I see what you did there, Mr. Kasdan

Marion Ravenwood
A handful of lines + a solid right hook = insight into 2 key characters

Of all the notes I’ve received about my western, the ones that really stood out the most were about developing the characters a little more – especially the titular protagonist.

I’ve also been spending some time reading, watching and analyzing the scripts and films that influenced it. Namely, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (along with its sequels) and a few others involving female leads who kick ass.

It’s a great opportunity to explore what makes a character tick. A lot’s been written about the “exposition without being blatantly expository” scene in RAIDERS with Indy and the government men, but I’ve been paying more attention to other scenes; the ones that offer up a bit more about what kind of person Dr Jones is as seen through his interactions with other characters.

-Indy discussing with Marcus the implications of finding the Ark.

-The reunion with Marion (see photo above)

-The encounter with Belloq in the cafe in Cairo.

All of these (and a few more) present an aspect of Indy’s character WHILE ALSO advancing the plot. It takes a lot of effort to do that and do it well.

I’ve also been working my way through the infamous story conference transcript, where Spielberg, Lucas, and Kasdan work out the story based on Lucas’ idea of a “swashbuckling archaeologist”. While you can easily find the memo itself, check out this phenomenal post that also analyzes some key points of what’s being discussed.

A lot of this is what I’ve been focusing on during this rewrite. More than a few of my notes highlight certain scenes and say something like “This would be a great place to show us more about her.” So that’s part of what I’ve been trying to do.

I originally thought it would be really tough to implement those kinds of changes, but using RAIDERS et al as guidelines and knowing my objectives for each scene, it actually hasn’t been as challenging. Sometimes all it requires is a few extra lines of dialogue or a modified action line. It’s not always easy, but it definitely feels a little less daunting. Also helping – working on one scene at a time.

In the meantime, progress on the rewrite/polish continues at a healthy pace and I really like how this new draft is shaping up. I suspect the end result will be a little more than just slightly different from previous ones, and hopefully the changes will really take the script to the next level.

Ask an Up-through-the-ranks Script Consultant!

Bill Pace

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 William Pace of scripteach.com.

*Editor’s note – April 2016: Bill is currently teaching at Seton Hall University, so has temporarily put his consulting services on hold. He plans to resume consulting in the summer. Contact him at his website for details.

William Pace received a Masters of Fine Arts in Film Production from New York University’s acclaimed Graduate Film & TV program where he wrote and directed “Echo Canyon,” an award-winning short film that was televised nationally on the USA Network.

His script CHARMING BILLY was a finalist for the Sundance Institute’s prestigious Screenwriting Lab. William also directed the award-winning feature film of the script, which premiered at the AFI/Los Angeles International Film Festival, whereupon a lead VARIETY review proclaimed his “notable cinematic and storytelling craft.” CHARMING BILLY was then distributed by a division of Miramax and broadcast on the Independent Film Channel.

William teaches filmmaking and screenwriting at The New School in New York City, where he serves as its Screenwriting Certificate Director. He is also a screenplay consultant who’s worked with such authors as Douglas Blackmon in adapting his Pulitzer Prize-winning book SLAVERY BY ANOTHER NAME, and many others whose scripts have gone on to success, from making the influential Black List, winning competitions at Slamdance, obtaining mangers & agents and being produced & distributed.

Currently he’s Creative Consultant & Associate Producer for the independent feature film HARROW, which is now in post-production.

And — believe it or not — he’s actually listed in Warren Allen Smith‘s book CELEBRITIES IN HELL.

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

There are a lot of good movies that are out right now, but I’m going to go to left field and say THE GOOD WIFE.

It’s TV, and not even one of the “hot” shows that’s popular to tout, but this is a damn well-written show with rich characters who the writers aren’t afraid to have do the wrong thing, and sometimes for the wrong reasons. The journey Julianna Margulies’s character has gone on is almost as transformative as Walter White’s in BREAKING BAD. Different arena, different stakes, but almost every bit as cynical and sometimes almost as dark.

That’s what leaps out at me first thing, but to include a film…

BIRDMAN. But it’s really hard to separate the filming of that movie from its script, as they are seamlessly enmeshed and were designed that way from the start – even though it’s supposed to look like there are no cuts in the film, the editors were actually brought in before shooting begin to help design where the cuts could most effectively be digitally “erased”. That kind of “writing” and planning, along with the audaciousness of the film’s story & thematic concepts, really spoke to me as something on a higher level.

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

When I was a film student at NYU’s Grad program (during the — cough-cough — Paleolithic period), the only scripts around to read were hardcopies, and you had to either know someone in the business to get a hold of one or buy one of the badly Xeroxed copies from the guy in Union Square selling them from his folding card table. It wasn’t until I started teaching and the internet came into wide existence that I began to really read a lot of scripts. Once I could download them, I started devouring them. I especially loved reading early drafts of produced scripts because you could see more of the process that went into crafting the final film by noticing what had changed from its initial drafts. I mean, how else would you know that the scene in INDIANA JONES & THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL (ugh) where Indy seals himself in a refrigerator to escape a nuclear blast was originally the concept for how Marty McFly traveled in time!?

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

Absolutely it can be taught. And teaching how to recognize good writing is a hell of a lot easier than teaching how to write “good”.

4. What are the components of a good script?

Oh man… how many pages can I go on here? Okay, I’ll try to be a good screenwriter and shorten it into a condensed version: As much as we teachers and analysts can go on about strong characters, good technique, use of genre, theme, etc. – and they are really, really important — I think that if you have a bad story idea, the rest doesn’t matter.

Not one… little… bit.

Now, what makes a good story? For that I would need lots of writing room to expound upon, but for now let me say that I’ve become a big believer in the logline, the one sentence “pitch” for your script – if you can’t create a compelling logline about your script’s story idea, then nothing else is really going to matter. If you can’t, people might read the script and you say, “Oh, I really like the protagonist,” or its imagery or nuance or its tone/mood/feel, blah-blah-blah…” But they won’t spend money and buy it if the story isn’t there.

I’m not saying you have to write what used to be call high-concept scripts – even if you’re writing a kitchen sink kind of realistic drama, the story should still have sufficient and clear conflict and stakes and that can create an interesting logline.

Once you have the story, then everything has to be in the right balance and proportion and wrap up with a resonating theme to be a really good script. But start with a compelling good story and we can work on all of the rest.

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

• The “I’ve seen other movies get away with this kind of crap so I can too” kind of approach. To stand out in a highly competitive field, your script needs to be better than what you see in the movies. It needs to be fresh and cliché-free.

• Protagonists who are not active, whose goals and actions do not make the story happen. Instead, the story happens to them, not because of them, which significantly lowers our interest in both them and what happens to them.

• “It’s just a script, so the writing don’t have to be good.” Just because it’s going to be a movie does not free you from the work of knowing your writing craft and presenting a grammatically correct and enticing read.

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

Hmmm… can I put superhero stories here? Growing up I loved comic books and I still enjoy a great superhero movie now and then, but really, do we need the entire Marvel universe brought to life and each one getting its own movie? And zombies. Getting tired of them. Love THE WALKING DEAD to death (although it constantly breaks my heart) and I thought that both ZOMBIELAND and WARM BODIES were fun takes on the genre, but enough now. Let TWD ride it for as long as that show works, but that should be it. But those are genres more than tropes. When I think of tropes, I think of clichés, and any screenwriter using a tired old cliché is just shooting themself in the foot. If you feel you simply can’t avoid one, then you have to put a fresh, unique spin on it. SCREAM still stands as one of the best scripts ever to take clichés and use them while at the same time standing them on their head. Great, smart writing.

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

Instead of rules, I’ll state qualities: Passion, Dedication & Persistence.

You need all three or you can forget it. If you’re in screenwriting just so you can “cash in on all that big money,” you’re doomed for the start. Most writers never see anything happen with their first half-dozen — and often even more — screenplays. If you can’t look at that fact and honestly say, “I can deal with that,” then you will fail. It takes time to get better at your craft, develop your writing voice and find avenues to get your work seen and appreciated.

“What about talent?,” you ask. Yes, that is required, but too many writers value talent above the three qualities I stated because they want to believe that if they have true talent they’ll write something so great they can skip all the hard work it takes to succeed. If you think that, then you might as well play the PowerBall — your odds might even be better.

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

I’ve read a couple, but the one I’m happiest about was JUG FACE, written by Chad Kinkle, an alumnus of The New School (where I teach). Before JUG FACE, Chad had written several very good, interesting and highly intriguing scripts, but with this one everything just came together in that special way that makes the story, characters and words leap off the page. And it wasn’t just me that that thought so, as he not only won the Grand Prize at Slamdance’s Screenwriting Contest, he was able to parlay that into getting the film produced with him directing it. It came out in 2013 and was named by many critics as one of the best indie horror films of the year.

Now, the logline – but first, you have to understand that it is a horror film and a particularly disturbing one at that… which should be quickly evident: “A young woman, pregnant with her brother’s child, fights to not be sacrificed by her clan to the entity they worship lurking within in a backwoods pit.” Yeah… I warned you. But despite such a potentially off-putting premise, the writing was so strong that it won several awards and got made.

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

Absolutely worth it, as Chad’s story directly above should make abundantly clear. And even if you don’t win the grand prize and get to make your film, if you place well in a contest you get to use that as a calling card to help bring attention to your work. Another student of mine made the Black List and had her script sold, moved to LA, now has an agent and a manager, and is working in the industry.

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

Either directly via email at bill@scripteach.com or at my website: www.scripteach.com

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

My lifetime favorite is pumpkin pie. I don’t care what time of year it is – it can be stifling hot in the dead of summer, and I will still want a slice of pumpkin pie. The vanilla bean ice cream melting on top will help deal with the heat. And to be even more specific, I have to admit that both my wife and I have developed an incredible love for Whole Foods’ pumpkin pies. There’s something about the combo of spices and the “heft” of their pie’s consistency that I have not found anywhere else. I know it is probably heretical to proclaim a love for a store-made pie, but forbidden loves are often the strongest.

Roll up for the My Writing Process Tour!

Sorry, no walruses involved
Step right this way! Sorry, no walruses involved

I’ve been invited to take part in The My Writing Process Tour, which is kind of a blog/chain letter thing. One blogger asks another to take part and answer some insightful questions, then link to writers/bloggers we’d recommend.

I was nominated by Henry Sheppard, aka Adelaide Screenwriter, from the Australian metropolis of Adelaide. He’s always offering up some fantastic material, including articles, interviews and shorts. Definitely worth checking out.

As for me…

1. What am I working on?

Three items currently hold my attention: revamping the outline of a pulpy adventure spec, the rewrite/polish of a Christmas-themed mystery-comedy and resuming the hunt for representation.

2. How does my work differ from all others of its genre?

Even though I’ve written in several genres, the one thing I always try to convey is a sense of fun and excitement. It takes a lot more effort than people realize to really engage a reader that way.

I want you to enjoy the story beyond just “this is good writing” and more like that amusement park thrill ride you rush to get back in line for as soon you get off.

3. Why do I write what I do?

My formative years were the late 70s/early 80s, so I had the benefit of being heavily influenced by the likes of STAR WARS, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK and BACK TO THE FUTURE. To me, those are textbook examples of what smart storytelling should be, and it’s what I strive for in my own work.

I’ve stated before about being a fan of the genres I write, so not only am I trying to write something I’d want to see, but I try to create something I haven’t seen before.

4. How does your writing process work?

It all starts with an idea. Is there a story behind it? If so, what happens over the course of that story? How could I tell it in an original way?

Once I have a general idea about that story, including knowing how it starts and ends, I set up the plot points (statement of theme on page 3, inciting incident on page 10, etc), then fill in the gaps between them.

If it’s a genre-specific film, I try to incorporate elements that are part of that genre while trying to avoid tropes, or at least approach them from a different perspective.

I do a majority of my work in developing the outline, and it makes a huge difference. It gives me a better overview of the whole thing so it’s easier to keep track of character development, storylines, subplots, setups and payoffs. I won’t even consider starting on pages until I think the outline is solid.

Because of my schedule, I write when I can. When it comes to pages, I try to produce at least 3 a day. Sometimes it’s more. It’s gets easier the more you do it. They add up fast, and before you know it, you’ve got a completed draft to go back, edit and rewrite.

I’m also extremely fortunate to have several friends and trusted colleagues I can turn to for feedback. They pull no punches in telling me if something doesn’t work.

Lastly, I’ll rewrite and polish the script until I think it’s good to go.

Over there on your right is a list of blogs I think make for some excellent reading and advice. I’ve added three definitely worth checking out:

The Single Screenwriter by Christie LeBlanc

Writer of Fine Things by Evan Porter

The Screenwriting Process from James (don’t know his last name) in the UK

Bonus! If you’re looking for some reasonably-priced professional analysis for your script, you might want to consider:

-Doug Davidson’s Four Star Feedback. Doug is the only writer to win a Nicholl Fellowship with an animation script (2004), but he happily covers all genres.

-Andrew Hilton aka the Screenplay Mechanic. His services have garnered extremely high praise on the Done Deal Pro forums.

Thanks for reading!

What’s wrong with PG-13?

One of the two movies which resulted in the creation of this rating
One of the two movies which resulted in the creation of this rating

In recent discussions with other writers, I’d be asked what I was currently working on. I’d mention the western and mystery specs, and give a thumbnail description for each.

Among the responses I’ve come to expect is usually the follow-up question:  “Who’s your target audience for that?”

Everybody.

While what I write would probably be too much for very small children, there’s no reason it couldn’t be enjoyed by anyone between 8 and 108, as the saying goes.

In addition to all the usual criteria, I want to make sure the story is interesting enough so it would appeal to a wide spectrum of viewers, as well as keeping the content dead-center on that fine line between “not enough” and “too much.”

One writer sent back his notes on the western. He had some very good comments, but some of them seemed to be through a DJANGO UNCHAINED filter (which he also admitted being influenced by). It was suggested I go for a more intense level of violence in some scenes.

Which would be fine if I were writing something that was a hard ‘R’, but this isn’t.

I’m just more of the family-friendly sort, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with doing that kind of material. (FROZEN has earned $350.7 million so far. Not too shabby, with the sing-along version ready to be unleashed.)

Although I want my stories to be fun and exciting, it’s also important to me they respect the audience’s intelligence, no matter what age they are, while also being fairly easy to follow.

I appreciate it when a movie does that, and hope to keep the practice going.

Grab ’em early and don’t let go

And this is just the beginning…

I printed out a months-old version of the LUCY outline yesterday as part of the plan to launch a massive rewrite to incorporate some recent ideas. As I was looking it over, it dawned on me – the opening sequence just ain’t strong enough.

The way it’s written now, it would last about 3 pages, which really isn’t enough. The opening sets the tone and mood of the whole story. If I can’t hold your interest here, then you’re not going to want to work your way through another 100+ pages.

Think of the opening sequence in RAIDERS. It runs about 10 minutes, and does a phenomenal job of establishing the character of Indiana Jones.  I need to do the same thing.

This is where that ‘having fun while you write’ thing comes into play. And I get to do it with trains in the Old West.

Throw in a bottle of RC Cola and some Moon Pies and it’s an ideal writing session.

-Movie of the Moment – MEN IN BLACK III. Fun, clever and a definite improvement over the previous sequel. Setups and payoffs were obvious from the get-go. Josh Brolin did a great job as a young Tommy Lee Jones.  If this opens the door to a MIB IV, they should go the FANTASTIC VOYAGE/INNERSPACE route and do microscopic or nano-technology-based aliens. You heard it here first, folks!

This also confirmed for me once again that Smith needs to stop playing it safe and really try something new. Wasn’t he Tarantino’s first choice for the lead in DJANGO UNCHAINED? But he’s got a good thing going that brings in big bucks, so I don’t see that ever happening.