Episode Ninety-Seven: Tom Vaughan On Writing

January 18, 2012 by cindy  
Filed under episodes

Screenwriter and Development Executive Tom Vaughan joins us to talk about working as a writer in Los Angeles and teaching screenwriting in LA and Houston. Tom also shares what it’s like to develop scripts at a small production company and gives some advice to new screenwriters as well.

Tom Vaughan- Writer/Development Executive

Tom Vaughan studied at the University of Houston with Broadway legend Jose Quintero and three-time Pulitzer Prize winner Edward Albee. It was his work as a writer and director in Houston theatre that got him recognized by Hollywood.

He was soon writing screenplays for, among others, Phoenix Pictures, Spelling Films, Rysher Entertainment, TNT, MTV Films, Castle Rock Entertainment, Sony Pictures, Warner Brothers and Disney/Touchstone.

His productions include BLACKOUT with Jane Seymour for CBS, and CRITICAL ASSEMBLY with Katherine Heigl (Grey’s Anatomy, Knocked up) for NBC. He served as writer as well as Co-Producer on ATOMIC TWISTER with Sharon Lawrence and DEAD IN A HEARTBEAT with Penelope Anne Miller and Judge Reinhold, both for TBS. His feature film debut was UNSTOPPABLE, starring Wesley Snipes.  He just completed his directorial debut, PLAYING HOUSE, based on a script written with Kristy Dobkin. They are now full-time writing partners. Most recently they wrote HALLELUJAH together for acclaimed Japanese director Kazuika Kiriya (Casshern, Goemon).

He has been teaching screenwriting for nine years between Los Angeles and Houston and finds it as gratifying as actually practicing it. He is currently the Director of Development for the Los Angeles production company Dirty Robber.

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The Sum of All Parts

November 8, 2011 by cindy  
Filed under Writing Method

The Sum of All Parts

A fractal is geometric shape that can be broken apart into infinitely smaller versions of itself. They look like this:

Photo by Idea go.

Photo courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net

They show up in land formations, on some animals, in lightning and in frost patterns. They should show up in your screenplays.

How does a screenplay work like a snowflake, you ask? Well, apart from the fact that it’s unique and its existence requires you to often be cold and transient, the 3-act structure that guides your whole screenplay should also guide each scene.

Your characters should be different at the end of your screenplay than they are at the beginning. At the beginning of your movie, an inciting incident forces the character to act. At the first act turn, they should make a choice that fundamentally changes their trajectory. At the end of the second act, they should, because of their own actions, be at their worst so that they can be redeemed by making a new set of choices through the third act.

Each scene should work this way as well.

The changes and choices will be on a smaller scale, but the same emotional movement should apply.

Your character should be different at the end of each scene than they are at the beginning. If they are not different in some way that means that they’re not changing. And that’s boring. If your character is happy at the beginning of a scene and then, regardless of what happens, is happy at the end of the scene, that indicates that either nothing happened or that your character doesn’t have the ability to react to things that are happening. Also, if your character isn’t changing from scene to scene, then it is unlikely that they will be able to change as a person when you look at the whole screenplay.

Each scene should have an inciting incident—something that makes this scene necessary. Whether your character is answering a phone call, introducing themselves to a new customer or planning how they’re going to jump off a bridge, there must be something new that is happening that your character is reacting to.

Your character should take action. Even if the character chooses to be inactive, the character must do something. The character can choose to answer the phone…or not. They can choose to be nice to the customer, ask the customer a question or throw food in the customer’s face. Or they can use tripadvisor to find the perfect bridge.

Something must happen in each scene that is new or different. The phone call can be from someone unexpected, or from someone expected but who’s delivering unexpected news. The customer can deliver a present, detonate a bomb or propose. All the bridges in the country, your character learns, have been washed away.

Your character must have a physical and emotional reaction. They may hang up the phone, call the police on the customer or decide to start building their own bridge. Whatever they do, they must feel differently at the end of the scene than they did at the beginning. If they were happy before the phone call, they must now be embarrassed or defensive or scared. If they were bored before the customer, they must now be titillated or sad. If they were content before the bridge searching, they must now be determined or vengeful. Whatever the change is, it needs to happen so that the larger change can happen by the end of the screenplay.

What happens in your movie? Both TO the character and IN the character?

September 20, 2011 by cindy  
Filed under Writing Method

What happens in your movie? Both TO the character and IN the character?

When developing a story for a screenplay, you need to make sure that you’re considering both the physical action of the story and the character’s emotional arc. It can be easy to favor one over the other or to neglect one altogether.

I had these conversations with clients recently. Some specifics have been changed to protect the property, but apart from that, here’s how it went.

#1

Me: So tell me about your movie.

Client: Well, it’s set in 1715 on the coast in Japan. It’s about these four women. One’s an acrobat—she has a famous father, one’s an immigrant—her parents were killed in a car crash, one’s an architect—she also loves poetry and one’s a domestic worker who’s about to get engaged.

Me: Okay, so what happens?

Client: Well, they all deal with their lives and they learn to be stronger people.

Me: But what happens?

Client: Well, like the acrobat wonders if she should be following in the family business. The domestic worker wonders if she should really marry this guy—

Me: Okay. But what happens?

#2

Me: So tell me about your movie.

Client: Well, this guy finds out that the material that will save his cat is under the ground in his neighbor’s yard. So first, he calls up the vet, but the thing is the vet is actually a “vet”—like he went to war—so he gets all weird and says that he’ll help him, but only if the guy first helps avenge the death of his fellow soldiers. So the guys go and do that and it turns out that the guy who the vet wants the guy to kill is actually his neighbor, so the guy thinks that’s great because now he can get the mineral that’s in the neighbor’s yard, but the neighbor paves over the entire yard and then the guy’s wife is dying, so the one guy can’t kill the other guy unless he kills the wife too, so he has to go track her down so that he can get them both in the same place and he and the vet go on the road together. So it’s like a buddy comedy with an assassin angle.

Me: Okay. So what happens?

Both of these pitches leave out a key element. The first told us quite a bit about the characters…but lacked plot. The second had the opposite problem.

When developing an idea for a script, your story should have both elements. There should be action and events that your character initiates and deals with. There should also be an emotional transformation as well. Ideally, these two threads are related.

Here are some wildly random examples from real life:

Wall Street

Plot: An up and coming stock broker gets a chance to make millions working for his idol.

Emotion: Once after money, fame and power, Bud learns that what he really wants is his moral fiber and his father’s respect.

The Shawshank Redemption

Plot: A man escapes from prison.

Emotion: A man used to just taking life as it was dealt to him learns to stand up for himself,  takes charge of his life and escape physical as well as emotional captivity.

The Change Up

Plot: Two men switch bodies.

Emotion: Best friends come to respect each other while more deeply appreciating their own lives.

The King’s Speech

Plot: A man hires a tutor to fix his speech impediment.

Emotion: A prince who believes he does not deserve the honor of being king overcomes his lack of confidence to accept the throne and lead his country during its most difficult hour.

Inception

Plot: A man is hired to go inside a someone’s dream and change his mind.

Emotion: A man must come to terms with the death of his wife…while still seeing her spirit every day at work.

Without the emotional layer, the plots sound kind of boring. And without the action of the plot, the emotions sound kind of schmaltzy. But put them together and you have movie magic!

Well, maybe not with The Change Up, but you get what I’m saying.

Here’s how the first pitch might sound if a plot were added.

Client: Well, it’s set in Japan, 1715. Four women decide that since the country still has a ban on Western literature, they’re going to form an underground book club. They work to smuggle books across the country, teach other women English and hide their meetings from the authorities. The work affects them all differently and as they read stories, they each begin to rewrite the story of their own lives. One realizes that her family’s business is a worthwhile career choice. One realizes that she must break off her wedding. One finally gets up the nerve to publish her own book. And one adopts a child to create the family she didn’t think she deserved.

Now we know the plot of the story: Four friends form a secret club.

And some sense of the emotional through line: By taking a risk, stifled people learn to open up.

The second could be helped like this:

Client: Well, it’s about guy who’s afraid to interact with people so he loves his pet cat more than anything else. In fact, he hates humanity as much as he loves his cat. He hates people so much that when he learns that the only way to save his cat’s life is to kill 2-3 people, he’s willing to do it; so he plans and trains to be hit man. But when he begins to develop relationships with his tutors (the girl who teaches him how to fire a weapon, the guy who helps him get fitted for Kevlar, etc.) he learns that people aren’t so bad after all and faces a tough choice between his cat and his new friends.

Plot: Angry guy becomes a hit man to save his pet’s life.

Emotion: Shy guy learns to connect with people.

Your script will need both of these elements in order to register with audiences. Explosions and plot twists are fun, but it’s the emotion tying it all together that makes it meaningful and memorable.

When your characters say “Let’s go do XYZ” or “we’re going to ____”, you’re going to have some boring dialogue ahead.

September 6, 2011 by cindy  
Filed under Writing Method

When your characters say “Let’s go do XYZ” or “we’re going to ____”, you’re going to have some boring dialogue ahead.

One of the challenges with screenwriting is that it is necessary for your characters to do things. There is a plot to service and so characters are obligated to take various actions. And as humans (or other thinking, feeling entities), your characters will need to puzzle through their decisions, come up with a plan and execute it.

But you know how tedious it is when you’re discussing the pros and cons of the various logistics of your evening with friends? It’s just as tedious to hear characters talking about their logistics as well.

BOB: What should we do for our date tonight?

JANE: Well, we could go to the movies.

BOB: Oh, and then we could get fro yo after that.

JANE: That sounds good. What time will you pick me up?  Or should we meet there?

BOB: Why don’t I pick you up at 8 so that we have time to find parking and get good seats.

JANE: Great, see you then.

I was so bored writing the above passage that I just woke my roommates up with my snoring. We don’t know anything about the characters other than their plans for the evening. While the plot has ostensibly been moved forward, we don’t know what it means in terms of character development. We don’t know whose side we’re on, or if the characters are in danger or if they even like each other.

When your characters are deciding to do something, avoid having them list out the details and instead, have them talk about their feelings so we can see how they’re reacting to the situation.

BOB: I cannot wait to see you tonight!

JANE: I’m not sure we should be doing this.

BOB: We’ve waited two years to have one night together, Jane. We can finally act like a normal couple–go to a movie, maybe get some fro yo.

JANE: Argue over where to sit and how much to tip the valet.

BOB: Exactly.

JANE: You’re right. I can’t wait to see you tonight.

This time, the scene was so excited, I almost peed my pants.

That’s not true. There was no almost about it.

In the second version of the scene, we still get the basic information: Bob and Jane are going on a date, they’re going to the movies and out for yogurt. But we also get so much more. We know that Bob is excited and Jane is nervous. That there’s something in their past that makes this night special. That Bob is able to convince Jane of his point of view and that Jane acquiesces to Bob without much of a fight.  When we do seem them on their date, we will be full of anticipation for them because we’ve been given a description of the stakes of that date.

The second version has plot, character development, tension and movement. The first version does not.

In some genres, heavy and specific logistics are necessary to the storytelling. If you’re writing a procedural, then at some point, the doctor is going to have to explain what she’s doing or the team of detectives is going to have to tell their no-nonsense boss what they’ve found. We can get away with those kinds of moments in procedurals because that information is important and is usually something the audience has been waiting for anyway. But if you’re not writing the next Law and Order: Phoenix/Toronto/Master Bedroom, then make sure that any logistical information your characters talk about tells us more than the next scene’s agenda.

Episode Seventy-Nine: Writing with Barri Evins

July 13, 2011 by cindy  
Filed under episodes

Our month on writing continues with producer and screenwriting teacher Barri Evins. Barri approaches writing from the producers standpoint: what stories work and what will ultimately sell. Barri discusses having that “big idea” and gives 7 helpful pointers on pitching your idea. Writer Aydrea Walden joins us for the month as well!

Barri Evins- Producer/Screenwriting Teacher

Barri Evins is a successful film producer and a sought after screenwriting teacher.  As a producer, she has sold pitches and specs to Warner Bros., Universal, Fox, Nickelodeon, New Line and HBO.  Barri created BIG IDEAS to give new screenwriters what it takes to achieve their dreams by teaching them techniques she uses with highly paid professionals on big league projects.  The Big Ideas Screenwriting Seminar teaches writers to create ideas that ignite industry interest and gives writers revolutionary tools for completing a successful screenplay faster than ever before.  The seminar also includes Barri’s mentorship for a year.  Learn about upcoming seminars, bringing the Big Ideas Seminar to your hometown or get a free thumbs up or down on your next idea at www.bigbigideas.com.  Find tips and updates at BIG IDEAS for Screenwriters on Facebook.  A BIG IDEAS books is in the works.

Barri’s Website-www.bigbigideas.com

Big Ideas for Screenwriters Facebook Page

Aydrea Walden- Writer

Aydrea has written for The Seattle Times, the Now Write! Screenwriting book series, The Second City Los Angeles, iO West, Hawaii Film Partners, NBC/Universal, Highlander Films, Nickelodeon, and Disney. She also runs the satirical blog, The Oreo Experience–My Life and Times as a Super White Black Person. For more information about Aydrea or to contact her please visit her website at www.theoreoexperience.com

Jenna Edwards- Producer, Film Method Co-Host

For more information about Jenna Edwards please visit the About page. To contact Jenna you can email her at info@film-method.com

Lynda Lopez- Producer

Lynda Lopez started her career in film as a Production Designer working on student films with friends from art school where she was a Graphic Design major. She then went on to assist some very talented Production Designers on studio films while still working in various capacities on short films and indie films. Due to her fascination for all aspects of filmmaking, she has become more involved with the Production side of things working as a Director’s Assistant and Producer.

Lynda is currently working on a charity project for All Hands Volunteers, a non-profit organization that provides hands-on assistance to survivors of natural disasters around the world. For more information about Lynda’s project to help this organization please visit www.hands.org

Episode Seventy-Eight: Writing with Julie Gray

July 6, 2011 by cindy  
Filed under episodes

Behind every great film is a great script and behind every great script is a great writer or team of writers. The month of July is dedicated to the topic of writing as it is a crucial part of the filmmaking process. Writer and script consultant Julie Gray and writer Aydrea Walden join us to discuss the importance of writing good characters.

Julie Gray- Writer

A regular contributor to the Huffington Post, Julie directs the Just Effing Entertain Me Screenwriting Competition and The Golden Age of Television Competition. Julie consults privately with a variety of writers all over the world and has taught at the Oxford Student Union at Oxford University, The West England University in Bristol, Wilmington University in Delaware and San Francisco University in Quito, Ecuador.

Julie teaches screenwriting classes at Warner Bros., The Great American Pitchfest, The Creative Screenwriting Expo and the Williamette Writer’s Conference in Portland, Oregon.

A volunteer at the Afghan Women’s Writing Project, Julie is co-founder of Stories Without Borders, a non-profit organization committed to fostering the creative voices of students and women through the medium of film. A resident of Los Angeles, California, Julie’s book, Just Effing Entertain Me will be available as an audio and E-book in August, 2011.

Julie’s Website- www.justeffing.com

Aydrea Walden- Writer

Aydrea has written for The Seattle Times, the Now Write! Screenwriting book series, The Second City Los Angeles, iO West, Hawaii Film Partners, NBC/Universal, Highlander Films, Nickelodeon, and Disney. She also runs the satirical blog, The Oreo Experience–My Life and Times as a Super White Black Person. For more information about Aydrea or to contact her please visit her website at www.theoreoexperience.com

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