they’ve captured a fortress that is impossible to capture, promising the Arabs that he’d return with weapons and gold. Lawrence reaches the Suez canal (civilization) on camel where he hitches a ride to Cairo and makes his demands adding that he never wants to return to Arabia for it has destroyed him as a man. The final shots before the intermission are a teaser for the second half of Lawrence’s journey: Lawrence is convinced to return to Arabia, not because of military reasons, but because Lawrence wants to be remembered as the man who gave the Arabs Damascus (in modern day Syria).

In summation: It’s Dances with Wolves, Avatar, Point Break, or Fast and Furious but with Brits and Arabs. An English scholar becomes a real man and a hero by befriending the natives by assimilating into their culture (though not religiously) and leading them against some common enemy to victory. They win by the end of the first half teaching everyone that nothing is written and that men are far more capable than they think they are.

If it was polished correctly, this film could have been an entire film in itself with a clear and decisive ending. But as is, it felt like a proper ending to the half and then teased a sequel.

His Journey

Here’s a map of the major cities in Lawrence of Arabia. They started in Waidi Rum with Prince Faisal and his Bedouin people, then headed west to take Aqaba, an important port city. Then Lawrence headed west to the Suez canal, traversing ten times the distance we spent 90 minutes on, and then some more, via automobile, to get to Cairo.

Then, in Part 2, he returned to Aqaba (probably by boat) and they marched north to Damascus.

Route: (Damascus to Aqaba to) Waidi Rum to Aqaba to Suez Canal to Cairo. The parenthesis route was added to make the visual nicer even though the real one was Aqaba to Damascus.

This map (http://digital.nls.uk/bartholomew/highlights/seven-pillars-wisdom/map.html) appears to show his path from Aqaba north, with divergent paths that converge on Damascus, which might be the armies he led and not exactly himself.  It’s not limited to the movie scope either, so it may be later routes too.


SECOND HALF

The second half was essentially a sequel or coda, like Star Wars Episode V but without an Episode VI. Whereas Episode IV A New Hope might have been the better story, Episode V was the sequel with a lot of meandering setups and loose ends with no clear goals or direction, and then it ended. Lawrence Part 2 was like Episode V.

Part 2 saw Lawrence now actively trying to be the hero and legend he wanted to become while grappling with the drama of the first half, where he was forced to kill a man he saved and saw one of his two servants die in quick sand.

If it wasn’t pointed out by a video essay I incidentally watched years ago, I would not have noticed that this is where the theme of identity was played out. The second half followed Lawrence’s journey north with his Arab followers on a conquest of the Turks on a war path to Damascus.  And we saw him become more and more barbaric and blood thirsty. People around him watched as the hero they adored was humanized. And his boldness had consequences, getting him caught, tortured and raped before being released. But in the end he made it to Damascus with the Arabs before the British armies and therefore, the Arabs had a word at the negotiation table. The film ends with the Arab tribes struggling to unite and Lawrence trying to write terms for a new Arab nation independent of British rule but allied to them. The final scene is a meeting with Prince Faisal and the British military leaders (with Lawrence) in Cairo where the British give Prince Faisal control, but lie that the British and French haven’t signed an agreement to split up the Arab land after victory. The final shot is Lawrence leaving the head quarters on a truck to London when a motorcycle passes them, reminding us of the opening sequence where Lawrence is riding on a motorcycle and dies.

WHEN IS INTERMISSION?

I couldn’t find a time code for intermission with a simple Google search, but I found this forum post regarding splicing the reels together:  http://www.film-tech.com/ubb/f1/t001540.html .  Apparently, the film comes in 13 reels.  At the end of reel 8 is the intermission walk out music.  The beginning of reel 9 is the intermission return music.  So assuming all reels are the same length, then the intermission is 9/13 through the film or 69% of the film.  However, reel 13 could be much shorter.  If the reel is almost empty, intermission would be about 9/12 of the film or 75% of the duration.  So Part 1 is 69-75% of the film.  Assume 70%, NOT the expected 50%.

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MasterClass – Aaron Sorkin Screenwriting Spark Notes

From: https://www.reddit.com/r/Screenwriting/comments/4zpcz2/i_took_aaron_sorkins_masterclass_heres_my_cliffs/ (emphasis added)

HOW TO BE A WRITER Write. Be writing be writing be writing be writing. Everything after this helps, but won’t if you aren’t writing.

WHAT IS DRAMA? “If you don’t have intention and obstacle, it’s ‘Journalism’ ”

Drama requires Intention (or Goal/Desire/Want) and an Obstacle to that Intention. Without a strong Intention – and a formidable Obstacle, you don’t have drama. “Somebody wants something, there’s something standing in their way of getting it” The TACTICS a character uses in order to achieve their Intention, despite their obstacle/s… is what will define to us (the audience) who that person is.

Be sure to PRESS on the intention and obstacle. Make sure both are strong. Do this when you’re outlining/drafting whatever. ALSO do it IN the story.

Your protagonist doesn’t HAVE to overcome the obstacle. All that matters, is that they TRY. Again, it’s via the tactics they’ll be using to TRY, which will show us who they are. All we care about, is learning WHO this person is.

How do you make clear what a character’s intention is? Simple: make the character say what it is that they need/want.

Conflict isn’t just knuckle-boxing. Conflict can be a war of IDEAS. And you want the competing ideas to be equally strong.

The old adage goes: “Queen Dies and King Dies.” These are a series of events. “Queen Dies, so then King dies of broken heart”. This is a STORY. “Queen Dies, and after SERIOUS CONFLICT, the King dies of a broken heart.” is DRAMA. This 3rd telling is what you want. Not event. Not even just story. You want DRAMA.

HOW TO BEGIN: START with intention and obstacle. The details and bits and pieces will come up as you go…

Be sure you identify with both the HERO/s and ALSO the antihero/s (example, Nicholson’s character in a few good men). However you invent the villain’s argument, when you’re done… REALLY believe it. Otherwise it’ll play like a caricature.

AUDIENCE: The audience is an element in the storytelling – they WANT to participate. If you can get the audience to BELIEVE they are several steps ahead of you, and then you STILL TRICK THEM, they are actually very delighted, rather than pissed.

“If you give the audience all the clues that Sherlock Holmes has… and they can’t figure it out, but HE can… that is a DELIGHT to them.”

Don’t lose the audience: we know if our BONES if something is being told to us when it wouldn’t be (a lawyer giving his client info as they walk into the courtroom, day-of the trail is ridiculous). You CAN do something which would never happen, as long as the audience doesn’t KNOW it would never happen).

It’s a fine line you have to walk. You cannot confuse the audience. But you also cannot patronize the audience. Telling the audience something which they already know… feels AWFUL.

Audiences don’t know the specifics of why they like or don’t like things. But THEY KNOW WHAT THEY LIKE OR DISLIKE. It’s the same as a Chef knowing what is or isn’t working in their food precisely, and a hungry person knowing that they hate or love your food. You both know how you feel about it. Only the writer REALLY has a chance of knowing WHY.

STAKES: you want stakes to be high. Sometimes it’ll be obvious why they’re high. Other times, you have to convey WHY to your character the stakes are so high (e.g. Steve Jobs… why are his personal goals/dreams such high stakes? Why does it fee like life/death to Steve Jobs… that a square have rounded edges? Convey THAT… to help us feel the stakes)

EXPOSITION: You need to find a character or more than one… who knows as little as the audience does, to give a reason to explain things to us. If you ever start a sentence with “As you know…” you’re in trouble.

BIG DRAMATIC MOMENTS: Make sure when the audience is asking questions about huge dramatic moments, you choose properly whether to withhold or answer now. You can’t just totally ignore that the audience is asking the questions.

WHEN TRYING TO PULL OFF SOMETHING SLIGHTLY IMPLAUSIBLE: “A probable impossibility is preferable, to a possible improbability.” The get out of jail free card: is ADMIT it’s improbable (E.T. walking down a path to collect M&M’s is technically impossible… but we believe it – a person flipping on the radio to hear special news about exactly the problem they’re dealing with right now is possible, but super unlikely).

IN THE READ: Calling unimportant characters “necklace” and “mustache” works well for the read. BUT WHEN SENDING TO ACTORS: give those people REAL names, for dignity.

ACTION: Make your action paragraphs WHENEVER POSSIBLE read as quick as they’ll be seen visually. Don’t get mired down in overwriting the action. Find ways to be QUICK.

WRITING SCENES: All stories have motion. At the end of a scene, you MUST be one step further than the scene before.

CHARACTER INTRODUCTION SCENES: Show us what the character wants. If a character doesn’t want ANYTHING, they’re probably cluttering up your script and should get cut. Even supporting characters want SOMETHING.

A courtroom drama is a GREAT way to play out a scene – the jury stands in for the audience, the whole point of the trial is to make the intention and the obstacle super clear. And the stakes are obvious… guilty/not guilty.

Don’t tell us who a character is. WHO they are is portrayed by what they WANT, and the TACTICS they will use to get what they want.

3 THINGS IN A PILE: In Steve Jobs scene, there are 3 levels of personalty happening: Andy’s sheepish denial of Steve being a dick, Steve IS being a dick, and Kriss-Ann getting a jab saying Steve’s a dick. Aaron calls this “3 things in a pile”.

DIALOGUE: Do NOT imitate real people!! Example, ‘dammit’ – it never gets used to begin or end a sentence. God-Dammit yes. Just Dammit? Absolutely God-Damn doesn’t.

Don’t tell the audience something they already know. (if someone has said I LOVE YOU, then there’s no need to say it again)

DRAFTS: Chip away anything that isn’t the main conflict (e.g. Kushner’s/Spielberg’s LINCOLN… it was 400 pages, before it became JUST about the 13th amendment)

Kill your darlings – if it works WITHOUT your special thing, CUT your special thing (only people like the Coen brothers get to keep their special things… e.g. the scene in Fargo with Mike Yanagita… tonally it fits, but otherwise it’s completely unnecessary. If you aren’t the Coen brothers, you must CUT those sorts of scenes).

WHEN GETTING NOTES: Address the problem they point out, not their “solution”. Someone can offer what they believe is going on… but you should look directly at the ACTUAL problem as closely as possible (someone says “I don’t think the structure of the 2nd act works!” and you say to yourself, ‘well, I want the 2nd act to be enjoyable… so THAT’s the problem, 2nd act is somehow not enjoyable… it might be structural, but it MIGHT be something else’)

When getting notes from friends, Aaron’s hoping no one says “I don’t buy the obstacle” or “I don’t buy the intention” – “why does she NEED to do this?” THAT note is super important if you get it. If you get it, FIX THAT ISSUE.

CONSIDER: retyping it completely – once from the existing screenplay. Once from MEMORY. Aaron does this.

THESE FOLLOWING NOTES ALL COME FROM THE “MOCK WRITER’S ROOM” PORTION:

Rule of thumb: if it’s the PLACE you’re attracted to… your idea can be a TV show.

BALLS IN THE AIR: (loose ends) Stuff that hasn’t been dealt with yet… think of story in bits and pieces (president’s wife is missing, that’s a ball in the air… news story is about to come out, ball in the air…). You can label the balls, probably with index cards, to get a better handle on them when writing and revising.

THE SHAPE OF TV EPISODES: Figure out the shape within the beginning / end of each act (there are 4-5 in drama), e.g. “resolve the Zoe thread by end of act 2”

Don’t lose site of the COOL stuff u can do when making it up. (e.g. West Wing modeling Trump becoming president and stuff deteriorating). Show us stuff we haven’t seen before. SHOW US STUFF WE HAVEN’T SEEN BEFORE.

Create rifts, to create the drama.

We can LOOK for the very extraordinary dramatic things (suspending trading on the stock exchange… huge drama)

Whenever possible, characters should be ACTIVE. What are they DOING??

WHEN WRITING ACTUAL DIALOGUE: Specificity. Matters hugely. Know what people would say. You have luxury of time to RESEARCH and ensure they sound great/pro/intelligent. They can sound SMARTER than you ARE.

TV SHOWS HOOKING AN AUDIENCE: Plays are tough to leave. Movies are easier. TV is easiest. That’s why you’ll be asked by a network to prevent them from FLIPPING the channel.

FINAL ADVICE:

PICK your FAVORITE 5 MOVIES – go get the screenplay – SEE how what’s there on-screen looked like on the page.

Know who to tune out. Don’t write to change someone’s mind. If a critic (external or internal) cites some issue, don’t address it. It’s impossible to please everyone.

Know who to tune in. Have 3 close friends you can share work with to get GOOD feedback.

Failure: the real value of screenwriting school is it gives you a chance to write the worst stuff you’ll ever write, with no consequence.

1) take chances, that’s how you’ll find out what your sweet spot it.

2) write in your own voice… NOT the way you personally talk, but rather the way YOU want to write… not worrying you don’t sound like Aaron or Diablo or anyone else.

3) write WHAT you want to write. Don’t be asking what others wanna see. What do YOU want to see?

4) When you’re writing, you’re exposed. It’s not just when you write autobiographically. It’s anything. Because it’s YOUR mind and heart.

5) There are a hundred ways to prepare beef. Flank. Filet Mignon. Wellington. But if you try to make the one which will offend the least number of people, it’ll be a McDonald’s hamburger. If you want to be a chef, you don’t aim to produce THAT.

6) Surround yourself with honest people. They can be encouraging AND honest.

7) Shed people who are jealous, envious.

8) Power through days of not being able to write anything. I wish I could guarantee movement in life – that friday evening you’ll be better off than on Monday morning. But I can’t. So power through.

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The Longest Movies Ever

After watching Lawrence of Arabia, a 4-hour event, including the 30-minute intermission with a 3.5 minute overture, we began talking about how long a movie should be.  It’s difficult to say, but looking at the list below, there seems to be a pattern of gluttony with certain directors.  Popular directors whose movies err on the long side include Martin Scorsese with 7 movies over 2.5 hours, Peter Jackson with 6 movies, and Michael Bay (5 over 2.5 with only 1 over 3 hrs).  Then there’s David Lean (2 at well over 3 hrs), Stanley Kubrick (2 over 3 hrs and 2 more above ~2.5), Francis Ford Coppola (with 2 over 3 hrs, and 1 more over 2.5 hrs), and Oliver Stone (with two over 3 hrs, and writer of Scarface, very close to 3 hrs).  Just my observations.  There may be some more modern directors who push close to 3 hours, but I can’t think of them off the top of my head.

What surprised me was that Avatar wasn’t that long, at 2 hrs 42 min.  In fact, Titanic was about 30 minutes longer than Avatar.  And Transformers 4 was 3 minutes longer!  I also found it funny (gluttonous?) how all the movies in Michael Bay’s Transformers series are longer than 2 hours 20 minutes!

It’s also tough to compare different generations of movies, since run times include credits which nowadays can run up to 9 minutes long!  Compare that to movies before 1970’s that only had like 3 credit slides and then “The End”.  That’s like no more than maybe 60 seconds of credits.

Title Year Tot. Minutes Hours Minutes Director
Hamlet 1996 242 4 2
The Iceman Cometh 1973 239 3 59
Gods and Generals 2003 231 3 51
Once Upon a Time in America 1984 229 3 49 Sergio Leone
Lawrence of Arabia 1962 227 3 47 David Lean
Gone With the Wind 1939 226 3 46 Victor Fleming
Heaven’s Gate 1980 220 3 40
Ben-Hur 1959 212 3 32
Exodus 1960 208 3 28
War and Peace 1956 208 3 28
Apocalypse Now Redux 2001 202 3 22 Francis Ford Coppola
The Alamo 1960 202 3 22
Malcolm X 1992 202 3 22
The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King 2003 201 3 21 Peter Jackson
Giant 1956 201 3 21
The Godfather Part II 1974 200 3 20 Francis Ford Coppola
Dr. Zhivago 1965 197 3 17 David Lean
Intolerance 1916 197 3 17
Pepe 1960 195 3 15
Ryan’s Daughter 1970 195 3 15
Schindler’s List 1993 195 3 15 Steven Speilberg
Titanic 1997 194 3 14 James Cameron
Reds 1981 194 3 14
The Right Stuff 1983 193 3 13
It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World 1963 192 3 12
Nixon 1995 192 3 12 Oliver Stone
Tess 1979 190 3 10
At Play in the Fields of the Lord 1991 189 3 9
Hawaii 1966 189 3 9
JFK 1991 189 3 9 Oliver Stone
Nicholas and Alexandra 1971 189 3 9
Gandhi 1982 188 3 8
The Fall of the Roman Empire 1964 188 3 8
The Green Mile 1999 188 3 8
King Kong 2005 187 3 7 Peter Jackson
The Birth of a Nation 1915 187 3 7
Short Cuts 1993 187 3 7
Judgement at Nuremberg 1961 186 3 6
The Deer Hunter 1978 185 3 5
Barry Lyndon 1975 184 3 4 Stanley Kubrick
Spartacus 1960 184 3 4 Stanley Kubrick
Woodstock 1970 184 3 4
Around the World in 80 Days 1956 183 3 3
O Lucky Man! 1973 183 3 3
Pearl Harbor 2001 183 3 3 Michael Bay
El Cid 1961 182 3 2
Fiddler on the Roof 1971 181 3 1
Dances with Wolves 1990 180 3 0
The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers 2002 179 2 59 Peter Jackson
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring 2001 178 2 58 Peter Jackson
Above are the top 50 according to AMC run times as of 2007.
http://www.amc.com/talk/2007/11/the-longest-ame-1
http://www.listchallenges.com/50-longest-american-movies-of-all-time
Below are more misc. movies, according to IMDB run times as of 2017.
Wolf of Wall Street 2013 180 3 0 Martin Scorsese
The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly 1966 178 2 58 Sergio Leone
Casino 1995 178 2 58 Martin Scorsese
Godfather 1972 175 2 55 Francis Ford Coppola
Scarface 1983 170 2 50 Martin Scorsese
The Aviator 2004 170 2 50 Martin Scorsese
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey 2012 169 2 49 Peter Jackson
Gangs of New York 2002 167 2 47 Martin Scorsese
Transformers: Age of Extinction 2014 165 2 45 Michael Bay
Once Upon a Time in the West 1968 164 2 44 Sergio Leone
The Last Temptation of Christ 1988 164 2 44 Martin Scorsese
Avatar 2009 162 2 42 James Cameron
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug 2013 161 2 41 Peter Jackson
Eyes Wide Shut 1999 159 2 39 Stanley Kubrick
Transformers: Dark of the Moon 2011 157 2 37 Michael Bay
Aliens 1986 154 2 34 James Cameron
The Departed 2006 151 2 31 Martin Scorsese
Armageddon 1998 151 2 31 Michael Bay
Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen 2009 150 2 30 Michael Bay
Transformers: The Last Knight 2017 149 2 29 Michael Bay
2001: A Space Odyssey 1968 149 2 29 Stanley Kubrick
Apocalypse Now 1979 147 2 27 Francis Ford Coppola
Bad Boys II 2003 147 2 27 Michael Bay
Goodfellas 1990 146 2 26 Martin Scorsese
The Shining 1980 146 2 26 Stanley Kubrick
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies 2014 144 2 24 Peter Jackson
Transformers 2007 143 2 23 Michael Bay
True Lies 1994 141 2 21 James Cameron
Terminator 2: Judgment Day 1991 137 2 17 James Cameron
The Rock 1996 136 2 16 Michael Bay

 

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Comics Sideline & Not Too Shabby #2

The improv at the end was the best part.

https://ucbtheatre.com/performance/56252 Not Too Shabby (hosted by Holly Prazoff)

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Opinion: Character vs Premise Sketch

August 22, 2017

I prefer premise sketches over character sketches for a ton of reasons.

 

First let me define the two types of sketches so you know the difference:

Character Sketch: Sketch where the comedy comes from a funny or unusual character with a strong point of view and everyone around them struggling to deal with them.

  • Primary comedy comes from normal people around the character reacting normally (frustrated) to the unusual actions.

Premise: The who, what, and where (exposition) of a scene.

  • Ex: A lawyer’s son wishes his dad can’t lie for an entire day. Who: lawyer and his son, what: lawyer can’t lie, where: undefined for this film example.

Premise sketch: Sketches where no particular character is funny, but rather the what and where call out some funny or unusual thing.

  • Ex: What if all bananas were magnets.
  • Primary comedy comes from people either struggling to understand this new reality or

 

Here are a few reasons I like premise sketches:

  1. New World, and World View. Usually, these sketches put a new twist on the real world and allow the audience to SEE THE WORLD DIFFERENTLY. Film and visual media is usually about taking people to another world and encouraging people EXPLORE that world. Good premise sketches do that: What if the Terminator was sent back in time to protect Jesus. 24 is the highest number.
  2. No need for straight characters to be annoyed. A lot of comedy comes from watching normal characters REACT to the unusual character. Watch SNL and lots of their sketches CUT TO: Bobby Moynihan wide-eyed and shocked. Premise sketches allow for the characters to call out the funny thing without having to be annoying.
  3. Mocks a situation or systematic or sociological construct.

 

Here a list of character sketches (for reference below):

  1. Kristen Whig’s Penelope (one-upper)
  2. Michael McDonald’s Stewart (annoying man-child)
  3. Bobby Lee’s Tank (Pass!)
  4. Keegan-Michael Key’s Coach Hines (HS coach who gives 154%, even at non-sport things)
  5. Key & Peele’s Trayvon & Mike (annoying commentators on everything)
  6. Chris Farley’s Matt Foley (down-on-his-luck motivational speaker)

 

Here are reasons I don’t like character sketches:

  1. Annoying. Most characters are strong willed annoying people who interject themselves on people’s lives to create the comedic conflict. Penelope is so annoying I checked out when she started to annoy me. Stewart is also so obnoxious. And it took me a while for Matt Foley Motivational Speaker to grow on me, but Farley can be disturbingly aggressive.
  2. Punches Down. One rule of comedy (at least at UCB as stated by multiple instructors) is always Punch Up, not down. That means if you’re making fun of someone, as we often do in comedy, make fun of people in power. To mock those without power is despicable. For example, if you make fun of a homeless person, it’s not cool, but if you make fun of Trump for becoming homeless after being President, it’s cool. The key difference is that Trump has power and master-minded his own demise. In character sketches, you’re usually taking someone you know and heightening their flaw. Essentially, you’re creating highly flawed characters who (to avoid tragedy) are oblivious to their flaw and have no intent to correct that flaw. A lot of annoying or funny things people do comes from poor or less fortunate people who’ve given up on caring or have been damaged or misguided at some point in their life. Most characters end up being made fun of and they don’t have power.
  3. Flat or (un)predictable heightening. In character sketches, you can’t heighten to the point where you kill off your character because then you can’t create sequels. So usually heightening is the severity of people’s reactions usually to the point where people leave. No stakes are increased usually. Sometimes the heightening is overly predictable (like the TV gag in the Penelope sketch). Sometimes it’s good to have the audience feel like they could predict the heightening while still appreciating it because they feel involved in figuring out the sketch and feel it was set up, deliberate, and inevitable. Most of the time character sketches are unpredictable in a bad way (no expectations), or it’s overly predictable (and if you’re not on board with the annoyance) it’s draining and dry.
  4. More difficult to write if you’re not an actor since you need to define several things: strong POV (belief that drives the comedy, like All people are stupid), attire, lingo, mannerisms, how they never changed their quirk, how they respond to being called out for their quirk, etc.
  5. Justification driven. I noticed in writing/reading sketches that there is a style where the character does something annoying, then is called out on it, then justifies it from their unique pov of view allowing the audience to laugh on the action, the reaction (call out), AND the explanation (strange POV).

That said, it’s important to learn the skills of writing premise, character, and topical to create a solid “packet” for submitting to a sketch comedy show.

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Duenas Comedy Reminders (Performance)

Here’s a list of notes to keep in mind when acting as a comedy actor:

  • If a straight man, your comedic gap is struggling to cope with the crazy character.
  • As a character sketch, your comedy comes from staying in your blind-spot. You’re supposed to annoy your fellow actors, but never figure out what causes them pain.
  • On stage, you’re always trying to win. Find what you want and stick to it.
  • Characters come from “I believe” statements. Ex: I believe that the world is out to get me. I believe all people are inherently stupid.
  • Always better to be arrogant than self-loathing. If depressed, so to self-loathing (Alan Rickman status: I hate life).
  • Know when to shut-up and support when there are ten of you on stage.
  • Comedy comes from characters trying to win, not trying to make jokes. Douchebags can make jokes if trying to get a laugh out of mocking someone, but that requires multiple people on stage.
  • Premise sketches are consistently better than character sketches.
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Why I Love “It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia”

August 2017

Why I LOVE “…Sunny In Philadelphia”

… Even though I hate the name.

I sometimes call the show just “Sunny”, but when I say “I was watching Sunny last night,” it feels wrong.  Why is the name so darn long?  I’d always wondered, but never cared to find out.  Perhaps my love of the title music distracted or blinded me.  But I had seen every season of the show four times over before I was told where its name came from.  Apparently, back when Rob McElhenny (and co.) shot the pilot for the FX pilot contest, the show was titled “It’s Always Sunny in Hollywood,” and the main characters were aspiring actors.  Who else would have all the time in the world to screw up their lives?  The idea was that Hollywood is fake.  We’re given this illusion that there’s always sun in Hollywood, when really, it can be a really ugly place to live.  The characters believed it too, despite their situation.  The pilot (shot on home video, later re-shot for the show as “Charlie Has Cancer”) was a smash hit and FX picked it up.  When they did, FX talked it over with Rob, and Rob changed the characters from aspiring actors to bar owners and moved the setting to Philadelphia.  Hence, “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”.  It wasn’t for another dozen episodes that I caught myself thinking about the title and I realized the title sequence for “It’s Always SUNNY in Philadelphia” is set entirely… at night.  I had always been distracted by winter-Christmas feel and the sights of Philly I recognized from frequent (coincidentally) winter flights into the airport.

But I’m not here to explain the title or the origin of the show.  I want to tell you how it became my favorite TV show (next to Malcolm in the Middle), and why I still love it.

The primary reason I watch the show over and over again…

…is that the show is LOUD.  It’s the only show I can listen to on my phone over the noise of my morning shower.  Much of the show is dialogue driven, like an improv show, so the jokes continue to land despite not having the visuals.  Although I’ve seen it enough to know what I would see.  Friends have said, “I can’t watch the show.  It’s just a bunch of people yelling over each other.”  If that’s not your cup of tea, maybe it’s not for you.  But I like the fact that I don’t have to strain to hear the dialogue, and somehow, even with all the actors talking over each other, I can still hear everyone’s dialogue.  That’s a testament to both the sound engineer, and the actors who are able to time their outrage on the fly.

But what’s the REAL key to Sunny’s success?

It’s passionate.  The characters are passionate about their misadventures.  They are completely committed to their bad ideas.

The characters are “yes” men.  You can really see theater improv influences in the show: every character follows the “yes-and” rule – to their detriment (and our enjoyment).  “Let’s sell gasoline door to door.”  “That’s a great idea!  We’ll rent a van.”  /  “We need to scare this Israeli landlord away.” “Let’s make a terrorist demands tape.”  “Okay!”

It’s brilliant.  In its own way.  From episode 1, they nailed the sitcom formula.  They’ll take a concept or theme like abortion, or racism, or saving the planet, and half of the characters will be passionately against it and the other half will be passionately for it.  This allows them to explore both sides of the argument.  Then they’ll both see the errors in their approach and in many episodes, the characters’ opinions will reverse.  Just when you think one character settles into the other’s point of view, the other one switches sides… so they’ve settled nothing.  It’s how they keep the characters in conflict, in a hilarious way.

What makes the show so funny?  John Cleese said [Comedy isn’t watching someone doing something funny.  Comedy is watching someone watch someone doing something stupid] (see our article on comedy).  This is true.  Sometimes it’s watching straight characters cope with the crazies.  But after many viewings, I realized the core of Sunny’s humor is not just watching the characters do extremely foolish things, but watching these guys justify their actions.  It’s as if they’re somewhat aware that their ideas may not make sense, but because they need to be sure of themselves, they convince the others of the merits of their bad idea – or at least they convince themselves.  We get to watch these people perform mental gymnastics out loud.  The actors and writers have a knack for pulling that sort of thing out in almost every scene.  Perhaps the moment it became obvious to me was the house-party flyer scene (which turned out to look like a dick).  Mac is reading the flyer out loud.  “…Just a group of guys looking for other cool guys who want to have some fun at our party mansion.  Again, nothing sexualUnderline.”  Then Dennis says “I have NO problem with that.”  As if to emphasize exactly what we’re all screaming in our heads: “How in the world do they NOT see how gay that sounds?!”

Why do I find it way funnier than Seinfeld?  I mean the formula is the same: a group of really terrible people harping on the dumbest faux pas, finding humor in the little things.  But where Seinfeld finds himself apathetic about most things, Sunny characters are passionate about everything.  Sure George can get passionate (he’s actually the funniest character in the show), but Seinfeld (as George’s foil) neutralizes his passion by shrugging him off or by speaking in his boring, obnoxious voice, whining about or dismissing it.  They just do things, which happen to be a little off or clearly the wrong approach.  We laugh at the situational dissonance that they don’t notice their little social errors.  But in Sunny, they do the wrong things… passionately.  They don’t notice it either.  But in Sunny, the artists call attention to it, and the characters justify it, and they push it beyond a comic happenstance (Seinfeld) to a hyperbolized cinematic event.  At times, a spectacle.  At best, Seinfeld is “haha funny”.  Sunny is hilarious.  It’s bursts of laughter back to back.  The characters in Sunny aren’t foils to each other, but enablers.  It’s “yes-and”, which lets things spiral out of control.  If there were rational people in the group, if there were any “don’t”ers, things wouldn’t get as funny as they do.

Back to passion.  I think this is key.  It’s the same key to the success as Malcolm in the Middle.  (And why Tom Cruise movies always have a draw).  People want to watch a character who cares passionately about something.  It doesn’t matter what it is.  If the character cares passionately about something, we find ourselves doing the same.  It’s why evangelist and charlatans get so many followers – they care passionately about the bullshit they’re selling, and even though they can’t substantiate any of it, they try to, or speak as if it’s fact, and most people can’t help but assume there’s something there.  Most people aren’t sure about everything (or anything, or some things) that they do in life, so they are attracted to those who are sure about what they’re doing.  We follow the people who know where they’re going… even if it’s the wrong direction! It sucks, but it’s true.

The characters are generally sure of themselves.  Even though all the guys dig on Dee and shoot her down, she proceeds without them.  Instead of being a Debbie downer, Dee usually goes ahead with her plans despite the guys, which actually makes her more admirable.

That’s the other key to the show’s charm.  Each character persists DESPITE their situation.  And they rarely give up (during the episode).  It turns out they always give up or fail at the end of the episode, but only after all the comedic routes have been exhausted.  And sometimes one character giving up happens at the worst possible moment for another character.  (Like when Dennis gives up on being a politician just after Charlie sold his Cabbage Patch kids collection to keep him in the race!)

The characters are doers.  Every episode pretty much begins with “Heyo!!  Look what I’ve got”.  It’s usually an answer to the standing question “What are we going to DO today.”  The characters are always looking for something to DO.  And that drive is actually admirable.  Say what you will about the quality of their character, but these guys are doers. If they have a problem (usually with somebody) they DO something about it.  Although usually, it’s the wrong thing!  They’re fighters.  The same is true with the kids in Malcolm in the Middle.  But it can’t be said about the characters in Seinfeld; only, possibly, George.

The reveals.  For a show with a low budget and single-cam, they have some well-timed visual gags.  Like the hospital scene when Dennis and Dee have a long argument with their dad after he suddenly shows up in their lives after so many years apart.  They expose some deep-rooted family issues, and Dennis and Dee storm off wishing never to see their dad again.  Then… the camera pans over to Mac and Charlie who we now realize were watching the whole ordeal.  Mac breaks the silence with “That was awkward.”  They do it again in front the lawyer in one episode, and again when Mac, Dennis, and Charlie are arguing about whether the building they’re in has helicopter pad on the roof, and the conversation ends with “Let’s table the talk about the chopper on the roof, and hear the man out”, at which point the camera reveals a salesman was in the room the whole time, unable to stop them from rambling on and on in their own conversation.  They really know how to set up a joke with a simple visual punchline (often times cued in by a character).

A light approach to social issues.  There are some topics that they really go over the edge, but something about the characters is disarming, letting the audience cringe (and laugh) without being offended.  It’s exemplary in the first season particularly as they explored some touchy subjects like racism, abortion, cancer, and religion.  How do they get away with it?

Each character has a redeeming trait that actually makes us root for them, despite the absurdity.  Some of it is that we acknowledge that at least Mac and Charlie are too dim-witted to understand their faults (or actions), but they are trying their hardest, so (like children) we don’t (or can’t) judge them.  Dee is always the odd-(wo)man out; she is generally shot down, ignored, or bullied by the boys, making us pity her, but she persists despite her situation (a comic hero), which actually makes us respect her.  And Dennis is a douche.  We’re supposed to really hate him, but we root for him regardless.  Why?  Because he’s so sure of himself.  Which we respect (as I mentioned above, about passion), and lends itself to a certain set of comedic situations.  And because he’s a douche, we’re actually satisfied when he gets his comeuppance.

Why do they never give up?  Because they also live in denial, which allows them to persist for so long without admitting defeat or failure, and it keeps them from getting down on themselves, and keeps us from judgment.  Malcolm in the Middle walks that fine line too.  Hal made it obvious in a Christmas episode: “Dad you’re living in denial.”  “The only way I survive is by living in denial.  Come on!  If I were to let reality affect me, I would have quit after the third child!”  Our heroes never mope about their circumstance.  They do something about it, or deny it.  Denial can be really funny… when you’re not the one living in it!

It’s ironic.  They’re all faulty people making bad decisions, but because they’re passionate about their actions, and they justify their actions, and because they each persist despite their circumstances (a quality of a comic hero), we can enjoy their shenanigans without feeling overwhelmed with disgust or pity or judgment.

 

 

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Screenwriting 101

You’re here because you don’t know anything about screenwriting and want to get started ASAP and look like a pro. That’s exactly what I wanted too, one place to learn everything. This is your portal into screenwriting, TV writing, and sketch writing (forget stage format for now). Coming from a background in feature film writing, I’m going to start with feature.

TOC

  • Writing Tools
  • Feature Screenplay Format
  • Reading Scripts Online
  • Example Single-Cam (Arrested Development)
  • Example Multi-Cam (Friends)
  • Further Reading

 

Writing Tools

The easiest way to get your script to LOOK like a script is to buy or download a script writing application. The industry standard is Final Draft, but it costs an arm and a rent, so I’ll recommend Celtx for now to get you started. You’ll soon bump up into the limits of Celtx and want to shell out for Final Draft. Until then, save your money. There’s also word templates.

Premium Software

  1. FinalDraft ($250, Aug 2017; Student $130)

Free Software

  1. Word Template (Screenplay Template from University of North Dakota). This is a nice option since you can do custom formatting, write offline, and print to PDF. It works very much like any script writing software. It also introduces you the the capabilities of Word styles. No need to activate Macros for shortcut use since tabs, enters, and the style window pinned to the right side of your screen will get you the formatting you need. You can also create a multi-cam format by changing the formatting for the different styles.
  2. Celtx (Obsolete Desktop Version). The pros is that it’s free and does feature screenplay format for free (no multi-cam TV formatting). The cons is that it requires internet access since now all your files are linked to the cloud. However, the phased-out desktop version (link above) allows you to write offline (without providing personal email) and requires internet only to save to PDF.

Feature Screenplay Format

The article below goes over all the formatting rules and tips and tricks for breaking them (don’t try the tricks while you’re still learning).
http://www.wordplayer.com/columns/wp23.Points.for.Style.html

Here is a printable format that I’ve put on 5.5 x 8.5 paper, so you can print it out as a booklet (under page sizing & handling, there should be a booklet option). You can also print 2 per page (on a normal 8.5 x 11 letter size paper). [DOCX, PDF]

 

Reading Screenplays Online

The second resource is a bunch of sites for downloading and reading screenplays (in the order that I remembered them).

  1. http://www.imsdb.com The Internet Movie Script Database. HTML versions of scripts.
  2. http://www.dailyscript.com Many PDF scans, which give you good sense of page counts and final formatting. Internally hosted files.
  3. http://www.script-o-rama.com/table.shtml Mostly links to external sources for scripts (many PDF scans, see PDF warning below).
  4. Googling. Ex: Friends Pilot Script. Just try to stay to website that seem kosher.

PDFs can be dangerous if certain permissions are enabled in your PDF viewer (and the file is malevolent).

The sites above are clean as far as I can tell, and I think they try to keep it that way. They’ve been around for decades (literally, have you seen their page design?).

Different Types of Screenplays

  1. Spec (speculation)
  2. Commissioned
  3. Shooting

Something to consider in reading feature scripts are the different types of scripts out there.
There is a spec (speculation) script which is a script written on one’s own time and sold to the studios after completion. (See this article for great insight into Time-Risk as a gauge for costing effort and living life.)

Examples include:

These scripts are good to learn from because they have to be pitch perfect in order to be sold as is (or their concepts are so compelling (The Island) that the studio will buy it to adapt if for a particular talent).

Just for reference, WGA has minimum purchase prices for spec screenplays by major studios. Last I checked it’s around $70k. Non-studios will pay less. Some spec scripts will also get “optioned” for less, which is money paid to the writer to essentially stop them from selling to other companies for a limited amount of time while they decide if they want to put in all of the money to buy it out completely.
Then there are commissioned scripts where the writers are paid by the studio to write a script based on pitches and treatments (you don’t get paid as much as spec scripts). These don’t have to be as good (but still film-able) because the creators have a vested interest in already. Sometimes a particular talent might be attached so bad dialogue can be imagined better because Keanu Reeves is saying it. However, there is no guarantee those films will still get made.

Examples include:

  • Pirates 1 (’03, Depp probably attached already),
  • Austin Powers (’97, late draft, Mike Myers),
  • Mean Girls (adaptation, Tina Fey, written after SNL),
  • Aliens (’85, James Cameron wrote it based on a treatment he made for his own unrelated sci-fi flick that the studios liked enough to buy and have him re-write with Sigourney in the lead).

Then there are shooting scripts, which are the final script that is used to breakdown and budget the film. As such all scene headings (slugs) are numbered. If you see scenes with numbers, it’s a shooting script. Don’t number your scenes ever or you’ll look like a rank amateur. When you see a script with numbers you know that’s what the script looked like before being filmed.

Colored pages indicate draft changes (revisions) after a shooting script is first printed. As a form of draft control, changes are both added to the first page with a date and indicated by printing on different colored pages. Instead of renumbering the whole script, changed pages will become blue, pink, red, etc. and new scenes will get new numbers with A or B or C added to the end. The Arrested Development script linked to below has an example of this at scene 25.

Example Single-Cam TV Script

The Arrested Development Pilot is a great script to learn all the tricks of the trade for sketch writing, screenwriting, and TV writing. It’s a great example of what a single-cam TV script looks like. (Single-cam is a movie-production style show like 24, CSI, or Modern Family, while multi-cam is a stage style show, i.e. Friends, Seinfeld, 2 1/2 Men). The single-cam TV format is so similar to screenwriting, that it’s useful for feature screenwriting as well. Plus it’s fun to read and easy to compare to the final product.

It has good examples of the following (do note that it’s a shooting script which means there is some over direction of camera placement with tons of “cut to”s in stage direction):

  • Using voice over (V.O.)
  • Using Chryon (another word for text overlay)
  • Using parentheticals as adverbs (or HOW a line is delivered) at the bottom of page 2
  • Using RE: in parentheticals near the top of page 2; RE: means regarding, not reply
  • HEADSHOT as a non-location slug line followed by Of Tobias (compare to use of INSERT in scene 21)
  • Lindsay’s dialogue in scene 3 to imply an excited swallowing/savoring of the hors d’oeuvre; how to spell hors d’oeuvres.
  • spelling out words in dialogue in scene 4; G-O-B
  • ellipses between scenes 7 and 8
  • double-dash between scenes 10 and 11
  • multiple locations in slug 12
  • nested location in slug 1
  • Angle on:” in scene 16
  • various uses of to designate change of thought or incomplete thoughts in dialogue in scene 16
  • SMASH CUT TO before scene 18
  • Flashback and return to present in scene 19
  • use of INSERTS in scene 21
  • describing action over dialogue on page 14 1st description
  • using parentheticals to denote WHO a line is said to (TO BUSTER) on page 14
  • an example of what adding a scene after your shooting script is made in scene 25A/B, and 29A
  • END OF ACT ONE formatting on page 14 (ACT ONE formatting on page 1)

Example Multi-cam TV Script

For now I’ll put the Friends Pilot out there. It’s a good example of what the title page and character page look like as well as the format.

Further Reading

1. Wordplayer.com

I highly recommend All Columns from the Wordplayer website. It’s written by Ted Elliot & Terry Rossio, the screenwriters of Aladdin, Mask of Zorro, and Pirates 1, 2, & 3 who also ghost wrote (uncredited re-wrote) Men In Black.
The site is all content and no ads. They were paid by AOL to write the series back in the day (late 90s), and now share the content for free and update when they want to.

I idolize these writers and the amount of knowledge they pack into the columns.

YouTube Channels

Some YouTube channels make great video essays. One specifically for writing is Lessons from the Screenplay.

  1. Lessons from the Screenplay. [best of]
  2. Every Frame a Painting. [best of]

 

How to Write A…

[internal links with more resources, under construction]

  • UCB Comedy Sketch.
  • Groundlings Sketch.
  • Feature Script.
    • This article summarizes some of the staple books out there. Much of which don’t need to be read beyond the first few chapters.
  • Scene.
    • A series of scenes make up a script. What needs to be in each? How to outline a scene so you know it works in the larger picture of the screenplay.
  • Logline. (different than a tagline or synopsis)
  • Comedy.

What is Improv?

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