The script read-through...

Yesterday I had a table-read of a script I was hired to write. The purpose, obviously, was to hear the script out loud and see if there was anything that just wasn’t working – perhaps some clunky dialogue (in my script??) or scenes going on too long or passing too swiftly (in my script??). But wait, I need to back up just a bit.

The meeting was scheduled for 3:30. I got into the general neighborhood of the studio by 3:00 but decided to park a few blocks away and walk. (I’m the only person in L.A. who actually likes to walk. Seriously, I used to walk from Beverly Hills to Santa Monica and back, a 14 mile round trip, just for fun.) So anywho, I’m walking over to the studio and my cell goes off. It was my manager. Here’s our brief conversation:

ME: Hey, what’s up?
HER: Where are you?
ME: I’m walking over to the studio now.
HER: Are you trying to be fashionably late?
ME: Late? It was for 3:30.
HER: No, 3:00.
ME: 3:00?!
HER: We’re all here waiting for you.
ME: Yikes! OK, I’ll be there in ten minutes.

Now, you have to understand that I’m never late for anything. When I say I’ll be somewhere at 3:30, I’ll be there at 3:30. If for some odd reason I am late (abnormal traffic, nuclear attack, etc.), then I’ll call and let the other party know. But 99% of the time I’m there when I’m supposed to be. Anyway, I started jogging to the studio. Actually, I think running would be far more accurate. I got to the main gate, was waved through, and then did a swift walk across the lot to the producer’s bungalow. As I’m moving through the lot, I passed several security guards. Some were patrolling around in golf carts, some were directing traffic…and all I kept thinking about was how much I’d like to be out there with 'em. (For those of you who don’t know, I worked studio security at two huge movie studios for five years. I loved every minute of it.) But anyway...

I arrived at the bungalow, walked in, went to the large conference room…and found seven actors, three producers and my manager waiting. As I stepped in, everyone looked at me. “Well, look who decided to show up!” Nobody seemed genuinely perturbed, but still. “Hey, don’t blame me. I was told three o’clock.” So I took my seat and the reading began.

About 95 minutes later, the words Fade Out and The End were uttered, and a huge round of applause went up. I applauded right back. Those actors did a really good job. Then we all discussed the script. Some of the actors had questions about a few of the story points. Nothing major, just some things they had concerns about. I’ll admit, it’s a pretty trippy script and it’ll throw you for a loop. But hey, that’s what I want. That’s what my producers want.

Before leaving, all the actors came over to shake my hand and tell me how much they enjoyed the reading. Once the actors were gone, I sat with my producers and manager. We discussed some story points and ways to bolster them. I'm sure I can make the changes easily enough. (At least I hope so.) But my producers were very pleased with how things went. So was I.

And finally...when I got home last night, I checked my old e-mails and saw that I was correct – the start time I was told was definitely 3:30. Somebody obviously made a change and forgot to tell me. Typical, isn’t? The writer is always the last to know.


K.I.S.S. = Keep It Simple Screenwriter

Budding writers will ask, “Is my idea original? Do you think it could sell?” And that’s when I ask, “Will this be your first script?” If the answer is “yes,” then I’ll tell them, “I wouldn’t be too concerned about coming up with an original, saleable idea just yet.” Then I’ll tell them, “Your chances are pretty high that whatever you write at this stage in your career won’t be worthy of showing to anybody in Hollywood. Right now your goal is (or should be) to write a structurally sound and coherent screenplay.” Hey, it’s tough enough just getting that screenplay written – one that makes any sense whatsoever – so why make it even more difficult by racking your brain, trying to come up with some highly original, slam-bang idea? (I always find it odd how some novice writers tend to pick the most complex, “original” storylines for their first venture into screenwriting.) So for now, leave that “ultra hot idea” on the backburner and choose something simple and uncomplicated for that first script.

Now you’re asking: “Like what?” I suggest you take an event from your life. Perhaps a story all about the first girl (or guy) you fell in love with, or perhaps your first crazy week of high school or college, or the first days at some mind-numbingly boring (or intoxicatingly exciting!) job you once had. Whatever. Point is, write about something you have first-hand knowledge about; something where the story is literally at your fingertips. The rest – structure, character arc, realistic/plausible dialogue, etc. – you’ll have to eventually figure out; but believe me, all that stuff is a heck of a lot less difficult to navigate if you know your story inside and out.

Always remember that this early phase in your career is all about learning. It’s about trial and error. It’s about discovering what works for you and what doesn’t. Don’t worry if your writing stinks at first. Your job now is to find out why it stinks and move forward. Also remember that you’ll probably have to write a few scripts before you really get a handle on what this screenwriting thing is all about. You might need to write a dozen scripts. There’s a very good chance you’ll never get a handle on it. Sorry, that’s just the way it is.

Also, when you write your first script, you might consider writing a short, something in the 40-page range. Your first act will be roughly five pages, your second act will be roughly thirty pages, and your third act will be roughly five pages. Yup, a short is very doable, very manageable – and you’ll have the satisfaction of having a completed script in about one-third the time!

So keep it simple, Screenwriter. For that first or second screenplay, aim for a coherent, readable script with a relatively simple storyline and save the intricate political thriller for another day.

Don’t worry, you can thank me later.

There's more to a good script than formatting...

All of us hope we’ve got a fabulous story poured into a page-turning screenplay. The reality is, a relative few of us have the former; fewer still have mastered the mechanics of the latter. As a script consultant, I’ve read my fair share of badly executed scripts. Unfortunately, my experience has shown me that “badly executed” is the rule and not the exception.

Below you’ll find an example of what a novice screenplay can read like. Some read better, some far worse, but this example is fairly typical. Except for the dialogue, the formatting in this particular example is pretty much on target – and let’s assume the story is something we’d pay ten bucks to see in a theater – but there’s more to a saleable screenplay than a solid story and proper formatting. After all, a producer can forgive some basic formatting errors, but if the overall execution is severely lacking, if you are unable to convey your ideas properly, there’s a very good chance he won’t have confidence in the remainder of the script and will toss it in the trash bin before page ten. With this in mind, let’s take a look at our sample...

INT. BAR – NIGHT (MONDAY NIGHT)

It's your typical bar. Joe walks into the bar and looks all around the place. He remembers what it was like the first time he came in here years ago. He turns to the left and sees a woman sitting at the bar. Her name is SHEILA (about 52) and has long red hair. She’s an alcoholic.

Joe wanders around the place a little then sits down at a table. He waves his arm to a passing WAITRESS (short blonde hair, attractive and in her 20s).

WAITRESS (to Joe): Hi, welcome to Frank’s Bar. What can I get for you?

JOE: I’d like a beer. A light beer. And I’d like some information about something.

WAITRESS: Information about WHAT?

JOE: About Larry.

WAITRESS: Larry? What about him?

JOE: Bring me the beer and I’ll tell you. I'll even give you fifty dollars for your time.

The waitress walks away to get the beer. Joe SITS at the table for a few minutes as he looks around the bar. There are lots of UNUSUAL PEOPLE there. Joe smiles.

OK, so let’s take a closer look at this example...

Don’t tell us it’s “MONDAY NIGHT” in your scene heading slug. If it’s truly important that we know it’s Monday night, and it probably isn’t, then superimpose that over the scene itself, like this:

SUPERIMPOSE: MONDAY NIGHT

Don’t be lazy in your descriptions. Don’t tell us it’s “a typical bar.” What’s typical? Is it a classy bar? A bleak, depressing bar? You don’t need to go into great detail, but paint a thumbnail picture of the place.

The word "bar" is used twice in one line. Then it's used again a few lines later. Don't repeat words!

How do we know Joe remembers something from years ago? We don’t. If we can’t see it or hear it, then it doesn’t belong in the script. (Well, 99% of the time, anyway.) If you’ve set up in an earlier scene that Joe has a history at this bar, then you can have him look around the place and smile. If you set it up right, we’ll connect this to his past history there.

You don’t necessarily need to get overly specific with character’s movements. We don’t care if he turns to the left or the right. Just tell us “he turns" or "he glances over."

I love it when writers tell us the specific age of an insignificant character. At this point, we don’t really know if Sheila is important to the plot, but let’s say she’s not. We don’t care if she’s “about 52.” (Why “about 52?” Either she’s 52 or she’s not!) Just tell us she’s “early-50s” or just tell us she’s “middle-aged.” Also, do we meet Sheila later in the story? If not, we don’t care what her name is. You can just refer to her as the "middle-aged lush (a more descriptive word than "alcoholic") seated at the bar.” Sure, you could tell us she's got red hair, but it's not really pertinent. Let the director, casting director and wardrobe people come up with a look for Sheila.

Why is Joe wandering around the bar? Why are we wasting time with this? Is he doing anything? Is he looking for something or at something? If so, tell us what he’s doing. If not, then keep things moving and get him seated at the table.

Why is Joe waving his arms at the Waitress? This is something so many novice writers do. They describe an action incorrectly or they exaggerate the action to comic proportions. Joe’s not waving his arms; he’s simply motioning to the waitress, or he catches her attention.

Now, is the age and appearance of the Waitress of importance? Well, maybe it is and maybe it isn’t. Again, don’t get bogged down in your descriptions of insignificant characters. With the above example, you could simply write, “Catches the attention of the cute, 20-ish WAITRESS.” We don't care if her hair is blonde, brunette, short or long (again, unless it's pertinent).

Is it necessary Joe order a “light” beer? If not, cut it. Besides, it makes him seem wimpy. Is he a wimp? Then OK, light beer is fine. But if you’re making a point of it and it’s not part of the character or plot, get rid of it.

Now let’s look at the dialogue...

We know the Waitress is speaking to Joe, so there’s no need for the parenthetical. We know where Joe is and Joe knows where he is, so we don’t need the Waitress wasting time with “Welcome to Joe’s Bar.” In reality, what waitress is gonna say that? “What can I get for you?” is awkward dialogue. “What’ll it be?” or “What can I get ya?” would be more realistic. Write the way people actually talk.

Why does Joe ask for information at this point? There's probably no need to waste time with this additional dialogue. Joe can simply ask for the info when she returns with the beer a moment later.

Should you cap the word “what”? Nope, no need to.

Back to the stage directions/actions...

No need to tell us the “Waitress walks away to get the beer.” Too wordy, too awkward. We know where she’s going. Just tell us “She moves off.”

Why are you capping "SITS"? Stop that.
Why are you capping "UNUSUAL PEOPLE"? Stop that.

We know he's sitting at the table, so there's no need to remind us.

Do we actually watch Joe sit there for “a few minutes”? If Joe looks around the room and observes the odd people surrounding him, that’s fine, but we’re not gonna take three or four minutes to watch him do it. Describe in real time, folks.

OK, so here’s a quickie rewrite of the above scene:

INT. BAR – NIGHT

Dark, seedy, a pit of society. Joe comes in, takes a look around. A thin smile comes to his face.

SUPERIMPOSE: MONDAY NIGHT

He moves to a table, takes a seat. He motions to a passing WAITRESS, a leggy cutie in a mini-skirt. She steps over, flashes perfect teeth.

WAITRESS: Howdy. What can I get ya?
JOE: Beer.
WAITRESS: Comin' up.

She moves off. Joe scans the place. There’s a middle-aged lush at the bar, talking to herself. At another table, a creepy guy nurses a drink. Joe seems amused by it all.

The Waitress returns with the beer, sets it down.

WAITRESS: Anything else?

Joe slaps a fifty on the table.

JOE: Need some information.

She eyes the cash.

WAITRESS: This about Larry?
JOE: Yeah.

She swipes up the fifty.

WAITRESS: Not here. I get off in fifteen minutes.

OK, so there you have a one page example. Just extrapolate these handful of problems over the subsequent 100 pages and you’ve got a script that needs plenty of work. Scripts that need plenty of work generally don’t make it past the gatekeepers. So yes, have a really hot story idea, be concerned with format, but get those 15,000 words laid out in a manner that makes your screenplay a swift, entertaining read. That's half your battle. Maybe more.

* * *
APRIL 2015 ANNOUNCEMENT: My debut novel, Luigi's Chinese Delicatessen, is now available in paperback from Amazon.con and Kindle e-book! You're gonna love it cuz it's all about Hollywood and screenwriting!

EXPO NEWS!

To those of you attending the Screenwriting Expo next week...

The fine folks at the Writers Store have asked me to stop by their booth during the Expo and sign some copies of my book, Q and A: The Working Screenwriter: An In-the-Trenches Perspective of Writing Movies in Today's Film Industry. I’ll try to be there on Friday, but more than likely I’ll be there on Saturday (late morning). So I hope you’ll stop by. If I’m there, pick up a copy of my book and say hello. If I’m not there, pick up a book anyway!

Making the cut...

Last night, sitting alone in a producer’s screening room, I watched yet another cut of my horror flick House at the End of the Drive. There have been three previous cuts. The first was the Director’s Cut. After a big screening at the DGA, we realized this cut wasn’t quite on target. So we tweaked a couple of scenes and shot a couple days of additional footage.

Several months (and a significant amount of money) later and we had the Producer’s Cut. Luckily, I was able to work my way into the editing room on that one, making a few suggestions here and there. Happily, several of these suggestions were incorporated. Then we had another big screening. The audience seemed to respond quite favorably. Sure, there were still things I thought should be reworked or tweaked, but we had a pretty solid product on our hands.

Then the producer decided to put the movie into the hands of some people who he thought could make some changes that would make the movie more attractive to distribution companies. In the film business, this is what we refer to as A BIG MISTAKE.

Several weeks ago, I watched a partially completed version of what I refer to as the Piece of Sh*t Cut. I was so upset as I watched it, I fought hard to sit still and not climb a wall. Luckily, the producer was almost as livid as I was. These goofballs apparently had no idea what a movie was. They somehow managed to turn a decent little horror flick into a major piece of trash. I won’t go into detail about what they did cuz it’ll just raise my blood pressure, but lemme tell ya, it was baaaaaad.

Happily, in recent weeks, the producer has been able to restore the movie to pretty much the same shape as it was during its Producer’s Cut phase. There are also a few nice additions that I really liked. There are still some moments that make me wince, but I’m hoping they’ll be fixed – or completely excised from the final cut. (Sadly, one of the things cut from this version happens to by my police officer cameo at the start of the movie. Such is life, eh?)

Look, this is a B-movie. I don’t expect it to win any awards or rack up huge grosses, but it's a fun little ghost story. It’s entertaining. Or it will be. At least I think so. I’ll keep you posted.

Ladies and Gentlemen...The Shins!

The other night – the night of the near miss with Ivan Reitman – my buddy and I went to a very plush bar at a very plush hotel on the edge of Bev Hills. (FYI: I don’t drink, but my buddy does. So I just watch him drink while I down diet soda and/or cranberry juice. Don’t want you thinkin’ I’m a lush.) Anyway, we’re sitting there having a nice chat...and the guy sitting next to us joins the conversation. Turns out he’s from New York City. Just so happens I’m (originally) from New York City, so we talk about what a great city it is. He’s buying us drinks and we’re buying him drinks. He eventually tells us he’s the manager for a band called The Shins. I’ve never heard of The Shins. Hey, I barely know who Avril Levigne is, so no big deal. Anyway, one thing leads to another and our new pal invites us to see The Shins play Sunday night at The Greek Theater.

I need to point out that I don’t go to concerts. I’ve seen very, very few in my lifetime. Let’s see, I saw ELO back in 1981...I saw Burt Bacharach and Dionne Warwick several times in the 90s...I saw Eric Clapton back in about 1993 (cuz my friends had extra tickets and I went along for the ride)...I saw the Monty Python troupe at the Hollywood Bowl back in 1982...and I’ve seen maybe two or three other live stage performances...and t-t-t-that’s all, folks. So yeah, not a big concert-goer. But hey, our pal from NYC is a nice enough guy, and my buddy loves live music...so sure, I’d love to go!

So last night we went. Let me tell ya, the Greek Theater is a lovely venue. It’s outdoors and nestled in the Hollywood Hills. (Last time I was there was in the mid-70s. I saw Carol Channing in some live comedy show. Whatever.) When we picked up our tickets from the will-call window, we were pleasantly surprised that our NYC pal also left us passes for the hospitality area. Nice. Lots of arty types. I overheard a guy ask a young gal: "So, what do you do?" The young gal responded with: "I’m a writer." (When people ask me what I do, I tell ‘em, "I clean toilets at the airport." They tend to leave me alone after that.) After a bit of time hangin’ in the hospitality area, my buddy and I took our seats. We we’re just a handful of rows from the main stage. I was feeling a little too old to be in this particular crowd of 20- and 30-year-olds, but I felt a lot better when I spotted a 70-year-old guy sitting a few seats behind me.

Anyway, the boys from The Shins eventually came onstage and played their first number. I’ll admit, I liked what I heard. Keep in mind, I don’t like about 98% of what I hear these days. But I liked the persona this group had. They seemed fun, good-natured, professional; they didn’t seem like they were trying to act cool. They merely played their music...and they did it well. My buddy and I wanted to beat the mad rush out of The Greek Theater, so we left after about an hour. While The Shins don’t play music I’d rush out to buy, I will give them a thumbs up. I wish them much success.

So, what was the point of this little story? Um, actually, there was no real point. Not really. But I guess it kinda backs up what I always tell people: If you’re a screenwriter, you can’t hole yourself up in your room day and night. You need to get out in the world and meet people – shmooze a little – cuz the next guy you meet might be a hot-shot Hollywood director or the manager of a big-time pop band...and those are two business cards it can’t hurt to have in your Rolodex.

Of course, this "getting out into the world" thing really only works if you live in Los Angeles. If you live elsewhere – for instance, Ames, Iowa – then you're pretty much up a creek without a paddle. Sorry.

Visit me at http://www.theworkingscreenwriter.com/ -- a site for the pre-pro screenwriter!

Script length: the debate rages on...

Budding writers continually ask, "What if my feature script is only 70 pages?" Um, 70 pages, for a feature screenplay? Nope, sorry, too thin. If you adhere to the minute-per-page rule (which isn’t all that accurate), then you’re gonna have a movie that’s an hour and ten minutes long. Not even Woody Allen cuts ‘em that short! Besides, if you send a 70-page script to an agent or producer, they’ll label you as a rank amateur. When you’re trying to get a career off the ground, that’s the last thing you want. An intriguing, well-told story (for a feature-length screenplay) typically has peaks and valleys and twists and turns. It’s difficult including those things in a swiftly told story. So if thin scripts are your thing, go ahead and write short films. Nothing wrong with that. Just don’t pass ‘em off as features.

So why is your script so short?

Flip through the script. How’s your action to dialogue ratio? Is it a little heavy in the ol’ chit-chat department? I find that many budding scribes rely too heavily on dialogue to tell their story. Not too long ago, I did a critique on a horror screenplay that was 98 pages – and 95% of it was dialogue! Screenplays are not about dialogue, dialogue, dialogue. Screenplays are about actions. They are about people doing things. Things are happening. This is why we call them motion pictures. If the writer of that 98-page script had bothered to include sufficient directions/actions, he would’ve ended up with 130-pages...and that’s waaaaaay too long for a typical horror script.

So no, 70 pages ain’t gonna cut it for a feature. You’ll have to bring up that page count at least another 15-20 pages.

In a previous blog (3/26/07), I offered page counts suggestions for various genres. I also discussed the one page = one minute of screen time "rule." If you haven’t read that particular entry, I suggest you do so.

Only in Hollywood...

Last night I’m with my buddy at this sushi restaurant in Beverly Hills. (I should point out that I am not a fan of raw fish. One or two pieces and that's pretty much it for me. But whatever.) So, we were sitting at the sushi bar, gabbing about all the usual stuff: movies, screenwriting, travel, the drop-dead gorgeous hostess who seated us. Then, just as we’re about to get up and leave, producer-director Ivan Reitman comes in and sits down right next to us. Sure, you know Ivan Reitman, the guy behind such films as Ghostbusters, Animal House, Stripes, and Dave. Now, what makes this story kinda sorta funny is this: mere minutes earlier, my buddy and I had been discussing the script for Distrubia, a nifty little thriller that came out earlier this year. Mr. Reitman just happened to be the executive producer on that film. Great, the executive producer of Disturbia (not to mention a few dozen other movies) sits down next to us...and we’re just about to walk out the door! Ohhhh, if only my friend had just one more glass of sake!

My book, Q and A: The Working Screenwriter -- An In-the-Trenches Perspective of Writing Movies in Today's Film Industry, is available at Amazon.com!!