A screenwriter’s notebook

I carry a little notebook around with me. I jot down things in it as I’m traveling around town.

I work on anywhere from 5 to 20 projects at any given time, so a single book will have all kinds of notes about different projects.

Sometimes I write things down while I’m watching a movie. Sometimes that makes it hard to read later.

Here are a few pages from my current notebook:

Read on

Screenwriting 101 — Finishing The Damn Thing

   asks —

“I have about 100 different little ideas for themes, or characters or scenes, and I will start working on a screenplay and at about the beginning of the third act I get frustrated and what originally seemed to be a well thought out idea ends up seeming as if it falls apart and I will put it aside and start working on the next project. In all i have about 47 unfinished screenplays ranging from 1 page to 60 pages to about 100 and in total, i have finished two in my life; both for classes. Is this common?”


It’s interesting that the two screenplays you’ve finished were for classes. Maybe what you need is a deadline. Before I was a screenwriter with dozens of unproduced screenplays I was a playwright with dozens of unproduced plays, plays that no one wanted to read but which I had to write anyway. Since I knew no one was interested in reading them, I had to create my own deadline or else I would never finish them. So I would set a completely arbitrary deadline, say, six weeks, from beginning to end, and I would write toward that deadline, and I would stick to it.

But maybe deadline is not your problem. If your screenplay gets tied up in insoluble knots at the top of Act III, it may be because you didn’t plot it out well enough ahead of time. This is where treatments come in handy. They take a lot less time to write and they reduce the stress of writing the actual screenplay. If you’ve plotted the whole thing out ahead of time, the screenplay should be a simple filling in of the blanks.

I see that you have “about 100 different little ideas for themes, or characters or scenes.” What about story? David Lynch once said that writing a screenplay is easy, you just jot down ideas for scenes on notecards, and when you have 70 of those, you’ve got a feature. Well, David Lynch is one of the most imaginative, creative artists of our time but in this regard he is full of shit. You need a solid story before you start writing your screenplay, otherwise you are wasting your time, your screenplay will become a tangled mess by the end of Act II, justwhen it should be turning into an unstoppable dramatic juggernaut.

In fact, maybe it’s the second-act break that you’re getting stuck on. By the end Act II, the entire “problem” of the screenplay should be in complete focus and honed to its irreducible point. By the end of Act II, the protagonist should know who he is, what’s going on and where he needs to go to get to the ending, and then Act III should be how he gets there (whether he arrives at his goal or not is a different matter). At the end of Act II, Dr. Kimble has identified the one-armed man. At the end of Act II, the killer Brad Pitt’s been chasing suddenly turns himself in to the police. At the end of Act II, Clarice has her final confrontation with Lecter and he gives her the clue she needs to solve the case. If you’re arriving at the end of Act II and your script is suddenly falling apart, you may be structuring your acts wrong.

If you know how your second act ends but you don’t know what happens afterward, think of what you want the ending to be and write that. I do this all the time; there will be big spot in the script where I don’t know what’s supposed to happen, and instead of giving up I just type a row of X’s and skip to the next place where I know what’s supposed to happen. Or else write what we in Hollywood call “the bad version,” just the dumbest, most cliched version of events you can think of. Then at least you’ve got something written down and you can finish the thing and then go back, read it as a complete thing instead of a broken idea, and set about fixing it.

One thing I know: all writing is re-writing. If you don’t like re-writing you should not write screenplays. Early on in my career I had the good fortune to have a conversation with Scott Frank.  I had just finished working on Curtain Call and he had just finished working on, I believe, Saving Private Ryan (I know, I know, he didn’t get a credit — this is the life we’ve chosen).  I was carping about how often the producer of Curtain Call had made me endlessly re-write scenes and all I wanted was to have the damn thing done, and Scott said “Gee, that’s weird, I have the exact opposite problem, my scripts are always going into production before I feel like I’m done with them, I’ll see the movie in the theater and think ‘Man, if they had only given me one more day with that scene, I could’ve really made it sing.'”  And he’s right — you have to enjoy the whole process and look forward to working on the script more.

Hope this helps.

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Screenwriting 101 — The Life of a Screenwriter

To those considering a career in screenwriting I offer the following statistics.

I’m sure there are screenwriters who think of an idea, write it up, sell the script and then think up another idea. I am not one of those screenwriters. In my world, there are producers who develop properties that they hope to sell to a studio. The producer calls me up, tells me about the property he has, and if it sounds good to me I’ll try to think of a way to do it as a movie. If I can, I will then go and audition for the producer. If the producer likes what I have to say, we will both go and audition for the studio folk (and by “we” I mean “me;” the producer’s job at the audition is to introduce the writer and then watch him sweat).

When an actor (Urbaniak, say) auditions for a movie, he must memorize a few pages of dialogue and go into the room with a clear idea of the character he’s portraying. When I audition for a movie, I must, essentially, write the entire thing before I go into the room. I must know who all the major characters are and have a handful of character beats that establish their personalities in a warm, human way, I must have a clear idea of not just the over-arching story but also the ins and outs of the scene-to-scene plot. I must invent every twist, reversal and revelation to give the thing thrust and excitement. I must, basically, see the entire movie in my head from beginning to end and I must be able to describe it, in the room, in a lively, entertaining, surprising way that meshes with that studios hopes for their production slate. Then, if I don’t get the job, I start the process all over with the next project the next day.

(Q: “why don’t you get the job?”  A: For a lot of the same reasons an actor doesn’t — I’m just not what the studio is looking for.  The problem is, often, that the studio doesn’t know what it’s looking for, and uses this audition process, in part, to hone its notion of what kind of movie it wants to make.)

I have been a professional screenwriter since 1994. In the ensuing years, I have written 25 or so screenplays. Of those, I’ve been paid actual money (and very good money at that, I hasten to add) for perhaps a dozen (the rest have been things I wrote for myself or for friends). For each of “actual job” or “money gig” (that is, a feature at a major studio), I create, typically, eight drafts, for which I get paid for four (courtesy dictates that one writes a draftfor the producer, incorporates the producer’s notes, then writes another for the studio).

So that’s all well and good. But then there are the treatments.

I cannot speak for other writers, but if I’m going to invent an entire movie I have to write at least a portion of it down on paper (by “paper” I mean, of course, a computer). For the plot to play out in a logical, consistent order I have to write it all out so I can go back, review,
amend, improve, edit, remove, etc. Basically, I write out the whole plot of the movie with notes regarding why this or that is important to the telling.

(The Writer’s Guild says that writers must be paid for treatments, but I have found that this is rare. What generally ends up happening is that I go in and pitch and the producer says “I like it, I’d like to think about it more, do you have something on paper I could look at to refresh my memory?” and the onus is placed on me to to be helpful for the good of the project. Personally, I don’t mind this practice because I think that my written words are a better presentation of my ideas than my fumbling, scattered pitch manner.)

I had a meeting with an old producer friend the other day and she asked me what old ideas I had kicking around. She specifically asked me to trawl through my treatments I’ve written for other projects, jobs I didn’t get, knowing that there are most likely some good ideas for movies in there. So I went through my files and found that I have, in the past dozen years, written 83 treatments. These treatments range from 10-page collections of notes and plot ideas to 50-page scene-by-scene descriptions. In some cases, I have written multiple treatments for projects, bringing the number well past 100.  Creating these treatments is, in fact, how I spend the bulk of my writing life.

Of all these treatments, I have been paid for writing two; the rest have been created for the purposes of auditions.

So, to review: 12 years, 100+ treatments to get jobs writing 25 screenplays, of which I have been paid for 12, of which three have been turned into actual feature films (although there are perhaps a half-dozen others I’ve worked without receiving credit), of which one was an actual hit in-the-theaters movie (without which I’d probably be working at your local Denny’s). hit counter html code

Green Eggs and Ham

The inciting incident.

The unnamed protagonist of Dr. Seuss’s illustrated story Green Eggs and Ham wants only to be left alone — to sit in his chair and read his newspaper.  He is content, his world is whole and complete.  He is comfortable and complacent in his McLuhanesque media circuit.  The only thing missing from his life is a name — an identity.

Into this world bursts Sam, or “Sam-I-Am.”  Sam knows who he is; he even carries around a sign advertising himself.  He has such a strong sense of identity he feels a need to bring change to those who have none.

In the past, people like this have brought religion, political change or military turmoil to others.  Sam brings green eggs and ham.

(It is, perhaps, significant that the protagonist reads a newspaper — movable type being, after all, the most important, world-shaking innovation in the history of the human pageant.)

Sam has more than an identity — he has mobility and, as we shall see, boundless resources at his disposal.  Maybe he’s a shaman,  maybe he’s a leader, maybe he’s a snake-oil peddler.  Maybe he’s the marketing executive in charge of the Green Eggs and Ham account and this is a viral campaign.  We are never told, and we must sort out the dense symbolism ourselves.  Is Sam a savior or a demon?  Seuss provides no easy answers.

The protagonist knows one thing: he does not like green eggs and ham.  This is the same sort of person who knows they do not like democracy, psychoanalysis, astronomy, penicillin, abolition or stem-cell research (or, if you like, political torture, monopoly, pantheism).  And yet, Sam will not stop pestering him.  If the unnamed (not to be confused with Beckett’s Unnamable) protagonist will not take Sam’s new food straight, perhaps, Sam reasons, he will take it in a more complex form.  In short order, Sam offers the protagonist his life-changing meat and eggs in a house, with a mouse, in a box, with a fox, in a car, a train, a boat, with a goat, on and on.  And still the man with no identity resists.  He spends the entire story trying to avoid change, even as change surrounds and engulfs him.  Eyes closed, head haught, he repeatedly waves away Sam and his unusual food.  He doesn’t even seem to realize that his life is continuously in danger as he stands on the hood of a moving car, then atop a moving train as it hurtles through a tunnel.

What can change this man’s mind?  Nothing less than a cataclysm — car, train, boat, mouse, goat — all must plunge into the ocean.  Finally, with death at his chin, the unnamed man relinquishes hiscontrol over his world (it’s a shame George W. Bush was not reading this instead of My Pet Goat on 9/11).

(What drives Sam?  A hatred of the status quo?  A religious conviction?  Do-goodism?  Or a simple desire to impose his will upon others?  What does it mean that he wants to get the protagonist’s head out of the newspaper, remove his thoughts from the machinations of the world at large, to concentrate on the fleeting, earthly pleasures of the gourmand?  Is he Satan?  Is he the serpent, offering the protagonist the eggs-and-ham of carnal knowledge?  Do the ham and eggs symbolize the penis and testicles?  Is this perhaps a homosexual overture?)

Finally the protagonist submits and eats the food.  And finds he likes it.

Of course, the story does not end there.  In a shocking denoument, the man, still unnamed, typically, goes overboard.  He has no greater a sense of himself than he did at the beginning.  The man who knew only that he did not like green eggs and ham now knows only that he does.  And, just as he was adamant about not eating it before, he is now adamant about eating it now.  He crows to the skies regarding his plans to eat green eggs and ham in every possible situation, whether it is called for or not.  For example it is not necessary to eat green eggs and ham in a box — in one’s kitchen, in the morning, would seemingly do just fine.  Why insist on eating green eggs and ham with a goat?  (Seuss draws the line at animals who would probably be interested in eating green eggs and ham, but it’s not hard to imagine that, before long, the unnamed protagonist will be forcing this food on chickens and pigs, unaware of his callous disregard for life.)  So while Sam is triumphant in his quest to spread the gospel of green eggs and ham, what Seuss is really getting at is the unchanging simple-mindedness of the masses.  “Thank you, thank you, Sam-I-am” intones the protagonist with the attitude of an “amen,” utterly forgetting that, just one madcap romp earlier, he hated this tiny, furry man and his plate of food.  The man with no identity still has no identity — he’s just as happy being a green-eggs-and-ham eater as he was being a non-green-eggs-and-ham-eater.  This is the knot of the problem Seuss, the master moralist and social critic, presents to us: things may change, but the masses, on a deeper level, do not change.  Today it will be green eggs and ham, tomorrow it will be television or hula hoops or iPods, whatever shiny new thing the persuasive new voice brings.  The day after it will be Nazism.

UPDATE: It occurs to me that the name “Sam-I-Am” is almost a homonym for “I am that I am,” the name the Old Testament God gave to Moses.  Perhaps Sam-I-Am is God and the “Green Eggs and Ham” represent the new covenant with mankind, a different kind of trinity.  This would, perhaps, make the unnamed protagonist Saul who became Paul and the train track the Road to Damascus. hit counter html code

The Big Reveal

The twist ending, the head-spinner, the fake-out, what M. Night Shamalayan calls “The Paradigm Shift.”

“And it turns out that, the whole time…”

The antagonist is really the protagonist’s other personality.  The murderer was in the room from the very beginning.  It was all the dream of a man who’s been cryogenically frozen for two hundred years.  They were on Earth the whole time.  The protagonist is really a ghost.  It turns out it’s not the past after all.  Everything is happening in the head of a dying man’s last moments.

What are your favorites?  When do they work?  When do they not?  When do they satisfy, when do they frustrate?  When are they the final piece of the puzzle and when do they come out of left field?  When do they make you want to see the movie again and when do they make you say “What the hell did that have to do with anything?”

And, we’re all professionals here.  Spoil away.
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Screenwriting 101 — The Bad Guy Plot

I’ve worked on a fair number of superhero/fantasy/espionage/sci-fi/what-have-you projects, and the problem is always The Bad Guy Plot.  For some reason it’s always the toughest thing in the script to work out.

To work, to be satisfying, to move with grace and wit and a sufficient amount of danger and threat, The Bad Guy Plot must do ALL the following things:

1. The Bad Guy’s story should be explicitly intertwined with that of the protagonist.  Ideally, the inciting incident should influence both.  The perfect example would be if, say, the chemical explosion that gives a man superpowers also gives The Bad Guy superpowers but also a severe deformity, making it so that he cannot lead a normal life and thus turns Bad.

2. The Bad Guy’s desire cannot be simply the destruction of the protagonist.  The Bad Guy has to have some other goal that has nothing to do with the protagonist (except in the broadest societal sense, ie the hero’s obligation to right wrongs) but which the protagonist must stop.  Like, say, most of the James Bond films.

3. The Bad Guy and the protagonist must interact often and throughout the narrative.  This is a whole lot harder than it sounds.  If the Bad Guy is involved in something Bad and it’s the protagonist’s job to stop him, what usually happens is that the Bad Guy does the Bad Thing in private while the protagonist looks for the Bad Guy, and then there’s a confrontation in Act III.

4.  Hardest of all, the Bad Guy’s plan must make sense and follow a logical progression, not only through the narrative but beyond.  That is to say, the writer must stop and think "Okay, let’s say Lex Luthor succeeds in growing his new continent and drowning half the world’s population: then what?"  This is what I call the "Monday Morning" question.  In Mission:Impossible 2, terrorists plan to take over a pharmaceutical company, release a plague, then sell the world the cure.  And I’m sitting in the theater thinking "And on Monday Morning, when the pharmaceutical company’s stockholders find out that 51 percent of the corporation is now owned by a terrorist organization, thenwhat?"  When Dr. Octopus succeeds in building a working model of his fusion whatsit on the abandoned pier in the East River, after robbing a bank, wrecking a train destroying a number of buildings and endangering the lives of thousands of people, then what?

Keeping all of this in mind, what are your favorite Bad Guy Plots?  Which ones have a plot that intertwines with the protagonist’s plot, has a goal that the protagonist, and only the protagonist, can stop, keeps the Bad Guy and the protagonist interacting throughout, and — gasp — makes sense?

I’ll start: Superman II.

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Moby-Dick, the movie, sort of

As any sentient English-reading American knows, Moby-Dick is the greatest novel ever written.  It begs to be made into a great feature film.

It, so far, has not.

In 1930, they shot a version with John Barrymore where Ahab kills the whale and is happily re-united with his patient, long-suffering wife.  In 1956, John Huston shot the most famous version with considerable cinematic flair but with Gregory Peck tragically miscast as Ahab.  By 1998, there was a TV-movie version with Patrick Stewart as Ahab, which I have not seen, but which was made for TV.

As I’ve noted before, there’s something about great literature that resists film, no matter how “cinematic” the literature seems to be.  The Godfather is a great movie from a pulpy page-turner.  So are Jaws and Silence of the Lambs and Gone With the WindThe Great Gatsy, however, I think is doomed to ever-diminishing returns.

Moby-Dick is doomed, I think, for four reasons.

1. It’s period, which makes it expensive
2. It’s about whaling, and 19th-century whaling at that, which no one cares about
3. It’s based on a work of “famous literature,” which makes people want to go see Pirates of the Carribean 2: Dead Man’s Chest instead
4. It’s called Moby-Dick

Now then.  What does make Moby-Dick a great idea for a movie?

1. Deathless, universal themes of leadership, manhood, adventure, madness, obsession
2. A terrific, flawless, inexorable plot
3. Indelible, time-tested characters

So, to make Moby-Dick into a movie, the thought occurs to me, as it does to any screenwriter, “Well, let’s just stick with the stuff that works and throw out the rest.”

That is to say, keep those themes, keep those characters, keep that plot, but throw out the title, the reputation, the period setting, and most important, the whaling.

What is the plot of Moby-Dick?  The plot of Moby-Dick is that a crazy, obsessive leader goes “off the res” and gets the men in his care tangled up in a dangerous mission of revenge that can only end in death and ruin.

The first person who springs to mind, of course, is George W. Bush.  But no one is going to develop that movie any time soon.

It could be almost anything.  It could be thieves, it could be spies, it could be an office, it could be a school, it could be merceneries.

So here’s the question: what is the 21st-century equivalent to 19th-century whaling?

Ahab is a crazy captain, but his employers let him be crazy because he produces results.  Christ, isn’t that the protagonist of every police drama made in the past 40 years?  And that would make Ishmael the rookie cop who gets drawn into the shady side of undercover work.  The cliches write themselves!

But Ahab is not in the employ of the government, he is in the employ of the investors of The Pequod.  Part of the drama of Moby-Dick is that Ahab isn’t just fulfilling a personal vendetta, it’s that he’s doing it with someone else’s ship and with men who don’t share his sense of outrage and vengeance.  The voyage of the Pequod is a commercial venture.  Ahab is not only asking his men to give up their lives, he’s asking them to give up their stake in a lucrative commercial venture.

Whaling, as Melville describes it, is a hugely profitable but also derided profession.  Even in 1851, apparently, whaling was seen as a necessary but ugly economic truth.  One might use whaling products every day, but one did not wish to hang out with whalers.  Whaling was seen as an adventurous, dangerous but low-class thing to do with one’s life.

So who are today’s whalers?  Our mercenaries in Iraq seem to be a good point of comparison.  But maybe it’s someone in the drilling or mining profession instead.  Maybe it’s drug-runners, maybe its firefighters, maybe it’s paramedics, maybe it’s cops after all.

Or maybe it’s a heist movie.  If Danny Ocean took Elliott Gould’s money for the casino job and then said to Matt Damon and his crew, “You know, I’ve got a better idea, let’s rob Fort Knox instead,” is that Moby-Dick?

But the gold in Fort Knox is dead.  It’s a metal, it’s not alive.  Moby-Dick, the great white whale, is alive, natural, unplaceable and unknowable.  Ahab is asking his crew to join him in a mission to know the unknowable.  And that makes it tricky.
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David Koepp

Is he the Ernest Lehman of our time?

He certainly must’ve thought about it while writing all those movies for Brian De Palma.

I can’t think of anyone who has a similar number of hits under his belt.

Take a gander at this list:

Death Becomes Her
Jurassic Park
Carlito’s Way
The Paper
The Shadow
The Trigger Effect
The Lost World: Jurassic Park II
Snake Eyes
Stir of Echoes
Panic Room
Secret Window
War of the Worlds
Indiana Jones IV

And from Ernest Lehman:

The King and I
Somebody Up There Likes Me
The Sweet Smell of Success
North by Northwest
West Side Story
The Sound of Music
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Hello, Dolly
Portnoy’s Complaint
Family Plot
Black Sunday

Whew!  It’s enough to inspire someone to believe that it’s worthwhile being a Hollywood screenwriter.
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Beckett Smackdown

The New York Times has published a piece on the 100th birthday of Samuel Beckett. In the piece, they solicit comments from a number of playwrights about Beckett’s influence on their works.

One of the playwrights contributing to the piece is Will Eno, who nearly won the Pulitzer last year for his somewhat Beckettian monologue Thom Pain (based on nothing), which vaulted to legendary status with the help of Mr. James Urbaniak’s volcanic performance.

Indeed, the Times referred to Mr. Eno as “a Samuel Beckett for the Jon Stewart generation.”

Will Eno is a wonderful writer deserving of all the success that he’s had. But I just want to point out that I was influenced by Beckett when Mr. Eno was in short pants. I yield to no man in my being influenced by Beckett, and yet somehow the New York Times never got around to asking me about it. That might have something to do with me not having a play run off-Broadway for fourteen years (and unsuccessfully at that), but I prefer to see it as blatant favoritism. Indeed, I have a sneaking suspicion that payoffs were made.

I can hear the discussions at the Theater desk:

EDITOR: So who are you gonna ask about the Beckett piece?
WRITER: Oh, the usual suspects. Mamet, Vogel, Durang, Guare, Eno.
EDITOR: What about that guy who co-wrote Antz? Isn’t he a playwright?
WRITER: Chris Weitz?
EDITOR: No, the other one.
WRITER: Paul Weitz?
EDITOR: No, the OTHER one.
WRITER: Oh, you mean that Alcott guy?
EDITOR: Yeah, didn’t he used to write plays with a heavy Beckettian influence?
WRITER: Yeah, but I didn’t get a check from him.
EDITOR: Understood.

Here are some indications of the depth and breadth of Beckett’s influence on me and my work:

1. I have read everything that Beckett has written, usually more than once, and own at least one copy of each work, in English and in French (or whichever language the piece was originally written in).

2. I have a picture of myself standing in front of Beckett’s house in Paris, as well as pictures of the front door of Les Editions du Minuit, his publishers (the door reads, in French, Please Enter, Do Not Ring).

3. I have seen productions of all of Beckett’s plays, some of them many times, including many weird, distaff productions of prose works adapted awkwardly to the stage.

4. I own a copy of the Beckett On Film DVD set (my favorite is Anthony Mingella’s film of Play).

5. I have a little metal bust of Samuel Beckett on top of my computer monitor. It features Beckett’s head on top of an open book. I got it on Ebay.

6. I have three cats, named Didi, Gogo and Lucky.

7. My son’s name is Samuel Alcott.

Your move, Mr. Eno.
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