Tag Archives: screenwriters

Lessons from a Legend: Robert Towne

Last night, screenwriter Robert Towne spoke in between a presentation of his two LA masterpieces, Chinatown and The Two Jakes. Disarmingly honest, funny, and quite wise, he shared his writing philosophy and answered some questions about the movies from the audience. Sure, the questions were fawning, and the answers were not always straightforward, but here are the lessons I gleaned from his talk.

1) Don’t be afraid to write more than necessary. Protagonist J.J. Gittes makes many allusions to Chinatown in the movie, but we never really learn what went down there when he worked for the district attorney’s office. Towne shared the subplot, something to do with a failed truce between rival gangs that he mediated, but even he wasn’t sure. Yet as moderator and film expert F.X. Feeney pointed out, “All of the stuff you write makes it into the movie in some form” and it’s true here. The story is richer for this complexity, even if it doesn’t affect this story. Gittes becomes an even more complex character, one we can’t help but wonder about.

2) It’s a collaboration. Without the sublime score by Jerry Goldsmith, this would not be the same movie. In fact, an earlier score made the film painful to listen to. Without the production design by Richard Sylbert, the sets would have appeared corny instead of classic. And without the influence of director Roman Polanski, the film could not have embraced the screenplay’s complexity and would instead forgo it. And let’s face it, no one could have played Giddes with the same charm and passion as Jack Nicholson. It’s an excellent script, but an even better movie.

3) Let the story take you. Towne alluded to the fact that at a certain point, writing Chinatown became like a dance when the partner, his script, takes over. The characters, story arc, background, all pointed to one way of telling. This metaphor feels apt. My best writing never feels like writing, it feels like taking dictation from a story I know by heart. This may rarely happen, but when the story takes you, let it. He compared his writing process to building inertia. It sure is hard to get started, but when things do start, let it roll.

4) Don’t be afraid of a second draft. I don’t remember the exact number of drafts that Towne and Polanski worked through (Peter Bart writes on this in his new book, Infamous Players) but there were a lot. Yet in the end, all of that work paid off. While Towne didn’t talk about it so much last evening, it’s true; Chinatown would not be the same movie if the shooting script were the rough draft. It takes time and patience to write a truly great story.

Eat, Pray, Bro

Here are some initial thoughts on The Hangover: Part 2

-Is the monkey in all of the scenes? He should be.
-Where is the other guy?
-If The Hangover is really the Citizen Kane of bachelor party movies—what does that make Bachelor Party? The Bachelor Party of bachelor party movies?
-It can’t live up to anyone’s expectations.

Let me address that last point. Sure, I haven’t seen the movie, and I don’t really know what it’s about, but I’m already a little worried. Yes, it’s the same cast, the same cameos, and the same scenarios (wedding, party, trouble). But in a way, that’s what worries me; there isn’t enough to differentiate the sequel from the source. It’s a new locale—but I wonder if that’s just a pretext for an even more screwball plot. If anything can happen in Vegas, then anything will happen in Bangkok. The city could serve more as exotic wallpaper than anything the characters really interact with.

Of course, I like Todd Phillips’ dark sensibilities and I still like the cast. Phillips isn’t fuzzy, and he has no sentimental, Frank Capra tendencies. If his characters are self-obsessed jerks, then at least they are honestly that way. When Phil (Bradley Cooper) needs money for Vegas, he doesn’t simply come up with it off screen; he steals it from his students.

Yet none of this makes me optimistic. I still worry that this will be Sex and the City Two for bros. This isn’t just a summer break-out hit anymore, there are franchise expectations. That’s the problem with sequels; if they take too much of a tangent they lose the audience, and if they don’t they end up being boring. I’ll still watch, but my expectations are not high. Like that Orson Welles flick Phillips is so proud to mention, how much better can you get after Kane?

Visual Storytelling

Screenwriters may spend a great deal of time working with dialogue, but sometimes it’s best to step back and let the story speak for itself. You can spend your time studying silent films, the ultimate in visual storytelling, but there are some great contemporary films that also work well as learning aids. One of my favorites is The Little Matchgirl, directed by Roger Allers and released in 2006. Hans Christian Anderson’s timeless tale of a child selling matches on a winter’s day works as a story as well as a wider meditation on loss and empathy (or the lack thereof).


How does Allers accomplish all this without words? Watch that first minute, because a great deal of information is communicated. The exposition is told in simple contrasts. The match seller lives in a bustling square, but is entirely neglected by the passersby. She watches a rich girl accompanied by her parents, and a careless troika driver doesn’t watch for her. The match seller is observant, the people are rude and dismissive.

Allers adds some strong color contrasts to emphasize his message. The warm reds and oranges of the matches oppose the cold light of the snow. Matches are home, security, and safety; the snow is the haphazard dressing of the public square. By setting up such strong opposites, Allers foreshadows an unhappy ending—between the light of a match and the deluge of a winter storm, does the girl even have a chance?

Watch the transitions, the composition of each shot, the seamless way these seven minutes are storyboarded. No moment is wasted and no note of the Borodin score is ignored. In many ways, this short contains more depth than many two hour features I have sat through.

Sure, a great many of those details were worked out after the script, but without a strong textual basis, none of them would be possible. Find ways to tell the story beyond a couple of characters talking and remember to visualize your script. It’s advice I’m still trying to follow.

A Year in LA

So, a year has passed since graduation from college and my move out to LA, which is weird because it has felt like a decade. Sure, there have been disappointments, I mean, the best I could do in one year, three screenplays, a plethora of sketches, countless query letters, and a ukulele band (just kidding on that last one) was a positive read from a producer and another read from a fledgling production company.

The stand-up comedy career fizzled after my girlfriend walked out of the open mic that one Saturday night last October. I would continue, but she was the last audience member in the audience at one in the morning.

The screenwriting isn’t on hiatus, but it hasn’t picked up. I found freelance journalism more meaningful this past year, and after a couple of commissions, I even made some money. Not enough to, you know, make it a living, but it’s something I want to pursue more of in the future. I mean, if I have even encouraged my mom to pitch article ideas to me, I know that it’s not in vain.

I have heard the next year in LA is much easier. I hope so.

Writing Accomplishments:

1. A couple of credits via imdb (more to come): Here
2. A writers group that is actually pretty helpful and—through the group—an equally cool short film collaborator.
3. One successful blog that has gotten upwards of thirty-thousand hits.
4. Multiple articles published for print and online periodicals.
5. Three screenplays: “My Father the Agent,” “Da-ad,” and “Truly Desperate,” all of which I am very proud of.

The list will be longer next year, I promise.

Some things I learned:

1. If you have sixteen items on a fifteen item express line at Ralph’s—expect to be yelled at in West LA.
2. All pedestrians west of the county line should be required to wear body armor.
3. Your mechanic is your best friend.
4. “You can have anything you want but you can’t take it from me,” truer words have never been spoken (Axl Rose: “Welcome to the Jungle”).
5. The people who are mean to you are generally mean to everyone—don’t take it personally.
6. Life without learning isn’t worth living.
7. If you see Mel Gibson holding a puppet and emoting, run the other way.

What have you learned this past year? Please tell me in the comments.

Ivan Passer on Directing

A Still from Intimate Lighting

Last weekend I was lucky enough to see Czech director Ivan Passer speak about his film Intimate Lighting at the Silent Movie Theatre. It’s an awesome movie, one filled with moments of humor, emotion, and wisdom; all of which feel understated and real. Written in 1965 while Czechoslovakia was under communist control, it’s a truly beautiful, incisive look at small-town life—independent, sly, and even slightly subversive.

After the show Passer answered questions from the audience. I was fascinated to learn that all but one of the actors were non-professionals; many were found on the streets of Prague. It shows, the acting feels natural and unrehearsed.

Passer did mention he had difficulties with one actress, the grandma. He had found her outside a “film club” in Prague. She was a widow who agreed to come with Passer to the country even before she knew he was shooting a movie.

When this actress came on set, her choices were hokey and Passer thought he would have to replace her. In fact, on that first day of shooting, he took the film out of the camera because he knew that all of the scenes with her in it were ruined. He sent out assistants to scour the village for an older woman who could play the grandma. At lunch, they came back empty-handed. Passer was nervous. This was his first movie—his first day—as a director. He couldn’t report back to his producers that he had nothing.

He took the older woman aside after lunch and told her, “You know, I want you to know that you have very pretty eyes. You don’t need to do much more than show your beautiful eyes” (I’m paraphrasing here). After that, the actress calmed down. They redid some of the scenes from the morning and from then on, almost magically, she became one of the stand-outs of the film.

I think as a director you have to let your actors know that they have pretty eyes. You have to give them the confidence to go on stage or on camera. Because let’s face it, actors are some of the most nervous, miserable, needy people in the world. A director’s duty is to make the actors feel comfortable, in charge and dynamic. It can be as simple as telling an actress that she has pretty eyes, or even laughing after a take.

Whenever I direct (which isn’t often these days) my first job is to make my actors comfortable and happy. The worst films I have done the actors did not know each other, didn’t care about the material, and didn’t want to. And it shows on the final take or performance. The most fun plays I have done, like Roland, a lot of the rehearsing took place off the stage when we were getting to know each other. It’s hard work, but that bond of mutual respect and admiration, among the actors, crew, and director, makes the final performance that much nicer.

So my question this week is: who do you think are the best directors and why? What do you think makes a good director?

Learning to Laugh

I am taking another improv class at the Upright Citizens Brigade. I really like the new instructor, he has an attitude toward comedy that’s more analytic than the way I have been taught. For example, this exercise: He told us to first of all, laugh, and then after investigate the reasons why. He told us it would ruin the way we enjoy comedy and it’s true, it is difficult to be analytical about something that is so instinctive, but I have really treasured this activity.

It’s been a tough week getting back from Michigan. I turned down my first job offer—I want to work in entertainment but I also want to afford my apartment. I also decided not to return to grad school this year, for the simple reason I don’t really want to be a teacher for the rest of my life. And I am beginning to truly understand how hard, physically, emotionally, in every other way, totally committing to this dream is. My honeymoon with Los Angeles isn’t just over, it’s getting close to the divorce.

And then I got the flu on my birthday. So, instead of enjoying the cake that my girlfriend baked (while I was at improv class, no less) I could hardly keep down a triscuit. And, besides feeling nauseous, it was pretty funny—ironic funny, but still, hilarious. The punchline? My girlfriend got sick that night, too.

The birthday was not all bad. I finally stepped inside the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica to see a free showing of Buster Keaton’s Sherlock, Jr. As part of my 2k10 networking offensive, I chatted up two old ladies in the lobby who told me they were writers. They told me that writers make the best waiters, which had to have been the funniest line of the evening due to the sheer absurdity of that statement. As a writer, I would make the worst waiter. You would find me dreaming in the back room before I would ever remember to get an order.

After a late start, the movie itself was funny too (duh!)—Keaton is a physical comic of the highest order. When he falls down the water tower in one scene, you hope he’s alright, but you know he’s not, but you laugh anyway.

So, as a proviso to my New Years Resolution, here is a new one: to laugh and to understand the reasons behind my laughter. To laugh for the right reasons and the wrong ones, to be happy when I am feeling sad. When you’re down and out, what else can you do?


Buster Keaton in Sherlock Jr.

When Screenwriters Talk…

Of all the players in the film industry, the screenwriter is meted the least respect. He or she fights for agents and meetings with executives, is forced to rewrite at least seven or eight times, and often is underpaid for the effort. Then when a director does come on board, the existing document is rewritten to fit completely new specs. There is never really a time when the screenwriter can truly speak up and be heard.

Unless, of course, that screenwriter is giving a lecture. Because so many people want to be screenwriters, and so few actually are, the seven or eight who have something produced are in high demand. These lowly, nerdy specimens get to stand on the other side of the podium and for once in their lives, be looked up to. Some screenwriters abuse this power. Others are so oblivious they give boring talks. Still others are so self-obsessed they have little patience with an audience.

So here are some simple guidelines for the screenwriter asked to speak. This comes from much experience watching screenwriters; I haven’t been asked to give a talk, yet. If you have other points, or have had an equally bad experience at a lecture, please let me know in the comments.

1. Be on time. There is nothing that tests my patience more than a late speaker. Whatever your excuse, if you are being paid to lecture, then please, leave your previous appointment early.

2. How? How did you get into screenwriting? If it was your famous father, tell us that. Do not give us some crazy story about your script reaching the eyes of some producer who immediately went “Eureka” and gave your movie a green light. The ways people reach the top in this industry may be passé to you, but to us, it’s the verbal equivalent of catnip. We need to know.

3. Tell Us What Works for You. I am not entirely interested in advice, but I am interested in routines. When do you write? Do you outline your scenes or do you just write whatever comes to mind? What classes, textbooks do you recommend? Which writers give you inspiration? How do you approach adapting an original story? What are the most difficult moments for you? How do you overcome writer’s block? When do you know a draft is finished? These are all questions I want answered. If you need to phrase it as advice, fine, but try not to be too preachy, OK?

4. No attitude, please. No matter how famous you are or how far you have come, you must know what it is like to be a struggling screenwriter. Treat us with respect, we already have to deal with so much rejection. And remember, us screenwriters are always the first to buy your DVDs, read your celebrity blog, and stalk you at conferences. It’s a good idea to pander to the fan base.

5. Meet and Greet. I cannot stress this enough. However interesting your lecture, with the invention of podcasting, the internet, and personal recording devices, it’s a synch to download it the morning after. The reason I would plunk down fifteen dollars or more would be to meet you after the speech. If you rush out of the auditorium on another “assignment” you have essentially wasted my money.