Monday, February 5, 2018

What I've learned about screenwriting (particularly the low-budget kind)

By Chuck Hustmyre

First, let me say that I'm posting my opinion based on what I've learned so far from writing and selling three scripts and optioning several more for cash from OUTSIDE L.A. I am not a "Hollywood" writer. I'm not posting this to open a debate. I'm simply trying to pass on some hard-won knowledge. If your experience is different or you disagree, that's fine with me. There are many ways to skin a cat.

The following are in no particular order.

Querying stars is a total waste of time. Producers hire directors and a director is what attracts a star. Your time is much better spent querying low-budget producers and pitching your script in a short query letter that opens with the logline. In the subject put just the title. DO NOT put the word "query."

Don't spend much time on detailed descriptions of action and setting. The director and the actors are going to do what they want. I don't mean write just "They fight." You need to keep the page count honest, but don't describe each action and reaction.

You're not writing a shooting script. You're writing a story that is going to be READ, not seen. You have to sell the script way before it ever gets filmed, and that means it will be read by a dozen or more people, any one of whom probably has the power to kill the project. And if your script ever does actually get made, the script that gets shot will be vastly different from the one you wrote. All that Dave Trottier advice you read in THE SCREENWRITER'S BIBLE about NEVER put anything in a script that can't be filmed is BULLSHIT. Don't overdo it, but layer in little clues about the characters to better help the READER understand them.

The concept is more important than the execution of it, meaning the concept is more important than the script itself. Even if another writer isn't hired to rewrite your script, the director and actors are going to rewrite the shit out of it.

This was a tough one for me to accept, but after having it pounded into my head by a very experienced producer, I agree. CHARACTER is much more important than PLOT. Either Aristotle was full of shit, or he was badly misquoted. As that same producer said, "Do you remember the plot of Beverly Hills Cop? No. And neither does anyone else. It had something to do with an art heist. What made that a hit movie was Eddie Murphy playing Axel Foley."

And I agree - now, and reluctantly. Stars read dialogue. They are attracted by dialogue … and by who is directing the movie (SEE ABOVE). Action is important in how it reveals character, but the big actions and the plot are secondary to character.

Producers really do give you about 10 pages to hook them. Some say just five pages. If you haven't got them by then, they delete the script. Don't ease into your story. Your script isn't a Stephen King novel. Get the damned thing started with something really good up front, or no one will ever read the brilliance that comes later.

Another waste of time at my level (low-budget), is querying LA agents. They aren't going to take you on. I have two produced movies, another sold script, and have optioned several more for money, not the freebie options that new writers like to brag about. I can't get an LA agent to answer an email. If you have no credits, you have zero chance of landing a real agent, and by "real" I mean one with the connections to sell your script.

Ditto for querying big-time producers or A-list stars. Stars have an army of people who keep them away from writers like us. Real movie stars get scripts from their agents who get them from producers who tell them how many millions they've ALREADY spent revising the script and what A-list director they ALREADY have attached to the project. They are not looking for your "diamond in the rough" script to fall in love with.

I'll add more as it comes to me. This is all I can think of now.

And as I said, I'm not trying to open a debate. This is my interpretation and experience. Yours may be totally different and just as valid. And, of course, there are exceptions to everything I've said. I post this simply to try to save newer writers some time, energy, and lots of frustration. However, if you insist on arguing, please have personal experiences to back it up. Don't try to invalidate my advice by quoting a book you read, McKee, Trottier, Snyder, et. al. Reading a book on building bridges does not make you a bridge builder.


A Working Minor League Screenwriter's Thoughts on Screenplay Structure

By Chuck Hustmyre

First, let me start off by saying that much of what is handed down from the screenwriting illuminati regarding screenplay structure is bullshit.

In writing feature films, whether you think of a script as three acts, four acts, five acts, seven acts, or even eight sequences, there really are no acts at all, not in the conventional sense of the term. If you're working in commercial television or writing a stage play, then yes, there are acts, and you need to write toward those act breaks with the purpose of ending the final scene of each act with something that draws the audience back, usually by planting in their minds a big fat question, to which they desperately want to know the answer.

But I think "acts" in feature screenplays are more useful in deconstruction than in creation. To the deconstructionists, and that includes producers and executives, a screenplay is a Rorschach inkblot, and in it they will see what they want to see, or what they have been conditioned to see.

For the writer, forcing your inciting incident (catalyst, trigger, call to adventure, or however you refer to it) to appear on a specific page (page 12, for instance) is just plain foolish, and worse, can actually hurt your screenplay, because to shoehorn the culmination of that scene onto an exact page to meet an arbitrary "rule," you will likely have to trim or expand what came before it. And how is it that the author of the rule knows better than you, the writer of the screenplay, how much or how little needs to come before that scene? Where was the inciting incident in ROCKY? Where was it in THE GODFATHER? Or CASABLANCA? Or THE EXORCIST? I can tell you where they weren't, and that was on page 12.

And where exactly are the so-called act breaks? At the end of the scene, after the characters have reacted to some new piece of information, or in the middle of the scene, just after the new revelation and before the characters have had a chance to react? If you were a TV writer or a playwright, at what exact moment would you cut to commercial or kill the lights? In a feature film, does it even matter?

Not really.

All the gurus are selling the same thing and to prove that they're right they use a celebrity endorsement from none other than Aristotle, who, as far as I know, never sold a single screenplay. Sure, he probably saw a whole bunch of Greek tragedies, and I have no doubt that he offered some insightful commentaries.

Aristotle also described stories as having three parts: a beginning, a middle, and an end. But keep in mind that Aristotle spoke and wrote in Greek, and not just Greek, but ancient Greek, and that the translations and interpretations of his famous treatise on drama, Poetics, vary, and in some respects, vary significantly. Also keep in mind that a big chunk of the original document has been lost to history, so we may only be getting half the story.

Given what we know, or think we know, about what Aristotle wrote regarding dramatic structure, what does it actually mean?

Can't everything that takes place over a period of time, no matter how infinitesimal that period of time is, be said to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Golf swings have a beginning, middle, and end. So do football games, but they also have four quarters. Baseball games do to, but they also have nine innings. The process of building a skyscraper could be said to have a beginning, a middle, and an end, but there are at least ten thousand steps between the beginning and the end.

I have read the modern English translation of Poetics and found it interesting and helpful in an academic or theoretical sense, but Aristotle wrote his dissertation on drama 2,500 years ago, and I doubt even he thought of it as a strict set of rules that writers would have to follow for millennia to come.

So are all these gurus and their rules of any use to a struggling writer, or should we just toss them all out, the rules and the gurus?

Yes, they are useful. In the same way that basic instruction in any discipline is useful when you're first learning it. Like training wheels are useful when you're learning to ride a bicycle, or an empty parking lot is useful when you're learning to drive a car. And I certainly don't begrudge the gurus for making piles of money selling books and seminars. I have taught screenwriting classes myself for which I received recompense.

But where I do call "bullshit" is when people insist that screenplays must have exactly this many acts or that many steps, or that this thing or that thing must fall exactly on a certain page.

From a practical standpoint, a single page of a screenplay represents approximately one minute of screen time, not exactly one minute. So even if someone filmed your screenplay precisely as you wrote it, your act breaks would not land in the right minute of the movie anyway.

But no one is going to film your screenplay precisely as you wrote it. Someone-maybe you, maybe another writer, maybe the director, maybe even the star-is going to rewrite your screenplay. The draft that goes into production will be the 10th, the 15th, or the 20th draft, and all of your carefully placed incidents and act breaks will be scattered to the four winds. And do you think that once the film is in the can, the editor is going to worry about keeping your inciting incident, so precisely placed on page 12 of the first draft, in exactly the 12th minute of the final cut of the movie?

The answer is NO.

So what is a writer to do? Here is my advice, and keep in mind that I'm not an A-list Hollywood writer, just a hardworking B, maybe even B-minus, writer living in the boondocks, who has enjoyed only a modicum of screenwriting success.

You need an inciting incident. Something has to kick-start the story. You also need a climax. Something has to end the story. And between those two guideposts, space out, more or less evenly, a series of increasingly dramatic turning points, or if you prefer the English translations of Aristotelian terminology, reversals of the situation, throughout the script, and let the readers, the executives, and the producers find their own Rorschach incidents, pinch points, and act breaks wherever they want.

Boats, Buddhism, and the Three-Act Structure

By Chuck Hustmyre

Back in my journalism days, I once interviewed a Buddhist monk for an article I was writing, and he explained to me that once a Buddhist reaches the spiritual state of Nirvana, he or she no longer needs Buddhism and can discard it.

Surprised at this revelation, I asked the monk why a person who had spent a lifetime, or many lifetimes, following the teachings of Buddhism and through it had reached the ultimate state of enlightenment, he or she would discard the very teachings that led to that state of enlightenment.

The monk answered with an analogy. He said that if a person intended to cross a river by boat, and once he had carried the boat to the near bank and used it to cross the river to the far side, he would not need to continue to carry the boat. Buddhism, according to the monk, is the boat and Nirvana is the far side of the river, and once you reach Nirvana you no longer need the vehicle that transported you there.

In adapting the monk's analogy to screenwriting, the three-act structure is the boat, and the far side of the river is screenwriting enlightenment. Once you are experienced enough in the craft of screenwriting, you can discard, at least from your conscious thought, the three-act structure.

The Baker's Dozen: A Screenwriter's Rules for Querying

Selling a screenplay is like drawing a map on water. As soon as you draw it, it's gone. No one can follow that path. The person who drew it can't even follow it. Timing and luck are just as important as talent. And persistence. I can't emphasize that enough. You have to be persistent. Here is what I suggest. It worked for me. It might work for you.

1. Subscribe to IMDbPro. You can't contact people if you don't know how to reach them. IMDb doesn't have email addresses for everyone, but it does have email addresses for a lot of people. With some good detective work you can figure out some people's addresses based on the general address for their company.

2. Find producers who have produced the kind of movies you write and send them a query letter via email.

3. Don't send queries on Monday or Friday. People in the movie business hardly work as it is, so don't let your query get buried with all the other junk that comes in over the standard Hollywood "four-day weekend."

4. Don't put the word "query" in the subject line. In fact, don't use the word "query" at all. Just put the title of your script in the subject line. Even with people who delete all queries without even opening them, you still might have a chance if they think it's a film they're supposed to know something about.

5. The very first line in the body of your email should be the logline for your script. A one-sentence, standalone paragraph consisting of the logline. Nothing else. Thirty-five words or less. Not 36, 56, not 76. Thirty-five words or less. If you can't do that, you have not thought about your story enough. Pare it down to its very essence.

6. The only exception to Rule 5 (the logline being the very first line) is if you have produced credits. And by that I mean real produced credits, not home movies. If you do, then start off with something like this: "I wrote the Lionsgate movie XXX XXX..."

7. The next line should be, "My new script is a xxx-page thriller (or romance, comedy, etc.) titled XXXXXXX. I suggest mentioning the page count and genre because it lets the person know you are a professional if your page count is between 90 and 120. Personally, I think 100-110 is the perfect length. Mentioning the genre lets the person know what to expect.

8. A good next line is, "Comparable films include big hit, big hit, and big hit."

9. Send queries to every producer you can find. Sometimes I use one of those query blast services that charge $50 or $60 and send your query out to three or four thousand producers. Twice I got $10,000 options on queries sent out that way. Make sure to tell the service NOT to put the word "query" in the subject line.

10. Create a list of producers who respond because even if they don't buy your script-and the odds are they won't-you are at least starting to build your network. Now you have someone to send your next script to and it's based on a personal connection. So your next query to that person would start off with something like this: "Jim, last year you read one of my scripts and had some good things to say about it. I just finished a new script called XXXX, about a..."

11. ABQ - Always Be Querying. Research producers, identify those who make movies like you write, and send them fresh queries. Which means you need fresh scripts. Don't be one of those writers who spends 10 years trying to sell his "masterpiece." You should always have a new script in the works. Always.

12. Don't get too excited when a producer asks for your script. That is not a sign that you are 75% of the way to a sale, or 50%, or even 25%. A producer asking to read a script is an important first step in the process, but it's one step out of about a hundred. Half the people who ask for a script won't read it. Of those who do read it, probably half again won't bother to respond. And almost all of the rest will give you a canned response along with a pass. If you're lucky, one out of a hundred producers who read your script will like it enough to try to make a movie out of it.

13. Oh, and one more thing. Don't waste your time querying studios, big production companies, or LA-based agents. They will not deal with you. Trust me.