This past week I approached the near half way point in the political thriller I’m writing around the sport of figure skating. And coincidently some great articles recently came out about the process of screenwriting, the spec market and a wonderful piece about Kevin Walker who wrote Se7en (one of my favorites). All three of these articles are a must read for those of us that write screenplays. But some of the biggest takeaways for me was Jason Buff’s INDIE FILM ACADEMY: Reverse Engineering Your Screenplay.
As I have often said, if you ask 100 people an opinion about your screenplay (or film) you will get 100 different opinions. Are you going to take all those opinions and redo your entire screenplay? Of course not and rightly so. But I promise you there are those selling their services that will talk to you like you’re a third grade moron. Why? Because they want to sell you something—their expertise. There are many great experts in this industry, but like all things Caveat Emptor applies “Let the buyer beware”.
I could not agree more with Jason when he wrote “As many successful screenwriters will tell you, there are no rules”. Of course you need some sort of structure in your screenplay. Your characters need to do something in the world you have built for them. I think the important thing to remember is that you are writing for an eventual audience, but it should also be a story that you want to see. I believe that’s where the word “passion” applies. As writers, we are passionate about our stories. If we aren’t, why should anybody else be?
I was a reader once for a film festival and it didn’t take me long to see who had passion and who “phoned it in”. Yes, it’s important to understand what EXT. and INT. mean, when to use (or usually not use) a parenthetical, flashback sequences, intercuts, etc. At the end of the day, the very end of the day, you have to simply assume that someone other than you is going to read your screenplay. Does it flow? Do the characters move from one action to another in a logical progression? That doesn’t mean that they don’t go against their own character, it just means that they move along in the story. Think about it in real life. We all know someone who for some odd reason does something out of character and then falls back into themselves. If it’s one thing contemporary audiences like it’s a twist.
Writing a screenplay, again in my view, should be an enjoyable experience. While it’s certainly not easy creating new worlds and characters, the joy is in that creation — you’ve created something from nothing. At one point in your story you’ll find that the characters start to talk to you. Thankfully, as I’m a Gemini and have a split personality, that Zodiac trait helps!
To quote one of my favorite films “Now, pull your own weight. I’ve taught you the technique, now use it. Forget you’re a hidebound New Englander. Unbend, take part, contribute. Be interested in everything – and everybody.”
I remember the mission I was on when I wrote First World in 2006. It was a commitment and passion to learn the craft of screenwriting, research a project and then, to quote this recent article in Script magazine, “write the hell out” of it. Those early efforts resulted in three screenplay nominations and the production of a short film version that screened in several countries. Indeed, I was on a mission.
We live in a world of instant gratification. But that world is a fantasy in the entertainment industry. Someone at some point at some place at some time dedicated years (or decades) to make their project a reality.
Just this week the tireless efforts of the SS United States Conservancy seems to have led to a deal to save the majestic and historic SS United States ocean liner. The redevelopment of the famed liner will be announced in New York City this week. Anyone that has been following their efforts knows this has not been smooth sailing. Thankfully an impassioned plea by the Conservancy to save the ship from the breakers a few months ago brought much needed worldwide attention and donations to the storied liner. The same passion and commitment holds true in the entertainment industry.
After I wrote Justice Is Mind I remember the endless pitches, presentations, blind alleys, dubious investors and bad advice. But it was at one point during the process that I remember going through the same thing in publishing a decade plus prior when trying to raise capital for that venture. That deal clicked at one point just like Justice Is Mind did. But in both cases there was a commonality – I produced these projects myself with investors. That’s the direction I now take.
Would it be grand if “Hollywood” wanted to take one of my projects and run with it? Of course. But Hollywood as we now know it, because the industry is fragmented and decentralized, is everywhere. Audiences don’t care where or how a film came together, they just want to be entertained. It’s really that simple. It was the same with magazines. I was told over and over again that nobody would take me seriously unless we published out of New York. I lived in New York and worked in publishing (TIME magazine). Sure, it was cool. But expensive. In the end, I published market leading magazines based in Worcester, Massachusetts. Readers and theater audiences don’t care where a project originates from.
There was a certain sense of satisfaction when I returned to Los Angeles in 2013 for the West Coast Premiere of Justice Is Mind. A film, born out of Worcester and filmed primarily in central Massachusetts was screening in the entertainment capital of the world. “Hollywood” is as much an atmosphere as it is a corporate entity comprised of all manner of divisions. All “Hollywood” wants is the audience because the larger the audience the larger the revenue.
For those of you on a mission in this industry, I encourage you to read Jeanne Veillette Bowerman’s article in Script magazine. Above all else you need to be passionate about your work while keeping an open mind on collaboration.