Showing posts with label screenwriting. Show all posts
Showing posts with label screenwriting. Show all posts

18 June 2019

Professional Tips from Screenwriters


Introducing John Temple…
John Temple
John Temple is a veteran investigative journalist whose books shed light on significant issues in American life.

Forthcoming next Tuesday, June 25th, John’s newest book, Up in Arms: How the Bundy Family Hijacked Public Lands, Outfoxed the Federal Government, and Ignited America’s Patriot Movement, chronicles Cliven and Ammon Bundys’s standoffs with the federal government.

His last book, American Pain: How a Young Felon and His Ring of Doctors Unleashed America’s Deadliest Drug Epidemic, was named a New York Post “Favorite Book of 2015” and was a 2016 Edgar Award nominee. American Pain documented how two young felons built the largest pill mill in the United States and also traced the roots of the opioid epidemic. John has spoken widely about the opioid epidemic to audiences that include addiction counselors, medical professionals, lawyers, and law enforcement.

John also wrote The Last Lawyer: The Fight to Save Death Row Inmates (2009) and Deadhouse: Life in a Coroner’s Office (2005). The Last Lawyer won the Scribes Book Award from the American Society of Legal Writers. More information about John’s books can be found at www.JohnTempleBooks.com.

John Temple is a tenured full professor at West Virginia University’s Reed College of Media, where he teaches journalism. He studied creative nonfiction writing at the University of Pittsburgh, where he earned an M.F.A. John worked in the newspaper business for six years. He was the health/education reporter for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, a general assignment reporter for the News & Record in Greensboro, N.C., and a government and politics reporter for the Tampa Tribune in Tampa, FL. I've had the pleasure of knowing him for more than twenty years, since attending law school with his wife. I'm so pleased to let you all meet and learn from such a great journalist and storyteller.

— Barb Goffman

Learning from Screenwriters

by John Temple

In 2006, I read a book that changed the trajectory of my writing life. I was beginning work on my second nonfiction book, about a North Carolina lawyer who defended death row inmates, when a screenwriter friend recommended I read Syd Field’s 1979 book, Screenplay, which is a sort of holy text for Hollywood screenwriters.

I wasn’t a screenwriter, but I soon realized why the book had such an impact. Somehow, even after many years of working as a newspaper reporter, devouring numerous writing books, and earning an MFA in creative nonfiction, I had never come across such solid, practical advice about how stories are built. Among other ideas, Field advocated a fairly strict three-act structure as the screenplay ideal, but for me the single most helpful concept in his book involved “beats.”

Most screenwriters agree that their chief mission is to find the story’s moments of change, which they call beats. In a screenplay, where efficiency is key, those transformative moments determine whether a scene or sequence earns its pages. In every scene, something must occur that alters either the character’s mindset or the stakes or the dramatic action. In my last three books, all nonfiction crime stories, I’ve tried to consciously seek out the moments of change that my various characters have experienced, and let those beats dictate how I structured the books. I’m looking for the events that contain catalytic moments that alter the protagonist or the surroundings and further the story. Those are the moments I seek to present as full-fledged scenes, rich with vivid detail. The rest is summary.

Sometimes, a beat can be dramatic and external. As Raymond Chandler wrote: “When in doubt, have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand.” (What Chandler actually meant by that quote is somewhat more complicated.) However, the most intriguing and pivotal beats often involve internal change, which is often a decision or realization. In my 2015 book, American Pain, which chronicled the rise and fall of the nation’s largest painkiller pill mill, the owner realized how much money he stood to make if he could avoid the Drug Enforcement Administration’s scrutiny. That meant he needed to clamp down on his doctors and staff. This was a key moment of change for this primary character. So instead of breezing through that section of the book in an expository way, I meticulously looked for moments and details that would illuminate that beat. There were many other moments of obvious drama in the book – train crashes, overdoses, a kidnapping, drug busts – but that change in the character’s outlook felt more important to the overall story.

Temple: Up in Arms
Another type of internal change is a shift in the character’s emotional state. If a character enters and exits a scene in emotional stasis, then the scene may be lacking in movement. My new book, Up in Arms, chronicles the Cliven Bundy family’s multiple standoffs with the federal government. I deliberately sought to find scenes that showed Ammon Bundy’s increasing mistrust and suspicion of the feds, which eventually led to his engineering of an armed takeover of a wildlife refuge in Oregon.

External change is any change in the character’s environment, usually resulting in what Aristotle termed “peripeteia” or “reversal,” a sort of flip-flopping of the pressures being exerted against the protagonist. At the beginning of a scene, the character may be under one kind of stress, but by the end of the scene, a new pressure, often a polar opposite, has arisen. A third type of change is the shift in the relationship between two characters. Like any change, a relational change can be subtle or obvious. As veteran screenwriter Aaron Sorkin said in a 2000 interview: “Any time you get two people in a room who disagree about anything, there is a scene to be written. That’s what I look for.”

So every scene or sequence must contain a beat of change. How should these beats be arranged? Screenwriters are continually puzzling over this question. In The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Storytellers & Screenwriters, Christopher Vogler repackaged the work of mythologist Joseph Campbell for modern Hollywood, outlining 12 major beats that are part of what he called the Hero’s Journey, including a Call to Adventure, Crossing the Threshold, and the Return with the Elixir. The specifics of these beats are endlessly variable, adaptable to any genre or character.

Robert McKee’s book, Story, suggests that narratives feature a warring Idea and Counter-Idea, illustrated by beats in which one or the other gains the upper hand. Scenes and sequences should be arranged so the Idea prevails in one beat, only to be defeated by the Counter-Idea in the next, and so on in an undulating wave of positive and negative beats. McKee writes: “At climax one of these two voices wins and becomes the story’s Controlling Idea.”

All narrative writers know change must occur to keep a story moving. But novelists and creative nonfiction authors may benefit by using the concept of story beats to more deliberately analyze the value and possibilities of their scenes and the structure of their books. It’s a concept that’s just as useful on the page as it is on the screen.

29 July 2014

Making Movies


by Stephen Ross

I'm making a movie. No, that doesn't mean I've relocated to Hollywood. I'm making a short, no budget movie here in Auckland City, New Zealand. Short means 5-10 minutes, no budget means just that. Nada. The movie is a mystery story being shot on digital video, and its destination, once completed, will be a film festival or two (one day, it'll eventually wind up on YouTube -- the final resting place of all things video).

A moment for some history: When I was a kid, I lived and breathed movies and wanted to be a movie director. My father had a Super 8 mm camera, and I shot a bunch of short movies with high school friends. My first production had drama, romance, humor, skateboards, a car chase, clowns, and a gun. The one thing it didn't have was a plot. My desire to be a director evolved into the desire to be a screenwriter, and for over a decade I practiced and taught myself the art of screenwriting.

I'm often asked where I learnt how to write; well, it was there, in the pages between countless FADE INs and FADE OUTs of countless screenplays. Screenwriting taught me structure, plotting and pacing, the economy of language, and how to write dialogue.

The movie I'm making is called The Sandcastle. The story started in my head with a basic plot outline and three characters: two women and a man. I could easily have typed out the story as prose and submitted it to either the Ellery Queen or Alfred Hitchcock mystery magazines. There's mystery, there's a crime, there's a twist ending. Had I done, it would have become a different story to the one that'll wind up on the screen. When you write a short story, the characters don't usually come to life and start writing their own parts.

The movie was put together very quickly. And when I cast it, the script was no more than notes, emails, and a Google Doc of motivation and backstory. The principal characters didn't have names and were known simply as Woman 1 and Woman 2. By mutual agreement with the two actresses playing the parts, the characters became Olivia and Rose. The characters now had names, they had become real people, and they had input on how and why their characters were going to do the things they needed to do in order to satisfy the plot I had sketched out.
Olivia (Yisela Alvarez Trentini)
Film making is collaborative story telling. That's part of the fun of it. Even when I start out with a completed screenplay, actors quickly get into their roles and tease out their character's nuances and motivations. They bring a fresh mind to the story, and they'll suggest things I hadn't even thought of. That kind of input just doesn't happen when writing alone, when writing fiction for the page. Part of my job as the movie's director is to facilitate this, and to keep it on track.

Imagine when you write a short story or book, that you could go to lunch with your characters and discuss their parts, their motivation, arc, etc., that they come to life and help you build the story. I'm not advocating working with a collaborator (I don't think I could write a short story or book with anyone else), but the change is refreshing. It's invigorating. It's why I've lately come back to making the occasional movie. Besides, it's fun to go outside, hang out with cool people, and tell a story in a completely different medium. Sitting alone at a desk day after day can, frankly, get tedious.
Rose (Kathleen Azevedo)
So, do I subscribe to the auteur theory of movie direction? No, I don't. And I get annoyed when I see "A Film by..." in the opening or closing credits.

The "auteur theory" arose in France in the mid 1950s. A group of movie critics, mostly connected to Cahiers du Cinéma, proposed that the director was the "author" of his/her movie -- that the director's personal style and artistic vision WAS the movie. The thinking went something like this: Picasso IS the voice of Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, Shakespeare IS the voice of Hamlet, Bach IS the voice of the Brandenburg Concertos... therefore, the director IS the voice of his/her motion picture. They didn't apply this theory to every director of the era, but certainly to the more notable ones like Alfred Hitchcock. Hitchcock was their poster boy.

But, is Hitchcock really the "author" of Psycho, The Birds, Vertigo, or North by Northwest, or any of his other movies? What about the input of Bernard Herrmann, who wrote the music for all those movies (yes, The Birds has no music, but Herrmann created the eerie electronic "bird" score). What about the input of the screenwriters, cinematographers, art directors, and actors who worked on those pictures? When I remember North by Northwest, I remember James Mason and Martin Landau quietly stealing the movie from Cary Grant. When I remember Vertigo, I remember Kim Novak in that green dress. When I remember The Birds, I remember Suzanne Pleshette's quiet despair, delivering lines written by Evan Hunter (AKA Ed McBain). Sure, Hitchcock directed all of them, but he was more the ring master of a creative circus than a sole individual alone with an empty canvas, a blank piece of paper, or a sheet of manuscript paper. An "auteur"? I don't think so.

That many of the critics at Cahiers du Cinéma went on to become directors themselves supports my theory that what really motivated them was elevating the artistic standing of the movie director in the arts community. Cahiers du Cinéma was based in Paris, after all. Revenons à nos moutons...


The Sandcastle
Making movies at the no-budget level (an actor's salary is lunch and a cup of coffee) means a lot is left to chance and serendipity. You really only have one or two chances at getting a scene right, and when you leave the house in the morning with the camera and the tripod, you hope for the best. But this can also be the best thing about making movies, and it's something that simply can't happen when you're alone with your word processor. It's the unrepeatable moments -- the moments you capture magic. You suddenly find you've put the camera in the right place, the actors are perfect in their performances, and even the weather is behaving. Everything is just right and is even better than you'd imagined. Later, when you review the day's footage, you see these shots and you think, Damn! That was good! A well written sentence really doesn't have the same effect.

There's a way to go before The Sandcastle is completed. There are a few things yet to be filmed and I've only just begun the editing process. And yes, I will be sharing the screenwriting credit.

If you're interested, you can check out our progress on our Facebook page (you don't have to be a Facebook member to see it):
https://www.facebook.com/info.Cinema555

You can also check me out on my brand new Facebook author page:
https://www.facebook.com/stephen.ross.author

Be seeing you!