February 28


GARY ROSS AND THE MARVIN BOROWSKI LECTURE ON SCREENWRITING (Classic Post)

The Oscars tonight reminded me that I haven’t reposted my summary of Gary Ross’s excellent lecture for AMPAS on screenwriting. I had this on the old website, but the webhost lost all the data, so I’m recreating it from memory.


Gary Ross
has screenwriting in his genes. Son of Arthur A. Ross. (“Creature From The Black Lagoon” and “Brubaker”) and writer of “Big”, “Dave”, “Pleasantville” and “Seabuscuit”, Ross has the unique distinction of having almost every script he has ever written made into a movie. He admits to one unproduced screenplay. Continue reading

April 13


LET’S ASK ARISTOTLE (Classic Post)

ARISTOTLE GIFChris from somewhere asks:

Character motivation — how do you make sure the characters are sufficiently and plausibly motivated?

Too many of my stories start with the main character deciding he “wants to do something,” and this leads to the main plot. I’m starting to realize this type of motivation isn’t very strong, and I haven’t been able to make a good story about someone who just “wants to do something,” no matter how bad they want it.

Does that make sense? I think it’s a problem of motivation, and I think people can tell when a story hinges on a character doing something that they really didn’t have to do, particularly when there are many other things the character could have done that were a lot easier, less dangerous, but unfortunately less interesting.

For example, to make money the character decides to start a porn business instead of simply taking a job as an accountant, for which he has training. Or any other job. Like flipping burgers.

Thanks!

When in doubt, ask Aristotle. In his Poetics, Aristotle says:

Tragedy is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete and of a certain magnitude.

The goal of your protagonist must be “of a certain magnitude”. It must be important to him or her. It is not merely something he wants, it is something he is compelled to do. His or her drive must eventually arise to the level of compulsion and obsession. Your protagonist will do anything, suffer to any extent, pay any cost to achieve his or her desire. It takes that level of commitment from your character to keep him motivated.

That level of compulsion/obsession does not come merely from external forces. It comes from something deep inside the character that he or she must do in order to be a complete person. And we as an audience must sense his deep need and know he must do this thing for the sake of his very being. Our understanding of his need is what makes us want to see whether he achieves this goal.

For example:

Sixth Sense – Malcolm believes he is a fraud and that he failed the first boy. When a second boy with the same problem comes along, he must help him in order to redeem himself. He cannot live with himself is he does not help the boy. He is driven to help Cole and suffers until he does so.

Gladiator – Maximus must exact revenge on Commodus. His happiness in the afterlife depends upon it. If he does not, he will not be happily reunited with his family. He is driven to obtain his revenge and suffers until he does so.

In The Line of Fire – Frank must protect the president at the cost of his own life. He does not know whether it was his cowardice that changed the world for the worse (when Kennedy was shot and he did not take the bullet). He will suffer until he answers that question by proving he is not a coward. He is driven to hunt the man who will shoot the president and driven to put himself in harms way to protect the president. It is not mere choice; it is compulsion.

The same compulsion you have to be a writer….

November 23


Who Wrote The King’s Speech? (Classic Post)

King George VI
flikr|steve greer
The Jewish Journal has a fascinating article about screenwriter David Seidler, who escaped from Nazi’s, was almost torpedoed on his way to America, and grew up escaping into writing as a refuge from his own speech impediment, then later drew from these experiences to write the screenplay for The King’s Speech. It is worth a read.

March 17


“…BUT IS IT A MOVIE?” (Classic Post)

What does that mean, “Is it a movie?” We hear it in pitch meetings, from producers and agents, really all over the place. It is a Sword of Damocles used to fend of approaching concepts. The question isn’t really even a question. It is the listener’s assertion that your idea/script/pitch is not worthy of a 60 million dollar investment from the listener’s studio or from anyone else’s. It is a pronouncement that your idea fails to contain some basic element contained in every movie that should ever have been made and every movie that should ever be made in the future. The very question itself suggests that your concept should be taken out with the trash. When you hear, “But is it a movie?”, pack your bags, make nice for the next time, and get on the bus home.

But what is missing from your idea/pitch/spec that makes it not “a movie”?

This criticism is a particularly tough one. First, any joe can use it and mean anything he or she wants. Sometimes, it’s used just to avoid telling you the hard truth about your script, pitch or idea. Remember, producers aren’t out there to train you. They want to find the next picture and get it made. Second, to a large degree, execs who use this do so specifically to avoid thinking in terms of specific analysis. Something like, “If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck. That’s all I can tell you.”

So what do you do if you begin to get this response? Look at your story. Is it clear enough, compelling enough? Is your presentation being understood? Why? Because maybe, just maybe, the exec is right about your pitch. It isn’t yet a movie.