over here…So here’s the kind of story that drives screenwriters nuts. We’ve created a small village in which to shoot, and we’ve built about five buildings. In order to save some money, the producer opted to not finish the back of one of the buildings, and wouldn’t you know it, but suddenly we find ourselves needing to shoot behind that building. The back is half wood siding (good) and half plywood (bad).
What do we do?
Well, every studio film crew has a guy called the “stand by painter”. If you need something painted on the spot, he’s your man. The stand by painter managed to paint the plywood in such a way that it looked like wood siding, and that’s all we needed.
Here’s the part screenwriters hate.
There’s a stand by painter, but there’s no stand by writer???
I relayed this story to a friend. He’s an Academy Award nominated writer-director (a truly great one at that). He’s directed movies from what he’s written, he’s directed movies from what other writers have written, and he’s written movies that others have directed…so he’s got a pretty good perspective on this whole concept. He’s very much in favor of the stand by writer, but he believes that the objection to this concept isn’t so much from the companies as it is from the directors.
So directors…I’m talkin’ to you. Here’s my pitch for the stand by writer.
I’m lucky enough to work with a secure director who enjoys my presence on the set. And since I work for a studio that would like to see me direct one day, I’ve been sort of “practice directing” in my head on this movie (note to the DGA…in my head, okay?…not stepping on anyone’s toes). I think about how to shoot the scenes. I think about pacing, angles, wardrobe, performance notes, editorial decisions, overlapping, transitions…all the stuff required of a studio director.
What I’ve come to learn is that “directing thinking” is vastly different than “writing thinking”.
When I write, my mind wanders. Possibilities are necessarily expansive. The totality of the story is constantly at the forefront. An hour goes by where I just think. Decisions aren’t really decisions–the delete key is ever so close, and what was certain an hour ago is now preposterous.
When I’m in my directing mind, what I’m doing is concentrating entirely on the work of the day. I have a scene. Pages. The story of that scene must now be reverse engineered into geometric perspectives, angles that I diagram onto a blueprint of the set, just like this. Sizes must be considered, as well as how the scene will hopefully be edited. Continuity must always be monitored. There is no time to go backwards. There is no time to stop and think for a while. The day is long, exhausting and entirely focused on the capturing this one scene.
When you’re in the directing mind, it’s only natural that the obsession of the writing mind are neglected. It’s only natural. Why not have a writer there to turn to when you realize that you need some additional dialogue to help bridge a transition? Why not have a writer there who can offer a second line of defense against errors of omission? Remember, everything’s being shot out of sequence. And even though there’s a script supervisor, a producer, a line producer, an assistant director and a studio executive, at Hour 12 of a long shoot day in which everyone is concentrated on getting this one shot off right before the crew goes into overtime, the one person who is probably thinking hardest about this moment in the context of the whole story in chronological order…
…is the writer.
Consider this story, which is instructive for two reasons.
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AnswerPalooza!A1: It’s All About Context
A reader wrote in asking about what makes a good twist good. He had an interesting head-start on the answer. It’s not enough to have a surprising ending; the surprising ending must also be logical.
I’d probably explain it more in terms of context. A good twist isn’t just a surprise; it’s a surprise that instantly recontextualizes the entire story.
The fact that Bruce Willis has been dead for the majority of The Sixth Sense recontextualizes every scene the audience has experienced, and it does so after the fact of the experience, which makes twist endings so fascinating. The audience is forced to re-evaluate the very story they thought they understood.
This is why good twist endings typically spawn excellent post-film discussion as well as repeat viewings. Some twist endings are so radical, they can literally warp one’s appreciation of the film itself. I hated Fight Club the first time I saw it because I simply couldn’t recontextualize the film fully after learning the twist. When I saw it the second time and was able to watch the film in forward fashion with the proper context, I absolutely loved it.
While comedies rarely have twists of this nature, I sometimes write jokes that require recontextualization. For instance, in Scary Movie 3, Cindy finds George passed out on a table. He comes to, rubbing his head, and when she asks him what happened, he says, “I don’t know. Cody and I were playing a game, and…” Then he looks down, sees five dice all on the number six, yells “Yahtzee!”, stands up in excitement, and smashes his head into a shelf. He’s knocked himself out.
Once that happens, you get to recontextualize the entire prior 20 seconds of film. I’ve watched that joke play in front of about ten audiences. There’s always a slight delay in the laugh. There’s a small laugh when he hits his head (surprise), then a second big laugh when they realize what this means (recontextualization).
A2: Leave Behinds Are Not A Good Idea
When some writers go off to pitch movies, they “leave behind” a document that outlines the story they’ve just pitched (or some version thereof).
I’m not a fan of this idea. My feeling is that professional writers must get paid for their ideas in fixed form, and that means no leave behinds. Furthermore, when you leave something behind, you’ve given the executive a piece of evidence that can be dissected and rejected concretely by their higher-ups. If the exec really likes the pitch, they have to then relay it to the boss. If the boss says, “I dunno…”, the exec will always say, “I’m not pitching it as well as they did. It’s great.”
A leave behind is proof of you, and if you wanted to make the sale based on written proof, well…you’d be writing a spec instead of pitching, right?
Don’t leave nuthin’ behind.
A3: I Start Wondering What’s Wrong With My Script
First of all, let me get this whole “screenwriting is a marathon” notion out of the way.
No, it’s not.
And if it feels like one, one of the following is true. Either there’s a major problem with your script, or you’re not cut out for writing screenplays.
When I get fidgety or antsy or bored or tired when writing my screenplay, it’s usually a sign that I’ve hit some dry, dysfunctional or cliched section of my story. If it’s not fun and exciting to write, then it won’t be fun and exciting to watch. I return to my treatment or outline, and I think about what’s gone wrong.
If you repeatedly find yourself dreading the work, if you keep praying to find yourself at the end of the process, if you view the second act as some sort of Bataan Death March, then it’s time to hang it up. Screenwriting is hard enough to do when you want to do it. If you’re dealing with a lack of will at the same time, what’s the point of torturing yourself?
Oh, puke…One of my favorite compilation web sites is Arts & Letters Daily. They always have an interesting variety of commentary, and I often find myself agreeing with the pieces they choose.
Not so a few days ago, when I read an essay entitled Imagine A World Without Copyright by Joost Smiers and Marieke van Schijndel.
Okay, interesting idea. Let me do that.
Huh. Whaddya know? That world sucks.
Of courst, Joost and Marieke, who apparently never met a globalization cliche they didn’t like (and yeah, I just used a cliche to make fun of people who use cliches), disagree with my assessment. They actually believe the elimination of copyright will improve the lot of artists.
They think this because they have no idea what the hell they’re talking about.
First off, Joost and Marieke have to exercise their anti-corporate chip. You see…
we have to admit that copyright serves an altogether different purpose in the contemporary world. It now is the tool that conglomerates in the music, publishing, imaging and movie industries use to control their markets.
These industries decide whether the materials they have laid their hands on may be used by others – and, if they allow it, under what conditions and for what price. European and American legislation extends them that privilege for a window of no less than 70 years after the passing of the original author. The consequences? The privatization of an ever-increasing share of our cultural expressions, because this is precisely what copyright does. Our democratic right to freedom of cultural and artistic exchange is slowly but surely being taken away from us.
Where to begin? Yes, copyright allows the privatization of cultural expression. Duh. For those of us who don’t think “private property” is a bad thing, this hardly seems objectionable. But that’s not what J & M are really after. What they want is their “democratic right” to “freedom” of cultural and artistic “exchange”.
There’s no such democratic right (and what the hell’s a “democratic” right anyway?). There’s no such freedom. And “exchange” means theft.
I would very much like my democratic right to freedom of land and dwelling exchange, but the guy in that really nice house up the street doesn’t seem interested.
This kind of rhetoric is merely warmed-over Marxist platitudes about communal “ownership” of what must necessarily be property. Nothing…absolutely NOTHING…is stopping Joost from creating works of authorship and granting all people total use of them. But that’s not enough for him. He wants MY works as well.
After all, ownership is just another sin perpetrated on the world by Evil White Men…
We must keep in mind, of course, that every artistic work – whether it is a soap opera, a composition by Luciano Berio, or a movie starring Arnold Schwarzenegger – derives the better part of its substance from the work of others, from the public domain. Originality is a relative concept; in no other culture around the globe, except for the contemporary Western one, can a person call himself the owner of a melody, an image, a word. It is therefore an exaggeration to gratuitously allow such work the far-reaching protections, ownership title and risk-exclusion that copyright has to offer.
I’m not sure if that’s just ignorant or outright malicious. First of all, copyright specifically does not protect expressions that are not unique. Every artistic work does owe a debt to the non-unique expressions before it, but if it’s unique enough for copyright…it is unique. What kind of mind actually believes that a composition by Berio actually owes the better part of its substance from the work of others?
A soft mind that doesn’t understand what the act of authorship means. A mind so hell-bent on pointless egalitarian baloney that it actually seeks to undermine the very concept of ownership that has allowed the West to thrive creatively and enrich its public with the breadth, depth, quality and quantity of its cultural output.
A mind that actually believes that:
At the same time, a fascinating development is taking place before our very eyes. Millions of people exchanging music and movies over the Internet refuse to accept any longer that a mega-sized company can actually own, for example, millions of melodies. Digitalization is gnawing away at the very foundations of the copyright system.
No, no, NO. The existence of mass theft does not mean that ownership is a bad concept. It means that people are thieves. Bank robbers have been gnawing at the foundations of the banking system for a while, and burglars have been gnawing at the foundations of private property ownership.
Note the annoyance of the “mega-sized” company. This sloppy thinking drives me nuts. See, if a company is big, it’s bad. If a company is small, it’s good. After all, in a world without copyright…
…a work will have to take its chances on the market on its own, without the luxurious protection offered by copyrights….If the protective layer that copyright has to offer no longer exists, we can freely exploit all existing artistic expressions and adapt them according to our own insights. This creates an unpleasant situation for cultural monopolists, as it deprives them of the incentive to pursue their outrageous investments in movies, books, T-shirts and any other merchandise associated with a single cultural product. Why would they continue making these investments if they can no longer control the products stemming from them and exploit them unhindered?
The domination of the cultural market would then be taken from the hands of the cultural monopolists, and cultural and economic competition between many artists would once again be allowed to take its course.
This would offer new perspectives for many artists. They would no longer be driven from the public eye and many of them would, for the first time, be able to make a living off their work. After all, they would no longer have to challenge – and bow down to – the market dominance of cultural giants. The market would be normalized.
This kind of insane illogic should earn you jail time, Joost.
Let me see if I have this right. Copyright only serves to make big companies rich off of intellectual property, and it stifles the little artist. By eliminating copyright, and thus eliminating the ability of the company to exploit its property, the individual artists would now be able to be seen by the public. They would “make a living” off their work and the market would be “normalized.”
HOW? You’ve just gotten rid of the one thing that allows individual artists to make a living off of their own work! Consider the case of the novelist. He writes a novel, gets it printed, and starts selling copies. Until, of course, Joost photocopies the novel and starts selling it at a cheaper price.
Hooray. The market is normalized, meaning, as is always these case with this kind of Marxist baloney, that the market is destroyed and the incentive for anyone to be a professional artist is now obliterated.
And what about expensive works, like films? Who would dare pay for them if they had no ownership stake? Oh, Joost has an interesting compromise on that one.
Certain artistic expression, however, demands sizeable initial investments. This is the second situation for which we must find a solution. Think about movies or novels. We propose that the risk bearer – the artist, the producer or the patron – receive for works of this kind a one-year usufruct, or right to profit from the works.
This would allow the entrepreneur to recoup his or her investments. It would still be an individual decision whether or not to make the large investments, for example, needed to make a movie, but no one would be granted rights to exploit that work for more than a year. When that period expired, anyone could do with the work as he or she pleased.
Oh, wow. What a great plan! So let’s say you’re a screenwriter like me, Joost. You write a screenplay, which is inexploitable and worthless as a screenplay. A company decides to spend 20 million dollars to make your script into a movie. They exploit the movie exclusively for one year, and get all the money. You wait patiently for that year to end, and when it does…
…the movie is now freakin’ free, and anyone can use it, make derivative works of it, exhibit it, etc.
Congratulations, Joost. Your brilliant plan to elevate the individual artist above the corporate exploiters has just made things worse for individual artists.
You know, I honestly don’t mind that some people still live in the adolescent fantasy world of property-less utopias where everyone works according to their ability and takes according to their need. I don’t mind that some people blame corporations for everything, as if corporations were something other than a large group of individuals working together to enrich said individuals.
No, what really bothers me about this tripe is that these anti-intellectual-property folks are anti-artist, whether they realize it or not.
Actually, they’re anti-GOOD-artist.
One of the benefits of a property-based system that provide profit motive is that a real environment of competition is created. Not a fake one where artists who do it for the love pretend to compete but aw shucks, we’re all members of the human race and diversity is the point…but actual competition.
The crucible kind. The sort of competition in which the best rise to the top, and the people who just plain suck never get through.
That’s my kind of competition.
Joost wants a world of mediocrity where everyone’s “art” is appreciated. I don’t. I want a world where your creative output is promoted and advanced and supported only if it’s enjoyed.
There’s no better way than to let the market, i.e. the audience, dictate what is enjoyed.
The audience doesn’t have to be the most people possible. There are macroaudiences and microaudiences. Sure, Jim Jarmusch doesn’t appeal to a mass audience, but if he didn’t appeal to any audience, who the hell would give him the money to make his films?
Joost, I suppose.
Well, do us actual honest-to-goodness authors, artists and intellectual property creators a favor, Joost.
Don’t do us any favors.
We like owning our work. We like exploiting it. It doesn’t belong to your rainbow world of happy multicultural anti-global neo-Marxists. It belongs to us, and if we want to grant some corporate entity the right to it, then that’s our choice. If we want to exploit it ourselves for 70 years, that’s our choice. If we want to flush it down the toilet in a fit of pique, that’s our choice.
The real kind, Joost.
As most of you know, the credits for the movies and television shows you see are often arbitrated by the WGA. When it comes to films, the credits are frequently divided into two categories: “story by” and “screenplay by”.
Today, I’m going to discuss what the difference between those terms actually is (as opposed to what most people think), and I’m going to talk about how arbiters should approach the extremely difficult task of not only parsing a single literary work into two components, but of assigning portions of credit in two different categories to multiple writers.
First, let’s get some terms straight. When you see that a movie has been “written by” someone (or multiple writers), that credit indicates both screenplay and story. Given that this discussion is about those instances where credit must be divided, we’ll be ignoring “written by” credit for the sake of argument. Also, if you see “screen story by”, feel free to equate it to “story by”. It’s the credit we use when a writer is adapting source material (like a novel) but has created a significantly original story for the screenplay version.
With the housekeeping out of the way, let’s take a look at how the Screen Credits Manual defines “story”:
The term “story” means all writing covered by the provisions of the Minimum Basic Agreement representing a contribution “distinct from screenplay and consisting of basic narrative, idea, theme or outline indicating character development and action.”Okaaaaaay. That’s a bit dry. But fear not. Let’s jump ahead and look at the definition of “screenplay”.
A screenplay consists of individual scenes and full dialogue, together with such prior treatment, basic adaptation, continuity, scenario and dialogue as shall be used in, and represent substantial contributions to the final script.Oh God. What the hell does that mean?
The credits manual makes a few additional things clear for us. First, “story” can be incorporated in the screenplay itself. That means that treatments aren’t the only material eligible for story credit, nor are they required to receive story credit.
Oh…wait…that makes it less clear, right? Because now, the arbiter must read a script and parse out what is story and what is screenplay.
The Credits Manual does give one more set of clues. When it comes to determining who gets “screenplay by” credit, arbiters must take into consideration the following elements:
Fair enough. Let’s begin. The most important instruction to keep in mind is this (and if you’re ever an arbiter, this is the key to it all):
STORY AND SCREENPLAY ARE MUTUALLY EXCLUSIVE
No, they’re not literarily mutually exclusive. Story and screenplay work together in order to make a good script. However, when it comes to parcelling out credit for one or the other, that which is story is completely distinct from that which is screenplay.
Story consists of basic narrative, idea, character development and action.
Screenplay consists of dramatic construction, original and different scenes, characterization or character relationships and dialogue.
Let’s go into what I think those terms mean.
We’ll knock the easy ones off first.
Credit for dialogue must go into the screenplay pile. This doesn’t mean “credit for the meaning of the dialogue”. We’re talking about one-liners, clever phrases, individual jokes or any situation in which the dialogue in and of itself is unique and credit-worthy. For instance, Writer A might have written “Be quiet! I was ready to renew our relationship the second you showed up.” Writer B might have written “Shut up. Just shut up. You had me at hello.”
The meaning and dramatic purpose of the lines are the same, but the dialogue is different, and Writer B has just earned some points for “screenplay by”.
The idea of the movie. Obviously, this is “story”.
Original & Different Scenes
These fall under screenplay. The idea here is that, as always, screenplay credit is about execution of the underlying story. The basic subunit of story is “plot point”. The basic subunit of execution is scene. A subsequent writer can keep the same plot point (Joe must escape from Harry and bring the secret plans back to Kelly) but execute it in a completely different way (motorcycle race through rush hour instead of wearing a secret disguise and walking right past the villain…)
Now let’s look at the first of our story/screenplay dichotomies.
Basic Narrative Vs. Dramatic Construction
Basic narrative, a function of story, is the group of story events that unfold in a particular sequence. I’ll use Finding Nemo as an example, because it’s so elegantly simple.
The basic narrative of Finding Nemo is: Marlin’s wife and most of his children are killed by a predator. Marlin is raising his remaining child, Nemo, by himself. Nemo is caught by a fishing boat and taken to Sydney. While Nemo works with his fishtank mates to escape, Marlin goes on a journey to find him. He meets a forgetful friend named Dory, is challenged by sharks and jellyfish, encounters some wise turtles and then is swallowed by a whale before finally reaching Nemo. When Dory is captured by a fishing net, Marlin lets Nemo try and save her. He does, and they all live happily ever after.
All of the above is STORY. It’s a basic narrative, with plot points fixed in relation to each other. If a subsequent writer decided that the turtles should come before the sharks or that the field of jellyfish should be replaced by scene where Marlin has to beat a flounder in a swimming race, that would earn that writer some story credit points.
Dramatic construction is different. Dramatic construction defines how the basic narrative is executed. While “Nemo rescues Dory” is basic narrative, the dramatic construction of Nemo swimming into the net and urging the other fish to swim down while nearly losing his life in the process is dramatic construction. It’s SCREENPLAY. If a subsequent writer were to keep the plot point and locus of “Nemo rescues Dory” but have Nemo rescue Dory from the mouth of a barracuda, that would earn that writer some screenplay credit points.
Note that these definitions pass the “mutually exclusive” test. That which is basic narrative shall not be dramatic construction, and vice-versa.
Character (Development & Action) Vs. Characterization (and Relationships)
The other major story vs. screenplay dichotomy is character and characterization. “Character” describes the basic profile of the character, as well as his arc and plot actions. “Characterization” describes the execution of the character and the manner in which he relates to other characters. For instance, while the character of Marlin is “neurotic father who desperately searches for his son”, the characterization of Marlin is embodied in the way he gets frustrated by Dory, fumbles joke-telling around the other fish, constantly underestimates himself, etc. Let’s say, then, that Writer A creates the character of Marlin and adds the characterization that he’s flirtatious with Dory. Writer B comes along and decides that the character should remain the same (still neurotic, still searching for his son), but the characterization should change. Specifically, he should resist Dory’s charming personality, and scold her as often as possible.
Writer B has earned no story points, but has earned screenplay points.
Now that I’ve talked about the differences between the mutually exclusive category of “writing that is story” and “writing that is screenplay”, here is another handy Artful guideline for discriminating between them.
Story is material that can be completely described in a treatment. Screenplay is material that can only be completely described in script format.
I don’t know how many credit arbiters approach material with this mindset, but I hope many do. Hell, I hope they all do. However, I have a sneaking suspicion.
I worry that some arbiters mistakenly award screenplay credit for literary material that is (and can only be) contributory towards story credit. It’s easy to read Writer A’s script, then read Writer B’s script, then say, “Boy, Writer B’s script is just a version of A’s. A gets screenplay credit.” One arbiter once told me, “I just ask myself…if I saw Writer B’s movie after seeing Writer A’s movie, would I think I’d just seen a whole new movie, or just a version of the first?”
That’s just wrong. By confounding “story” contributions and “screenplay” contributions, the arbiter is shortchanging the participants, failing to properly determine authorship, and not judging his peers in accordance with the terms of our MBA and our Screen Credits Manual.
The Credits Manual is, by and large, a good thing, but in the months to come, I’m hoping to get a little more explanation and plain English into it. Our writers deserve arbiters who completely and intuitively understand the subtle distinctions between our credits terminologies.
enjoying some more
studio notesBack in the early 1800′s, a philosopher named Hegel (whom David Hume could out-consume) devised a theory of rational inquiry called the “dialectic”, in which we start with an intellectual position called the “thesis”, challenge it directly with an opposing position called the “antithesis”, and then hopefully sit back and watch as a new, superior intellectual position rises from the conflict. That position is the “synthesis”. The synthesis then becomes a new thesis, to be opposed by a new antithesis, to give rise to a new synthesis…
And so it goes.
While Hegel got more than few things wrong in his life, he certainly was prescient about the kind of struggle that goes on during the development of screenplays.
Naturally, we writers provide the theses. The studio then provides the antitheses, and what we hope is that the resulting syntheses are better scripts.
Doesn’t always work out that way, of course.
What’s worse, the conflict isn’t exactly as painless and clean as the theory would lead you to believe. It’s messy, it’s annoying, it’s emotional, and a lot of times, it makes you nuts.
Still, I write this today in appreciation of the Taskmaster.
Some producers and studio execs are “the buddy”. Some are “the collaborator”. Others are the “distant parent”. In the end, none of them are as unpleasant to work with as “the Taskmaster”, but for what it’s worth…none of them are as productive to work with as the Taskmaster.
The Taskmaster’s refrains are simple but effective. “Not good enough. Do better. Improve, improve, improve. You are never done. There is no finality. Everything is open for rewriting. Everything can be made better. No deadline is too soon. No scene is too good. I am not satisfied. I will never be satisified. You can stop writing when the movie is in theaters.”
I hate the Taskmaster, but I love the Taskmaster. I stamp my feet, bitch and moan. I protest that it can’t get better, that there’s not enough time, that at some point we have to just let things be, that it was fine yesterday so why isn’t it okay today…
…and then I realize that it can be better. And once I write the new version, the thought of going backwards and using the version I had just so vigorously defended is, well…awful.
Should I hate the Taskmaster for being relentess? Why? What is he relentless about, if not the belief that I’m better than I realize? The crucible of endless challenging forces me to arrive at a synthesis. The scene is good. Let’s shoot it!
But out of the corner of my eye, I see the Taskmaster picking that whip up again…
And so it goes.
What slump?John August has written a very thoughtful post about why the great Box Office Slump of ’05 is nothing more than an endlessly repeated bit of media Cassandraism.
It’s struck me the same way. This bit, in particular, resonated with me:
The movies stunk.
Whew! Glad we got that settled. You hear that Hollywood? You have to start making better movies! Movies people want to see!
Thank God we have the conventional wisdom. All we have to do is keep repeating it, and everything will be okay.
Indeed. This summer’s movies weren’t any worse than the summer’s before. Nor were they better. If this summer was a failure…please, God, may I fail like this?
The movie business is just fine.
So, apparently, is the hysteria industry.