Friday, May 30, 2008
I'm a big believer in the transformative power of movies. I asked some of you to tell me about the one or two films that changed your life and/or helped shape who you are. Here is the first of what I hope will be many opportunities for you to share your passion with others through my site:
If you would like to share your own "Reel Favorites," please email a short video clip to firstname.lastname@example.org
Wednesday, May 28, 2008
Monday, May 26, 2008
Your story now has a strong plot and subplot, but this is still not enough for an entire screenplay. What’s missing is the heart of the story, the “why” of it—why you feel drawn to write this particular story, and why the hero or heroine of the story belongs in it. That’s why we need to find and dramatize what we call the premise.
The premise of a screenplay is the fundamental statement that drives the plot. We are all teachers and when we write we want to do more than just entertain our audience; we want to communicate something we have learned or consider important. The premise is like the rudder on a boat—it will keep your story flowing in the right direction, lending even a first draft a professional, finished quality.
Before committing to writing your screenplay, ask yourself why you’re eager to tell this story, and what underlying communication you want to make. Try to formulate that answer as a statement, such as: “The end doesn’t justify the means.” This statement might describe the premise of Wall Street, because Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen) wants to get to the top and is faced with tough moral choices about how to achieve his goal. “Prejudice destroys love” is another strong premise, which would support any version of Romeo and Juliet. The premise of both The Fugitive and ArtRage is “Good triumphs over evil.” There are many premises. My own personal favorite is “One person can make a difference,” so it’s not surprising that the films I watch over and over are Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and North by Northwest.
Before you begin your screenplay, write down a premise for your story. You can change it or rework it as you go along, but you need something to start. This statement must contain a pearl of wisdom that concerns not just your character but you, the writer, as well. For example, Everett Aisen, the author of ArtRage, is an artist, and has taught screenwriting for many years. The question about the importance of art is very real to him, not simply an intellectual concept.
By analyzing the films you love you will find that, however different they are plot-wise, many will have the same premise. For example, if you watch a lot of love stories, “Love conquers all” is a likely premise. If you watch action films, “Good conquers evil” will likely keep popping up. Using a premise that resonates with you personally will help you write a better, more cohesive script.
Saturday, May 24, 2008
Tomorrow I leave for New Mexico where I will be presenting two workshops at the 10th Annual Screenwriting Conference in Santa Fe. It's one of the most respected screenwriting conferences in the world - largely because of the great work put-in by organizer Larry Stouffer and his team - and I am very pleased I have the opportunity to participate.
I have already made plans to meet-up with some of my students who will also be at the conference and if you will be attending, please come-over and say 'hello.'
Friday, May 23, 2008
I’ve been working on two romantic comedies with two different students. One’s about a 25-year-old guy having a quarter-life crisis and the other is about a 50-year-old man having a mid-life crisis. The two stories have different plots, but the two characters have an amazing amount of the same problems. Both have mortality issues, both struggle to overcome a feeling of powerlessness and to gain control of their lives. The plots both concern work, women and low self-esteem.
The good news is that in the end they both overcome their problems. The bad news is that just because you solve them at 25, you will probably have a whole new set at 50.
The journey for both characters at these critical moments in their lives is to realize what they can and cannot control, and accept responsibility. This concern over control is certainly a theme in all of our lives. We can control what we order at Starbucks, but not who is running our country. The trade-off seems to be that we either bemoan the lack of control in politics or embrace our freedom in coffee. Are we being given an unfair trade?
The decision to focus on the coffee or to change the country is a metaphor for what all of us must take stock of and decide. Ask yourself, what do I really have control over? Then ask yourself what your main character believes they have control over? How are the two of you alike and different? What could the old expression, “Wake up and smell the coffee,” possibly mean today.”
In Star War, Luke feels powerless at the beginning of the movie. But at the end, he is able to destroy the Death Star. In the same episode, Han Solo feels no commitment to anything but money, until the very end, when he finally risks his own life to defeat the Empire.
Wednesday, May 21, 2008
Tuesday, May 20, 2008
My student Caytha Jentis has had an inspiring success with her romantic comedy And Then Came Love.
She was able to write, find financing, produce and sell her film to Warner Bros., without ever going to a festival, drastically shortening the filmmaking curve. In addition to that, the movie had the good fortune of being sold to the WE Network (where it had its TV debut on Saturday) a sign, I think, of it being a really good film.
There are a few reasons I was pleased to have had the chance to work as the script consultant on the film, not the least of which is that it is one of those rare movies where a female character gets to have it all. But perhaps more importantly, I had the chance to see two of my friends – Caytha Jentis and Shashi Balooja (who hosted a terrific TV viewing party) – produce a great film.
I’m so proud for both of them.
Monday, May 19, 2008
The first step is to return to the source material, whether it’s a book, magazine article, or an original idea. A subplot can be defined as a minor storyline that runs parallel to the main plot of the film and often comments, contrasts, or supports and expands the issues and themes raised by the main plot.
Often a romance serves as the subplot in a film, Casablanca being a good example of this. The main plot is about whether Rick (Humphrey Bogart) will help Viktor Laszlo (Paul Henreid), the resistance leader, escape from Casablanca; the subplot is about Rick’s love affair with Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) and his discovery that she has left him for Laszlo. The subtext is about sacrificing personal passion to serve a higher purpose.
In ArtRage, the novel I mentioned in an earlier post, there are several important characters. One is the cop, one is a sexy female lawyer, Yolanda, and one is Case's 17-year-old son, Nick. Since Mace is attracted to Yolanda in the book, what “if” we make her the “Ilsa” in our screenplay version? Again, we can “borrow” an idea, this time from Casablanca. What “if”—after Mace breaks out of jail—he goes to Yolanda and asks her to hide him? What “if” she tries to talk him into turning himself in, but he refuses? And what “if” the climactic scene is when she lures him to her apartment and the cop is waiting to arrest him?
The subplot also sometimes carries the story. In Witness, the subplot follows the love story between John Book (Harrison Ford) and Rachel (Kelly McGillis). It's their feelings for each other that drive the story to its climax.
Friday, May 16, 2008
Come out and celebrate the 2008 season with us, as we kick off the summer with a big blowout at the Angel Orensanz Foundation. There's an open bar, and The Brooklyn Bombshells will teach you some swing dance moves so you can dance to to the stylings of our band: Lady Luck and the Suicide Kings.
There's going to be a Photo Booth, Carnival Games of Chance, a Silent Auction, and performers including: the cast of the 2008 Coney Island Circus Sideshow; Miss Coney Island Serpentina, Diamond Donny, Heather Holiday, Angelica, Scott Baker, Nick Knack, Burlesque at the Beach's Bambi the Mermaid and The Great Fredini, Julie Atlas Muz, Tigger, Saturn, The Pontani Sisters, The Peach Tartes, Dirty Martini, Hula Harvest, World Famous *BOB*, Little Brooklyn, Brian Fisherman, Chris McDaniels, as well as Swing Dancing Sirens- The Brooklyn Bombshells, Shelly Watson, the inimitable Reverend Billy, Little Jimmy, Jo Boobs and the graduating class of the New York School of Burlesque, DJ Jeff Jackson, The MINI MERMAID PARADE, and MORE!!
Did we mention there's an OPEN BAR and Catered FOOD????
- $100 for regular Gala tickets ($80 tax deductible)
- $250 for VIP tickets that include access to the VIP seating area, swing dancing lesson priority, a gift bag, table service for food and drink, and meet and greets with performers! ($200 tax deductible)
Join the Host Committee!
Joining the host is another great way to get involved. Host Committee members sell five tickets and get a free ticket so they can host their friends. In 2008, Host Committee members will also get treated to dinner the week before the benefit and receive special updates through the year about activities in Coney Island and progress on our building renovation. This is the way that we expand our out reach...but getting our friends to help us contact their friends.
Thursday, May 15, 2008
I recently attended an art show for Joan Sommers, the 85-year old mother of a dear friend. She is a marvelous painter and the work included pieces she’d created as a student at The Art Institute of Chicago in 1948. I’m lucky enough to possess one of her calligraphy pieces entitled, “A Heart Waiting For Spring,” and she has been a major influence in my work, teaching me about the relationship to the motion in the heart and how it affects the hand of the artist.
When I left the show (after a glass or two of superior wine) I walked in the fading weekend light towards the subway, surrounded by happy couples walking together in the warm spring air. I am currently single, and content for the moment, but of course Saturday nights are the one time everyone who doesn’t have a date wants one. I felt a stab of melancholy and wondered what I would include in a retrospective of my own life: Photos of the two husbands and all the boyfriends? A teaching award? A still from a movie I worked on? What about all of the cats?
I then realized that it wasn’t just the paintings that Joan exhibited that were significant; it was the image of her surrounded by her successful daughters, devoted and dashing husband, and many friends. It was the elegant outfit she wore, her soft-spoken manner, and her beautiful smile. This realization brought me back to my own writing and inspired the following exercise (to be done for both your main character and the villain or obstacle).
Imagine that the character is 85 and is in some way being feted for their life’s work. Pick the type of party—an art show, a dinner, an award ceremony, etc. How would the character look, who would be with them, what would they say? Where would it happen? Would the villain be there? Fill in the checklist below, and then have your character “talk” about the event for a page or two. You will discover wonderful new information that will enhance and enrich your current script, and may spawn ideas for new works.
Who is being celebrated?
What is the event?
Why is this happening now?
When is it?
Where is it?
Wednesday, May 14, 2008
Monday, May 12, 2008
According to Constantine Stanislavski, subtext is the deeper and usually repressed meanings hidden in the hero's or heroine's dialogue and actions. It is what a character really feels, whether or not it matches what he or she is saying or doing. Think of it as the hidden meaning in the scene.
Friday, May 9, 2008
I’ve decided to take a moment to discuss dancing with today’s post. That might seem like an odd topic for a screenwriting blog but, in addition to providing writers with a good opportunity to expand their horizons and get-out of the house/office and try something active, when done right, a good screenplay combines plot and character like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.
Starting tomorrow (Saturday), there will be a drop-in Tango class every week aimed at beginners. Lessons* will focus on polishing the basics of musicality & floor craft, followed by open dancing.
939 8th Ave, Studio 4A (buzz 401 or 307)
If you have any questions, feel free to contact Santiago at:
*Private classes are available upon request.
Thursday, May 8, 2008
We all have mentors who have influenced judgments and ideas we have about other people or things (spouse, boss, self, etc.). Since Mother’s Day is fast approaching let’s talk about our mothers, who are our first mentors.
I once took a seminar with the author Walter Mosely, and he said that when you are born, “Your mama is god.” When writing, it is always useful to use yourself as a benchmark for developing characters. Write a list of your mother’s best attributes. How do your feelings about your own mother influence your choices and shape how you feel about yourself? Once you have answered this question in your own life (and there will be different answers for different times in your life), identify your hero or heroine’s mother, and ask the same question of your character.
In North By Northwest, Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) has clearly spent his life trying to please his mother. This insight into the character makes us much more sympathetic to an arrogant advertising executive who seems to think only of himself. We can see that he takes after her in the sense that he believes in his own vision enough to do what’s necessary to survive.
In Back To The Future, Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) is negatively inspired by his mother’s bitterness and disappointment as to how her life turned out, and in some way this gives him the courage to become a man and change his own future. Here the gift is a seemingly negative one, which produces positive results.
As your character, write a list of their mother’s good qualities in your character’s first person voice. For example my mother throws a great party.
Ask the character in your voice, how do they define themselves in terms of their mothers? And then answer again in the character’s voice. For example, my mother throws a great party but I am horribly shy.
Answering this question for your villain or obstacle as well as your hero and heroine will create real depth and subtext.
As my mother used to say…
Wednesday, May 7, 2008
Monday, May 5, 2008
To create a more active story, we can borrow a technique from the acting teacher Constantin Stanislavski, who developed a unique system for actors, so that they could achieve a truthful portrayal of a character.
The Stanislavski "Method" in part requires that actors ask and answer questions about their characters and about themselves. The Magic "If" allows actors to transcend the confines of their own current reality by asking them to consider what would happen "if" things were different. For example, try to imagine what would happen if you were suddenly a member of the opposite sex? How would things be different? In Tootsie, Michael (Dustin Hoffman) uses that scenario to land a role in a soap opera.
Using the Magic "If" allows you to imagine that you are the main character in your story, giving you a foundation for building your screenplay because you know best how you would react to the situation you are writing about. By comparing your reactions with those of your characters, you will always know what to write because you can project how things would turn out if you were actually put in that same situation.
The Magic "If" is the magic wand that connects the screenwriter to the script. Ask yourself, "What if I were my character? What if I were in the same situation? What would I do? What would my character do?"
In part one, I discussed stories that worked better as novels than screenplays, specifically because they focused on a character's thoughts and inner turmoil. But what if you still want to present this story as a screenplay? How can you add enough on-screen action to hold the viewer's interest for two hours? Well, what "if" the character escapes from the police and does all of that thinking while he's on the run?
The Fugitive is a great example of a desperate man reflecting on recent events, while engaged in action on-screen. Adding the chase element to the story creates the appropriate suspense and keeps the audience wondering what's going to happen next. But remember, when you decide to add a device like a chase to your story, don't ignore your characters. Even though the chase in The Fugitive was a strong and captivating choice, the device worked in large part because Lt. Sam Gerard (Tommy Lee Jones) was an equally interesting character.
Saturday, May 3, 2008
For a movie fan, it’s always exciting when you stumble upon a great film that no one else has seen. Maybe it’s a solid script, or a great performance, or masterful direction, but something about it makes you want to return to it again and again. Your first reaction is almost always to keep it to yourself, perhaps worried that if it ‘gets out there,’ it will blow-up and become something entirely different than what you first fell in love with. But finally you relent and tell a few people about it, in the hopes that they will share your affection for it and gain the same pleasure as you.
Recently, I had that reaction to a local New York bakery. Golden Honey Bear Bakery makes some of the tastiest cookies I’ve had in a long while. We were lucky enough to have some delivered to the office last week and after more than a few “visits” to the box, I finally told my assistant to “please, just finish them”, so I wouldn’t be continually tempted to go back for more.
If you’re interested in trying them for yourself (at $10/dozen they’re a great value!), please contact Kash at 646.379.4037 or Honeybearbakery@yahoo.com. Delivery is available.
Think of it as my contribution to your writer’s diet.
Friday, May 2, 2008
I just finished re-reading your article, "Rewriting Hero Last". All of the tips were helpful but #5 (What is the Hero’s unbreakable bond with the villain?) really helped me further define my protagonist. Rather than just have the villain as an outsider in my hero's life, I made the villain get the promotion at work that my hero was hoping for. So now the conflicts are: He beat her out for a job and she still has to work with him on the new account, as well as him being the antagonist throughout.
It really works well now.
New York, NY
Thank you for your note. I’m glad the tip was helpful.
I plan to begin posting some of my other past articles on this site, as well as some new ones. I hope you find them equally helpful with your writing.
Looking forward always,
Thursday, May 1, 2008
The summer session of my “Finish Your Script” class has started and one of my rules is that after a student completes a first draft, the first thing they must do is register it with the U.S. Copyright office. Many of them object saying it’s not “done” yet and if they copyright an early draft, they’re just going to have to do it again. This is not necessarily true but what if it is? Think of it as an investment in your future.
Many writers ask if they should copyright their treatments too. It’s not a bad idea but the only way to really protect an idea is by executing it.
For example, if you just went by the basic ideas for Body Heat and Double Indemnity, both stories could appear to be about unscrupulous women who lure innocent men to commit crimes on their behalf. But when reading the full screenplay, it would be obvious that they are hardly the same movie.
The other reason I would encourage you to copyright your screenplay is because until you believe in yourself enough to go to the effort and cost to protect it, you won’t really believe you’re a screenwriter.