Sketch Writing 101

Becoming a professional writer does not start with talent. It starts with the right mentality. There are several schools which will teach you Hard Skills of sketch writing, but none will teach you these Soft Skills (though some allude to soft skills in class in passing). Soft Skills are inter-personal and intra-personal skills/habits/traits/behaviors. I argue that to be successful, you need to master the soft skills and the hard skills. Some people are born with the right attitudes and soft skills or pick them up from their parents. Most don’t. You will need to change yourself if you don’t have them.

Here’s a bullet point list of my soft skills and hard skills, followed by a Glossary of Sketch Writing and Comedy Writing.

Soft Skills

Your real key to success is mastering your interpersonal skills (aka Soft Skills). Winning friends and “earning” opportunities from taste makers. Also mastering your mental fortitude.

  • Your At-Home Goals:
    • Your goal is to create consistently good works, not greatness. Production companies and Writer’s Rooms don’t need viral, they need airable. That means you need to prioritize the following in the order given at-home:
    • Produce Pages.
    • Produce Workable Pages.
    • Come with ideas. Have lists of ideas, inspirations, pitches.
    • Study. Analyze your works and others.
  • Your only In-Class Goal:
    • Be a “Good Collaborator“. Not to be funny. Not to be smart. Not to appear funny. Not to appear smart.
  • Three parts of your In-Class Performance:
    • [Internal] Motivation (goals)
    • [External] Reactions to comments
    • [External] Pitching comments
  • [1] Your In-Class Goal is to be a Good Collaborator:
    • Your only goal as a writer is to write a first draft (vomit pass) of the sketch. From there, you’re a collaborator.
    • Provide positive feedback
    • Be someone others want to be around.
    • Praise others’ works (be like Brent)
    • Be “likeable”: be humble, be “nice”, be a yes-man
    • Don’t be a burden: Don’t require positive feedback, don’t complain (which implies to other they need to be negative or encourage you). Do your work.
    • Always help others.
    • Make your collaborators feel great about themselves. This will make you feel good about yourself.
  • [2] How to React:
    • Identity with your motivation: to be a good collaborator. Don’t identify with your fears: of failure, not being funny, what you don’t know, etc.
    • Always smile and be having fun.
    • Never turn angry, if you do, mock yourself afterwards.
    • Take notes with a smile and act confidently (like Seth Meyers, John Mulaney, Colin Jost) not arrogantly (like Steven Colbert).
    • Don’t defend your sketch or your ideas, ask questions if you’re not sure what the note is about.
    • Agree with the notes.
    • Make your superior feels great about themselves. This will get you promotion opportunities.
    • Your teacher is not an expert, but you should still take their advice. Don’t read-into their bad IMDB credits (or lack thereof). 
    • Don’t let your teacher’s negative attitude affect you.
    • Don’t mirror their annoying traits back to them.
    • You can’t change others, only yourself.
    • White lies are absolutely necessary.
  • [3] Giving Notes:
    • Remember two genres of funny: silly and structured. Many novices are all about the silly. Recognize that so you don’t say, “it’s stupid”.
    • Always be positive. Never be negative, even if they suck.
    • Focus on your feelings, and don’t say things in absolutes or state your opinions as facts.
    • Ask questions or ask leading questions rather than give advice. ex: what’s the game?
    • Pitch beats, do not expect them. Don’t say “you should”, instead try “how about” or “what if”.
    • Don’t preface your story pitch with a qualifier. Pitch it with energy and like you believe in/are proud of it.
    • Never appear like the smartest man in the room. (comes from all major writers I’ve heard from: Brent Forrester, Mike Judge, Conan O’Brien).

Hard Skills:

At-Home Writing:

  1. Create and Evaluate separately. Creativity comes from a lack of criticism.
  2. Creativity comes from Lists. Brainstorm 10 ideas to get one workable one.
  3. Write “the funny” (your game) as a sentence before you write your outline.
  4. Outline your sketch. List your beats before you write.
  5. Your outline ending can be different than your final ending.
  6. A satisfying ending is a twist, reveal, comedic irony, and/or callback. Comedic irony: in attempt to get something the protagonist gets the opposite.

Glossary Of Comedy

Questions to ask about your sketch:

  1. premise or character? premise sketch — the situation is funny, rather than one character. Both characters can be totally normal people doing something weird. ex: argument clinic. | character sketch — one character is funny/weird
  2. crazy character vs normal world? or normal character vs crazy world (or world of same-type of crazy characters).
    • Peas in a Pod: UCB Sketch phrase where the two protagonists have the same comedic perspective. Therefore, they must be in a world that challenges that comic perspective.
  3. behavior or exaggerated? behavior comedy: normal people projecting one image of themselves but coming across as the opposite. lying can also be behavior comedy. naturalistic in nature. exaggerated comedy: not grounded in reality and benefits from classic jokes and gags, animation style of comedy: The Simpsons, Always Sunny.
  4. who can be your straight character: “it’s not funny to watch someone be weird. it’s funny to watch someone watch someone be weird.” — John Cleese.
  5. X struggles with Y. Often the “Straight Character” is the “normal” character whose role in the sketch can be phrased “X struggles with Y’s crazy behaviors/beliefs.”
  6. reaction beats: are you showing some character react off the weird to give the audience a moment to laugh?
  7. inconvenience, obstacle, or conflict. is the situation a true conflict? if the normal person can walk out, it’ll feel forced. if your normal char needs something from the weird person, it’s conflict.
  8. opposites: what are the opposites of your funny?
  9. dichotomies: sacred/profane, smart/dumb, sexy/unsexy, popular/unpopular, dangerous/harmless, high-class/low-class, proper/improper, powerful/powerless.
  10. expectations: what are the expectations of your scene, premise, occupations, setting, etc.? funny is to invert the expected.
  11. exaggerations: can you make anything MORE exaggerated? further from normal?  
  12. lying. characters who need to or decide to lie are cringe behavior comedy funny.
  13. mismatch of attitude.
  14. mismatch of reaction: overreacting or underreacting.
  15. comedic irony: getting the opposite of what you’re trying to get. what is your character trying to get? how can they receive the opposite?
  16. as-if: creating parallels can be funny: playing an office betrayal as-if it’s a mob betrayal. asking for a raise as-if you’re a child asking for a later bedtime.
  17. What type of sketch is this idea?
    • premise sketch: based on funny scenario or idea. ex: 24 is the highest number. truth-detector sketches. scenario could be a location or setup.
    • character sketch: based on funny/weird character with a unique/funny perspective on the world. ex: Stuart by Michael McDonald, Homey Don’t Play That, Fire Marshall Bill, Matt Foley Motivational Speaker.
    • Comic Behavior Sketch: One where a character is trying to project one image while coming across as the opposite of that. trying to be suave, but appearing clumsy. trying to be sexy coming off repulsive.
  18. What’s a good sketch FORM for your idea?
    • mapping: finding the parallels between one thing and another. similar to playing something as-if, but more about writing a scene as-if it mirrors some other scenario. ex: the “iRack Sketch” is really about America’s role in Iraq.
    • pastiche: a work that mirrors an existing work/genre/etc. except for one change to highlight the absurd of the original or highlight the absurd of the deviation. ex: Reggie scene with trashy-gays instead of trashy-blacks. “copy-and-pastiche”.
    • parody/spoof: taking an existing form and making fun of it or fun with it. ex: Spaceballs, Scary Movie, Blazing Saddles.
    • satire: making commentary of an existing work/form/subject, not necessarily keeping its form and not necessarily being funny. ex: The Office, Scientology episode of South Park, Starship Troopers.
  19. unfulfillable need: can your character have an unfulfillable need: like having your workers love you as boss (it’s impossible!). or a need to be loved by EVERYONE.
  20. occupations: they come with expectations. use those expectations to find how your funny plays against it. recall opposites.
  21. stereotypes: similar to occupations. often come with (stupid) familiarities/expectations that you can play against.
  22. racism/sexism: it’s funny to make fun of someone who’s racist, sexists, any-ist. not to simply be racist/sexist/etc.
  23. punching down: funny to make fun of powerful [punching-up] not powerless [punching-down]. funny to mock privileged (president, whites) rather than under-privileged (homeless, blacks). should-know-better stupid, not actual retards. abusive priests, not good priests. cultish religious, not all religious.
  24. punch-up: exaggerating or improving existing draft/joke to make/find better jokes.
  25. beat (move): a beat in comedy is usually one funny bullet point on an outline of the script. ex: in sketch of a uncreative captain naming discovered lands, two beats are (1) naming snow-white land Greenland (2) naming island across from South Wales “New South Wales”. Beats are sometimes called a comic “move” by improviser.
  26. Motivation: what do your characters want in the scene? (see inconvenience/obstacle/conflict) Are the two leads goals conflicting?
  27. Punchline vs Play-out. Punchline is the ending to a joke. Play-out is usually an extension of the comedic moment. Ex: Peter says, “This is the worst thing that ever happen to a Japan!” Cut to: [punchline:] flashback to title: “Hiroshima Japan, 1945” a man stand next to his car and looks up. [play-out] A bird shits on his car “Oh man, and I’m already late to work.” (the nuke is the worst thing, bird shit makes it worse, being late makes it worse, etc.)
  28. Play-out/Act-out. A Stand-up comedy term. Usually stand-up performance jokes are structured: setup, punchline, act-out. Where the act-out is a physicalization or scene acting out the comedic premise of the joke. It’s not what made you laugh initially, but what keeps you laughing by escalating from intellectual to physical. in improv and writing, it’s a play-out: continuing on the same joke for another laugh.
  29. Justification. to UCB, a character must have a reason to behave the way they are behaving in the sketch. often on page one, this “justification” is called out and stated explicitly.
  30. Plot Vs Game: Plot is about getting what you WANT. Game is about setting up the funny and TAKING ACTION to play it out.
  31. framing / calling out the joke: the act of stating something to make what’s funny clearer. ex: “what?” or “you open the door to help the velociraptor get in?” or “I think he’s a little young to be called an great artist.”
  32. dream logic: in an exaggeration sketch, the unreal logic (or absurdly exaggerated logic) that is assumed to allow for the joke. ex: in Taco Town, “bigger is better in a taco, so let’s add the whole kitchen.”
  33. schmucks, schlemiels, and schlimazels: Yiddish words. see this article “Etiquette for Schmucks, Schlemiels, Schlimazels and Schmendriks”.
  34. mistaken identity (under-cover): a form of behavior comedy: projecting one image but coming off not that.

Types of Sketches:

  1. Character: one based on a character with unusual/funny behavior or perspective.
  2. Premise: one based on an unusual/funny situation or reality.
  3. Political/Topical: makes fun of a topical issue. Contrast with “Evergreen” which never gets old.
  4. Commercial Parody: takes the form of a commercial, lasts 2.5 pages/minutes.
  5. Genre Parody: takes form of a genre/show.
  6. News Parody: Onion style articles or videos. News to the extreme/absurd.
  7. Blackout: one that fades out on the first punchline/laugh.
  8. Runner: one that is split throughout a show.

List of Sketch Writing Schools

  • The Groundlings
  • Upright Citizens Brigade (UCB)
  • The Second City
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Free Screenwriting Software

What is proper screenwriting format? How can I write a script and format it for free? What screenwriting software is free?

The best answers to these questions are use Fountain Syntax, use Fountain syntax, and WriterDuet Celtx or other free software that lets you import Fountain Syntax files and export to PDF.

Writing a script (for TV or film) can absolutely be done for free. For Beginners, there are several websites that can show you proper Hollywood screenplay or TV formats, but realistically, if you learn the Fountain syntax completely and read scripts/screenplays you’ll know how to write a script in any format because free screenwriting software will format the text data you write into the proper PDF format.

Learning Fountain syntax 100% could probably take you five hours of studying and trial and error to become an expert. But in twenty minutes you could probably get to writing whatever you want. Here’s their website homepage:


Fountain Syntax:

Screenwriting Software:

Wait, but when do I use Fade In, or INT. or EXT.? The fountain website and others can give you guidance, but your goal is to write for free, so let me continue with the software you’ll need.

How do I make my .fountain file look like a screenplay or TV Sitcom?

You’ll need formatting software for that. The great thing is that .fountain can be formatted to look like screenplays, sitcoms, theater, or other nuanced formatting styles with the click of a button. Once you learn .fountian, you won’t need to learn the ins and outs of each style. Of course, you will as a professional, but you can pick that up along the way as you read more scripts.

Which Screenwriting Software should I use? You can pay a child’s arm or toddler’s leg for FinalDraft ($200USD+). Or try free tools like WriterDuet or CelTx. My favorite right now (2020) is WriterDuet because it formats extremely well and uses a font like Courier Prime to make it look legit while Celtx used Courier New which made it look unprofessional, even if it contained the proper character size and widths. Others are listed on the fountain website at the link above.

Of course WriterDuet wants you to pay monthly eventually, so the free option only gets you one free script. Celtx allows several free scripts, but if you have the discipline, use WriterDuet’s free account just for exporting but not for writing. Write and store your revisions in .fountain files or Word files with track changes.

If you have Word (which is not free), and wish to write for free, I recommend downloading my template below. Of course, with anything downloaded off the internet, scan it for viruses. But this document is intentionally script-free (it does not have macros enabled), which means it can’t run code. The only thing I’ve done is format certain styles for you. You must write in fountain syntax and format paragraphs manually by clicking a paragraph then clicking the style you want. To export to PDF, you’ll need to copy and paste your work into WriterDuet or other fountain format enabled software.

I prefer writing this way because I can write faster while still getting a feel for page count. I can also manage revisions better, use track changes, save new files, and write stuff I won’t use in the final export (like extra dialogue, beats, and bullet point outlines).

I can also write in free form style: | Where are you going? / To the shop. / Haven’t we already been to the shop? / I was thinking of a different shop. | Then format the dialogue later. I can also sort my beats using bullet points and also using headers so they appear in a table of contents.

Here’s the TV Script template which is not an actual Word Template file (.dotx), but a normal Word file (.docx). It also requires the free font Courier Prime which is linked to in the next section.

Since this was made for free and intended to save people money, please share this page, plagiarize its contents, and use it as long as you keep it free and warn people to verify downloads, links, and virus-scan stuff.

If downloading files scares you (which it always should!) then start a new word document and do the following.

Create Your Own Word Template for a Screenplay Format (or TV Single Cam)

Note that this is close to a screenplay format, but not perfect. This file should be for ballparking only.

You will also need to install Courier Prime on your computer first:

Word Formatting: In a new file do the following.

  1. Double Click your Ruler and change the Margins: Top: 1″ Bottom: 1″ Left: 1.44″ Right: 1″. Can also be found by Menu > Layout > [Page Setup] Margins > Custom Margins. Note: Officially it’s 1.5″ left margin, but due to font placement and stretch in Word, it’s different. But the character count width should be accurate.
  2. In the Styles Panel (in Menu > Home Tab), Right-click “No Spacing” . Select “Modify”. Change the following:
    1. Name: “Action”.
    2. Style Type: “Paragraph”.
    3. Style Based on: “(no style)”.
    4. Style for following Paragraph: “Action”.
    5. Font: Courier Prime. 12.
    6. Then click the “Format” button on the bottom left.
    7. In Paragraph: -Spacing- Before: 0 pt. After: 0 pt. Line Spacing: Multiple. At: 0.8. Click OK.
    8. Then click the “Format” button on the bottom left again.
    9. In Font: In the “Advanced” tab. Scale: 101%. Click OK.
    10. Click OK to exit “New Style” window.
  3. Write some text and change it to the “No Spacing/Action” style you just created.
  4. Expand the Styles Ribbon/Panel into a Window by clicking the icon on the bottom right of the Styles Panel that looks like an arrow pointing to the bottom right.
  5. In the Styles Window, click the “New Style” button that looks like *Aa. Create the Scene Heading Style. Be sure to have the “No Spacing/Action” style selected before clicking New Style, so your new style is based on that style and auto populates several fields from it. Change the following:
    1. Name: “Scene Heading” (or “Slugline” if you prefer)
    2. Style Type: “Paragraph”
    3. Style Based on: “Action” (may still be called “No Spacing”)
    4. Style for following paragraph: “Action”
    5. For TV: Check on the Underline field. (for Screenplays I prefer Bold instead)
    6. Click the Format button then select “Font” and in the “Font” tab, check on “All Caps”. Click OK.
    7. Click OK to exit “New Style” window.
  6. Select a “No Spacing/Action” paragraph style, then create a New Style for Dialogue.
    1. Name: “Dialogue”
    1. Style Type: “Paragraph”
    2. Style Based on: “Action” (may still be called “No Spacing”)
    3. Style for following paragraph: “Action” / “No Spacing”.
    4. Click the Format button then select “Paragraph” and in the “Indents and Spacing” tab, Change -Indentation- Left: 1″ Right: 1.5″. Click OK.
    5. Click OK to exit “New Style” window.
  7. Select a “Dialogue” paragraph style, then create a New Style for Characters.
    1. Name: “Character”
    2. Style Type: “Paragraph”
    3. Style Based on: “Dialogue”
    4. Style for following paragraph: “Dialogue”
    5. Click the Format button then select “Paragraph” and in the “Indents and Spacing” tab, Change -Indentation- Left: 2″ Right: 1.56″. In the “Line and Page Breaks” tab -Pagination- check ON “Keep with next”. Click OK.
    6. Click the Format button then select “Font” and in the “Font” tab, check on “All Caps”. Click OK.
    7. Click OK to exit “New Style” window.
  8. Select a “Dialogue” paragraph style, then create a New Style for Parentheticals.
    1. Name: “Parenthetical”
    2. Style Type: “Paragraph”
    3. Style Based on: “Dialogue”
    4. Style for following paragraph: “Dialogue”.
    5. Click the “Format” button then select “Paragraph” and in the “Indents and Spacing” tab, Change -Indentation- Left: 1.5″. Click OK.
    6. Click OK to exit “New Style” window.
  9. You’re all set. To modify a style, right click it in the Styles Panel and select “Modify…”

Add Header and Footers

  1. Menu > Insert Tab > [Header & Footer Panel] Page Number > Top of Page > Plain Number 3.
  2. Menu > Insert Tab > [Header & Footer Panel] Page Number > Bottom of Page > Plain Number 3.

Add a Table of Contents on the first page.

  1. Click the “Table Of Contents” button. Menu > References Tab > Table of Contents. Choose “Automatic 1” or “2”.
  2. Then hit Enter a few times and insert a new Section by doing the following: Menu > Layout Tab > [Page Setup Panel] Breaks > [Section Page] Next Page.
  3. On the next page, double click in the margins to enter the Header editor. Once here, you should see “Header -Section 2-” and on the previous page: “Footer -Section 1-“. On the -Section 2- Header, right click the number field and select “Format Page Numbers”. In the -Page numbering- section change from “Continue from previous section” to “Start at” and “1”. Click OK.

Now you can use Header 1 to format your act breaks. And header 2+ to organize your plot beats. Then they’ll show up in your table of contents at the top.

Cool huh?

Warning, printing directly from this document can now be confusing since the page number of the document differs from the page number of the new section. So I suggest exporting to PDF first then printing the desired PDF page numbers.

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Film Review: The Post, Dunkirk, Sorry to Bother, 500 Days of Summer

In this article, I share my opinions on 4 films I did not enjoy watching on cross-country airplanes in September and November of 2018.

As context, I traveled a lot for work and took full advantage of the in-flight video content as a means to relax, learn, and enjoy films I normally wouldn’t dedicate 2 hours to unless it fit my schedule perfectly (like stuck in a window seat for 5 hrs at night and not tired). On the plane rides, I watched several content in part or full, including (in approximately this order):

  • Just For Laugh Gags episodes (part)
  • Friends episodes (rewatch)
  • Death of Stalin (full)
  • Sorry to Bother (part)
  • Mr and Mrs Smith (part)
  • The Post (full)
  • 500 Days of Summer (part)
  • Star Wars IV (rewatch, part)
  • Dunkirk (full)

In this article, I review the films I watched for the first time and did not like; two of which I watched to completion. Those films include:

  • Sorry to Bother (part)
  • The Post (full)
  • 500 Days of Summer (part)
  • Dunkirk (full)

Sorry to Bother You (2018)

I did not like this film despite being very excited to see it when I saw the trailer and willing to buy a ticket if not for watching Black Klansman instead. Sorry to Bother looked bizarre, driven, and told from a under-appreciated black point of view. In addition there was respect and intrigue around the lead Lakeith Stanfield. Lakeith was solid in at least two other productions I’ve seen him in (in this order): Get Out, Atlanta pilot, and the War Machine trailer. Ironically I’d seen him two times before my noticed experience of Get Out: in Dope (on a plane in 2015) and Straight Outta Compton (in theaters).

From the list of films I’ve cited above, it’s clear that despite being a cis white male, I’ve been keeping up with some important minority lead productions. I loved or respected a bunch (Get Out, Black Klansman, and Straight Outta Compton), and others I disliked (Atlanta, Dope).

Sorry to Bother You was an uncompelling bizarre and dispassionate production with no narrative direction in sight, no expectation built or tapped into, and a seemingly casually racist point of view (you have to act stereotypically white in order to succeed in the world) which I kind of got over watching the trailer.

Uncompelling: The story follows a poor black man who lives in his uncle’s garage, unappreciatively, who is caught lying about his work history to get a job as a telemarketer but is hired because those lies showed initiative. From there, it follows some backstory on the kid and his girlfriend then transitions into him rising the ranks of the job to chase the dream of being like a specific black baller who’s part of the in-crowd of high-paid employees. Here’s what made it boring to watch: First, Lakeith. There’s something to be said about leads who drain the energy off the screen with their nihilistic, depressive posture and bitch-face: Bill Murray, Kristen Wiig, Lakeith Stanfield, and to lesser degrees Ryan Gosling, Zooey Dechanel. A character who doesn’t care about something and has no clear goals in the narrative (aside from the default human motive of survival) is not compelling narrative. It can be relateable to some individuals. Played right, it can even be comedic at the expense of laughing at those characters. But by default, they’re not compelling. And to many goal-oriented individuals, they’re disgusting. Viscerally regurgatory to watch. Who wants to watch a passionless character who bitches at his uncle when his uncle asks for two-month late rent with the understanding that the Uncle likely won’t kick him out of the garage. Unfortunately, this is exactly the type of character Lakeith plays. The kind of defeated individual who’s succumbed to the nihilistic reality of life: survival. Who can barely hold his head up and defensively avoids smiling so as to not allow his expectations to go up. I personally don’t have time or care for characters like this. And from a story telling point of view, I check out. We all know that the character must have some arc, and too often bad screenwriters think that the goal is to make the lead as unlikable as possible so that any improvement of character at the end of the film that makes the audience relate to them empathetically is a story telling win for the filmmaker. I see this trick a mile away and check out. The story teller is forcing me to watch a character I don’t like for 90 minutes so I can maybe like them in the last 30. I’d rather watch compelling characters from page one. Unfortunately, Lakeith’s character and especially his performance is obnoxious and a chore to sit through. And it’s only after this film that I accepted that truth about his acting range. That’s his character in all films he plays. It’s fine as a bit piece since he wreaks it with every frame he’s on screen so the filmmakers have less work to do. But as a lead, it’s the worst idea ever. It’s this film that made me recognize why I was intrigued by his performances (because they’re so quickly authentic) but also why I don’t care for him anymore. However, I might have got past problem if the narrative thrust were better too.

Bizarre: Much of the film was pretty authentic, but then every now and then a supernatural or stylized element would kick in and you’re left wondering. What the hell was that about? And not in a good way. Sometimes it felt like it would make for a more visual story telling experience that they could slap into a trailer or use as the talking-point to get people to talk about the film. Sometimes you wondered if it was meant to keep the audience wondering if he’s seeing things. But nothing was so clear as to appreciate the departure from the norm. I’m not spoiling anything for those watching the trailer to know that at times, the protagonists or phone-callers who are black “talk white” on the phone with actual white people dubbing the lines over the faces. David Cross (Tobias Funke in Arrested Development) narrates one person while a seemingly green 20 something actor ham-up the over-privileged super-happy suburban white man another time. When it popped up in the film, it wasn’t funny, or innovative. It was just distracting and felt unnecessary. And to some degree, it seemed racist. Of course, I didn’t feel offended because it’s a privileged stereotype they’re propping up, not the racist KKK killer stereotype. I felt more pity for the filmmakers who thought this would be edgy and/or effective story telling or even “cool”. Then later they also have his desk fall into the homes of the people he’s calling. Again, it was a clever visual trick, which never paid off. Possibly because I exited early. but to be fair, there was nothing compelling about it. No expectation or explanation I could come up with would make the gimmick feel like it was worth the money they must have spent on it. Especially when the narrative is so thin right now.

About 30 minutes in, I looked at the clock and wondered: where is this film going? and Why do I care? As best I could follow it was about a poor depressed black kid discovering the world of the whiteys. Maybe the setup of this kid was exactly the arc of the film, once he knows how to “act white” he can be black AND be happy, without being white. Why do I care? As best I could gather: because it’s important to understand the black experience. And more importantly, the depressed black experience. I think it’s more important for depressed nihilistic people to see the film than me. So without the stakes increasing in 30 minutes, and without a clear expectation put forth by the filmmaker, I was out.

Ironically, it’s taken me the remainder of the film to write up this summary. But that hour is beneficial to me and to you hopefully. Insightful in some way.

The Post (2017)

Steven Spielberg. Wow, was this film flat. Whatever acting praise people projected onto this film was not rational and personally biased. I felt no performance stood out and all performances were good enough to support the solid storytelling. This was my first Meryl Streep movie and she’s just as unimpressive as she seems at awards shows. Yes, she has poise and presence. She’s a strong independent and classy woman. But she’s that in every role, and that’s not good acting.

There were several problems with this film, but let’s address the most pressing: It was aimed at being a response to Trump’s attack on journalism. Meant as a rallying cry for supporters of free-speech and praise for the institutions that fight against tyranny of any part of the government. It was meant to be the All the President’s Men of today. By the end of the film I was supposed to cry for the actions taken by many or by few who acted out their beliefs to defend journalism and free-speech. Unfortunately, it did not do that.

I’m not sure if it was because it didn’t go far enough or because we knew the whole film that it was a left-wing political machine movie trying to avoid the fact (what’s more Hollywood than Spielberg, Hanks, and Streep?). Or because it played more like a documentary than a character study. I personally feel it didn’t go far enough in any one emotion. There were themes of women fighting for power and people around her (mostly men) supporting her vision and believing in her (despite corporate, primarily men, pressures of her paper being owned by the public). Girl power! And then there were themes of journalism. Journalists willing to go to prison for exposing the TRUTH about those in power. And about entire Newspaper companies willing to be sued by the president for releasing government papers with careful redaction. And finally about all the newspapers in the U.S. publishing parts of the document after the NYT is first sued and then the Washington Post risks being sued by publishing other parts.

But the film was not compelling and did not deliver on drama. It was cold and felt like it was trying to be as impartial as possible so as to be important. The narrative also followed two to three stories and it was unclear until the midpoint, which one was the driving narrative. It wasn’t until the midpoint that the stakes for any protagonist were pressing. Until then, you just saw a journalist steal the papers, then the NYT publish them (with the Washington Post, Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep, missing out on the story, then Nixon suing the NYT. Then the Post spent time trying to find the paper themselves, and we’re on a mini-story following Bob Odinkirk. And finally, they get the papers, and I feel like post-midpoint is when they were finally faced with real stakes: Should we publish these finding. And the whole final act followed lawyers fighting with Hanks, and Streep (as president) deciding whether she wanted to publish (and risk her and her father’s company, her legacy, and a pending corporate buy out). Of course, she finally gains the courage to take the risk five minutes before the end of the film and it ends on a montage of everyone else following suit, the supreme court ruling in favor of the NYT, and hints at the Watergate scandal (the premise All the President’s Men).

Unfortunately, I didn’t have any expectations as to where the film was going and why I truly cared about any individual player. The stakes were low for 60-90 minutes of the film and when it came time for real intra-personal conflict, it happened five minutes before the close of the film. At that point you don’t care for any character yet.

Another potential explanation for my problem, aside from the stakes staying low with multiple potential protagonist threads running in parallel, was how fast it moved and how much exposition was being dumped for the first hour or more of the film. It felt like a documentary trying to add some drama through worried or combative performances. On that note, there’s not a scene in the film that was BAD. The camera moved fast, the people moved fast, and the scenes moved fast. But there wasn’t a scene in the film that was great, though I can remember one in particular because I was studying the staging of the camera and actor’s movements more than following the narrative.

I was expecting to get to the end and have the pace and exposition culminate to a very poignant hopeful triumphant feeling of the underdog and the people prevailing over tyranny, but I got nothing. Despite it seemingly trying so hard to be that. Hell I would have settled for a T2 style statement of theme that I can walk out on: “If a Terminator can learn to be more human, maybe we can too.” But I think it ended on text of a newspapers, maybe even white text on black of the following history. However it ended, I don’t remember and remember being so disappointed.

How would I fix it? I’m not sure, but I think I would lean into themes and opinions more. It felt like it was trying to be impartial and apolitical to try to appeal to the right-wing populists who support Trump. Unfortunately that meant that it didn’t deliver on anything. It could have leaned into the praise of reporters of any political leaning. But focused on the female Washtington Post president maybe? And if it wasn’t going to be persuasive to the right, by being middle-ground, then it also lost those on the left by depriving them of a rallying cry film. I think it could have been so much more left-leaning or even populist leaning by throwing themes of protecting the people, or saying, this even supports KKK free speech, etc. and if it’s so true to the philosophy that a left-leaning or right-leaning newspaper with a strong point of view should be given equal power to ridicule the president, then it would have worked better. I think it suffered the Hillary Clinton campaign problem. It didn’t give anyone something to vote FOR. Hillary only gave people something to vote against. This film didn’t even give us a villian like Trump.

Especially for being a film that was green-lit days after Trump’s inauguration, film within months and released a year after Trump’s election, it was clearly meant as a response to Trump’s attack on the media, and didn’t deliver to anyone. Unpersuasive in any argument, either to get his supporters to respect the media, or to rally the left to defend the current MSM more effectively. Having said that, perhaps the film was too removed from today. Any respect for journalism then don’t equate to those who operate the MSM today. And any victories then that are lost today don’t seem as tragic. And there’s no effective fear drawn to parallels of today to make us feel a sense of loss or potential loss of a better time.

500 Days of Summer (2009)

If you thought I was brutal on Lakeith. Then wait for my opinions on the two most lackluster leads in Hollywood: Zooey Dechanel and Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

Here’s a film that’s super-pretentious and tries to take the classic rom-com tropes, address them as not realistic, and then play into them by the end of the film. A hopeless romantic falls in love with his object of desire. The film is strange with a mysterious numbering scheme that’s hard to follow. Day 1, 200, etc. Not sure if Summer is a time or a person.

But the thing is, we follow two uncompelling leads. Joseph is a loser and broken romantic who lusts after a particular woman. And Zooey is just a pretty, uninteresting object of desire. Her quirkiness and extreme introvertedness seems to be her appeal too. But her perfect skin, blue eyes, and doe-eyed allure is her first introduction and emphasis of character. She’s pretty, and nice.

But aside from the boring characters and boring performance was the try-too-hard style of the film which was lightly framed-narrative, lightly meta, and vignette-like. The tone was similar to Elf in that it felt fanciful, almost like Princess Bride too. Where the narrator gets to add a layer of destiny to the story.

About 15-20 minutes in, I was out. No real explanation I can think of. Just not my type of flick. And I’m cool with many rom coms: It could happen to you, Twilight, others. But as insight, I didn’t like: Sleepless in Seattle, You’ve Got Mail.

Dunkirk (2017)

Another completely uncompelling narrative. Almost everyone looks the same and no particular character has an emphasis or a narrative worth thinking about or emoting over. It seemed like an excuse to put flashy visuals on screen. There wasn’t much dialogue and the few that there was was difficult to follow. It started very exposition with the British pushed back to the beach. So maybe the stakes were high to start. But they didn’t feel high. A lone Frenchman escapes and tries to pass as British. A clever hook to drive the narrative to show everything going on around him. But not compelling.

I knew the premise: a group of civilians goes to save the British troops by using civilian boats too small to sink instead of huge carriers which became easy targets. But the film virtually starts with this process going on. Though it seems like it’s just one boat to start and maybe later in the story, that one boat returns with passengers to inspire everyone else to try too. Instead, it followed one boat despite the others being right behind them. My guess it to make it more personal.

The expectation set? There were none: survival. How do we get everyone off this beach? That was answered in scene one: by civilian boats. How many survive? Thats the question. Not even “Who survives.” Though I think they tried to push that question. In fact, the expectations and trajectory was so ambiguous and uncompelling that I created some without them being there. I thought the stakes would increase as we followed the civilian heroes. Instead, there was one civilian hero boat focused on. And they told the story of one pilot hero (Tom Hardy) and one Frenchman trying to survive until rescue.

Oh, and the general was thrown in there as exposition as well as a symbol of military duty.

No character was cared about. No situation was compelling conflict. No character changed emotion. Everyone was fighting for a seat on the escape vessel. Not fighting Germans.

I’m convinced the only reason anyone FELT anything in this film was because of Hans Zimmer’s scores, despite Christopher Nolan’s visuals and story. Every scene was drown by Zimmer’s score which kept the stress up at all time and crescendo’d several times through out the film to make you even more anxious.  I watched most of the film to listen to Zimmer’s score, but when an hour passed and I noticed there was no compelling expectation built or a character I cared about, I started fast-forwarding. It became obvious too that my favorite track of the soundtrack (which I heard first) “Supermarine” was no going to show up as I heard it on the album. The film ended with a reveal of the slew of civilian boats, along with Tom Hardy’s character saving a civilian vessel then gliding into enemy territory to be captured. And then a white text on black summary of the outcome.

Boring. Another instance where Zimmer’s score builds an expectation for an amazing scene worthy of the music, but Nolan ruins Zimmer’s music.






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Crazy Rich Asians

A simple story with a strong theme that works by the end DESPITE poor acting, poor directing, and poor filmmakers, financially underfunded.

If I had to rate it fresh or not, I’d say not. It’s a tried-and-true poor American immigrant vs rich old-money elite story with a token Asian wrapper. However, some stories just work because of their timeless themes. This was true with Crazy Rich Asian. There are enough reason to roll your eyes and change the channel on this film, but if you’re held captive, it can deliver on the most important of its promises but virtually nothing else.

It’s not the film I want to remember as the beginning of the Asian-American film-making renaissance. But it certainly tries to play the role.

If you can start the film 40 minutes into the film, you wouldn’t be any worse off. In fact, you might like the film more.

The first part is supposed to be the fun and funny part of the film as it tries to be hip and funny as it introduces the characters and inciting incident: our female lead is being brought to Shanghai by her unbeknownst-to-her billionaire boyfriend. Unfortunately, the leads were cast for their ability to cry, not their ability to be lead, i.e. be charismatic, and the support characters were over-actors and gimmicky, akin to theater 101 actors. That combination hampered much of the film, but fortunately, the over-bearing mother’s theater 301 acting was enough to deliver some poignant moments by the end of the film.
As for plot and tension, it’s completely low-stakes, and unmotivated for the entire first half. It’s predictable and recognizable almost immediately after the inciting incident, as you watch the filmmakers check off the boxes of the genre in the most boring ways possible, despite trying their hardest. Then when you’re introduced to the opulence of their estate, it’s notably expensive-AirBnB unimpressive. And when finally introduced to the primary villain: the rich mother, she is entirely underwhelming. It doesn’t help that, unlike the book where the mom avoids the girlfriend for several more scenes, in the film the judgmental mother meets the girlfriend close to the beginning of the second act, and only shows inklings of disdain through a fairly cordial initial meeting.

The thing I like most about the film is the ending, which I’m told is not in the book, which seemed to be written as a tragedy or cliffhanger. This film was Hollywood-ified the book into a romantic comedy, in that the lovers get what they want in the end. But more importantly, they did it with the classic beat of a proper tragedy, and found a creative hopeful conclusion in a purely American theme of the story. Without spoiling the end, the American half of the conflict wins: freedom to chase your dreams and taking the risk to chart your own course in life.

Other notable likings were Ken Jeong (who got the first real laugh from the audience about 40 minutes into the film) in his first scene, Awkwafina’s portrayal of the friend with clearly improvised lines and snappy American wit, and the wedding scene, complete with staging and music.

In conclusion, I feel the story was indie-level simple, it had sub-student-film level acting and production value, but the new ending was expert level clever and helped make the film work. But overall, I don’t feel it should be rewarded as anything better than a made-for-TV movie. To recommend this film, unfortunately, feels like treating the filmmakers with an affirmative action -style tip of the hat. It’s no better than a B or C level Lifetime made-for-TV movie.

Let’s put it this way, an Asian-american coworker didn’t seem to like it though she read the book too. That said, I did cry because the universal conflict at hand was real enough to feel the tragedy of the struggle before the fight for the win.

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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,,  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!


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, ; or as part of a Derren vs Celebrities video: ). 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 ( ): “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!


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?


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.


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 ( 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.


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.


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: .  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: (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.


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.


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.
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. Not Too Shabby (hosted by Holly Prazoff)

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