[Post rated 18(UK)/R(US) for ‘strong language’]

During a Q&A following a screening of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (the videos of which were posted on Blip.TV by director Edgar Wright), Guillermo del Toro talked about how much respect directors and screenwriters need to have for the authors of the works they are adapting. He asks a question of the writer of the Scott Pilgrim books, Bryan Lee O’Malley (11:27):

Guillermo del Toro: “Let me ask you, because having gone through two movies with Mike Mignola [writer of the Hellboy comic books], I know the first time you show the movie, they shit their pants, the authors. I always say that adapting work is like marrying a widow, and you are going to be respectful of the late husband, but at some point, you’re gonna fuck. You have to stop talking about the late husband and say ‘shut the fuck up.’ For you being the dead husband thinking ‘holy fucking shit,’ what was your reaction when you first saw the movie?”
Bryan Lee O’Malley: “[…]That whole Vegan thing, what was I thinking when I wrote that? Seeing it all come to life. It was horrifying.”

Guillermo is telling screenwriters that respect for the original work should only go so far. To adapt properly you need to move on. because you are making a film, not rewriting a book or remaking a comic.

That’s just one bit from three videos from that night that are well worth watching.

Introduction (6:57)
Q&A part 1 (25:23)
Q&A part 2 (55:55)


In an event in September 2009 at USC, Stephen Susco talked to students about horror film development.

Poster for the US version of 'The Grudge' from 2004.

He says that he developed his version of The Grudge in parallel with Takashi Shimizu. Takashi had made a couple of shorter films for Japanese TV, so they decided to create their own feature versions seperately – one in Japan and one in the US. Stephen’s version was delayed, so when the time came for him to write the U.S. version, he had a few questions for Takashi (42 min):

‘”It’s great to meet you, so what was this?” and he would just be like “I don’t know. (beat) Does it matter?” In a way there’s so much genius in that, especially with horror. Look at the Shining. What does end of the movie mean? You don’t know. If you did it wouldn’t be scary. That kind of ambiguity is so essential to good horror movies
That’s what we’re lacking so often in that genre. I think it’s almost the only genre that is diametrically opposed to the way that studios develop movies. The development process is: “We need to understand everything.” You turn a script into a studio and you get 50 pages of notes and it’s all about clarity – having everything wrap up, so that when the movie is over people go “I got it, I got the whole thing.” Horror is about not doing that. Horror is about keeping people off-guard, unprepared and leaving with questions.”

He then talks about a development executive who points to The Sixth Sense as a perfect example of a script that has everything cleared up at the end.

‘So I said “OK, how could Haley Joel Osment see dead people?” […] If they had a scene where Haley Joel Osment as the camera is slowly pushing in on him gave this monologue about when he was five years old he was in this car crash and when he woke up in the hospital he could see dead people standing at the foot of his bed, the movie would have lost all of its power. But the movie was so good that you didn’t leave saying “Gee, I really wish I knew how the hell Haley Joel Osment could see dead people.”‘

He then goes on to tell a little more of his battles to keep The Grudge as ambiguous as possible. There’s a lot more available in the podcast of the event on iTunes (The episode dated ‘2 9 09’ here). The podcast is available as an mp3 at the bottom of the 2009-2010 podcast page at USC.

“Write your whole scene with all the things you think people would say to each other. Imagine all the things two people could say when saying goodbye to each other. Then keep taking words away while it still makes emotional sense. Five lines of dialogue between to people may end up being a single word: ‘Later’ “

Tony Jordan, Life on Mars

“In good dialogue people aren’t really listening to each other, the opposite of listening is waiting: you’re just waiting to say your next thing. That’s everyone in life, all the time. People hardly ever listen to each other. Good dialogue is two monologues that connect sometimes.”

Russell T. Davis, Doctor Who

On avoiding exposition: “I’d rather be confused for ten minutes than bored for five seconds”

Jimmy McGovern, The Street

Ela Their suggests that you base your plots around the evolving relationship between the main character and the main supporting character:

Act 1: When a character with a pattern is faced with a problem that challenges their pattern

Act 2: Then the main character and their key relationship pursue a goal despite major obstacles

Act 3: Until they step outside of their pattern to achieve the goal and solve the problem

If you are based in New York, consider going to her workshops.

“Become the change you want to see around you”

An aphorism I seem able to remember most days.

“Seven social sins: politics without principles, wealth without work, pleasure without conscience, knowledge without character, commerce without morality, science without humanity, and worship without sacrifice.”

Each of these could be the theme of a film – the debate that all the characters have different positions on.

“Carefully watch your thoughts for they will become your words. Manage and watch your words for they will become your actions. Consider and judge your actions for the will become your habits. Acknowledge and watch your habits for they will become your values. Understand and embrace your values for they will become your destiny.”

I read this on a marketing/business blog. This looks like a method for exploring character. If we start in the middle, we can get better ideas about the edges of his idea.

If screenplays are about showing actions, not words, work out what each character needs to do in your screenplay.

Gandhi says
1. Character actions are determined by what they usually say, which is defined by how they think
2. Character actions become habits, which modify values which determine destiny

These dependancies will help define your characters as they are in Act 1… when they bump up against each other, you get a film.

After over a year of listening to Pilar Alessandra’s On The Page screenwriting blog (iTunes, FeedBurner), I was lucky enough to attend a London event meeting her alongside UK-based screenwriters. It was inspirational.

I’ve already written about some of her ten minute exercises, but this evening reminded me of something else: spending too long preparing can mean you never start.

The following tip deliberately uses terminology to put you off: Name your first draft your ‘Vomit Draft.’ If you have that sub-title at the top of every page, it’ll excuse you from spending too much time judging the first version of your script as you write. You can get all the ideas out in one go.

You know you’ll never show anyone else your Vomit Draft. That means you won’t risk anyone else judging your abilities (or you as person) based on that draft. If you don’t worry about making it perfect, you’ll have a terrible version of script done very quickly. This is good news because “writing is rewriting.”

Here’s where I digress: One of the problems with being a freelancer is the clients. It’s not just that they don’t know what they want, it’s that they only know what they don’t want when you show it to them. That problem is useful when it comes to editing your own script. Once you see a scene written down, once you read the way a character talks, you can see something is wrong, and you can come up with ways of improving what’s been written.

Another example of using rewriting as writing uses the example of having someone else asking you about your story. You might have a vague idea, but if another person asks you some specific questions, you might be able to firm up the idea.

You can practice doing this for someone else if they’ve just woken up and tell you about a dream they just had. Their dream will fade away very quickly as they become more awake and remember who they are and what the day might bring. To stop the fade, ask them specific questions about their dream: “Was it the house as it is now, or was as it was when you were growing up?” “Was the park full of people, or was it deserted?” “Did she whisper or did she shout?” The dreamer can then either remember dream more clearly or provide an answer that makes sense at that moment.

Your vomit draft is the dream. The re-write happens when you ask questions about the dream.

Oscar award season has started. The ‘for your consideration’ adverts have started to appear. That means the ‘glut of award hopefuls to be released in the next six weeks’ and ‘end of the cinematic year’ articles can be written.

Go on over to Hollywood Reporter to read an interview with six writers who may be nominated for an Oscar. When asked about discipline, Andrew Stanton, writer of “WALL-E” said:

My mantra is: Be wrong as fast as you can. Because I have to have the liberty to know it doesn’t have to work so that I’ll just keep moving.

I hope they get around to talking to some below the line people.

In a podcast from Creative Screenwriting on The Illusionist, the producers talk about becoming successful as screenwriters before they made The Illusionist. Brian Koppelman and David Levien got their big break with the script of Rounders, the Ed Norton poker movie. It was directed by John Dahl. He told them something interesting: “You can never take back something you’ve said to an actor” – if writers are to be allowed on set, they have to be very careful in talking to actors. Any insights you give them will haunt them until the film is finished. A tentative suggestion of a formative experience for a character may become the only possible way the actor will look at that person’s childhood.

Writers can go on set if they don’t spend their time defending what they wrote. They need to be there to collaborate to make the film better. They get the access they want by not wanting to be the centre of the film making. There’s more during the last five minutes of the podcast on iTunes.

There are some interesting recent podcasts there featuring the writers of The Dark Knight, Juno, Wanted, Choke and Synecdoche, NY.

I regularly listen to Pilar Alessandra’s weekly screenwriting podcast (iTunes, FeedBurner) as part of her ‘On the Page’ script consultation and screenwriting education business.

Many writers know that screenwriting is rewriting, and almost each week Pilar suggests a ten minute exercise that you can do to improve the current draft of your script. Here are three examples:

Create character rules. What does your character always do in his or her public life, personal life or private life? Apply those rules to situations to create unique scenes. Or, break a rule later on, to show character development and change.

So does your protagonist do in the company of strangers, with loved ones or alone? They might continually swear – or never curse at all. That can tell us a lot about a person. The point when they break those rules tells us more. These rules illustrate change in your character. Do the same for all your major characters – especially your antagonist.

To find the perspective and arc of another character in the script, ask what that character’s movie is. Do a “what if” log-line from that character’s point of view.

Every character’s logline should make sense from their point of view. If you come up with a antagonist logline, your script will be stronger.

In scene direction, re-describe characters using “essence statements.”
– “The kind of woman you’d leave your wife for.”
– “He never met a jelly donut he didn’t like.”
– “Blink and you’ll miss her.”
All of these statements are more descriptive than a simple laundry list of physical attributes.

These statements are much more useful for directors, casting agents and actors.

These are just three of over 40 exercises broadcast over the last 14 months. The podcast is a lot more than this. Most weeks you’ll hear from interesting guests of all kinds: producers, agents, managers, directors, lawyers and development executives as well as writers. The show is also a fun listen.

There are a lot of episodes already up, so it’s time to start catching up.

In an article over at Raindance, Stacey Parks lists some tips on how producers can find the actors that will sell their film.

Depressing as it may seem to new writers, directors and producers, the truth is that films are sold based on who stars in them. The presence of other contributors doesn’t matter to 90% of the population and 99.1% of those choosing which DVD to rent on a Saturday night.

If you read the blurb on the back of DVDs, you can tell they are designed for non-fans of film. Most people like to go to the pictures every so often, and it’s nice to watch a movie when there’s nothing on TV. They don’t make a point of following which films are coming out soon, when they’ll be on DVD or when they’ll appear on Pay-TV. Decisions on whether to buy a ticket, rent a DVD or record a film on TV are based on seeing an advert or some bit of PR hours before. No more than that.

If that is so, movies need to have simple two sentence explanations combined with an actor you’ve heard of. This happens for blockbusters right down to low-budget horror movies released straight to DVD (“How about this one? It’s got that blond robot guy from Blade Runner.” “What’s that?” “An old Harrison Ford film from the 80s.” “OK… as long as we get that Meg Ryan DVD… the one with Wolverine.”)

Stacey covers how to work out which actors are right for your film. She covers how to get those actors involved in your project elsewhere (warning, it is a subscription site!), but there is a stage to remember before all that.

The first thing about actors and your film is making sure that actors would want to play the parts in your story. You’ll always be able to find no-name actors to play parts. What about those with existing careers? If you can’t afford to pay their going rate, you’ll need to provide an alternative benefit: a part that showcases their ability, possibly one that shows their range. Maybe the man previously cast in a series of parts as mild-mannered men in a series of mid-life crises might want to show that they can play a charismatic serial killer across the screen from Jodie Foster.

Make sure the ‘star’ role (which might not be the protagonist) gives an experienced actor the chance to show off a wide range of emotions and struggles with difficult decisions. Actors don’t like being ‘reactors’. Colin of The London Script Consultancy said that Dustin Hoffman didn’t use to consider a script unless there were twenty decisions for his character to make.

So when you’re outlining your short or feature, remember to make the major parts worth playing for the actors you hope to recruit. Then you might be able to get it distributed, funded and made.

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