Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Ben Ripley: Writing And Sacrifice

Source Code (Directed by Duncan Jones)

Ben Ripley wrote the script for the sci-fi thriller Source Code while doing studio re-writes on horror movies. His initial pitches to studio executives left them baffled by the complex storyline. Eventually he had to put it on the page to make his case. In a recent interview with Scriptshadow, Ben Ripley discussed his writing process:

Once I have an idea that I think works, my first step is to take pages and pages of notes, whatever comes into my head. Research is important. You need to steep yourself in whatever subculture you’re writing about, enough so that you develop a confidence to invent within it. Next I try to come up with some compelling central characters. This is always the hardest part for me to get right, but it’s a critical one. If your characters aren’t distinct, comprehensible and somewhat relatable, you’ll never hear the end of it from your readers. And it’s really about the hard work of understanding who these characters are and what makes them interesting.

‘I’m not much attracted to Everyman characters. I’m more intrigued with mysterious, unusual or even extraordinary characters. If you look at Stanley Kubrick’s films, most of his characters are compelling for who they are. They’re not ordinary people who depend on a movie situation to come alive in. The outline comes next, but I don’t get overly detailed with it. I like to leave some open spaces for discovery. Only when you get in there writing scenes, writing description and dialogue, will the best things about your script occur to you.

‘That said, I absolutely know what my three acts and midpoint are, even if they sometimes shift around during the writing. The more I write, the fewer pages per day I turn out. I wish I wrote faster, but I tend to consider pretty carefully each moment. I take my time with the language until it feels right. I never gloss over stuff. After that, I always go back and find material to remove. You can always say things with greater efficiency, always trim and tighten action. You look at any good film and you realize just how economical and propulsive the scenes are, especially in the first act as they work to set up the world. You can never get too good at that skill.

‘A midpoint is a plot turn that happens in the middle of a movie. The midpoint in Jaws is when Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw and Richard Dreyfuss pile into the fishing boat and head out to the open ocean to hunt the shark. The midpoint of the original Star Wars is when the Millenium Falcon reaches the Death Star in order to rescue the princess. It’s the point to which the action of the first half of the story is ending and, as a result, sends the second half of the story in a new – or at least more focused – direction. A good midpoint turn will differentiate the action between the first and second half of the movie and keep things from seeming monotonous. The post-midpoint portion of the second act (pages 60-90) is often where you get much closer to the story’s real themes and you’re not as much focused on straightforward action.

‘The reason I’m a screenwriter today is that I believed in my talent and made the sustained sacrifices to become one. I eschewed other career paths. I worked day jobs to support myself. I wrote on weekends when maybe I would have had more fun at the beach. I started and finished scripts and then started new ones that were better. I kept at it. There are no shortcuts. The dues-paying process can be bewildering and lonely, but its job is to separate out the professionals from the merely curious, and when it’s over, you’re oddly thankful for having asked a lot of yourself…

‘I remember being so impatient for my difficult, outsiders life to stop and for my ’real’ life as a working writer to start. It’s easy for professional writers to be benignly nostalgic about their early days coming up, forgetting that those days often felt tedious, frustrating and unsustainable. But your life shouldn’t depend on getting an agent within the next month. If it does, there’s something wrong.

‘You should never let your life get to the point where you look at screenwriting as a lottery ticket that’s going to save you. What saves you is your belief in yourself and your commitment to getting better at your craft, regardless of when that craft is rewarded. And a decent script probably won’t get you an agent. If you’re still at the point where you’re writing “decent” scripts – as opposed to great scripts – you’re not ready for an agent. But the magic of Hollywood is that the appetite for great scripts far exceeds the supply of great scripts. So when and if you finally write that great script, word will get out. People will ask you to read it, not the other way around. Stay optimistic. Stay focused. Write well and the agents – and the success – will come.’

- Ben Ripley

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

A Letter from David Mamet II

Homicide (Directed by David Mamet)

This is the second part of writer and director David Mamet’s letter to the writing staff of CBS’s The Unit in which he discusses the task of the dramatist: 

How does one strike the balance between withholding and vouchsafing information? That is the essential task of the dramatist. And the ability to do that is what separates you from the lesser species in their blue suits.

Figure it out.

Start, every time, with this inviolable rule: the scene must be dramatic. It must start because the hero has a problem, and it must culminate with the hero finding him or herself either thwarted or educated that another way exists.

Look at your log lines. Any logline reading “Bob and Sue discuss…” is not describing a dramatic scene.

Please note that our outlines are, generally, spectacular. The drama flows out between the outline and the first draft.

Think like a filmmaker rather than a functionary, because, in truth, you are making the film. What you write, they will shoot.

Here are the danger signals. Any time two characters are talking about a third, the scene is a crock of shit.

Any time any character is saying to another “as you know”, that is, telling another character what you, the writer, need the audience to know, the scene is a crock of shit.

Do not write a crock of shit. Write a ripping three, four, seven minute scene which moves the story along, and you can, very soon, buy a house in Bel Air and hire someone to live there for you.

Remember you are writing for a visual medium. Most television writing, ours included, sounds like radio. The camera can do the explaining for you. Let it. What are the characters doing - *literally*. What are they handling, what are they reading. What are they watching on television, what are they seeing.

If you pretend the characters can't speak, and write a silent movie, you will be writing great drama.

If you deprive yourself of the crutch of narration, exposition, indeed, of speech. You will be forged to work in a new medium – telling the story in pictures (also known as screenwriting)

This is a new skill. No one does it naturally. You can train yourselves to do it, but you need to start.

I close with the one thought: look at the scene and ask yourself “Is it dramatic? Is it essential? Does it advance the plot?

Answer truthfully.

If the answer is “No” write it again or throw it out. If you’ve got any questions, call me up.

Love, Dave Mamet

Santa Monica 19 Oct 05

(It is not your responsibility to know the answers, but it is your, and my, responsibility to know and to ask the right questions over and over. Until it becomes second nature. I believe they are listed above.)

Monday, 19 December 2011

A Letter From David Mamet I

This is a letter that playwright, director and screenwriter David Mamet addressed to the writing staff of the CBS show The Unit, in which he lays out his guiding principles for compelling screenwriting. Mamet also takes time to criticise TV executives, who he refers to as ’penguins’. Overall, it offers some penetrating insights into what makes good writing and storytelling.

To the Writers of The Unit


As we learn how to write this show, a recurring problem becomes clear.

The problem is this: to differentiate between drama and non-drama. Let me break-it-down-now.

Everyone in creation is screaming at us to make the show clear. We are tasked with, it seems, cramming a shitload of information into a little bit of time.

Our friends. The penguins, think that we, therefore, are employed to communicate information — and, so, at times, it seems to us.

But note: the audience will not tune in to watch information. You wouldn’t, I wouldn’t. No one would or will. The audience will only tune in and stay tuned to watch drama.

Question: what is drama? Drama, again, is the quest of the hero to overcome those things which prevent him from achieving a specific, acute goal.

So: we, the writers, must ask ourselves of every scene these three questions.

1) Who wants what?
2) What happens if her don’t get it?
3) Why now?

The answers to these questions are litmus paper. Apply them, and their answer will tell you if the scene is dramatic or not.

If the scene is not dramatically written, it will not be dramatically acted.

There is no magic fairy dust which will make a boring, useless, redundant, or merely informative scene after it leaves your typewriter. You the writers, are in charge of making sure every scene is dramatic.

This means all the “little” expositional scenes of two people talking about a third. This bushwah (and we all tend to write it on the first draft) is less than useless, should it finally, god forbid, get filmed.

If the scene bores you when you read it, rest assured it will bore the actors, and will, then, bore the audience, and we’re all going to be back in the breadline.

Someone has to make the scene dramatic. It is not the actors job (the actors job is to be truthful). It is not the directors job. His or her job is to film it straightforwardly and remind the actors to talk fast. It is your job.

Every scene must be dramatic. That means: the main character must have a simple, straightforward, pressing need which impels him or her to show up in the scene.

This need is why they came. It is what the scene is about. Their attempt to get this need met will lead, at the end of the scene, to failure – this is how the scene is over. It, this failure, will, then, of necessity, propel us into the next scene.

All these attempts, taken together, will, over the course of the episode, constitute the plot.

Any scene, thus, which does not both advance the plot, and standalone (that is, dramatically, by itself, on its own merits) is either superfluous, or incorrectly written.

Yes but yes but yes but, you say: what about the necessity of writing in all that “information?”

And i respond “*figure it out*” any dickhead with a bluesuit can be (and is) taught to say “make it clearer”, and “I want to know more about him”.

When you’ve made it so clear that even this blue-suited penguin is happy, both you and he or she will be out of a job.

The job of the dramatist is to make the audience wonder what happens next. Not to explain to them what just happened, or to*suggest* to them what happens next.

Any dickhead, as above, can write, “But, Jim, if we don’t assassinate the Prime Minister in the next scene, all Europe will be engulfed in flame”.

We are not getting paid to realize that the audience needs this information to understand the next scene, but to figure out how to write the scene before us such that the audience will be interested in what happens next.

Yes but, yes but yes but you reiterate.

And I respond figure it out.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Paul Schrader: Notes On Taxi Driver

Taxi Driver (Directed by Martin Scorsese)
Paul Schrader was 26 and destitute when he wrote Taxi Driver. In a discussion published in Martin Scorsese - A Journey he reflects on the origins of the script, its transition to the screen and subsequent reaction to the film.

The script of Taxi Driver is the genuine thing. It came from the gut, and while it banged around town everyone who read it realized it was authentic, the real item. After a number of years enough people said somebody should make it so that finally someone did.

In 1973 I had been through a particularly rough time, living more or less in my car in Los Angeles. riding around all night, drinking heavily, going to porno movies because they were open all night, and crashing some place during the day. Then, finally, I went to the emergency room in serious pain, and it turned out I had an ulcer. While I was in the hospital, talking to the nurse, I realized I hadn’t spoken to anyone in two or three weeks. It really hit me, an image that I was like a taxi driver, floating around in this metal coffin in the city, seemingly in the middle of people, but absolutely, totally alone.

The taxicab was a metaphor for loneliness, and once I had that, it was just a matter of creating a plot: the girl he wants but can’t have, and the one he can have but doesn’t want. He tries to kill the surrogate father of the first and fails, so he kills the surrogate father of the other. I think it took ten days, it may have been twelve – I just wrote continuously. I was staying at an old girlfriend’s house, where the heat and gas were all turned off, and I just wrote. When I stopped, I slept on the couch, then I woke up and I went back to typing. As you get older it takes more work. Hovering in the back of my mind is a fondness for those days when it was so painful it just had to come out.

I didn’t really write it the way people write scripts today – you know, with a market in mind. I wrote it because it was something that I wanted to write and it was the first thing I wrote. It jumped out of my head.

Taxi Driver (Directed by Martin Scorsese)
Right after writing it, I left town for about six months. I came back to Los Angeles after I was feeling a little stronger emotionally and decided to go at it again. I was a freelance critic at the time. I had written a review of Sisters and interviewed Brian De Palma at his place at the beach. That afternoon, we were playing chess – we were about evenly matched – and somehow the fact that I had written a script came up. So I gave it to him and he liked it a lot and wanted to do it. De Palma showed the script to the producers, Michael and Julia Phillips, who were three houses down the beach, and he showed it to Marty, who was in town after finishing Mean Streets. Michael and Julia told me they wanted to do it but that Marty was a better director for it. So Julia and I went and saw a rough cut of Mean Streets, and I agreed. In fact, I thought Marty and Bob De Niro would be the ideal combination, so we aligned ourselves – De Niro, the Phillipses and myself – but we were not powerful enough to get the film made. Then there was a hiatus of a couple of years, and in the intervening time, each of us had successes of our own. I sold my first script, The Yakuza, for a lot of money. Marty did Alice the Phillipses did The Sting, and De Niro did The Godfather; Part II.

At the time I remember describing Taxi Driver’s Travis as sort of a young man who wandered from the snowy waste of the Midwest into an over-heated New York cathedral. My own background was anti-Catholic in the style of the Reformation and the Glorious Revolution. The town I was raised in was about one-third Dutch Calvinist and one-third Catholic, and the other third were trying to figure out why they were there, and sort of keeping peace. Well, both cultures, Catholic and Calvinist, are infused with the sense of guilt, redemption by blood, and moral purpose – all acts are moral acts, all acts have consequence. It’s impossible to act amorally. There’s a kind of divine eye in the sky that ensures your acts are morally judged. So you know once you’re raised in that kind of environment, you don’t shake that, you shake a lot of things, but the sense of moral responsibility, guilt, and redemption you carry with you forever. So Scorsese and I shared that. I came from essentially a rural, Midwestern Protestant and Dutch background, and he is urban and Italian Catholic, so in a way it’s a very felicitous joining. The bedrock is the same.

Taxi Driver was as much a product of luck and timing as everything else – three sensibilities together at the right time, doing the right thing. It was still a low-budget, long-shot movie, but that’s how it got made. At one point, we could have financed the film with Jeff Bridges, but we elected to hold out and wait until we could finance it with De Niro. It was just a matter of luck and timing. Marty was fully ready to make the film; De Niro was ready to make it. And the nation was ready to see it. You can’t plan or scheme for that kind of luck. It just sort of happens – the right film at the right time...

Taxi Driver (Directed by Martin Scorsese)
Bob was so determined to get the character of Travis down, he drove a cab for a couple of weeks. He got a licence, had his fingerprints taken by the police and hit the streets.

The dialogue in Taxi Driver is somewhat improvised. The most memorable piece of dialogue in the film is an improvisation: the “Are you talking to me?” part. In the script it just says Travis speaks to himself in the mirror. Bobby asked me what he would say, and I said, ‘Well, he’s a little kid playing with guns and acting tough.’ So De Niro used this rap that an underground New York comedian had been using at the same time as the basis for his lines.

I remember the night before Taxi Driver opened, we all got together and had dinner and said, ‘No matter what happens tomorrow we have made a terrific movie and we’re damn proud of it even if it goes down the toilet.’ The next day, I went over to the cinema for the noon show. There was a long line that went all the way around the block. And then I realised, this line was for the two o’clock show, not the noon show! I ran in and watched the film and everyone was standing at the back and there was a sense of exhilaration about what we had done.

Jean-Luc Godard once said that all the great movies are successful for the wrong reasons. There were a lot of wrong reasons why Taxi Driver was successful. The sheer violence of it brought out the Times Square crowd.

I’m not opposed to censorship in principle but I think that if you censor a film like Taxi Driver all you do is censor a film, not confront a problem. These characters are running around and can be triggered off by anything.

When I talk to younger filmmakers they tell me that it was really the film that informed them, that it was their seminal film, and listening to them talk, I really can see it as a kind of social watermark. But it was meant as a personal film, not a political commentary.

– Paul Schrader in Martin Scorsese - A Journey by Mary Pat Kelly. Pages 87-98.


Thursday, 8 December 2011

John Cassavetes: Daring To Fail

Husbands (Directed by John Cassavetes)

Most people don't know what they want or feel. And for everyone, myself included, it's very difficult to say what you mean when what you mean is painful. The most difficult thing in the world is to reveal yourself, to express what you have to. As an artist, I feel that we must try many things – but above all, we must dare to fail. You must be willing to risk everything to really express it all.

- John Cassavetes

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Billy Wilder: Writing Pictures

Sunset Boulevard (Directed by Billy Wilder)

Billy Wilder on novelists in Hollywood and the craft of screenwriting:

Interviewer: Why have so many novelists and playwrights from the East, people like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Dorothy Parker, had such a terrible time out here [in Hollywood]?

Billy Wilder: Well, because they were hired for very big amounts of money. I remember those days in New York when one writer would say to the other, I'm broke. I'm going to go to Hollywood and steal another fifty thousand. Moreover, they didn't know what movie writing entailed. You have to know the rules before you break them, and they simply didn't school themselves. I'm not just talking about essayists or newspapermen; it was even the novelists. None of them took it seriously, and when they would be confronted by their superior, the producer or the director, who had a louder voice and the weight of the studio behind them, they were not particularly interested in taking advice. Their idea was, Well, crap, everybody in America has got a screenplay inside them--the policeman around the corner here, the waiter in Denver. Everybody. And his sister! I've seen ten movies. Now, if they would only let me do it my way . . . But it's not that easy. To begin to make even a mediocre film you have to learn the rules. You have to know about timing, about creating characters, a little about camera position, just enough to know if what you're suggesting is possible. They pooh-poohed it.

I remember Fitzgerald when he was working at Paramount and I was there working with Brackett. Brackett, who was from the East, had written novels and plays, and had been at Paramount for years. Brackett and I used to take breaks and go to the little coffee joint across the street from the studio. Oblaths! we used to say. The only place in the world you can get a greasy Tom Collins. Whenever we saw Scott Fitzgerald there, we'd talk with him, but he never once asked us anything about writing screenplays.

Pictures are something like plays. They share an architecture and a spirit. A good picture writer is a kind of poet, but a poet who plans his structure like a craftsman and is able to tell what's wrong with the third act. What a veteran screenwriter produces might not be good, but it would be technically correct; if he has a problem in the third act he certainly knows to look for the seed of the problem in the first act. Scott just didn't seem particularly interested in any of these matters.

- Billy Wilder (from the Paris Review Interviews)