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Friday, June 28, 2013

Plot driven stories

To continue from yesterday, if your story isn't driven by the character, what is driving it?

The plot, or the action is driving your story.

Think of the major two plot types - Adventure and Quest. They are both defined as a protagonist in search for a person, place, or thing. So what is the difference between the two? Well, the quest plot is a character driven plot, and the adventure is plot driven.

The protagonist in the quest plot is really shaped by the adventure they go on, and ultimately is changed. Classic example: Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. At the end of the story, she is a different person.

The protagonist in the Adventure plot is not shaped by the journey, and does not have to be different at the end of the story. Why? Because in this type of plot, it is the action which is the most important, not the character. So here in the Adventure plot, it is the journey itself which is the most important element in the story, while in the Quest plot, it is the character.  Think Raiders of the lost Ark.

Getting back to what drives the story - the action!  So, in the Quest plot, the character has to be very well developed with goals, obstacles, flaws, etc, and here in the Adventure plot the action needs to be well developed. It needs to always move forward. Needs to have many obstacles.  Needs to have surprises - twists and turns. If you don't surprise your audience to a certain degree, they will see what's coming next and get bored. By staying one step ahead of them is the way to be entertaining.

Think North by Northwest. One of the greats by Hitchcock. The story and action is always ahead of us. We can never guess what's coming next, and the action hardly ever slows down and it never stops. It moves forward. Always.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Character driven or plot driven?

Ok, so when you are in the initial stages of developing your idea for a feature length script, this is the golden question you have to ask yourself. The answer is pretty easy, but what do you do with this answer?
This is what I want you to think about:

If it's CHARACTER DRIVEN, like the above pic(Rebel Without A Cause) - your character is what drives the story.

If it's PLOT DRIVEN, like the above pic(Raiders of the Lost Ark) - your plot is what drives the story, or the "action."

So, simple enough, but I've come across many beginning writers who don't get this. Mainly, the problems I've seen with the character driven script is that the writer really hasn't done all the work necessary with the character. Has not fully developed him or her, thus not making them three dimensional. 

Your main character, the protagonist, in a character driven script, must be well defined. How do we do this? Be creating goals which your character wants. By creating obstacles which your character has to overcome. Be creating flaws in your character - none of us in real life are flaw free, so don't write your character this way. 

We need to know why your character is troubled - like Jim in REBEL - we get why he's bothered. We get his troubles and we feel for him and route for him to overcome them. This is true with all character driven stories - the character drives the story, so the character is always interesting and very compelling. 

Empathy is also very important in character driven films. Why? Because we must feel for the character - as this is what drives our story - emotions and the character. We have to have empathy, we have to route for this person to overcome their troubles. Very important. 

More examples of great characters in character driven stories:
- Chow in "In The Mood For Love."
- Antoine in "The 400 Blows."
- Marcello in "La Dolce Vita."
- Bernard in "The Squid and the Whale."
- Stephane in "The Science of Sleep."
- Alvy in "Annie Hall"

The list goes on and on. I think you get the drift. In the next post, we'll get into the other option; plot driven stories.

Questions? Comments?

In creating great characters, look to your own lives - as we have so many interesting real people all around us. 

Monday, June 24, 2013

More on writing a Treatment

I received some comments about wanting to know more about writing treatments, and why they're so important. So here we go.

In addition to what I spoke of in the last post, another strong reason as to WHY you should write a treatment is you don’t want to be in the development phase when writing your script, that’s what the treatment is for. So, in the perfect scenario, once you begin your script, your story is fully developed and all you need to do is write it in screenplay form.

Writing scripts to me is all about process, and writing a treatment is just another element in that process. We first develop our idea, and we should do this by writing character sketches - developing and creating characters. Also in this phase, we think about our plot - what plot type is right for our story? Revenge? Love? Quest? Then we do several things - write a synopsis or overview, then we should really try to get the idea and thrust of the story down into one sentence.

Next phase in the process is the treatment. As I mentioned, here in the treatment, we don't write much or any dialogue. Writing the dialogue, and it's a lot of fun to write dialogue - is saved for the script, which is great, because it then forces us to write visually. A script is a story told in pictures, with words - not told in words, with pictures.

So here in the treatment, it is the last peg in the process before we write the script. It is a great place to write in prose style, and really "work out" our story. Trust me, if you can make your story work in the treatment form, your first draft of the script will be really strong, and if it could talk, it would thank you!
Any questions or comments? Don't be shy - post.

Friday, June 21, 2013

The Treatment

Yes, we're back to talking about writing. And double YES - writing a treatment is a major deal!

A treatment is a detailed outline of the story from start to finish, written in prose style. It should present the tone of the story, and should always be written in the present tense with very little dialogue. If a screenplay is the blueprint of a film, the treatment is the blueprint of the script.

Unlike the one liner and paragraph, here in the treatment we begin to envision the overview of our story and develop it fully. We use very little or no dialogue in the treatment, which forces us to show, not tell. Keep in mind, we don’t want to explain things, we want to show. We do this by keeping the text simple and visual, and by avoiding exposition and camera directions.

Why don’t we just start with the script? Well, many reasons. Scripts are highly formatted, so writing our story out completely in a treatment allows us to use a prose style much like that of a short story. This process can be a bit more creative and freer, as we’re not bound by the conventions of the formatted screenplay.

Another reason is that the treatment is very useful in developing our story. Again, it’s part of the process in creating a great script. On average, scripts are 90-110 pages, and a treatment is usually more like 35-50 pages, so this is a more useful form to develop our story in, mainly because it is half the size. It’s more a manageable form for developing the story.

So, after you've written and developed your ONE LINER, then the PARAGRAPH, next step before you begin your script is the treatment. You write several drafts of this and get tons of feedback, you will have a much easier time when you begin the first draft of your script.

Here is the 1st page of one of my favorite treatments - Terminator, by James Cameron. read this first page and you'll see what I mean - it is very visual, and all SHOW, NOT TELL!

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

More Tips on Working with Actors

To continue from the last post, my preferred method of working with actors if we all have the time -is to get to know one another. And if you are a first time director of a low budget feature film - make the time!

It's all about communication and trust. The actors need to trust you and need to put a great deal of faith in you. If you don't have a "name" or a great reputation, how in the world will an actor truly trust you?

So, one great way to build trust is to simply spend time together. For example, on my first feature, I had a three week rehearsal schedule. We met 3 times a week for a total of three weeks. Twice a week at a studio and once a week at my house. It was here, in my house where we really got to know one another. I cooked dinner, they brought wine, and after we did some work for 2 hours or so, we ate dinner and drank.

Yeah, there's nothing like breaking bread with folks. This is how you get to know each other. To build trust. Have some laughs, let your guard down, and maybe even drink a little too much wine. We're talking about trying to achieve a level of comfort. The actor who played the male lead, Ivan, would take his shoes off when he entered my house and plop himself down on the sofa - this is achieving a level of comfort.

You do not want to be strangers when you begin to work on the set or location. Know each other - this is the first step in  being a good director.

Monday, June 17, 2013

More on Working with Actors

Most of the questions I'm asked either in the classroom or by first time feature directors is always about how to work with actors. What do you say to them? When you don't like what they're doing, what do you do?

First, if you haven't done so already, go to my last post and click on the link and watch the almost 2 hour video - all of which will do wonders for your directing head. It's workshop stuff, all show, not tell. You'll learn a ton from a few masters - Barnett Kellman is a comedic wizard, Larry Moss is amazing and I don't need to say anything about James L. Brooks.

So, what do you say to actors when you're not in love with what they're doing? First thing is, yes, say something! What do I mean by that? Well, I know many young filmmakers go on to do a 2nd take, and a 3rd and sometime more without ever saying a word. Without ever giving direction. Do not do this. It's a waste of time and confusing to your actors. Why do more takes if you're not going to talk about what you don't like about the previous take?

So the first tip is when you are not happy with what you are seeing, after that take, talk with your actors. Explain what's not working, but best of all, give input - have an idea. Offer a way to make it better. Never, and I mean never just say things like "that was good, but you should be angrier." Okay, so you feel the character should be angrier, instead of just telling your actor to be angrier, explain to them why the character is angry. They'll get it this way.

Or you're watching the take and after cut, you say be drunker. Again, stay away from just saying be more this or more that, or less of something. Be specific and give examples. Remind your actor that the scene takes place at 3:00 in the morning and they've had a lot to drink. They will understand this and "act" drunker.

So in this manner, you have explained to your actor the situation, and where the character is at emotionally or otherwise. This works much better than just "telling." And keep things simple. Don't say too much. Have an idea and articulate it in a few words. Don't go on and on. Be precise. And be prepared!

What do I mean by this? Well, before your shoot day, go over the scenes you'll be shooting and know what it's all about in terms of emotion and what the characters want and must overcome. Understand the essence of the scene - if you don't, you will not be able to give direction to the actors.  This is a must! If you don't understand the essence of the scene, you will then resort to saying dumb things like "faster, slower, more, less."

So a lot of how to work with actors really depends on work put in before you begin shooting. In the next post I'll continue on this and we'll discuss what you can do before production starts. Making indie films can sometimes have an advantage over big budget films. Because there is so little money and people in general are freer with their time, one great way to be a better director is to spend time with your actors prior to production. Eat with them. Have drinks with them. Get to know them!

This is a pic from my first film SLEEPWALK, with actors Drea de Matteo and Ivan Martin. We are clowning around, which we did a lot. We did, because we got to know one another prior to shooting - we'll go into more detail in next post.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

James L. Brooks and Larry Moss @ USC with Barnet Kellman

James L Brooks, Larry Moss and Barnet Kellman - YouTube

The above link is a taped and edited event I had the pleasure of watching a month or so ago at USC. Basically, for all you young and inspiring directors - if you want to learn more on how to work with actors, this is it! Almost 2 hours of real workshop style education - yes, they have directors with real actors doing real scenes!

This is USC at it's best. Education at its best.

And for those of you who might not know any of these three gentlemen, you have two choices - abandon your desire to be a filmmaker as you should already know these cats, or quickly find out who they are and promise yourself you'll get out of the house more.

It really was an amazing night. I learned quite a bit. Barnet and Larry have such creative and quick minds. Some of the stuff they came up with, and how quickly, amazed me.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013


More on writing. I spoke with an ex-student recently, who asked a lot of questions about staying inspired when writing a feature length script. He told me he found it hard to stay inspired as it took him over a year to write a first draft. He asked how do you stay inspired and keep things fresh. He also asked how do you know when to move on to something else and abandon ship, or keep staying the course.

All good questions. Many ways to answer. Let's start with the idea and you. You, meaning, what types of films do you like? You should write what you like, and try and write what you know. Many first time writers have an inspiration problem sometimes halfway into the script, and it's because of these two reasons; they are writing something they know very little of, and perhaps they're writing something to sell, and they don't really feel it.

For example, I like to watch character driven films, so obviously that's what I like to write and make. I have tried writing plot driven scripts, and always get bored or a headache somewhere in the middle, or in a second draft. Why? Because it's really not what I'm passionate about. I enjoy from time to time a great plot driven film to watch, but not to write. It never feels right. So that's one tip; write what you're passionate about, and more than likely you'll run into less problems.

Another big tip is to always and I mean always write the first draft as quickly as possible. Like six weeks or less. Just get it out. Then let it sit, and then it's rewrite after rewrite.

Getting back to writing about something you know, this is a sure way to stay inspired. When you write stories about people or actions you know nothing of, like hit men and mafia crap, or course you're going to run into problems. Where are the ideas coming from? They're not coming from personal experience, so at some point, your well is going to run dry. So write what you know. Write what you like.

And lastly, to be very frank, you are writing because you LOVE to write. So it's your job to stay inspired. Create good habits. Write every day. Write every morning. Be very workman like, or work woman like. Push yourself. Dig deep. Good things will come.

Monday, June 10, 2013

More on Scripts

Getting back to reading scripts and why, well, obvious, you want to learn. Want to be a better writer, so one easy way to do so is to READ. In the last post, I mentioned a few places where free scripts are. But when you read them, don't just "read" them. Break them down.

First, always read shooting scripts. Don't read the scripts published in book form, these are not shooting scripts. Get the real scripts, on normal size paper if you print them out, which will have the "real" amount of pages. Here, with the shooting script, you want to find out what happens when, where, and how.

For example, on what page does the inciting incident start? You know, the inciting incident is when the story starts. Like in Apocalypse Now, the story starts when he gets his orders to find Kurtz. This is something you want to know. Your story can not start too late. Find out how character is developed, and when, and for how long.

When is the first obstacle? The second, third and so on. How does Act I end? On what page does Plot Point One happen? And Act II, when and how does this end?

These are the things you want to study when reading a script. Because when you write yours, you will copy this structure. You will have your inciting incident happen around the same time, as well as the plot point and the rest.

Here is a pic of MARATHON MAN - one of my favorite scripts. It's all banged up because I've read it so many times over the years. Have studied it. Broke it down. I know what works and when. Do the same.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Amazon Storyteller

Amazon is coming out with a FREE tool which turns scripts into storyboards. It sounds interesting. I like the idea as we always want our scenes to SHOW, NOT TELL, and this might be an interesting way to test this. Can't storyboard exposition, can you?

Here's a link to an article about it:

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Free Scripts online

The best way to become a better screenwriter is to read as many scripts as humanly possible. Of course watching films is oh so important, but reading a script really allows you access to the "floor plan."

Pick one or two of your favorite films and find their scripts. Then print them, read them like a dozen times, breaking them down in terms of plot, structure, character development, plot points, goals, obstacles, etc.

Here is a short list of where you can access free online scripts:

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

monopoly on creativity

Yes, nobody has a monopoly on creativity. I've attached a link below to a good article on indie filmmaking, from a seemingly good indie website. This article rings very true to me, and states what I often rant about.

The best asset's we indies have is our creative mind. All the money and star power and shareholders in the world can not out produce creative thought. It's easy to have car crashes and tons of action - all it costs is money. But to have a really amazing story, with a truly well developed character does not take a single dime, just hard work and creativity.

Monday, June 3, 2013

here's a good reason for more indie films!

Here in the New York Times is an interesting article on big, bloated Hollywood films. This films cost $135 million to make and they spent $100 million to promote, by Sony - which has to answer to shareholders. What a crazy way to make films. Films made by corporations, by committee, not by individuals.

So climb that tree, take the bull by the horns and be the New Gorilla - go indie!

N Y Times article

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Preparation Before Making a Feature Film

So, one last time here, I want to hammer home the importance of making short films before you jump into the very large pond of making a feature. Directing your first feature is a huge undertaking, and they're always many problems and obstacles to overcome. The big point I want to make on this is that if you make several short films prior to your first feature, on that first feature, you will encounter less problems, and will be more equipped to handle the problems that do arise.

The obvious concept here is the more you do, the better you will be. So, the more shorts you make, the better the filmmaker you become. Too many first time filmmakers jump right into making a feature. You must make many shorts first. You'll get better with each film, and hopefully at some point, one of these shorts will really work and you'll receive some nice attention from it.

This attention will go a long way. It will help you raise funds, attached actors and crew. It will give you confidence as well.

All of the mistakes you make on your first few shorts, hopefully you won't be a repeat offender. Get my drift? It is here on these shorts that you want to learn from your mistakes, not on the feature. A feature has too much on the line for on the job training. Make all of your mistakes on the shorts, learn from them, and do not repeat these when you do eventually make your feature.