Much ado about…you know

April 11, 2017

angry writer

Nope. Not that either. How about…?

That’s it. I’m stumped. I honestly have no idea what to write about today.

It’s not necessarily writer’s block; more of a “want to try something new, but not sure what.”

Sure, I could once again bore you to tears with the latest update on how the pulp spec is going, but that implies a lack of originality (along with feeling stuck in a bit of a rut), and I definitely don’t want that.

Or I could regale you with a written account of my latest encounter, virtual or face-to-face, and the events that transpired, followed by the lessons learned. But my social calendar on both fronts has been on the quiet side lately, which subsequently has given me more time to write, so there is that.

Yet another alternative is to share the latest developments for that ongoing goal/dream of “someday I’m gonna be a working writer”. Not exactly a tired old chestnut, but there’s no denying it’s provided me with a lot of material over the years. One might even go so far as to say it’s inspired others to forge their own path. But then again, that’s not for me to say. I’m too busy trying to come up with an interesting topic.

I’ve been working on this blog for quite a while now, so thinking of new material can occasionally be a challenge. There are admittedly times I feel like I’ve covered as much as I can, and I don’t want to bore anybody with a dip into the pool of well-trod screenwriting topics. Seriously, how many times can you read me extolling the values of networking, analyzing the elements of a logline, or discussing what should and shouldn’t go in a query letter?

But counter to all of that, there are days where inspiration comes in and whacks me upside the head, resulting in a few paragraphs of pleasing prose/advice/assorted folderol about something affiliated with screenwriting, or at least how I stumbled onto the point I’m trying to make. That’s when the words flow like you wouldn’t believe. Before I know it, I’ve cranked out a post that could inexplicably be helpful to somebody. Without sounding too egotistical, even I’m impressed when I can pull that off.

While there are numerous other bloggers with significantly more experience than me, it’s rather surprising to see so many readers take a look at my latest offering, possibly make a comment or send me an email, and then keep coming back for more. I can’t possibly imagine what it is about me and/or my writing that would motivate anybody to read something here and then, of their own free will, return for more. Especially on a regular basis.

And then to take it one step further, they enjoy a particular post or two to the point of being so motivated as to then dig through the years of archived material in the hopes of finding anything else I’ve written that they’d consider worth reading.

Dare I even suggest that coming up with new material for this blog is in itself comparable to screenwriting? The ability to create some original material that would be considered professional, informative, and entertaining using nothing but the thoughts in my head and a moderately decent typing speed?

I don’t know if I’d go that far. But since you’re here, you can probably relate to my frustration of trying to write something when you can’t think of what to write.

That can be tough when it happens, but somehow we find it within ourselves to rise to the challenge we’ve given ourselves and actually figure out a way to come up with something and put some words down on the page.

Give me time. I’m sure I’ll think of something.


Q & A with the Thornton Brothers

September 6, 2016

Thornton Brothers

Chris and Jason Thornton are professional storytellers who seek to entertain audiences via thematically charged films, TV shows, books and comics across various genres while specializing in darker, provocative, character-driven narratives ranging from “micro” to tentpole in budget. They are members of the WGAw and repped by UTA and Rosa Entertainment.

Cactus Jack is their feature directorial debut. It’s the story of a reclusive hate-monger who starts a venomous, vitriolic podcast from his mother’s basement and makes enemies far and wide—until one comes to silence him. Think a cross between Taxi Driver and Talk Radio for the podcasting generation. You can help the guys out with their crowdfund campaign (and see their totally NSFW red band proof-of-concept teaser)

What’s the last thing you read/watched you thought was incredibly well-written (Book, TV or film)

Fuck, that’s hard. Not because we look down on stuff, but because we’re so busy trying to make our own shit that we barely have time to consume like we used to. Hmmmm. Just rewatched Network lately, so that definitely should be mentioned. Paddy Chayefsky was an absolute beast. Sure. Network. Can’t go wrong with that.

What’s your writing background? What was the project that got things started?

We’ve kind of always been innate storytellers. We come from a strong line of liars and bullshitters, and as largely unsupervised kids in the projects outside DC we’d play out really elaborate, raw extended throughlines with our action figures and made our own comic books and honed our sensibilities between bouts of watching R-rated 80’s shit on free promotional HBO and Showtime and role playing. We started screenwriting together maybe fifteen years ago, but after writing three scripts that shall never see the light of day we stopped for a few years before coming back to it in ‘07. That project was a script called Heart, about a dying, psychotic Vietnam vet who gets an early release from prison and—since he can’t get on a donor’s list—tracks down the man whose life he saved forty years ago in ‘Nam: he wants the dude’s heart. It’s a very dark, fucked up, pulpy who-do-I-root-for story, which finished in the Top 30 out of like 5,000 entries for the 2009 Nicholl Fellowship (since dismantled and currently turning it into a truly dastardly novel). From there we started talking to managers but it was our next script Mechanicsville that really hooked our manager (shoutout to Sidney Sherman of Rosa Entertainment, who still reps us) and first agent (started at WME but since jumped to UTA). M-ville’s kind of a Kentucky-fried heist flick about how shit hits the fan when two gangs of bank robbers try to rob the same small town bank on the same day (Hell Or High Water stomps all over it now, unfortunately). That one started getting us legit meetings, led to our first assignment and opened the door to pitch shit, etc.

Your current big project is crowdfunding to produce your original independent film CACTUS JACK. What’s the story behind that?

Part of this is definitely about us tiring of being stuck on that movie/TV development hamster wheel, and all of these unproduced projects forcing us to look at our shoes and mumble “no” when people hear what we do and of course follow up with “Oh yeah? Anything I can see or read?” Part of it is about trying to make a feature film for relatively very little money, because screenwriters will never “move the needle” on a project like in-demand directors will… but for the most part it’s a sick little story we just have to get out there as quickly as possible. It’s very zeitgeisty, very of-the-moment as it holds up a twisted, frothing-mouthed funhouse mirror to this already “big top” election cycle. Once we started talking to our actor (Michael Gull, a very talented dude whose skills we tailored the very conception of the film to), we knew we had some dynamite shit on our hands, and as far as we were chomping to push the envelope into radioactive territory, we knew none of our contacts or fans in Hollywood would take a risk on this thing until it was made and we proved our point.

So we found a micro-investor to help us make a teaser for the film and launched a crowdfunding campaign on indiegogo. We need all the help we can get, time is running out, and though we have recent some offline help from friends and family who couldn’t back us through the campaign, it’s pretty dire! We’re going to make the movie come hell or high water, but every penny helps push production value (plus pay and feed cast and crew) and you can preorder a copy of the flick for $25. So—please, lend us a hand in making this batshit, gonzo little monster of a movie!

Your writing style is very vivid and descriptive. Did that come naturally or was it something that took time to develop?

Both. It takes a long, long time for some people to hone their voice and honestly, it should be an ongoing process and evolution for your entire writing life. But you have to have a voice to be honed in the first place. A lot of writers are sadly like those poor souls on American Idol who have no business auditioning in the first place—but hey, who are we to deny the delusional their dreams? Whatever keeps them from shooting up a shopping mall. ;)

Have you always worked together? Is one of you the specialist in a certain area, like one does more writing and the other handles directing, or do you split it evenly?

We’ve sort of always worked together, for the most part. Though we each have our own skills we complement the other with, we do tend to each spearhead a project nowadays while the other acts as more editor and muse. So yeah, we each have our own pet solo projects, but they all fall under the Thornton Brothers umbrella eventually.

Do you only work on your own scripts, or have you done some assignment work as well? Do you have a preference?

We’ve done both, for sure. Hard to sustain a career, or even kickstart one, without doing assignment work. The nice thing about it is people actually give you money to commence writing something! It’s crazy. Not at all easy to do, trying to feed yourself or help provide for others in the arts. Some might even call it foolhardy, but yeah…we’ve done both. Selling something you wrote yourself, from your own mind and heart, is infinitely more satisfying. And while we’ve had some very fun, interesting experiences collaborating in a development sense with assignment work or on successful pitches that became scripts (if not movies), no matter how smooth or inspired a collaboration with an outside party it’s never quite as liberating or just straight up fun as going out into the creative wild on our own and coming back with a kill.

You’re also filmmakers as well as writers. What do you consider the benefits of working on a film, from both the writer and filmmaker perspective?

Making or even merely being witness to the construction of an actual film is pretty invaluable for screenwriters, in our collective opinion. You really start to see how to separate the meat from the fat, and how what works on the page might not be as impactful in the moment or on the screen. Editing film/video also really helps hone your sense of timing, pacing, and flow as a storyteller… and how effective and economical you can be with visuals, allowing characters to shut the fuck up sometimes, how to convey info without big, clunky dialogue exposition bombs, etc.

Also, if you can we say go for the hyphenate… again, no screenwriter is ever going to have the kind of clout a successful director has. That said, many don’t have the temperament or skillset required (not that there’s one narrow band of disposition that allows one to direct), but writers often have murkier personalities. It’s worth making a film or two to find out if you’re a writer-director or filmmaker versus just a writer is not a bad idea. But if you know off the bat you don’t get along with others, have trouble verbally conveying what you mean to say, then save yourself the grief. Take our word for it: directing even modest, “micro” films ain’t for the faint of heart. Also, keep in mind that some stories demand to be told in this medium. Others don’t. Some work better in prose, or even in poem of song. Marrying the right medium to the story is also part of the trick.

When working on a script, do you have a reliable source for notes?

We are our own most reliable source of notes. It helps that there’s two of us but honestly we’ve both tried to become total fucking samurais when it comes to self-editing. You have to be. It’s not only a matter of putting your best foot forward when you go to show your work to reps or the public, but even if you were going to Emily Dickinson that shit away in a kitchen drawer until it’s discovered posthumously years later—your story deserves to be the closest to “perfection” it can be (which is objectively unattainable, but approximated through the filter that is you. It is YOUR story, after all). Oh, and our manager is usually good for one killer note.

What are the 3 most important rules a writer should know?

Ew! “Rules!” Haha, in all seriousness though maybe Rule #1 should be: There Are No Rules. There’s no one way to get noticed, to have a career — and anyone who tells you there is is probably trying to sell you something. But if you want some real nuts and bolts:

1. Always approach storytelling with Character at the forefront.

Even if you outline a predetermined plot to get started with a map, veer off of it when you find it incongruent with a character you’re rendering. If there is falsity or fallacy baked into the behavior of your characters, no matter how tightly constructed your narrative, it will start to crumble.

2. Be careful with twists and “reveals.”

We see it all the time, from the stuff we watch and read (and have written in the past) to many of the scripts we’ve consulted on. It’s a natural storytelling tendency, to want to surprise an audience, but only do it with REAL PURPOSE. Be careful with the big climactic “backstory reveal that made the character tick all this time.” Very rarely works.

So much more satisfying is a simple story told well. If you do work with twists, make it work like The Sixth Sense. The film works with or without it until the point it hits, and it is truly revelatory. It’s not that M. Night held something back to show how clever he was. Don’t do that shit. It’s awful. Put your cards on the table and tell your damn story.

3. Don’t be a slave to the idea that a story needs a transformational character arc.

This is something that a Blake Snydered Hollywood succumbs to far too often, in our opinions. First: in film arcs very, very often feel shoehorned or forced in. Especially if not much time passes, or it comes near the end (must overcome his fear to succeed, or must learn to be a team player—blah, these themes have become true platitudes). If you open with a loving mother and wife whose husband and kids are murdered and she becomes a vengeful, murderous black widow from there—sure. Inciting Incident forcing a catastrophic arc that sets a character on a trajectory works. That feels authentic. And in TV, longform character change feels authentic. Some of the most potent stories of all time are great specifically because a character does not arc. Think Shakespearean tragedies, Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood, etc. Sometimes it’s “the right man for the right job,” and the transformation is supposed to occur in the viewer. That’s where real catharsis lives: in the viewer. Give it to them.

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

Well, there are two of us. Chris likes pumpkin, and Jay will eat anything. Literally, anything. There’s a reason we don’t include headshots.


An education most painful

July 12, 2016
scared

Please don’t make me watch that again!

Once again, your stalwart author makes the necessary sacrifices so you don’t have to.

This time around, I had the misfortune of watching an extremely bad large-budget movie from the semi-recent past. It was painfully obvious that a larger percentage of the budget should have been diverted to hiring quality writers, rather than on everything else. A pipe dream, I know.

But trust me. It was bad.

What made it so bad, you may ask?

Oh, where to begin.

My biggest problem was that too much of the story felt glossed over, with vital elements explained in a very lazy and haphazard way, if they were even explained at all. It felt like they were trying to force events to match how they wanted the story to play out, rather than deftly setting things up.

Reasons why something would happen, or were supposed to have happened, seemed to have simply been thrown against the wall, and whatever stuck, that’s what they went with. Did it matter if it fit within the context of the story?

Nosireebob.

Once again, there were too many questions raised that were never sufficiently answered. When this happens, it simply takes away from the movie-watching experience. The only reason I knew the film had to have been around the midpoint area was because of its running time, and NOT because of what had transpired over the course of the story.

I could say I had a vague inkling of what was supposedly going on, but was just never sure, since the story was being told in a very sloppy and unorganized way. It irked me to no end to be see such terrible writing so prominently displayed. And apparently I wasn’t alone in my opinions. The film was a major flop at the box office.

So what silver linings can we extract from this pitch-black cumulonimbus that stole away just under two hours of my life?

-Write a story that’s easy to understand. Keep it simple. This doesn’t mean dumb it down. Keep us informed, unless withholding that information is absolutely necessary.

-Let the story play out organically. Don’t try to force it because that’s what you want to happen. It’s easy to tell when that happens, and it ain’t pretty. If you didn’t put in the effort to figure it out, why should we?

-Have things happen for a reason. “Because it looks cool” is not one of them. Would it drastically change things if it didn’t?

-Set up, pay off. If something happens, we want to see what happens as a result. Don’t leave us hanging. And counter to that, don’t suddenly spring something on us out of thin air. It reeks of desperation. Audiences don’t like that, either.

One of the things I always strive for in my scripts, be they big or small budget, is to respect the intelligence of the intended audience. That is one lesson I believe the writers of this abomination should have kept in mind.


How does your script move?

January 8, 2016
AMC Pacer

Not that kind of pacing

When you’re reading a script, are you able to notice how time is passing while you’re reading?

Have you zipped through a significant amount of pages without even realizing it? Or does it feel like this thing is just dragging on forever, and that even turning the page is going to require every last ounce of strength you’ve got?

A key factor in writing a script is establishing its pacing, or “how the story moves”. This is one of those skills that takes time to develop.

A script might be overwritten, or at least have too much going on that it distracts you from concentrating on the story. Or maybe it’s written in a flat, almost-monotone kind of way, which makes it tough to stay interested.

Who hasn’t read scripts containing scenes like all of these? And it’s probably reasonable to assume if the script has one scene like this, there are going to be a lot more just like it throughout the whole thing.

So what can you do about it?

The best advice is a two-parter.

The first is a quote usually attributed to David Mamet and/or William Goldman:

Get in late, get out early.

Get to the point of each scene as soon as possible, then get out and move on to the next one. Anything else is unnecessary and will slow things down, and you don’t want that.

The second is a universal rule of storytelling:

Don’t be boring.

Write so it holds our interest. Don’t overdo it, but don’t settle for the bare minimum either.

Get that momentum going, and do your best to keep it that way.


Ask a Helping-You-Help-Yourself Script Consultant!

April 21, 2015

Greg Rodgers

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 creative exec-turned-consultant Greg Rodgers of The Script Therapist.

A Southern California native, Greg Rodgers knew at an early age he wanted to work in the film industry, and he knew the best way to get there was through UCLA’s School of Theater, Film and Television. While completing his senior year at TFT, Rodgers was hired by award-winning director F. Gary Gray to assist him on the Paramount feature The Italian Job. Rodgers transitioned to the world of independent film, taking a job at Alcon Entertainment, working directly for co-presidents Andrew Kosove and Broderick Johnson. It was at Alcon that Rodgers discovered his passion for the development process. From there he became a Creative Executive at Mutual Film Company, where he was the Director of Development.

While at Mutual, Rodgers worked on such films as Snakes on a Plane, Jack Reacher, and the independently financed Deadfall. With the help of Rodgers, the company moved into the world of television, selling a pilot to Sony TV, and setting up miniseries at Entertainment One and HBO Asia. On the feature side, Rodgers played a major role in shaping the 2014 slate, including a contained action-thriller titled Dead Loss, an epic four-quadrant family film based on the Newberry Prize-winning novel King of the Wind, and the next entry in Paramount’s Jack Reacher series. He currently runs the popular website www.script-therapist.com, where he provides unique, in-depth script coverage for writers of all skill levels.

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

WHIPLASH. I just can’t shake it from my head. There were a lot of things that came together to make it work so well – Chazelle’s direction, the tone, the performances, etc – but none of that would have made nearly as much impact without such a great script. The writing is just so tightly focused and a testament to how important character is in a screenplay. We care deeply about Andrew and what becomes of him, not because he’s a nice guy – he’s actually quite selfish and anti-social – but because the script gives us reasons to become invested in him. Right off the bat we learn what he wants, how badly he wants it, we see his relationship with his father, we meet a girl he likes – all these things that make him feel like a real person. There’s a lot going on in that script, but when you strip it down, it’s a really simple story about this kid and his relationship with a teacher who changes his life – it’s all character, not plot, and that’s refreshing.

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

My first job was working as an assistant for a director on a big studio movie. Right off the bat I could tell that production wasn’t for me, but after the movie wrapped and we started looking for the next project, I started reading more and more and being exposed to what was out there. My next job was at a production company, where I really learned the nuts and bolts of development: what to look for, how to work with writers, etc. From there I was hooked and I knew it was not only something I wanted to keep doing, but something I had a real knack for as well.

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

Though there are things you can learn about screenwriting and what makes a good script – because it is such a specific medium – being able to evaluate the quality of creative writing is largely innate. When you come across good writing, sure, you could stop and dissect the technical reasons why it’s good and why it works. But if you have to stop and think about that kind of stuff when you’re reading, or if you find that you’re asking yourself those kinds of questions (is the character and his/her goal established clearly? is there an inciting incident? etc), then you’re not really “getting it.” Good writing is just good writing, and someone who can recognize it will do so right away without even thinking about it.

4. What are the components of a good script?

The #1 thing is character. You can have the most intricate, well-thought-out plot in the world, but if it doesn’t involve characters that people are going to care about, then it’s all for naught. And then does that character have an arc or clearly defined emotional journey – i.e. has the character we’re left with at the end of the script changed from the character we met in the beginning? Also, is there conflict? There needs to be some sort of clearly defined antagonistic force in the script that creates conflict.

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

I feel like too many writers just starting out try and write a scrawling epic that spans decades and has three dozen speaking parts. I just can’t stress enough how much I advise writers to keep it simple. Better to tell a small story really well than to tell a big story poorly. It also seems like a lot of young writers try and write scripts in certain genres based on trends in the industry. You can tell when you read a script if it was written from a cynical place rather than being genuine, no matter how talented the writer is.

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

It feels like the world-weary detective/cop with the haunted past has been popping up more than ever. I’m also pretty tired of the entire modern rom-com formula – that’s a genre that’s just exhausted and needs to be reinvented.

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

-“write what you know” doesn’t mean you should create a main character who is an aspiring writer and terribly misunderstood

-in every scene you should be thinking about how that scene is moving the story forward, not just in terms of plot, but the main character and his/her arc

-make sure that whatever you write is something that you yourself would want to see. i.e. don’t write what you think other people want to see.

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 quite a few over the years, some of which went on to become movies, others which didn’t for any number of reasons. If there’s one thing those loglines have in common, it’s that they describe a movie about a character(s) and not plot points. I always encourage writers to strip their logline down to what the script is really about – is it about a boy losing his innocence, a man overcoming his grief, a woman starting over? . . not just what happens in the plot.

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

They can absolutely be worth it, in that it’s always a good thing to get as many eyeballs on your script as possible. I encourage writers to not just blindly submit their script to every contest under the sun, but to do a little research and determine what one or two contests might be the best fit for their script and experience level. For instance, the Nicholl is known for being friendly to historical dramas and the like, so your horror script might not be terribly well-received there.

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

They can check out my website www.script-therapist.com, and/or email me at expert@script-therapist.com.

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

Oh man, do I have to pick just one? I’m gonna go seasonal on you: in the fall/winter, I’ll take pecan pie. In the spring, strawberry pie, and in the summer (or anytime, really), key lime. Mmmm, pie.


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