LET IT BREATHE

Great screenplays write themselves.  Great films shoot themselves.  Your job as a creator should be to never question a signal, or inspiration – just go with it.  And use your eyes, ears, and then, if you’ve appreciated and respected your creation, it’ll all be there.  The skill is to not interfere with it.  Give it some room to breathe.

A sentence like, “Listen to signs from the universe” might sound hokey but I’d still advise it.  If you’ve written a scene to take place inside a garage and no matter what you try, no one will let you film in their garage, simply change it.  If you fight it, the fight will wear down the natural flow and keep you from seeing what is truly supposed to be there.

When you’re writing a script and you hit a stumbling block, move on – go to another scene.  If you’ve outlined your story and developed a clear structure, you can simply skip around.  If you’ve foolishly started writing without a clear structure in place, stop whatever you’re doing and develop the structure before going any further.

If you’re a songwriter, and the lyrics just aren’t coming to you, put in some working sounds that may or may not even be actual words.  Maybe they’re just noises and sounds, vowels, that you can place words upon later.

Realists have a more difficult time than the rest of us, because they get bogged down with the laws they were raised with.  Or laws that have been pounded into them by society at large.  Water is wet.  The sky is blue.  Neither may be actually true, but we are taught they are.

Letting go of the trappings in the world around you and allowing yourself to FEEL what you feel is a really hard thing to do for most people.  But, I assure you, that once you get the hang of it, it’ll be easier and easier.

In my own work, I can see the differences between projects where I’ve opened myself up to the universe and let all the pieces fall into place, or on the projects where I’ve forced it to much.  It’s taken me a decade to finally tap into something I can’t understand, and which is hard to communicate.  But it’s there.

They say, “Write what you know.”  And likewise: film what you know, sing what you know, dance what you know and paint what you know.  Of course that’s wonderful and always enjoyable but it’s also fun to push yourself a bit into an area you don’t know.

People ask me what inspires me to make a film.  The answer truly lands in what I’m interested in learning next.  I’ve never made a proper horror film.  Or a western.  Learning how to do that is exciting to me.  I’ve never made an erotic film.  Having to learn about what makes eroticism work is a challenge.  Especially if it’s a kind of sexuality I know nothing about.

I consider myself as a mad scientist in a way.  Wanting to combine different genres, or starting a movie off in one tone and then ending in another.  Like CASSEROLE CLUB, where we began with tongues planted in cheeks, then half-way through twisted the tone and moved into something serious, heavy and utterly devastating.  I also love movies that stick in the same tone throughout, like FIRECRACKER, or OCCUPYING ED.

But regardless what story you’re telling, my advice is to be open to letting the creation have its own life force.  Give it some room to morph, grow, and breathe.  You might just find that it grows into its own amazing being.

Works of art are like children.  And as a parent, it’s most responsible to let your children develop into who THEY are.  It’s irresponsible for you to make them who you want them to be.  Take a step back, and open yourself up to the possibility that they just might have their own voices and their own energies.  And if you can learn to respect them, you might be surprised at what they become.

PRIORITIZE YOUR TIME

I’m aware that our modern world isn’t easy to negotiate through.  I know people have jobs, bills to pay, the need to put food on the table, shuttle kids to and from school or band practice or play practice or that sports game.  I get it.  But, if you’re really good at time management, you can do all this and write scripts, make movies, and so forth.

I know it’s possible to write a screenplay in less than a week and get paid $15,000 for it.  I know because that happened to me.  But, I also know that I’m incredibly diligent in time management when it comes to something like that.  If my goal is to write a script in a week or so, and I’m getting paid 15 grand for it, I know that there is no time to waste at the gym, or on the phone chatting with friends, or texting and tweeting the lastest news.

I don’t think twice about just shutting the phone off, or telling friends and family that I’m going back in the “writing cave” or the “editing cave” or whatever.  Most people appreciate it and respect that, and understand the situation.

Other people don’t understand it, and that’s when it can become problematic.  Everybody has a needy friend who has a personality that if you don’t return his or her call or text immediately, they take it personally and think you’re mad at them.  Then, by the time you’ve re-emerged from the cave, your friend hates you and you don’t understand why.

Well, I’m here to say, screw ‘em.  Needy people are trouble.  Ask yourself which is more important?  Do you want to finish your script, your edit, your work or your art—or do you want to make sure you’re holding on to social obligations that have nothing to do with supporting your goals?  True friends, and people who support you and your goals, will always be there for you, regardless.  So I say “screw ‘em” to the rest because they’ll eventually just start sucking out your life force like leeches.

Now, I understand it’s easy for me to go into a creative cave of any sort because I don’t have pets, I don’t’ have children, and I’m not keen on frivolous social obligations with people I barely know.  But, I’ve made the decision that right now it’s the part of my life where I need to focus on myself.  So I don’t have pets on purpose.

Scheduling is also an important part of managing one’s time.  I can totally juggle the responsibilities of earning a living, putting food on the table, and also creating my art.  But I might not be able to do them all at the same time.  Sometimes it’s possible to block out two hours a day for writing, or six hours a day for earning a paycheck, or one hour a week to write a blog article.  But, unless I write it down in my planner, and keep to the schedule, it becomes impossible to manage everything.

I know some of you might be gifted when it comes to time management and scheduling yourself.  And I know that some of you might really struggle with it.  My only advice is to make it a habit.  I think it only takes something like two weeks to make something a habit.  Start small, by getting a daily planner or learning how to operate the calendar on your smart phone.  Set alerts for yourself.

Most importantly, ask yourself if there are any things in your current lifestyle that impede your ability to work on your art, or reach your goals.  Are some of those things necessary?  Can you do without them?  Or, if you must have them (say you aren’t ready to send Fido to your neighbor’s house to live), can you think of ways to keep those things and also achieve your goals?

There’s no excuse to avoid achieving your goals.  There is simply time management and figuring out HOW you can achieve them no matter what.

IS FILM A COLLABORATIVE … ART?

Filmmaking is NOT a collaborative art.  It is a collaborative PROCESS.  Those are two totally different things.  If you’re hearing this for the first time, it might seem shocking, but let me explain.

This goes across the board with any artistic endeavor, be it music, painting, or design.  Let’s use painting as the example.  One person can stretch the canvas, another person can mix the paint, but when it comes time, only one person can hold the brush—or it will look like it.  If more than one person holds the brush the painting will lack unity and the perspective will be off.  Then, of course, you can have another person sell to painting to a gallery, and yet another person at that gallery selling it to the consumer.

Sure, filmmaking by committee exists, and I have no problem with filmmaking by committee.  But people might confuse filmmaking by committee as a collaborate art—it isn’t.  It’s a collaborative process.  There always needs to be one person in charge—the head honcho—whether the director, a producer, or a studio executive.  If you have too many people making decisions, the end result will be chaotic and lack any kind of unity or focus.  Which sometimes happens, and we’ve all seen examples of the outcome.

When you’re about to make a film it’s very important to define who is the leader.  If you are merely a director who is translating what the producer tells you to do, you need to have a clear understanding of what that means.  And so does the producer.  You don’t want to wait until half way into your shoot and realize you’ve done it all wrong, that he’s in charge and you aren’t.

Once I was working with a make-up person who wouldn’t create the “faces” and looks I wanted, but rather, wanted to do it his way.  He said, “but this is my art.”  I replied, “No it isn’t.  This is about PROCESS.  It is your job to use your abilities to translate what I want, because this is my vision, my perspective.”  If we had our actors wear the make-up he wanted them to wear, the movie would’ve looked like a cartoon.  He had been hired based on his technical skill, not his taste.

On the flip-side, there are artists I’ve worked with that have an absolutely keen eye.  When we filmed THE CASSEROLE CLUB, I asked Jane Wiedlin to be my second set of eyes.  I value her opinion as an artist, and in this case, we had reached an aesthetic understanding of what we were creating, so I knew that if she had any ideas, they would be worth considering.  And they were.  Still, she knew I was in charge, but I gave her the freedom to speak up if she had an idea that could make the scene brighter, or point out something that didn’t seem right, or props that weren’t historically accurate.

As a director, if you can define your vision and share those definitions with people, chances are that when you set them free inside that spectrum, they will create something you love.  I usually like to make a list of rules that apply to every aspect of the process.  I make a “look book” that illustrates what we’re going for.  If you tell someone to make it “exotic” or “gothic” and not much else, they could come back with something appropriate for a Tim Burton movie, or at the other end of the spectrum, a look suitable for Twilight.  Neither of which may be what you want.  But, it isn’t their fault.  It’s yours.  Because you didn’t communicate effectively.  Remember: the meaning of communication is what the other person hears—not what you say.

It’s very important to illustrate verbally, visually, and in great detail, what it is you’re creating so that everyone’s on the same page.  Then, the collaborative process can be an enjoyable one.  But, remember, there must always be one person in charge and it’s important to define who that is right at the start.

SHUT UP & WRITE

The first draft of a screenplay isn’t the draft that gets filmed.  It also isn’t the version shown to the actors.  It’s the beginning of a long line of drafts and versions, so there’s no reason why it should take you very long to do it.

I commissioned a screenwriter once for a film I wanted to make.  She really struggled to complete the first draft.  Weeks went by and she still wasn’t finished.  She said she really wanted it to be PERFECT before showing me.  Yet, I knew the moment she turned it in, I would have a laundry list of notes and changes.  But she kept insisting “just another week.”

After I received the first draft, and started to work on my own version 2.0, she started to realize what I meant earlier.  No one (but us) sees the first draft.  And nobody needs to.  It won’t be published, lined with gold or shown in a museum.  It’s just Step One.  Think of it as an instruction manual.  When you’re assembling a desk from IKEA, do you usually fret about Step Four until you get there?  No, of course not.  So treat screenwriting the same way.  One step at a time.

If you’ve created a good solid floor plan, writing the first draft should be effortless.  When you reach a scene that doesn’t seem to be working, simply skip ahead to the next.  You can always go back to that tricky scene in future drafts.

Skipping ahead is the one trick to avoid writer’s block.  If you begin to feel stumped, move on to the next scene or sequence on your outline.  If you haven’t made a solid outline “floor plan” yet, you should stop everything you’re doing and do that first (read my earlier article on the subject).

When I’m writing a script, my mission for Step One is: just get it off the outline and into screenwriting format (I use Final Draft, which is industry standard).  For the first draft, nothing matters yet.  I sit down with my outline and just use that as my guide and “next to do” on the list.  Sometimes I start in the middle of the outline, or jump around from scene to scene.  Maybe there’s a scene in particular where the dialogue is crystal clear in my mind—I’ll start there.  And, sure, I’ve hit a wall and have had to jump past it, but I don’t let it get to me.  I just wait until I’ve expanded upon the outline.

Then, once I’ve taken all the information that’s on the outline and incorporated it into my screenwriting file, even if it’s patchy in places, I call that a complete first draft.  Then, I “save as” and create v2.0, where I go back into the screenplay and begin to flesh out each scene more and more.  When I’m confident with a nice v2.0, I’ll share it with another writer or some friends for feedback.  They’ll either re-write some things on their own, or send me notes.  Then I’ll “save as” and create v3.0 and repeat the process until I’m satisfied with a solid draft that will be shared with select cast, crew, another director, or producer.

And, naturally, each of them will want to chime in with their “two cents.”  Sometimes their notes are silly, but sometimes they could have a brilliant idea that can help you.  When that happens, swallow your pride and take it.  This isn’t about you; it’s about the greater good for the project.

Once you get to that point, and you find yourself working on version 12, you’ll kick yourself for wasting so much time on version 1.  Remember this lesson next time you complete your outline, and are ready to begin writing the scenes and dialogue.  If you can get into a rhythm where you don’t think too much about writing, and just write, you’ll find that it’s possible to complete the first draft of a screenplay in no time at all.

Remember: no one sees the first draft.  There is no reason to give yourself any kind of pressure when you’re conceiving it.  Give that formation time to grow and what might seem messy at the beginning will begin to make sense.  Each story takes on its own life force and if you’re open to the inspiration around you, and live with a “create now, edit later” mindset, your screenplay will be complete in no time.

HOW TO READ A SCREENPLAY

I never read other people’s screenplays when I don’t understand how to read them.  It’s a waste of time otherwise.  A lot of people read screenplays left and right, but have they ever stopped to think about from what perspective they are reading it?  When was the last time you read a screenplay you didn’t write?  How did you read it?  No, not “at bedtime,” or “with the lights on,” I mean… from what perspective did you read it?

Recently, a filmmaker sent me the first 10 pages of a script and asked, “Can you tell me if you think this has potential?”  I thought, well, it’s impossible to measure the value of a screenplay in the first ten pages.  I might be able to get a sense of the writer’s style, their use of vocabulary, whether their dialogue is lyrical or stilted, or even an example of the tone and atmosphere of the story, but feature screenplays are usually around 90-100 pages.  Judging a screenplay in the first 10 pages is a bit like licking the outside of an apple to determine the taste without biting into it.  And people who have tried both Granny Smith and Gala apples can tell you that neither tastes like a Fuji.  So, licking it just won’t cut it.

I answered the filmmaker: “Before I read it, tell me what is the perspective I’m reading it from…  A director’s perspective?  A writer’s point of view?  Or, a consultant’s?”  The filmmaker replied, “Great question.  Read it first as a director.”

To clarify further, I asked another question: “As if I were directing (which would mean I would only see if the story was something that spoke to me personally as an artist, and judge the story based on that alone)?  Or, do you want me to read it from the perspective of you directing (which means that I would not read it from my perspective, but rather, project an outward, external view and imagine this filmmaker’s personality—how he sees the world—and does this story seem to align with his sensibilities)?  Or, am I supposed to read it from the standpoint of Ron Howard directing (which means I’d be thinking about it from a totally different place—would Ron Howard’s sensibilities help this story appeal to a broad audience, and would studios find this story appealing financially)?”

The filmmaker answered in a tongue in cheek manner, which ended the discussion, but I was totally serious.  I decided to not read the 10 pages he sent to me.  Even if he had sent me the completed screenplay, I wouldn’t have read it without understanding from which perspective to read it.  If everyone did this it would change the industry.

It’s impossible to adequately judge a movie’s potential by the screenplay alone.  Screenplays aren’t novels, and what’s on paper doesn’t always translate visually.  Film is the director’s medium.  To judge a movie one must always take into consideration the visual elements: costumes, hair styles, make-up, art direction, production design, props, camera work, colors, rhythm, performers and their acting abilities and especially music and score.

Take this for an example: WIZARD OF OZ, which was gloriously colored and staged, and 1985’s RETURN TO OZ, which was dreadful looking (never mind the bleak storyline, I’m talking the lack of good design and sleek direction).  I imagine people reading RETURN TO OZ had in their minds the kind of thing that made the first one so cherished, but were devastated upon viewing the end result.  But, there exist brilliantly visualized shows like WICKED, and the latest film installment, OZ: THE GREAT AND POWERFUL, which looks incredible.  It’s all about aesthetic understanding and good taste.

Part of the director’s job is to translate the written word into visual storytelling.  Next time I speak at a film school, this will be my assignment:  Everyone gets the same script, and we’ll see what happens when they turn in their projects.  One director will take the same story and deliver something totally opposite what another director will do.  Yet both films will originate in the same words.

Instead of reading screenplays, I ask for either a complete plot or synopsis (not one meant to lure me into buying the movie, but rather the entire detailed story in just a couple of pages, including spoilers and climax, ending, etc.).  Usually if the structure is there, and the story is solid, it’s possible to make the screenplay great (even if, at that stage, it isn’t).  But if the structure is not solid, the movie won’t work.  No matter how scenes are re-written, or how dialogue is changed here and there, until that structure is defined and made solid, it just won’t work.

Eight times out of 10, this is the case with most screenplays.  This is why I ask for writers to share with me the structure first.  Why should anybody have to waste time reading an entire screenplay only to discover three hours later that there is no structure?  It’s a lot easier and less time consuming to just read a few paragraphs first.  Then, if there is a solid structure, dive into the screenplay and enjoy it.  But remember to ask yourselves: from which perspective am I reading this?  Am I going to read this as a viewer?  A filmmaker?  A distribution executive?  A marketing executive?  An actor?  Or simply for entertainment?

GIVE THEM A NAME

When you’re writing a screenplay, it’s a good idea to name each character who has a line of dialogue.  Even if it’s just the “Workman” or the “Church Lady.”  I think every role deserves a personality even if their characters names aren’t ever spoken.  It’s a good habit to build.  Why?

Actors like to have names.  It’s much more fun to be in a movie when you’re playing “Cheryl” instead of “Woman #3.”  Furthermore, it looks better on the actor’s resume if they played a person who is named, instead of playing a mere number.  Think about it from the standpoint of a director or producer.  When you’re trying to find the best actor to play the “Bartender,” do you pay more attention to actors who have played “Man 2” or those who have a part called “Carl” on their resume?

Which resume below suggests a better actor?

FILM                                ROLE
Night of the Bees . . . . . . Jackie
Hungry In Love . . . . . . . Rose
Tomorrow, My Sweet . . Kathy

Versus:

FILM                                ROLE
Night of the Bees . . . . . . Woman in Alley
Hungry In Love . . . . . . . Flower Shop Employee #2
Tomorrow, My Sweet . . Travel Agent

Unless the actor is playing “Man 2” in the latest Spiderman movie, chances are the movie titles on people’s resumes won’t mean much.  For a big budget studio action movie, they probably see thousands of men for “Man 2,” so if this guy got picked, he must be great!  Whereas, say the actor played “Man 2” in a no-budget indie that you’ve never heard of… what message does that send?  Did they use him because they couldn’t get anyone else, or is he a decent actor?  Now, if he’d played “Roger” in that same indie movie, I’d be more apt to consider him.

When I’m casting a new movie, budget or no-budget, I always make sure to go through the script and give every character a name whenever possible.  I understand when there’s a scene, say, involving a drug bust, it would become problematic to name every single policeman in the scene.  So in that case, it’s okay to refer to the group as “Policemen.”  But, if there are a couple cops that have a line or two, why not give them names?  Officer Thad, or Officer Dave looks a lot better during your end credits, and also on their resumes, than Officer 1 and Officer 2.

Can’t think of a name?  No need.  Sometimes, I’m fresh out of names in my imagination database, too.  When that happens, I grab the nearest phone book, look up at the ceiling, flip through pages and stick my finger in.  I’ll rest it firmly on a page, then open the page and see what name I pointed to.  Usually, I’ll use whatever name I’ve picked.  I’ll try it now.

Let’s say I need a name for a waitress.  Okay, I’m opening the phone book, and… POINT.

Ronda.  What a great waitress name.  I think I’ll just use that.

I also need a name for the short order cook in the back.  Okay, I’ll open the phone book, and…  POINT.

Thomas.  Okay, that’s fine.  I could use “Thomas,” but I was hoping for a name with a little more feeling.  I’ll try again… and… POINT.

Delbert.  TOTALLY sounds like the cook in the back of the diner.

See, not hard at all?  It helps when you use a phone book from a big city so there will be many cultural names.  Telephone books are nearly extinct now, so anytime I’m in a big city hotel room and see a phone book, I make sure I accidentally drop it into my suitcase before checking out.

SCREENWRITING: THE FLOOR PLAN

Say you’re building a house… would you go to the lumberyard to buy wood before drafting a floor plan?  No.  That would be stupid.

Now, say you want to write a screenplay.  The same kind of thinking applies here, too.  Screenwriters who write with no idea where they’re going usually end up with a script that reads like it doesn’t know where it’s going.

I know several writers who sit down at their desks and stare at the blank screen (or sometimes, paper), dig deep for the inspiration and begin typing away.  It sounds romantic.  Maybe even the epitome of what it might mean to be a screenwriter.  Well, I hate to burst the bubble, but unless you write in front of a group, no one will see that moment but you.  Sure, that romantic way of writing can sometimes make magic.  But most of the time, many writers rarely make it to page three before starting over.  And those who make it past page three usually take months and months to complete a single screenplay.  Why?  Because they didn’t have a structure to follow.

Having a floor plan, or a clear outline, is a more efficient way to write a movie.  There is no right way or wrong way to make this structure/outline/floor plan.  A structure can be organized in any way so long as it helps you.  Note cards, computer document, etc.  I use a single sheet of notebook paper to begin outlining mine (in blue ball point pen).  There are roughly 25 lines on a single sheet.  First, number them 1-25.

Starting a new screenplay

Then, look at those numbers and imagine a time associated with them.  I say it’s somewhere between three and five minutes.  Then, you can begin to separate the outline into “movie time.”  Your single sheet of paper now represents somewhere between 90-120 minutes.  Of course, you can break it down even further, and use two sheets.  I like keeping my entire outline on one sheet, making it easier to spot certain moments.

Starting a new screenplay formula

I apologize if that’s bewildering.  If you aren’t ready to dive in and make your own outline or structure, my advice is to familiarize yourself with all the story structures you can!

One way to learn about a screenplay’s structure is by drafting one for an existing movie.  Any movie will do.  But, I’d suggest watching All About Eve and write down a brief description of what happens every three or five minutes.  Then, watch Showgirls and do the same.  When you’re finished, compare them.  You’ll discover they are basically the same movie.  It’s pretty obvious Joe Eszterhas studied the structure of ALL ABOUT EVE before writing SHOWGIRLS.  His writing style is pretty obvious, too.  But yours doesn’t have to be.

Before writing my first film PEP SQUAD, I studied the structure of 9 To 5.  Instead of setting the story in the corporate world, I placed it in high school.  And added some of my own special touches: drive-by shootings, campy dialogue, fun costumes, etc.  But, if you study PEP SQUAD and 9 TO 5, you’ll easily find the similarities in their structure.

There are scores of screenwriting books on the market, but the only one worth buying is Save the Cat!, which teaches you about structure and how to draft the perfect screenwriting floor plan.  One of the book’s examples: ALIEN is the same movie as JAWS, only it’s set in space.

If you have a structure, floor plan, or outline, you can write freely in any order you like.  That’s my favorite part about getting the structure down first.  If there’s a specific scene or sequence that’s really clear to me, I’ll type that out first—even if it’s in the middle of the story.  Or, maybe the ending is super clear—go write it.  Details and ways to combine sequences can be decided later.

By drafting a solid floor plan, you’ll have a lot of fun building your screenplay.  Chances are you’ll never get burnt out, you’ll never have writer’s block, and in the end, you’ll actually have a comprehensive screenplay.