Tag Archives: screenwriting

Movies and Memory

It’s funny how I care more about the study of history some two years after majoring in it. But now it’s the kind I stumble upon, the detective history, which fascinates me.
For example, long before e-books, and back even before the days before barcodes came to libraries, books had to be checked out by hand, usually by a librarian with a big black stamp. I picked up LA local John Fante’s Full of Life from the library the other week, and was happy to find these stamped inscriptions hidden in the back of the book. My amateur detective’s mind went into overdrive—why was this checked out between January, 1991 and February, 1992? Did a high schooler need it for a paper? Was it a recommendation from a friend? Did a careless librarian stamp in all the wrong places one long winter?

I think screenwriters are essentially amateur detectives. A good screenplay doesn’t take any detail for granted. Writing a screenplay, my first thoughts always are: Where are we? What’s the mood? Who are the characters and what’s their story? Without knowing these things, however great the action, I can’t write the story. Maybe it comes from that history major in college, but the way I tell stories always begins with the background.

I try to keep an eye out for the unexpected. I may have walked on the same sidewalk a thousand times before I noticed this inscription:

According to Wikipedia (one of my best friends), the Janns Investment Corporation once owned all of Westwood. Soon enough they sold it to the city of Los Angeles, which bought it in order to form their own university branch—UCLA. While the company no longer exists, the name adorns certain steps, buildings and the occasional sidewalk panel.

Just as I don’t know how you could live in Los Angeles without being curious, I don’t know how you could write a story without doing some detective work. Living in a world, either real or imagined (and oftentimes both), means understanding that world and its curious meanings. Memory is what makes us human. In a world that values novelty over all, I hope I don’t forget that.

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.

Not Everything about Los Angeles Is Bad

If you are a regular reader of the blog, you know that more often than not, I am complaining about LA: the traffic, the people, the pollution, or whatever pet peeve it is this month. But in recent months I have revised my opinion: yes, it is exceedingly difficult to live in LA. This is not a very livable city like Ann Arbor or Portland. But there are certain advantages to living here. What follows are some:

1. The weather. It’s eighty-four and sunny. No, not today, every day. If you suffer from Seasonal affective disorder, like I do, there is no better place to feel good, year round. The greatest weather catastrophe we get is rain, and that’s about once a year. Beat that, Seattle.

2. The beach. I live five miles from the Pacific coast. Need I say more?




3. Randy’s Donuts. Short of heaven, I don’t think there is anywhere better to get a hot, fresh donut. If you are ever in LA, even just passing through LAX, make it a point to stop at the giant donut.

My only complaint: more restaurants aren’t designed by way of what they serve.





4. Free movies. There really is no place else in the world where people outside theatres give out tickets to free movies. Sure, many of them are previews of movies I have no interest in, but the simple idea that anyone can get into a movie for free (and not try that hard) makes me happy.

5. Downtown LA. There is nowhere quite like Los Angeles’ downtown. Filled with interesting stories, shops, and a rich history, crowned by aging movie palaces down Broadway, it is a shame so many tourists stick to Hollywood. There is really so much more to see. At least see the giant redwoods in Clifton’s Cafeteria if you can.

6. KCSN. It may not always be The Music I Want (per their slogan) but it is always on in my car. I like the variety, the absence of deejays, and their choice to broadcast World Café every day. I don’t understand their programming philosophy, but maybe that is why I like it.

7. South Pasadena. I discovered this sleepy little town off the 110 through my work on their local Patch.com. I recently made this video for the site.

Everyone is reasonably friendly, the stores are cute and not ostentatious, and there are some amazing places to get sundaes. Maybe I like it so much because it is so un-LA. The outlying neighborhood of quaint Craftsman houses reminds me of that sleepy little mirage of a town the astronauts find on Mars in Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles. Bradbury is local, after all, and I bet he based it a little bit off South Pas. Probably not the midnight assassination part, but the quaint part, yes.

8. Vroman’s. Located in Pasadena, this little bookstore that could always occupies several hours of my time when I am out that way. A truly independent bookstore, they are always hosting author talks, putting out good employee picks, and stocking up on new releases. When I worry about the future of publishing, I worry about Vroman’s, and hope they can stay open a little bit longer.

9. Independent Cinema. I live a couple of blocks from the Nuart, the Regal, the Royal, the Regent, and the Bruin—all great single screen theaters that do their best to be independent. And where else would Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams draw crowds other than the Royal in West LA?

10. The Margaret Herrick Library. Some of film’s greatest moments (and an Oscar or two in a display case) are available in this gem of a resource located on La Cienega Boulevard in Beverly Hills. Open to everyone, but used by only a knowledgeable few, it’s a perfect place to spend a couple of hours learning up on some film history.

11. Hollywood. Walking its streets, seeing the lines outside the Pantages, or even passing buskers on the street, something always catches in my throat. I start to see stars, not just the Walk of Fame kind, but the imaginary ones, too. Whatever I may know about the hard rock face of reality, I feel there is possibility here. Even if those opportunities do not exist, or the way up is pretty hard, it doesn’t feel that way on an empty stomach and a head full of stars walking on those streets.

Travelin’ Man

My girlfriend is going to Alaska next month. This is good news, for her, but only depresses me. Not that I regret her trip, far from it; I feel bad because I am grounded. This summer, this fall, this winter, I probably won’t go anywhere. It’s not only the lack of dough, which is a problem, it’s the much bigger fear of the airplane, the lines at security, TSA patdowns, missed dinners, and other miserable side effects of travel.

Yet most good screenplays aren’t written in Los Angeles. They are written on the train back from Redwood City, the biplane sputtering from Ankara to Istanbul, or the boat sailing across the ocean. Only through experience can writers get to the best parts of their imagination, right? Sitting at home thinking of something cool is one thing, but actually living those adventures is something else. Look at Easy Rider, Road to Morocco, or Mad Max. These are all road movies dreamed up or put to film in exotic locations.

Of course, as we learn by the end of The Wizard of Oz (another great road movie) there is no place like home. And for all of its monotony, being at home does give me the ability to write, to eat food I’m comfortable with (read: frozen pizza), and fall asleep watching Netflix. However entrancing the idea of a long adventure sounds, it probably is best I stay at home, financially and otherwise.

It’s a shame, too, because I really could use a vacation.

On Going It Alone

And collaboration, which is not necessarily a compromise, may be the very thing, if properly encouraged, that allows film to speak in the most developed way to the largest number of people. Every person who works on a film brings his or her own perspective to bear on the subject. And if these perspectives are properly orchestrated by the director, the result will be a multi-faceted and yet integrated complexity that will have the greatest chance of catching and sustaining the interest of the audience, which is itself a multi-faceted entity in search of integration.

-Walter Murch

Walter Murch

I love this paragraph from Walter Murch’s seminal In the Blink of an Eye. Murch, editor of The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, and other untouchable classics, had one of those miracle Hollywood careers; his book is really is a must for anyone interested in filmmaking (editing or not). This passage in particular sums up his philosophy: film is collaboration. It takes talented editors, producers, writers, carpenters, production assistants, production coordinators, and a host of others to really make an amazing movie. Don’t trust those DIY filmmakers who say they did everything themselves. No one exists in a vacuum, and the moment you get help as a director, is the moment you make a film.

Collaboration is a difficult concept for me, because I am one of those DIY filmmakers. I don’t even like when other people touch the camera while I’m directing. It’s not that I’m some Laszlo Kovacs or James Wong Howe, it’s just I’m so used to doing it my own way, I have trouble ceding control. I trained as a writer on my own: very few classes, no film school, and I have never really worked on a large-scale, collaborative set.

But that reticence is something I have been trying to change. No one lives in a bubble, nor can someone write or direct in a bubble. I could spend the rest of my life making my own videos. With today’s technology, that’s very possible. Yet I’ll never grow as a filmmaker. That growth takes hard work, the kind that involves other people. Ironically, sometimes letting go of the film is the first step to actually making one.

What’s your filmmaking experience? How do you balance being an indie auteur with being a “ringmaster of a circus that is constantly reinventing itself” in Francis Ford Coppola’s words? Are those two things mutually exclusive?

My Movie Clichés

Keanu Reeves Writing One of Those Special Read Aloud Letters

There are certain movie clichés that always take me out of the viewing experience. I have griped with friends about characters who brush their teeth in five seconds when it should take two minutes (Mr. and Mrs. Smith), solve a mysterious pandemic in ten whole minutes (Outbreak), or whose cell phones lose reception at the end of act one (Almost Every Thriller Since 1995).

Here is one of my least favorite: Whenever a movie character reads a letter, email, or IM, we hear the writer’s voice in the background. Is this a hallucination? A talking card from Hallmark? When I read a letter, I read it in my voice, not anyone else’s. Isn’t this how everyone else reads? Whatever the style, this voice-over effect is still overused.

I hear The Lake House is particularly guilty of this—not that I would ever see this guaranteed cry-fest, but, it’s good to know, in any case. Here’s a scene from You’ve Got Mail that’s actually really funny—but is still guilty as charged.

What are your movie pet peeves? Hopefully it’s not just me that has these!

Short Stories

“Not that the story need be long, but it will take a long while to make it short”
-Henry David Thoreau

It is one thing to write a novel of a screenplay, but it really is something else to write a short. I am writing “Broadway Sketches,” a series of vignettes, to hopefully direct and produce sometime this year. So far, there are about eight story lines and only nineteen pages. Every line of dialogue has to count. Every action should have a thought behind it—and all of these elements have to be concise.

I take a great deal of inspiration from some of the story-songs from older popular music forms, like blues, rhythm and blues, and country. Merle Haggard is a master story teller, so are Johnny Cash and John Lee Hooker. Whatever you feel about country, there is a lot to be learned about telling detail from a three-minute song.

Here’s Folsom Prison Blues by Johnny Cash

I aint seen the sun shine since I don’t know when.
His character is stuck in prison, probably solitary.

I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die.
This guy is an unrepentant killer, probably insane.

I bet there’s rich folks eating in a fancy dining car…those people keep a’moving and that’s what tortures me.
Understanding that escape is a fantasy, the man’s final resort is his imagination, which ultimately does him no good.

All of this can be gleaned from a two and a half minute song. Not bad for brevity.

I’ll end this post with a song from blues singer Ted Hawkins, “Sorry You’re Sick,” featured on this Sunday’s This American Life and inspiring me to write this post. In the space of a couple of minutes we learn that the narrator’s lover is sick, that the sickness could be terminal, that the man is in love, too, and that, tragically, his attempts to help her are futile. Or in the words of Jesse Kornbluth on Head Butler, “Something tells me that the patient in this song is in no danger of getting better — and that Hawkins is getting the right medicine for her.” Take a listen—that mournful refrain speaks volumes more than any long explanation.

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.

Expand the Writers Group?

Sundays Mean Starbucks with the Writers Group

So, the Santa Monica Writers Group is getting a bit smaller than I’d like. One of our members moved back East and another is shooting a movie in Hungary or somewhere Eastern European. Recently, there has been a push among the remaining four members to add a couple more.

Obviously, I’m happy to look for more members. More eyes mean more perspectives, and more perspectives hopefully mean a more well-rounded criticism. Also, writing is a lonely pursuit, and it’s always good to have more friends who are writers. We can be lonely together.

Yet I also don’t want to make the group too big. I have been in rooms with too many writers and it’s not fun. Writers are a prickly bunch and when they don’t feel like they are being heard they get ornery. Attention, space, laughter all become commodities and the conversation can become something of a battle—who has the best joke, who can command the most attention, etc. Plus, with a group of ten, it becomes harder to find a table at our Starbucks HQ. I’d like to keep the group down to five or six.

I’m going the Craigslist route in terms of advertising, but if anyone is in the LA area and reading this, you are more than welcome to join the group—just send a ten page writing sample.

Applicant or not, I’d like to hear your thoughts on this pressing matter.

The Second Act Doldrums

While I have not made the half hour of progress per day as I planned in December, I am still hard at work on the new screenplay. This one I have faith in, it’s the first action movie I’ve written and already I see franchise potential. OK, that’s going too far, but at least I am past page sixty and not giving up. My problem is that while I’m into the second act I don’t really know where to go next. I have a great introduction, and even a wonderful ending in the bank, but this part is a stumbling block. My characters are out on the road, they’re running away from the bad guys and they’re going…somewhere.

My solution is to spend some more time this week outlining. I have a two page guide but have since abandoned it. As my story-world has become more complicated, the guide has filled with notes and become too messy to understand. Anyway, I have new goals for the screenplay.

For the second act, I want my characters to get to a specific place, but I don’t want them to make it there too fast. I want that climactic final scene to feel earned. I want to reveal certain mysteries embedded in the story, but I don’t want those to feel too obvious, either. And I want the audience to get to know the characters well enough that they’ll want to follow them into the third act. I have a lot to work through.

I’m open to suggestions. Those who have waded through the second act doldrums, help! What works best? What should I do next?