O comedy gods, we beseech thee

September 19, 2014
Bonus points if you know the line that came right before this

Bonus points if you know the classic line spoken right before this. If not, shame on you.

Despite a few initial hiccups, the plot of the low-budget comedy is slowly coming together. It ain’t easy, but I’m doing what I can.

First and foremost – making sure the story is solid.

Coming in at a very close second – the way the story takes place has to feel like this is the only way it could happen.

Bringing up the rear, but just as important as the previous two – it has to be funny, which may be the biggest challenge of all.

Comedy is subjective. Tastes vary.

Many’s the time I’ve watched a successful comedy, but didn’t find myself laughing that much. Maybe watching it with an audience in a theatre makes a difference.

My sense of humor might be considered somewhat on the dry side.  To me, jokes conveyed in a subtle, low-key way tend to be funnier – and sometimes have more of an impact. Tell a joke without making it obvious one is being told.

Reading and watching a lot of comedies, it’s becoming more obvious that a lot of writers seem to consider a character making a smartass comment for no apparent reason as funny. I’ll be making a deliberate effort to not do that.

Something else that’s important – making it feel realistic. I absolutely hate when “something wacky” happens that simply wouldn’t in real life.

This is just part of the list. There’s a lot to think about, but I knew this was going to be challenging when the idea first hit me.

The jokes are out there. I just have to find the right ones.


Ask a Mega-franchise-experienced* Script Consultant!

September 16, 2014
Phil Clarke

*Jedi, Hogwarts, & MI-6, if you need points of reference

The latest in a series of interviews with script readers and consultants who would be worth your while to work with if you want to get your script in shape. Today’s spotlight is on Phil Clarke.

Phil Clarke is a UK-based script consultant and screenwriter with close to twenty years service to cinema. After years working on such features as Sleepy Hollow, Enigma, The Beach and two of the biggest box-office franchises: Star Wars and Harry Potter, he turned to writing – both for the screen and the page. His screenplays have spent time with production companies both in the UK and Hollywood, including a James Bond ‘scriptment’ considered for the twentieth entry in the franchise. As a script consultant for over a decade, his clients have won or placed highly at major script competitions, had their projects optioned, while others have gone on to be produced, the best débuting at Cannes.

1. What’s the last thing you read/watched that you thought was incredibly well written?

The last thing of note was on British TV called The Honourable Woman written by the fantastic Hugo Blick and starring Maggie Gyllenhaal. Not sure if you’ve had it yet in the States. Well worth checking out – also Blick’s The Shadow Line.

2. How’d you get your start reading scripts?

I started reading screenplays as work following my years working on the sets of movies like Sleepy Hollow, Enigma, Star Wars and Harry Potter. For example, on the latter I was Chris Columbus’ on-set personal assistant.

3. Is recognizing good writing something you think can be taught or learned?

Absolutely. But you do need to be willing to be taught. Many aspiring screenwriters seem too keen to find a shortcut and bypass the learning side.

4. What are the components of a good script?

Tough to answer succinctly in a Q&A like this, but a good script tends to be well structured, have a well-executed and compelling premise along with engaging, relatable protagonists.

5. What are some of the most common mistakes you see?

Generally speaking, I see too many new writers wanting to rush through the process. Consequently, they submit their work too early when several rewrites would have immeasurably improved the project. More specifically, I see poor grammar and spelling, inadequate formatting, poorly defined characters with unclear goals and a lack of conflict in the scenes and in the story as a whole.

6. What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

Personally, my heart always sinks when I see a script open with a voice-over narration. It’s often a sign that the entire script will be uninspiring and derivative. While it’s a way to convey a lot in a small amount of time, most writers don’t use it in the right way.
 Dream sequences and flashbacks more often than not annoy because of the way they’re usually handled. Cutting back unnecessarily to explain or overload with exposition certainly grates.

7. What are the 3 most important rules every writer should know?

It’s hard to limit it to just three, but I would say:

1) know your story inside out and the reason for your story

2) above all else, make your story entertaining

3) never stop trying to improve your writing. Continue to hone your craft, and never think you’re the finished article.

8. Have you ever read a script that was an absolute, without-a-doubt “recommend”? If so, could you give the logline?

Yes, of course. I would be most disenchanted with my job if I hadn’t. But these stick-on, guaranteed ‘recommend’ reads are rare. As for the loglines, I’m afraid I am unable to give you one.

9. How do you feel about screenwriting contests? Worth it or not?

It depends on the contest. Some are beneficial, others – not so much. Make sure to research which ones offer you the most for your time and money. If they can guarantee your script will be read by those who can help get your script sold then they’re definitely worth it as that’s what all writers are aiming for.

10. How can people can get in touch with you to find out more about the services you provide?

People can find me all over the internet. I’m on Twitter (@philmscribe), Stage32.com and LinkedIn. My new website is currently under construction; in the meantime, I do have a temporary webpage on the site of my fine former colleague, Viv Foster: http://www.bookscribe.co.uk/index.php/services/screen or check out my IMDB page at http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0164947/. Alternatively, they can reach me directly at: philmscribe@live.co.uk.

11. Readers of this blog are more than familiar with my love/appreciation of pie. What’s your favorite kind?

I also love my pie. Anything from Key Lime to Raspberry Crumble. I’m also partial to a quality Tarte Tatin.


Iron fists, meet velvet gloves

September 12, 2014
And the hits just keep on coming!

I find a little onomatopoeia makes each day a little brighter

Scenario time!

You’ve finished the latest draft of your latest project. You know it’s not perfect, but it’s probably better than the previous incarnation(s). Or at least hope it is.

In theory you’ve built up a network of reliable peers with skill levels comparable to yours, so you put the word out.

“If it’s not too much of a hassle and you have the time, would you be so kind as to take a look at this?”

Some will have to decline, but others are more than happy to oblige. You, of course, offer to return the favor if the need should arise.

So you send it off and do your best to not think about it.

Days or weeks pass, and then the notes begin to trickle in.

Thoughtful questions about story and character are asked. Typos you didn’t realize you missed are highlighted. Details you had not even considered are pointed out. Everything geared towards helping you make your script better.

These other writers, struggling to succeed just as much as you, don’t hesitate to offer their encouragement.

That’s one scenario. Here’s another.

The notes come across as angry, impatient and frustrated. Even worse, your script is criticized. Metaphorically torn to shreds.

“This makes no sense!” “I don’t get it.” “WTF?” “Bored now.”

This is helpful?

I’ve read my share of scripts that needed a lot of work, with the writers having come to me for help. If I see what I consider a problem, I’ll identify it and make suggestions of how it could be fixed, leaving the final decisions up to the writer. Nor will I hesitate to mention something that works or that I enjoyed.

I try to make it a positive experience, and am not out to make anybody feel stupid or inadequate. (We all do that just fine on our own.) Responses usually read along the lines of “These are great! Thanks so much!” and are taken at face value.

It really bothers me when somebody is excessively negative and claims “I’m just doing the same thing the industry does.” But you’re not in the industry, let alone a screenwriting guru. You’re trying to break in, just like me.

I’m not looking for lavish praise about my work, and I honestly don’t expect it. If you like the script, great. But I want to make it better, and to do that I need help, and that’s what I’m hoping you’ll provide.


Ask an Ubiquitous* Script Consultant!

September 9, 2014
Danny Manus

*Seriously. The guy’s, like, everywhere. Podcasts, social media, online articles, you name it.

The latest in a series of interviews with script readers and consultants who would be worth your while to work with if you want to get your script in shape. Today’s spotlight is on Danny Manus of No Bullscript Consulting.

Danny Manus is the former Director of Development for Sandstorm Films (The Covenant, 8MM2) and Clifford Werber Productions (Cinderella Story, Just Add Water), where he sold “To Oz” to United Artists. He’s the author of “No B.S. for Screenwriters: Advice from the Executive Perspective” and was ranked one of the Top 15 “Cream of the Crop” script consultants in CS Magazine. He was also named one of Screencraft’s “25 People Screenwriters Should Follow on Twitter.”

1. What’s the last thing you read/watched that you thought was incredibly well-written?

The best written things I’ve watched lately have been on TV. There are movies I’ve really enjoyed – Chef, Planet of the Apes, Guardians of the Galaxy, Fault in our Stars, Bad Words, etc. – but none this year yet that I thought were OMG fantastic writing. To be fair, I haven’t seen Boyhood yet. But for me, TV is where the best material is these days. My favorite new comedy is You’re the Worst on FXX. I also really enjoyed The Last Ship on TNT and Masters of Sex on Showtime this summer. I’m sure there are wonderfully written books out there, but I don’t get to read them.

2. How’d you get your start reading scripts?

My first start was as an intern about 13 years ago at Columbia Tri-Star in TV Development and 20TH Century Fox Feature Casting. I was charged with reading everything that came in and doing coverage on them. But I used to go through their archive library and just read as many as I could, especially at Tri-Star. My coverage was liked by the VPs I worked under so much that they loaned me out to the SVP (Sarah Timberman at the time, who would not remember me if you paid her) and then the President at the time. Those gigs gave me enough coverage samples to land my first assistant job after I graduated.

3. Is recognizing good writing something you think can be taught or learned?

Recognizing bad writing is something anyone can do. Recognizing great writing is something that can be taught and learned with time and experience. As a first year assistant and intern, I could tell you what was written poorly. But it took a few years of reading hundreds and hundreds of scripts to TRULY understand good writing. And many thousands of scripts later, I’m still learning.

You can’t read a book on screenwriting and think you’re suddenly able to be a professional consultant or reader or writer. There is no checklist given to new readers, it’s learned on the job – that’s why it’s SO important for writers to READ. Though I actually did develop a checklist I used to give to my interns. It was 110 items long. But if you’re a great reader, they are all just in your head and you notice them naturally.

4. What are the components of a good script?

There are basic elements everyone agrees on – a concept and hook that sparks a reaction and has potential to lead somewhere intriguing; compelling, three-dimensional characters who make you want to follow them; dialogue that feels sharp and precise yet natural and flows; enough growing conflict and high enough stakes to keep ones interest; and a plot that progresses throughout the script in interesting ways. Every script should have strong setups, executions and payoffs. But to make it go from good to great, it’s about the X-factor. Some of that is voice, but some of it is just the right writer writing the right story in the right way at the right time. That’s when true brilliance strikes. And it doesn’t happen often.

5. What are some of the most common mistakes you see?

I see them all. I mean, the biggest mistakes are that writers are writing stories that aren’t MOVIES. They’re just not strong enough ideas or hooks to be movies in the current studio or indie marketplace. Or that the writer doesn’t know the hook of their idea. Or that the writer uses too many COINCIDENCES or serendipitous moments to create plot.

Actually, you know what the #1 mistake I see is? The use of YOU’RE and YOUR! I mean, WTF people – it’s not that hard to know the difference. Thinking that typos and grammar and format don’t matter – they do!

The biggest non-craft mistakes writers make is not doing their research and not knowing ANYTHING about the actual business. And secondly, submitting projects LONG before they’re ready to be submitted. Querying and pitching on a first draft or before a script is even written, entering contests with a first draft, posting their second drafts on websites. The biggest mistake I see is desperation and impatience outweighing common sense and good judgment.

6. What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

I could go the rest of my life without seeing another Geek to Chic Teen story. Or the Christmas tale of someone losing their Xmas spirit until X happens. Or the story of the struggling writer trying to break into Hollywood and X happens. The Screenwriter protagonist CAN work – but 98% of the time it doesn’t and I like to play the odds. In terms of character, if I never have to read about another female rape victim or domestic abuse victim, I’d be okay with that too. Those are so common in scripts it’s lost its meaning. But in the end, what I always say is – Don’t run from the cliché, just make it seem NOT cliché. That’s a writer’s job.

7. What are the 3 most important rules every writer should know?

-It’s not called the artist colony, it’s called the Film Business. So treat it like one. And if you want this to be a career, treat it like one.

-Writing is rewriting and if you can’t take notes and really truly rewrite, you’ll never have a lasting career.

-Your first draft and first script is SUPPOSED to suck. If you think your first script is going to sell and make you rich, you’re living in a dream world. Just. Keep. Writing.

8. Have you ever read a script that was an absolute, without-a-doubt “recommend”? If so, could you give the logline?

Absolutely. But most were already projects in development written by top notch writers. I have had a number of clients whose projects were Recommends – but none were like that on the first draft. I can’t really divulge the loglines though.

9. How do you feel about screenwriting contests? Worth it or not?

There are about 15 contests out there that are completely worth it that I highly recommend, and about 250 contests out there that aren’t. If you win a major, prestigious contest it can definitely start your career and get you noticed. But if you’re continuously a quarterfinalist or not even making the quarters, then you’re not ready yet. Or your script isn’t. Contests are absolutely worthwhile IF your script and writing is at a level where you can be in the top 100 writers out of 8,000. If you can’t say that, then you’re probably wasting $40. Keep in mind – the Top 10 contests get about 45,000 submissions total. And they give out about 150 prizes to finalists and winners. So, those are your chances. Your script has to be REALLY fucking good. But as someone who has had multiple major contest winners and finalists as clients, that’s what I’m here for.

10. How can people can get in touch with you to find out more about the services you provide?

You can always check out my website and services at www.nobullscript.net and follow me on Twitter @Dannymanus (I was named one of Screencraft’s 25 People Screenwriters Should Follow on Twitter).

And if interested, I’m running a 4-week online course “Creating More Compelling, Castable Characters” which starts Sept 26th and it’s going to be a great class. So, I encourage everyone to check out details at www.compellingcharacters.eventbrite.com

11. Readers of this blog are more than familiar with my love/appreciation of pie. What’s your favorite kind?

I’m an apple pie guy, though a good chocolate cream pie with the chocolate mousse and whipped cream…nom nom nom.


Just get it written first

September 5, 2014
Hmm. What rhymes with 'Nantucket'?

Hmm. If I could only think of something that rhymes with ‘Nantucket’…

Development of the outline for the low-budget comedy is progressing smoothly. Plot points are in place, so now it moves to the filling-in of the gaps between them.

Although I may jot down ideas for assorted scenes or sequences, I tend to work in a more linear fashion. Start at the beginning, figure out what happens next or how scene A leads to scene B, that sort of thing.

I have to keep reminding myself that especially in this early, early, stage, it’s more important to get the story right first, then worry about the jokes and little details. While developing all those setup scenes for the first ten pages, I still caught myself asking “Is that the funniest you can come up with?”

Trying to stop yourself from self-editing? Not easy.

Additionally, since the emphasis here is on the “low-budget” aspect, another self-imposed challenge is to keep things simple. No special effects, no elaborate sets or costumes, a (hopefully) minimal number of locations. Something that could definitely be made on the cheap.

Again, a lot of this could be handled or fixed in a later draft, but I figure why not at least start out with that in mind?

We’ll see how it goes.

And what are you working on this weekend?


Ask a Script Consultant who’s also a Working Writer!

September 2, 2014

mark sanderson

The latest in a series of interviews with script readers and consultants who would be worth your while to work with if you want to get your script in shape.

Mark Sanderson (aka @scriptcat) is a Los Angeles based screenwriter, script consultant, and sometimes actor blessed to be living his childhood dream of making movies with a spec sale and a dozen screenplay assignments that have produced seven films. Mark’s long association with award winning Hollywood filmmakers dates back to his first produced screenplay and has since worked with Academy Award® winning producers, veteran directors, and Academy Award®, Emmy®, and Golden Globe® acting nominees. He offers script consultation services on his website at www.fiveoclockblue.net and also offers advice on his screenwriting blog MY BLANK PAGE. Look for his upcoming book A Screenwriter’s Journey to Success coming out later this year on Amazon.

1. What’s the last thing you read/watched that you thought was incredibly well-written?

I don’t have much time to spend watching a lot of TV or movies, but the best writing these days is on television in my opinion. I manage to catch an episode here and there of shows, but don’t really spend a lot of time watching many series. When I watch movies, I tend to be really picky and very few films out there today don’t really draw me in—so I go for the classics. On television, I really thought the limited series Sherlock was excellent writing, Mr. Selfridge too, and I got hooked into the The Following for a while and that was good serialized writing. I’m just getting into the old pulpy Doc Savage novels from the 1930s and the writing is great and so visually ahead of its time. I read that Hollywood is planning on making a Doc Savage movie and if done right, could spawn a series of new films.

2. How’d you get your start reading scripts?

Well, I’ve had a professional screenwriting career for the past fifteen years and during the last few years I decided to open my consulting business on the side.  I’m always reading scripts even if I’m not consulting on them. I have a small group of writer friends and we trade our scripts back and forth for feedback.

3. Is recognizing good writing something you think can be taught or learned?

I believe it comes from years of learning and studying the craft of screenwriting. When writers build a strong foundation of experience reading scripts, studying structure, character, writing scripts, executing notes and mastering their craft—this is when they can finally give experienced and critical feedback if a script is good writing or not. It also is vital to know the language of cinema. I’m aware that some consulting sites farm out the reads to “readers” and one never knows who is actually reading the script or their experience level when giving notes.

4. What are the components of a good script?

It starts with a compelling story and something that you can clearly see grew from the writer’s passion for the material. Too many times I read scripts that are trying to chase after Hollywood’s big budget blockbusters and they fall short because the writing is boring, clichéd and trying to emulate something that has already been created. The scripts read like a rehash and not something original. A good script showcases the writer’s unique voice and the best of their talents. It has interesting characters that we care about and written in a fluid, efficient way that includes only what is necessary to keep the story moving forward. A good script also has a rock solid structure and a series of reveals, surprises, setups and pay offs that keep us captivated to read until the end or sit through the film until the lights come up in the theater.

5. What are some of the most common mistakes you see?

I’m shocked that many screenwriters still have no respect for the professional format of a screenplay. They believe the reader will look past the format and typos issues to see their genius idea and buy it for that alone. A script lives or dies by a thousand small details and considering the volume of scripts that bounce around Hollywood every year, the industry has no patience for unprofessionalism. Other common mistakes I see happen when screenwriters do not work from a solid outline or treatment before they jump into pages. Approximately three quarters of your work usually goes into the story even before you type FADE IN. Other mistakes come from overwriting and micromanaging the scenes. Aspirants need to learn what to put in a script—and equally as important what to leave out. I tell writers: “Stay the hell out of the way of the story.” Many are so eager to put their fingerprints all over the pages and that’s just ego. The best writing is when the screenwriter is almost is invisible on the page and the script reads as if you’re watching the film. I also find too many mistakes with structure and the story happening too late or not enough story to facilitate 100 pages. The set up in the first act many times is way too long. Hopefully these writers learn from their mistakes and focus on becoming better screenwriters by creating stories they are passionate about rather than chasing fame and fortune.

6. What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

One big one that I can’t stand is the use of “Deus ex Machinaor using a contrived way at the end where a character or action saves the day. It shows lazy writing and ends the story on a weak beat leaving the reader unfulfilled. Another one is the “fall” or “twisted ankle” of a character escaping that is usually followed by the line, “Go on without me!” Another one I’m tired of seeing is the “I hate my job, my boss and do nothing but complain” routine.

7. What are the 3 most important rules every writer should know?

1. Disrespect the craft at your own peril. You will never be bigger than your craft because screenwriting is an ongoing learning experience.

2. You must become a collaborator and ultimate team player because if you grimace at their notes, they will brand you as “difficult” and not work with you again.

3. You may have to write five, six or seven specs over a period of years to even get one optioned or maybe sold if you’re lucky. But if you’re impatient and looking for fame and fortune, you’re in the wrong business.

8. Have you ever read a script that was an absolute, without-a-doubt “recommend”? If so, could you give the logline?

Well, I don’t give “recommends” because I’m not reading for a producer, but I do tell writers if they were successful in the execution of their idea. Screenwriting is all about the execution. Good ideas are a dime a dozen in Hollywood—they’re everywhere and it’s the execution of a script that’s vital to its final success. Yes, I did read a few scripts during the last year that were superb and written by experienced filmmakers—so that helped. I can’t give out the loglines as I have a non-disclose agreement with my clients, so I’m not allowed to discuss the elements of their projects with anyone.

9. How do you feel about screenwriting contests? Worth it or not?

Yes, many of the top contests are worth entering as a chance to “make some noise” and get noticed. Back in the day, I entered a spec in the Nicholl Fellowship and it ended up in the top twenty scripts out of thousands worldwide. They picked the top eight that year for the fellowship, but since I had placed in the next dozen, agents and mangers were willing to give it a read. Eventually it found a producer who championed the script and it was produced, played in film festivals worldwide, premiered on TV and distributed globally. But, be careful and read the fine print of the contest you are entering as some stake claim to your script if you win. Do your homework on the various contests and make sure you are putting out your best material that will properly represent your talent and ability. If it’s not ready, go ahead and miss the deadline because there is always next year.

10. How can people can get in touch with you to find out more about the services you provide?

Screenwriters can find more information about my consulting services on my website at: www.fiveoclockblue.net. I’m also on Twitter: @scriptcat

11. Readers of this blog are more than familiar with my love/appreciation of pie. What’s your favorite kind?

Oh that’s an easy one…definitely a tie between boysenberry and cherry. I could eat both with ice cream as a “last meal” and die a happy man. Apple pie comes in a close third, but all pie should be heated.

 

 


Moose, squirrel, and two guys in drag

August 29, 2014

 

rocky & bullwinklesome like it hot

It’s been a very long time since I attempted to write a script that did not involve the phrase “rollercoaster ride” as part of the description.

So while I wait for notes on the western and mystery-comedy, I’m taking my time in figuring out the story of what is shaping up to be a low-budget comedy.

Which also means it has to be funny, yet another mountain to conquer in itself.

Funny is subjective.  Something somebody else considers hilarious might make me shrug and say “I don’t get it.”  But I know what makes me laugh, so that type of humor is what I’ll attempt to incorporate into my story.

For me, a very important part of this is re-educating myself in how the jokes work and how they’re constructed. As I figure out the story, I’ll also be watching and learning from some prime examples of how it’s done.

Among them: episodes of ROCKY & BULLWINKLE and SOME LIKE IT HOT.

Part of what I like about them is how the jokes feel organic AND smart. The humor comes from the situation and how the characters react, rather than feeling forced.

Each also does a great job of gradually setting up punchlines, and not just going for a rapid-fire bombardment of one-liners.

Something else to keep in mind: both are over 50 years old and still hold up – further proof of their durability. The subject matter may be a bit dated, but the jokes still work, and that’s really what matters.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,023 other followers

%d bloggers like this: