I can’t remember where I got this from, but this pretty much says it.
Every time I find myself typing the word “suddenly,” I want to kill myself. On the other hand, I use exclamation points all over the place in my screenplays. Screenplays seem to demand it for some reason.
The memo is a good distillation of Mamet’s altogether straightforward thoughts on the nature of drama, for those of you too poor to buy (or too honest to steal) copies of Writing in Restaurants, Some Freaks, Three Uses of the Knife or On Directing Film.
There was a panel discussion at the WGA Theater, where a couple of screenwriters, a couple of producers and a couple of studio executives gathered to talk about development. Ace screenwriter John August reports. Over the years, I’d figured out on my own a lot of the things that were talked about, but it was both bracing and a little scary to hear my own doom-and-gloom suspicions reflected back at me.
Fewer movies are being developed, which means there are more writers competing for each job, which means that the very few people in Hollywood who actually pay money to writers for writing screenplays pretty much get to ask for whatever they want to: free development, multiple free treatments, free screenplay drafts. The screenwriter who objects to working for weeks, or months, or years for free (my record is two years on one project) is labeled "difficult" and is out of the running. The great screenwriter who isn’t "good in the room" is passed over for the mediocre screenwriter who makes everyone laugh at the pitch meeting.
The studios are in the control of the marketing folk. That means that any movie idea that can’t be summed up in five words is suspect and anything that takes more than a sentence is rejected outright. Italso means that screenwriter’s "ideas" are less valuable than ever, since they haven’t been "pre-sold." (My favorite story from the discussion is from Jonathan Hensleigh, who had an idea for a movie he couldn’t sell, so he bought the rights to a comic book that had a similar idea, because "the fucking idiots need a pre-branded thing to look at."
One would think that the success of Slumdog Millionaire would mean that every studio is out looking for the next Slumdog Millionaire, right? Wrong. Slumdog Millionaire has, if I’m not mistaken, four different studios and production companies’ names at the front of it — it’s obviously a movie that had a very hard time finding its financing. That was true when it was made and it would still be true tomorrow. Because, as successful as it is, there was no way to predict that. If the producer walked into a studio executive’s office, x years ago, with the script for Slumdog Millionaire in his hand and a report from the future that it would make over $100 million and win the Best Picture Oscar, complete with Variety reports and video footage, the executive would still turn it down: it has no stars (which is bad for international sales), is mostly a grim story about the difficult lives of Mumbai orphans, is a hard sell, and can’t be summed up in five words. "Mumbai Orphan Wins Game Show Through Miracle" is the shortest I could compact the story, and that’s two words too many, sorry, what about a movie based on Shamwow?
I interrupt the holiday festivities to note the passing of Harold Pinter. To "serious playwrights" of my generation, Pinter was second only to Beckett in terms of being a must-read. Back when I was trying to figure out what a play is, I read all the Pinter I could get my hands on. As the years went by, I sufficiently developed my talent to the point where I finally began to understand that I didn’t have the slightest idea what Pinter was doing. I understood that his absurdist dramas were primarily about mood, that they weren’t meant to be taken literally, but it was a good twenty-five years before I started to get a handle on the full measure of his accomplishment. Pinter himself consistently refused to discuss his work in any but the most practical terms ("you stand there and say this and pause here and then stick the knife in, and that’s really all there is to it") but a piece last year from John Lahr in the New Yorker did an excellent job of putting the whole thing into something like a proper perspective. To paraphrase Beckett’s thoughts on Joyce, most playwrights write about something, but Pinter’s plays are something. They don’t find drama in social interaction, they are drama itself. They aren’t there to merely entertain you, they’re there to provoke an emotional reaction. That sounds easy, but try it some time, try to create a drama that pushes past the conventions of the form to arrive at a place where the drama is the play itself, and maybe you too can end up with a Nobel prize.
For those thinking "Who the heck is Harold Pinter?" I suggest you begin with Betrayal, a mid-period piece of his, a relatively straightforward romantic drama with a simple, ingenious twist — it is told backwards. For my illiterate readers, there is an excellent film adaptation starring Ben Kingsley and Jeremy Irons. Another good place to start is his electrifying anti-torture one-act One for the Road. Or, you could watch himexplain himself — in his own kind of way — in his Nobel speech. And here is the young Ian Holm as Lenny in a scene from The Homecoming. And here is Donald Pleasence and Alan Bates in a scene from The Caretaker. And here is some very late Pinter, a chunk of his adaptation of Peter Shaffer’s (actually Anthony Shaffer’s — see below) Sleuth with Michael Caine and Jude Law, directed by Kenneth Branagh, which well illustrates his way with threat and the power struggles that underlie the smallest conversational tidbits.
A few years ago, I had a devastating moment of self-definition in a hotel bathtub in Innsbruck. I was reading a little book of essays on Pinter, published in conjunction with his 70th birthday. One of the essays described him as England’s last "important" writer, that is, a writer whose work isn’t merely decorative, or "entertainment," but which has worth and resonance into the "real" world, the world of politics and world affairs, and which physically alters the shape of its form — plays would never be quite the same after Pinter, and any theatrical moment that wrings uneasy menace from a silence will be forever known as "Pinteresque." My devastating moment of self-definition came when I suddenly realized, with an electric chill, that no one is ever going to publish a little book of essays on my 70th birthday, describing me as an "important writer." It was a shaming moment, but also a freeing one, because I realized that the job of Harold Pinter was already taken, there was no point in my pursuing it. I decided then that if I ever wrote a memoir, I would call it An Unimportant Writer.
*You have a cool idea for a movie
*You know who the protagonist is and what the protagonist wants and who is in the protagonist’s way
*You’ve sketched out a basic act structure
*You’ve expanded upon that sketch and written your outline.
Now the work begins: it is time to write a treatment.
In my experience, this is the point where screenplays are won or lost. Almost anyone can have, and has had, a cool idea for a movie. A dog accidentally gets issued a credit card — there, I just had one myself!
And a similar number of people could sketch out a basic three act structure for that movie: Act I, the dog gets the credit card and goes hog-wild, buying all kinds of things, Act II, the dog’s bills come due, and he finds he must get a job in order to pay for all the things he bought, Act III, the dog, through his experience, learns that he was happier not having a credit card after all.
Putting together an outline starts to get a little more difficult, but the treatment is where the rubber hits the road.
Basically, a treatment is a prose version of your screenplay, your screenplay, in a way, told as a short story.
You may ask, hey wait, if I was any damn good at prose, what the hell would I be doing writing a screenplay? If I could freakin’ write prose, I’d be freakin’ Raymond Carver, I wouldn’t be scraping around trying to write a screenplay! And I understand your pain, for I have felt it myself.
Okay then, let’s not think of it as prose, let’s think of it this way: you’ve just seen a really cool movie, and you can’t wait to tell me about it.
The movie’s just let out and you’re totally buzzed about it and you meet up with me at a good restaurant afterward and you have to tell me about the movie and get it all out before the food comes. Go!
“There’s this guy, Rob, and he lives in New York, and he’s got a job working for some big-deal corporate thing, and he’s all psyched because he just got transferred to Japan, and he can’t wait to go, but guess what? There’s this girl, Beth, and she’s got this totally awesome apartment on Columbus Circle that belongs to her dad, and Rob has been friends with her off and on for a long time but now he’s, like, totally fallen in love with her, but he decides he can’t really tell her that, because, right, he’s about to leave for Japan forever. So he’s conflicted about that, and then the night before he leaves, all his cool friends get together and throw him a surprise party, and Beth is there, but she’s with some other guy, some douche we don’t know, and all his other friends are there, and his best friend is, like, shooting the whole party with Rob’s video camera, so Rob can’t, like, say anything to Beth, even though he really wants to, because he’s leaving the next day and everyone wants to say goodbye and his dorky best friend Hud is shooting everything with this video camera. And get this — the whole movie? is shown from the point-of-view of Hud, through Rob’s video camera. So it’s this really cool cinema-verite kind of thing, we pick up random pieces of behavior, and we see Hud is trying to put the make on this girl Marlene, and he’s really not doing his job very well, and it’s totally funny and awesome and everything, because Hud’s, like, taping over this tape that Rob made about his one date with Beth, so like he unknowingly is, like, being a total dick. And anyway, Beth leaves the party with the douche and Rob gets really upset and everyone’s concerned and Rob’s brother Jason or somebody tells him he absolutely has to go after Beth, and then you know what happens? A GIANT MONSTER SHOWS UP AND STARTS BLOWING STUFF UP!!”
There. The above paragraph is, in essence, a treatment for the first 20 minutes of Cloverfield. I, personally, would not hand this in to a producer for consideration, but BELIEVE ME, I’VE READ WORSE.
Now, look at that paragraph again. It’s not great prose, it’s barely prose at all, but it describes the plot with a kind of propulsive energy and sense of movement, and what’s more, it does it in a language that gets across the 21st-century, internet-generation sensibility (or at least my 46-year-old’s interpretation of same). And that’s all a treatment really has to do. It has to tell the story, the whole story, and get across the general feeling of the movie. If you were writing the treatment for There Will Be Blood, it would probably be more like this:
“There’s a landscape. A harsh, unforgiving landscape. Rocks. Dirt. Punishing sun. Texas. Or Hell. And there’s a hole in that landscape. A wound. And deep in that wound, silent but for the steady pound of his pick, there is a man. Filthy, strong, mustachioed. Deep in a wound in the Earth, the man slams his pick, a tool of destiny, against the flinty walls of this hole, this grave he has prematurely dug in order to bury his soul. Sparks fly from the rocks, each one a symbol of the life of man, which flares only for an instant before being forever snuffed out.”
And so on.
Again, while the treatment should be readable, the most important thing about it is that it gets across your story points in a voice that gets across the feeling of the movie. The hard part is that it has to get across all the story, scene by scene, all the way through, with no “and then there’s this cool action set-piece I’ll figure out later” thrown in.
Now, what’s the point of this exercise? Why not just write the goddamn screenplay? Wouldn’t that just take less time?
Well, perhaps. But if you’re anything like me, what you will have at the end of your process is a screenplay no one will want to read. Because you haven’t worked out the story ahead of time as a treatment.
The point of all this pre-work work is to iron out all your plot points, character arcs and whatnot so that, when you sit down to write your screenplay, you’ve already done all the work and you can enjoy the process of writing.
Some people, I guess, can just sit down at their computer and open up Final Draft and just go ahead and start in writing their screenplay, and “feel” where it should go next, and those people can allow themselves to wander and surprise themselves and come up with something new and startling and original and amazing, something they wouldn’t have come up with if they had sat down ahead of time to think things out.
1. I am not one of those writers.
If I start a screenplay working like that, what happens is I have a great idea for an opening sequence, then I get to page 25 or so and I realize that the great opening sequence isn’t going to work because it contradicts something that happens later in the act, but I’m loath to go back and kill my great opening sequence because I loved it so dearly when I was writing it and it turned out so nice and, well, what if I just typed up some brilliant bullshit to cover up the fact that I started without knowing where I was going?
2. I find that if I have done the difficult work of ironing out my story before I write my screenplay, I am able, once I sit down to do that, to do that creative thing, where I take chances and just “let ideas come” and “fool around” with the ideas and so forth. Once I have the tracks laid and nailed in place, I find that I can make the train engine fancy or plain or asymetrical or goofy and know that it will still get to the station on time.
There is no set length. I’ve read treatments as short as two pages and as long as 42. The ones that are two pages long, I’ve found, favor sensation over logic and leave out a lot of crucial stuff. (My favorite sentence in a treatment ever, written by a very successful writer/director, for a project that didn’t happen, was “And did I mention the radioactive sharks?” I guess you had to be there.)
So you have a cool idea for a movie. Congratulations! Now all you have to do is figure out how to turn that idea into a screenplay.
What a lot of people do once they have a cool idea for a movie is sit down at their computers and type FADE IN:… And then they sit there for a few minutes staring at the blank screen until email, eBay or their blogs call them away. The flashing cursor on the blank screen is one of the most powerful inducements to go do something else with your time ever created.
(For a complete list of things one can do instead of writing a screenplay, see me after class.)
Here’s the answer to your anxiety of the blank screen: go back to lesson 1: All Writing Is Rewriting. Don’t try to write the whole screenplay in one go, write it in incremental steps. You rewrite as you go along.
Start with the cool idea. Don’t worry about making it artful, just worry about making it clear.
Here’s a cool idea: a man’s wife is murdered, and he is accused of the crime.
So, you write that down. Nothing else, just that. And maybe that’s your work for the day.
And just keep that file open on your desktop. Call it MURDER GUY or something.
Don’t worry about making it a big hit screenplay yet, just worry about getting ideas down on paper.
Ideas come to you over the days: the man accused of the crime is a surgeon. The actual man responsible for the crime has a prosthetic arm. There’s a spectacular bus crash. There’s a showdown at a dam. There’s a chase through a hotel laundry. So forth.
You write down all those ideas as they occur to you. In no particular order. Maybe you’ll use all of them, maybe you won’t. Carry a little notebook in your pocket so you can jot them down as they occur to you. I ride my bike around Santa Monica in order to think and can often be seen stopped in the middle of a parking lot, jotting little things down in my little trustynotebook.
And the cool thing about computers is they don’t care what order you write stuff down in, they’ll let you painlessly organize it later.
Okay. So you’ve got your cool idea for a movie, and you know who your protagonist is and what he wants. Congratulations! You’ve completed the most important part of writing a screenplay.
Now: who will be working against your protagonist? Well, there’s the guy who really killed the doctor’s wife, and there’s a US marshal who is out to get the doctor whether he’s innocent or not, and there’s the guy who hired the guy who killed the doctor’s wife, and there’s everybody else in the world who thinks the doctor is guilty and should be in jail. That’s a formidable array of adversaries and you’re well on the way to writing a big hit blockbuster.
Okay. So you’ve got a protagonist with a very strong want and a set of strong antagonists to oppose him. Here is where you sit down and rough out an outline.
Shouldn’t be more than a few lines. If you know who your protagonist is and what he wants, it shouldn’t be too hard to figure out a basic three-act structure for his story.
(In case you haven’t guessed, I’ve chosen for my outline model The Fugitive, Jeb Stuart and David Twohy’s masterful 1993 thriller.)
So let’s say that Act I is the doctor’s wife’s murder, the doctor’s trial and incarceration and his miraculous escape from that. That’s some freakin’ first act! You take a wealthy, successful man, kill his wife, take away all his money, his reputation, his freedom and damn near his life, all in the first 40 minutes of the movie. This is what we in the business call a “reversal of fortune,” and it’s one of the story tricks that help make hit movies.
Okay, so you just write down:
ACT I: Dr. Kimble’s wife is murdered, he is accused, arrested, tried, convicted, sent to prison, but somehow escapes.
So, all of Act I’s energy flows in one direction: Making Dr. Kimble a fugitive of justice. We could call this little 40-minute movie “Dr. Kimble Becomes A Fugitive.”
Now then, if you’ve seen The Fugitive recently, you know what happens next. Dr. Kimble runs for a few minutes, but then he realizes that he cannot run forever, and in fact, he has something he absolutely must do that will require him going back to his life and sneaking around. What must he do? He actually announces it at the end of Act I: “Find That Man!” he remembers telling someone, and so he, and the narrative, literally do a 180 and head in the opposite direction, and all of Act II, the next 40 minutes of the movie, are another expertly paced little narrative called “Dr. Kimble Finds The One-Armed Man.” Every scene is about Dr. Kimble’s pursuit of the One-Armed Man, every roadblock is there to stand in his way of Finding The One-Armed Man.
But all you need to write down for now is: ACT I: Dr. Kimble Becomes A Fugitive, ACT II: Dr. Kimble Finds The One-Armed Man.
What’s left? What’s left is Dr. Kimble Finds The Man Responsible For His Wife’s Death. And all of Act III of The Fugitive, every single scene, is dedicated to Dr. Kimble’s step-by-step figuring out who is The Man Responsible For His Wife’s Death.
So that’s just three sentences, but it is, honest to God, the bulk of the work of writing a screenplay. The problem, of course, is knowing what those three sentences are. Once you do, everything else can begin to fall into place.
Once you have those three sentences, then you can start filling in your empty spaces. Don’t open your screenwriting program, you’re not there quite yet. Just concentrate on the next step. Take your time, there’s no rush. Keep jotting things down as they occur to you.
The next step is figuring out your broad strokes. How do you begin to figure out your broad strokes? You go back to your beginning: who your protagonist and what does he want?
Who is responsible for Dr. Kimble’s wife’s murder? Well, Dr. Kimble is a wealthy surgeon — it’s probably someone in the medical profession. Who would stand to lose so much that they would sanction a murder to keep their secret? Probably someone in the pharmaceutical business. How is Dr. Kimble going to find the one-armed man? Well, he’s a doctor, he would understand something about the manufacture and distribution of prosthetic limbs, or at least he would know how to gain access to hospital records.
You see? By simply knowing who your protagonist is and what he wants, everything else begins to fall into place. Who is the US marshal pursuing Dr. Kimble? Well, if Dr. Kimble is single-minded in his goal, so should the US marshal. If Dr. Kimble is filled with moral outrage regarding his wife’s death, well, let’s make the marshal morally abstentious — make it that he literally doesn’t care if the doctor is guilty or not. That makes him a formidable adversary and will most likely win the actor who plays the character an Oscar.
Everything the protagonist does, everyone he meets, everyone who’s against him, everyone who helps him, should be, in some way, related to who he is and what he wants. This relationship can be literal, consonant, assonant, thematic or opposite, but the more you link every possible thing in the script to the protagonist and his goal the stronger your script will eventually be.
But we’re still not ready yet. What you need to do first is build your three-sentence act description into a three-page outline, a document that will give you a rough idea of the order of your scenes. This document should be very loose and informal — don’t worry about sentence structure or wording or anything like that, no one is ever going to see this document except you.
Break each act down into smaller sequences:
ACT I: Dr. Kimble’s wife is murdered, Dr. Kimble is brought in for questioning, Dr. Kimble is suspected of murder, Dr. Kimble is arrested, Dr. Kimble is tried, Dr. Kimble is convicted, Dr. Kimble is sentenced, Dr. Kimble is put on a bus and sent to prison, the bus is involved in a spectacular crash with a train, Dr. Kimble escapes and becomes a fugitive.
There, that’s ten narrative beats, that’s a goodly number for an act. It’s still just the broad strokes. And you do that for the other two acts as well. And you can try to work in the the cool beat ideas you’ve had. The bus crash — hey, maybe that’s how Dr. Kimble gets out of having to go to prison. The showdown at the dam, maybe that’s the scene when Dr. Kimble first meets his chief antagonist. The chase through the laundry, maybe that’s the final struggle between Dr. Kimble and his adversary. So forth.
The point of all this is that you don’t want to sit down and sweat through forty pages of screenplay and then suddenly realize you’ve painted yourself into a corner. Because if you sit down and sweat out forty pages of screenplay before you realize you’ve painted yourself into a corner, the temptation will be to try to come up with some absurd piece of dramaturgy that will miraculously allow you to move on and not have to go back and fix the first forty pages of your screenplay. The end result will be that, instead of spending a little time at the beginning of the process thinking out your outline, you will find yourself at the end of the process with a screenplay that doesn’t work.
You’re still not ready to start yet. Next, The Treatment.
They ask me to come to Hollywood to work on an animated movie about ants. It is 1995.
I’ve written screenplays before, I am not a neophyte, but I this is the big leagues and I have to be smart.
I’m in a room with Nina Jacobson and Walter Parkes and Laurie MacDonald and Jeffrey Katzenberg and Steven Spielberg, and they’re all sitting there looking at me, waiting for me to say something really smart, and here I am, a guy who normally does no-budget experimental plays off-off-Broadway.
And I’m talking about this animated movie about ants and “what it means” and and what kind of world it takes place in and what its central metaphors are and where it fits in with movie history and how it reflects different levels of social truth, and after about fifteen seconds of this bullshit Jeffrey Katzenberg closes his eyes tight and puts his fingers to his temple as though he has a piercing headache and says “Stop! Stop! Stop! Stop! Stop! WHAT DOES THE GUY WANT?“
The “guy” Mr. Katzenberg refers to is, of course, The Protagonist. The reason for Mr. Katzenberg’s mounting anxiety and anger toward my presentation is that I am wasting his time. I am describing the movie we’re making in every way but the way that matters. Because structurally, the only thing that matters in a screenplay is What The Protagonist Wants. There is nothing else.
(Mr. Katzenberg repeats his question to me many times during my work with him, so many times that I finally write it down on a postcard and stick it up over my desk. And if you are an untested screenwriter reading this journal, I advise you to do the same.)
Simply put, What The Protagonist Wants is the reason the movie is happening. Charles Foster Kane wants love on his own terms, Sheriff Brody wants to rid Amity Island of the shark, Henry Hill wants to be a gangster, Michael Corleone wants to distance himself from his family, Roy Neary wants to meet the aliens, Indiana Jones wants to recover the Ark of the Covenant, Luke Skywalker wants to get the hell off Tatooine. The movie is nothing more or less than the protagonist pursuing his goal and the things that get in his way. The stronger the protagonist’s drive, the better the story will be. The more formidable his opposition, the better the story will be.
And that is all a screenplay is. The Protagonist pursues his goal, and forces get in his way. And either the Protagonist gets what he wants or he does not, and sometimes, during the pursuit of the goal, the Protagonist’s goal changes. So Michael Corleone starts off wanting to distance himself from his family and ends up becoming the family patriarch. Luke Skywalker starts off wanting only to get off Tatooine and ends up saving the galaxy. And in some of the best movies, the protagonist’s goal changes so much that, by the end of the story, we are left with a profound, exhilarating sense of life as it is lived.
Is it formula? It is not. It is storytelling. This is how it works. There are millions of possible variations to this idea, but this is how it works. When a movie gets boring, it’s because the moviemakers have strayed too far from the protagonist’s pursuit of his goal. If a movie is uninvolving from the get-go, it’s because the screenwriter has failed to invest his protagonist with sufficient enough ardor in pursuit of his goal. Or worse yet, he has failed to give his protagonist a goal at all. The antagonists are unfocused, the protagonist gets off on a tangent, the big musical number (or action sequence) stops the show but does not raise the stakes.
Somewhere in the back pages of this journal I referred to screenplay structure as a boat. You’re building a boat. If you follow the rules, your boat will float. If you are proficient in your skills, your boat will sail. If you are remarkably talented, your boat will zoom across the water, win the race, impress everyone and bring you millions of dollars. If you don’t know what you’re doing, your boat will sink. And if you are an “artist” with some brilliant “new idea” about what a “boat” is, you will have a work of art that is not a boat.
Why does it have to be this way? Why is this rule so ironclad? Why does it work? I don’t know why it works. I’ve learned through practice and experience that it does and that’s good enough for me.
Let’s go back to that meeting again about the movie with the talking ants. Mr. Katzenberg asks me “What Does The Guy Want?!”
What do I do? This is what I do: I stammer and look at my notes and say “well, he wants to change society,” or “he wants to find a better way to live” or “he can’t help but think that somewhere there is a better world.” All these, it turns out, are the wrong answers. The protagonist’s goal cannot be vague, ideological or symbolic. It must be concrete and physically attainable. John Connor may ultimately fight for freedom, but his goal in Terminator 2 is to get his mom out of the hospital and destroy the evil robot from the future.
Why must the protagonist’s goal be physically attainable? Because movies are made of pictures. A movie is not a novel, it can’t get inside a character’s mind very efficiently. What movies do best is record physical activity: the man runs, the car leaps off the bridge, the dinosaur attacks, the man and woman kiss, the building explodes, the spaceship glides silently across the vast reaches of nothingness. Serious movies about characters thinking deep thoughts are not going to capture a very big audience, but the dumbest movie in the world about people outrunning orange fireballs and large metal objects flying through the air will capture an enormous audience.
This is not to say that a movie cannot be about serious things. Ingmar Bergman made some of the greatest movies ever made about very serious things indeed, but his movies work because, beneath his experiments in formalism, he has a remarkably strong, even old-fashioned, sense of drama.
And if you can find a movie about subjects more serious than the ones in The Godfather, let me know.
The protagonist’s pursuit of his goal can be drawn clumsily or with great subtlety and sophistication. It can be boldly stated from the first scene (“All my life I wanted to be a gangster”) or it can remain mysterious and unsettling to the end (I’m looking at you, Daniel Plainview). It can be done so elliptically as to confound (remind me to tell you about the structure of 2001 some time) or it can be hammered home with a big iron mallet (“Let My People Go”).
Can there be a movie with a passive protagonist, where the protagonist doesn’t want anything in particular, and things just kind of happen to him? Yes. I can’t think of one off the top of my head, but I’m sure there’s one out there somewhere.
Oh wait, I’ve thought of one that comes close: Bambi. I can’t tell you why a movie with no plot and a passive protagonist can be such a classic narrative and a crushingly emotional experience, but Walt Disney (Walt Disney!) pulled it off somehow.
(I often imagine Walt Disney finally becoming unfrozen one day and showing up at the studio that bears his name, and everyone there is so glad to see him and they ask the master if he has any great new ideas for movies and he says “Yeah, how about a 2 1/2 hour plotless movie that celebrates the art of symphonic music and a 61-minute cartoon about a baby elephant who learns how to fly while he’s in the middle of an 8-minute-long alcohol-induced hallucination?”)
(Perhaps we could say that Bambi wants To Learn. He wants to learn the names of things, how to behave, how to be safe, how to have fun, so forth, and in the end he learns a few lessons he would have rather not learned, and finally, through experience, achieves Wisdom. Boy, that movie blows me away.)
Even The Dude wants something — to solve the mystery of the missing girl. It takes him 90 minutes to arrive at this desire, but he finally gets there. And I would say that if there is one solid reason why a movie as brilliant as The Big Lebowski failed at the box office, The Dude’s lack of ambition would be it.
Can there be movies with multiple protagonists? Yes there can. As a rule, they don’t do as well as movies with single protagonists. Pulp Fiction would be the exception to this rule. Hannah and Her Sisters is another one.
The key to analyzing a movie’s structure is to identify the protagonist (not always as easy as it appears to be) and then trace that character’s path through the narrative. The protagonist’s path through the narrative is the meaning of the movie. I can’t think of an exception to this rule.
When I get done writing the ant movie, I sit down and watch all my favorite movies again. Now that I have the key to analyzing structure, somehow they’ve all become different movies. Things that once seemed weird or mysterious or confounding now seem obvious and baldly stated. Narratives that were once gorgeous and sweeping now seem as dry and clinical as a schematic. For a period of time, all movies are ruined by this process, I’m not seeing a movie anymore but a structure with pictures hung on it, but finally I am able to absorb this idea into my gut and enjoy these movies again, not just for their screenplays but for the moviemakers executions of their screenplays. If you have an interest in writing movies, I suggest you submit to this process.
There are many many books out there about screenwriting that have all these terms, dozens of them it seems, for all these different beats that every successful screenplay supposedly has, and I’ve tried reading a few but I can’t make any sense of them. On the other hand, I found Robert McKee’s Story to be hugely illuminating and useful. McKee gets a lot of stick from the screenwriting community and I’m not quite sure why. What Story did for me was not promote formula but identify tools. There are names for all the different parts of stories just like there are names for all the different parts of a boat, and up until reading the book I was just kind of fumbling around in my toolbox grabbing hold of whatever felt right, sticking my boats together in whatever way pleased me, whereas after reading Story I was able to look at my work and see where I had built well, where I had patched over a hole with a bit of shiny metal, where I had forgotten to attach a tiller, et cetera.
Also, I found David Mamet’s On Directing Film extremely helpful.
Many readers have written in to tell me that they would like to write and have plenty of ideas but can’t seem to complete any of them. They say they have all these little scraps of paper with notes scrawled on them but can’t seem to develop them into a full-length story/novel/comic/screenplay.
The bad news: the storytelling impulse is something you are born with. If you don’t have the urge and drive to tell stories, there’s not much you can do to get it.
The good news: every other part of the writing game is a skill and can be learned.
(When I was in college I fancied myself a short story writer, but my short stories were constantly being criticized by my professor for their lack of basic grammar. I dangled participles, split infinitives, misspelled key words, mixed tenses and had run-on sentences. I couldn’t keep all the rules straight — I didn’t have a head for them. However, my professor consistently praised my ear for realistic dialogue — I understood the way people talk. So instead of applying myself, learning about sentence structure and becoming better, I started writing stories that consisted almost entirely of long dialogue passages: “John met Mary at the restaurant. He sat down. He said…” and then the rest of the story would be what he and she said. My grades went up and I abandoned short stories for plays, where I wouldn’t need to remember all those goddamn rules.)
First thing you need to understand: all writing is rewriting.
Isn’t that a relief? You don’t need to “make stuff up,” you just have to be able to recognize good writing and have a mind for understanding how it works. If you have that talent, the rest is just putting other people’s writing into your own words, as your third-grade teacher used to say.
This means two things:
1. There is nothing new under the sun. Any idea you have for a story, it’s been done, a thousand times over, whether you know it or not. This should not be an impediment. One thing to do when you get an idea for a story is to read a whole big stack of stories similar to yours and see how those writers solved their narrative problems. Then you can copy them. Feel no guilt about this: those writers did the same thing when they were writing their stories. There’s the old quote: steal from one writer and it’s plagiarism, steal from everybody and it’s research. When I get a writing assignment I sit down and watch every movie I can find in the genre I’m looking at and note patterns, tropes, key moments, character beats, anything that makes the movie enjoyable. Then I sit down andwatch a bunch of movies in a completely different genre and note how the two genres connect and contrast, and think about how I can steal traits of one genre and apply them to another. This is what will keep my screenplay from being rote formula.
2. You must be able to look at your own writing as though it is someone else’s. You cannot become too attached to your work. You cannot fall in love with a chapter, a paragraph, a sentence, a line of dialogue or even a word merely because it happened to turn out nice. The fountain of creativity is unceasing, you cannot worry for one moment that you will “run out of ideas.” This means that the writer you will be rewriting the most is yourself. You must learn to love this aspect of creation — not just the initial spark, which is the fun part, but the heavy lifting of merciless revision and improvement, which is work. If you don’t love rewriting your own work, you’re dead in the water.
Let’s say you have the simplest possible idea for a movie: a good guy fights a bad guy, and wins. There! You’ve just written a hit movie! Now all you need to do is mercilessly re-write that idea until it’s a screenplay, and you can have
the respect and admiration of Hollywood a great deal of money some money.
First, let’s take a look at that “good guy.” Probably, this “good guy” is your protagonist. Then we ask the question, yes, What Does The Protagonist Want? The answer, it may surprise you to learn, is not “to beat the bad guy.” “To beat the bad guy” is meaningless, the protagonist must have a reason for beating the bad guy. To Preserve His Honor, To Protect His Family, To Save The Farm, To Impress The Girl, To Save The World, any of these will do, it really does not matter. All that matters is that the Protagonist want the thing he or she wants with a passion sufficient to make the audience want that thing too.
(In Pee Wee’s Big Adventure the protagonist wants only To Recover His Stolen Bicycle. A bicycle may not seem like much of a maguffin to hang a narrative on, but all that matters is that the protagonist wants it badly enough, and in the case of Pee Wee he wants it badly enough that he cannot think of anything else. If that does not seem like high art, De Sica’s classic of Italian neo-realism, Bicycle Thieves, has the exact same premise, employed to greatly different ends. In this way, we could say that Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure is a re-write of Bicycle Thieves, although it was, understandably, not marketed as such.)
Now then: here’s where “stakes” comes in. The general rule is, the higher the stakes, the bigger the hit. If a good guy fights a bad guy in the privacy of his own home with nobody watching, that would be a “small movie.” If he fights the bad guy for the sake of protecting his family, that has the potential of being a a bigger movie, if he fights the bad guy for the sake of preserving his community or nation it could be a huge movie.
(And if he fights the bad guy to save the world or the galaxy, you have the potential of having the biggest movie of all, although this is also a tricky area, because “To Save The Galaxy” is a vague, uninteresting thing for a protagonist to want — a protagonist may fight for a nation, but who could possibly care about an entire galaxy? The two protagonists who leap to mind charged with saving the world/galaxy are Luke Skywalker and James Bond, and I would argue that “To Save The World/Galaxy” are secondary goals for them — Luke’s primary goal is To Win The Love of Leia and Bond’s goal is To Get Back to Drinking and Screwing.)
So let’s say our protagonist (good guy) has to fight an antagonist (bad guy) in order To Preserve His Community. This has the potential to become a huge, huge movie.
Now: what would raise the stakes for this protagonist? Well, we have to decide who our protagonist is. Is he a fine, upstanding, strong, utterly capable man, skilled in martial arts and a keen strategist? Maybe, but then the movie won’t be very interesting. No, what would make the story better is if the good guy who has to fight the bad guy is The Least Qualified Person In The Entire Community.
(Back in the day, many people urged me to see Under Siege, which they said was a better-than-average variation on Die Hard. Imagine my sadness when it is revealed that the lowly cook who must defend the battleship from terrorists is, actually, the World’s Foremost Terrorist Fighter.)
Okay, so The Least Qualified Person In The Entire Community must fight the bad guy. And, conversely, the bad guy must be not merely “bad,” but bad in a way that directly imposes upon the protagonist’s weaknesses. That’s good. Now then, what would raise the stakes even higher? Well, what if the entire community hates the protagonist?
Okay, time to give the protagonist a job. Let’s make him a sheriff in a dusty down in the Old West. But let’s make him the new sheriff, the sheriff from Back East who doesn’t understand The Way Things Work in this community. So not only is there a bad guy threatening the community, the community hates this sheriff’s guts. So now the protagonist not only has to deal with the bad guy, he’s got to deal with the community who hates his guts. The stronger the forces arrayed against the protagonist, the higher the stakes, the bigger the movie.
Now we’re cooking with gas. There’s this sheriff, and everyone in town hates him because he’s the new guy, and then this bad guy comes to town. How bad is this bad guy? He’s really bad — he’s a psychopath, killing townsfolk off like crazy. He doesn’t even seem to be after anything, he’s just a stone killer. And the town panics, and they bring in an expert and a gunslinger to fight the bad guy and the expert is a snob and the gunslinger is a creep and nobody is listening to the sheriff, not even his own family, who are worried that maybe the townsfolk are right, that the sheriff is not qualified to deal with this bad guy.
What is this sheriff going to do? There’s an evil out there he can’t begin to understand, there are these experts and gunslingers who make him feel like an idiot, the townspeople dislike him, and even his own family is looking at him sideways. What the hell is he going to do?
(This is the “second-act low point.”)
What the sheriff must do, it seems to me, is figure out a way to befriend the gunslinger, get him to work together with the expert, and then the three of them go out into the desert to fight the bad guy.
Great! Now you’ve got a hit western. Except for one thing: it sounds a little cliched. It could work but it sounds a little cliched. People will feel they’ve seen this movie before. It needs one more rewrite.
Hey — what if the bad guy is a shark?
Yes. We make the bad guy a giant shark, and we don’t set the story in the Old West, we set it in the present day, and we set it in the exact opposite of a dusty western town — we set it on an island on the East Coast. Yes — a giant shark comes to town, and you know what? We’ll make the sheriff a man who is afraid of water! Everyone in town hates him because he’s not “one of them,” and this shark comes along and nobody listens to the Sheriff because he’s not One of Them, and the Expert is some snooty Rich Kid with a degree in Sharkology, and the Gunslinger is a crusty old Shark Hunter who’s really creepy. And the Hugely Underqualified Sheriff and the Expert and the Shark Hunter have to work together to go out into the ocean to kill this shark, because Nobody Else Will Do It.
So, there’s one example of how to write a big hit movie: take acliche from one genre and give it that one brilliant twist that makes it into another genre and makes an audience see it from a different point of view.
Now, I understand that Peter Benchley, when writing Jaws, did not start with “A Good Guy Fights A Bad Guy, And Wins.” He started with a “cool premise,” ie: What If A Giant Shark Showed Up Off The Coast Of Martha’s Vineyard? And that is, in fact, where most stories begin, with a “cool premise.” What If An Evil Robot Came From The Future To Kill Somebody, What If Aliens Were The Guiding Force In Evolution, What If A Man Fell In Love With A Teenage Girl. And we can get to that in a bit, but this for now is a good place to start.
asks: “I’m often confused about just where act breaks occur. Reviews often mention them as if they’re obvious, but they aren’t to me. Do you know of a good primer that would help me understand this?”
My father once described it to me like this:
In Act I, a guy gets stuck up in a tree, in Act II they throw rocks at him, in Act III he gets down from the tree.
Strangely enough, if you take out “tree” and put in “collapsed skyscraper,” you have exactly the plot of Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center, so let’s look at the structure of that.
In Act II, they literally throw rocks at him for forty minutes. He’s stuck under a ton of cement and twisted metal, he has no idea what has happened to him, he’s got his buddy pinned under a different ton of cement and twisted metal a few yards away and rocks keep falling on his head. And he has to deal with that, and we see, step by step, how he deals with that — he thinks about his family life, he thinks about his job and his friends, he hallucinates visions of the Virgin Mary. And while it’s been a while since I’ve seen the movie, I’d guess that the “Act II low-point” occurs when poor Nic has given up hope of ever getting out from under this collapsed skyscraper.
Then, in Act III, a ray of hope! Someone up top realizes that Nic is trapped under this collapsed skyscraper and we see, step by step, incident by incident, how a team of men work together to get him out. And there is much nail-biting suspense regarding if they’ll get to him in time, if the wreckage of this collapsed skyscraper will shift and smoosh poor Nic, if he’ll lose an arm or a leg or his sanity, et cetera.
So there you have it. Inciting incident: airplanes crash into the World Trade Center. Our protagonist is a simple working-class joe trying to do his job, gets caught up in the story of the century. Act I illustrates how he ends up under the collapsed skyscraper. There is escalating tension throughout Act II because, let’s face it, he’s trapped under a collapsed skyscraper and there isn’t much to go on as far as ideas for how to get out of that situation. Inevitably, despair sets in as it appears he will never get out from under the collapsed skyscraper, then, in Act III, miraculously, he does.
David Mamet put it a slightly different way: he said that Act I is “Once Upon A Time,” Act II is “Then One Day” and Act III is “But There Was One Thing That They Forgot.” So we would say that World Trade Center goes “Once Upon A Time there was a Working-Class Joe just trying to do his job with his team of Other Working-Class Joes. Then One Day a skyscraper collapsed on top of him and he worried that maybe he’d die under all that cement and twisted metal. But There Was One Thing That He Forgot, which was that, Working-Class Joe that he was, he was part of a Community of Working-Class Joes, and if there’s one thing you can say about Working-Class Joes, it’s that they are at their best when things are at their worst, and they will move heaven and earth when one of their own is in trouble.”
It’s also worth noting that not all movies have a three-act structure. Terminator 2, for instance, has a four-act structure. Act I sets the board with all the different characters: John Connor, the T-101, the T-1000, Sarah Connor, John’s evil foster parents, Sarah’s evil doctor, so forth, and sets them on their courses. Their stories all converge into a massive action sequence at the end of Act I. As Act I ends, John has survived the attack from the T-1000, is away from his foster parents and with his “new dad,” the T-101. Act II involves John beginning to understand the new rules of this new terminator setup and deciding that, in spite of what he’s been told, that they have to go get his mother, and so Act II sends John and the T-101 and the T-1000 all converging on the hospital where Sarah is being held prisoner and climaxes with them busting her out of the joint. Act III has them resting after their adventure, healing up and deciding what to do next. John decides one thing, but Sarah decides another, and Act III has, again, two teams heading to a destination with conflicting agendas. Sarah decides she’s got to kill Miles Dyson and John decides that killing is wrong no matter what the consequences. And again, just as with the preceding two acts, both teams arrive at their destination (that is, Dyson’s house) at more or less the same moment and a spectacular action sequence takes place. Through the prosecution of that action sequence (and again, here we see Cameron’s intuitive genius for the meaning of action) the stakes change. Sarah Connor is prepared to kill Dyson and John and the T-101 show up to stop her, and through the convergence of these two opposing forces, a new and surprising outcome occurs: Sarah achieves her goal of stopping the development of Skynet and does so without having to kill Dyson. (This moment is a particularly wonderful inversion because John has managed to turn the Terminator into a peaceful, protective machine but can’t control his crazy, bloodthirsty, out-of-control mother.) Act III climaxes with the destruction of Dyson’s company headquarters and yet another escape from the T-1000. Act IV is then a massive, multi-part action sequence involving trucks and motorcycles and helicopters and liquid nitrogen and molten steel and all that good stuff.
I’ve been in darkest New York for the past two weeks, toiling on an unfamiliar computer with unreliable and recalcitrant internet service, hence my lack of posting. Now that I am back in Santa Monica, I have meetings scheduled for four different projects and visitors coming to stay, so I will likely continue to have sporadic posting at best.
However, here are some more pages from my trusty beaten-up notebook.