Wednesday, December 24, 2008

On Feedback

This one is from fellow screenwriting instructor Michael Barlow:

The best notes are the ones that make you feel stupid for not having thought of them first.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

On The Director-Writer Relationship

It's noteworthy that you often hear of filmmakers being described as an "actor's director" but you never hear the term "writer's director."

There are some directors that don't want the writer on set. Each director may have their own reasoning as to why, but for some of them, it is just plain insecurity. Primarily, this is because the writer has a level of authority over the text that the director can never have.

If an actor asks the director and the writer, "why does my character say this?" and they give two different answers, which one is the actor more apt to trust? Probably, the one who wrote the line in the first place.

Now, the normal chain of command precludes something like this from happening. Actors would only direct such a question to the director (unless, as has been my experience on one film, the actors feel that the director doesn't know what he's doing).

But, the point that should be drawn from this is that a director that's working from someone else's script should set the bar extremely high for himself. He should strive to know the characters and the world of the screenplay as good as, if not better, than the writer himself.

Then, he either won't need the writer there or will be able to use him effectively without fear of having his authority come into question.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

On Humor

Always give the audience at least one thing to laugh at (even if you're writing a tragic drama). Because if you don't, they'll pick something to laugh at. And it might not be a moment where you want them laughing.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

On Feedback

When receiving notes on your script, you should never allow yourself to use the phrase, "well, what I was going for was..." If whatever that is was coming across, then you wouldn't need to explain it.

On Scene Direction

Two words you should never use in scene direction are typical and clearly. Both are the result of laziness. Examples:

"A typical Midwestern home."

Is there such a thing as a typical Midwestern home? And if there is, shouldn't the place where your characters live say something about them other than that they are typical? And if they are typical, why do we want to spend two hours watching them?

"clearly Frank has never been laid."

How is it clear? Is there something the camera can photograph that makes it clear? If there is, then write that. If there isn't, then it's not clear to begin with.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

On Feedback

Getting notes from people on your script is like a socially acceptable way of taking other people's ideas. What's even better is that they're actually happy that you're taking them. And you get all the credit in the end. So don't be afraid to let people critique your work.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

On Cutting Dialogue

I may have imagined this but I recall an interview with Steven Soderbergh where he was being complimented for the wonderful silences in his film "Sex, Lies and Videotape." He attributed that to his inability to write dialogue.

That little anecdote guides my approach to dialogue. There are some writers that have a natural gift for it (Richard Price, Quentin Tarantino, David Mamet, all great comedy writers, etc.) and can allow their dialogue to do a lot of the heavy lifting in a scene. I don't have that luxury, so I'm maniacal about cutting dialogue. That way, at the very least, my dialogue will be simple and efficient.

There's three ways I do this:

1. Give the characters something to do.

I always make sure the actors have something physical to do in the scene. For one thing, I think being physically active grounds them so their performance is less self-conscious. But more importantly, I can use the behavior of the characters, as they are doing these bits of business, to tell some of the story.

A simple example: Let's say a character is doing something mundane like wiping down a table. Another character says to her, "I saw Frank yesterday." Hearing this, the first character slows down noticeably before continuing to wipe the table. That behavior says something about how this character feels about Frank. And it does it much better than any dialogue that I could write.

Having the characters doing something also allows the scene to serve more than one purpose. For example, the action can help move along the plot while the dialogue explores the relationship between the characters. Or the action could explore the relationship between the characters while the dialogue delivers mundane exposition. An example of the latter: I wrote one scene where a Sikh man explains his religion to a white woman while tying a turban on her. The dialogue was very dry ("What do Sikhs believe? Sikh believe..."), but the action of the scene played up the growing attraction between the characters.

I can always tell if a scene is working by clicking on print preview. I'm not sure what it is but I can tell just from the layout of the page (dialogue interspersed with bits of action), if I'm on the right track. But, if I only see a column of dialogue running down the page, I know something's wrong. I'm relying on dialogue. And that can't be good because I'm no Billy Wilder.

2. Take the emotion out.

"On the nose" is a common phrase used to describe dialogue where the characters are saying exactly what they're thinking. This is a problem because there's no subtext. The writer is, in essence, making the subtext the text.

As a general rule, I try to look for any lines of dialogue that state what a character is feeling and take it out. "Where were you? We were worried." Well, if the actor is conveying worry than you don't really need the second part of the line.

The only time I keep lines that indicate emotion is when there's a contrast between the emotion a character is feeling and the one in the dialogue (a character saying "I'm sad," but saying it as if they were saying "I'm mad").

3. Use the least amount of syllables to say something.

"Could you bring two glasses of wine please?" can become "Two glasses of wine please" (one could even cut the "please"). I just think this makes dialogue easier to deliver. And there's that whole "less is more" thing too.

My exception to this is when the characters are making a point (or a joke) by using more (and bigger) words. For example, a character walks into a someone's dingy studio apartment and says something like, "Quite a palatial estate you have here."

These are all simple ideas but you'll be amazed at how many lines you'll be able to cut and how much better the scenes will play as a result.