Tuesday, June 15, 2010

One Way to Write a Screenplay

For the unfamiliar, a "reveal" in screenwriting parlance is the placement of key, revelatory information in a story. Most times, the last reveal is the most important revelation of all.

Seems like every screenwriting blogger has, at one time or another, done a post on “How I Write a Script.” I find them interesting reading, if for no other reason than that they are always so different from my way. In some cases, remarkably so.
It might be interesting, as another entry in the conversation, to offer mine. But it takes a little preamble:
I started writing screenplays when I was on a crew for a friend’s film, and became intrigued with his script. It was an adaptation of a classic Nineteenth Century novel, and I thought it approached the adaptation process wrongly. He wanted to stay faithful to the source, so he basically just typed the novel in a modified stage-play format with shots indicated at the top of each scene, completely out-of-sync with the dialogue underneath. This was before the web allowed us to see actual scripts, and even before Syd Field opened up the screenwriting genre in publishing. We had no idea how scripts were formatted. But I thought they had to be smoother reads than what my friend had done.
Through some trips to Hollywood (and visits to Hollywood Book and Poster) I managed to get my hands on some real scripts, and finally saw for myself the correct format. I was off and writing. The format has changed some over the years, but not by much. The guiding principle is to avoid all tech-speak, make it a fast read (short dialogue speeches and action descriptions; lots of white space), open much stronger than movies used to open, and pay off big by the end.
Then, along came Syd. I read his book as soon as it came out, and, no matter what anyone says, he de-mystified the craft. A LOT of people--especially academics and gurus who have an interest in keeping the craft mystifying--have ripped Field with charges of teaching formula, and stifling creative freedoms. What he showed with examples in those first books is pretty accurate. It’s just not the whole story. Nor need it be. But a light went on for me when I read Field’s first book, and I suddenly understood story construction, or at least one proven approach. That got me to my method.
I had this idea to write a road comedy. It was inspired by (some would say derived from) the late Colin Higgins’s films, Silver Streak and Foul Play along with earlier stuff by Hitchcock, Stanley Donen, and the writer, Peter Stone.
I had met Higgins at a screenwriting conference at Sherwood Oaks Experimental College (long gone), and remembered him describing a project he was working on that he called The Man Who Lost Tuesday, about a guy who is going along just fine in L.A. on Monday, but then suddenly finds himself in Paris on Wednesday with a whole bunch of baddies after him. His description just fired me up with doing a film like that and others such as North By Northwest, Mirage (a little-shown classic), and Charade.
Taking a cue from Hitchcock, I titled my project, The MacGuffin. I knew I was flirting with the D-word (derivative), but I was determined to write enough fresh turns on older tropes that it would accomplish giving them what they want in Hollywood: the same thing only different.
I liked the combination of the light romantic comedy with the mystery or spy story. As a kid I had loved the television series, Rocky and Bullwinkle, particularly the Cold War humor and the characters of Boris and Natasha. I also loved the southwest, and all those movies John Ford made in Monument Valley. I’ve visited it several times.
The title was a reference to the story Hitchcock told many times about the device that drives many of his films. He called it the “MacGuffin,” and defined it as the thing in the story that everybody was after: the microfilm, the missing Crown Jewels, the secret plans, etc. So I designed a silly little story in which my spies (ex-Soviets without a state looking for a way to regain sponsorship from the new Russia) had roots in Boris and Natasha. There was a spy story at the heart, the movie industry itself figured in, there was a cross-country chase, and it all ended in some hot air balloons over Monument Valley.
The story was set up so that the Russians knew what the MacGuffin was, but not where. And the young couple knew where it was, but not what it was. Then it became merely a problem of finding a way into the storyline so the chase could begin, creating sufficient interest for a story-long pursuit, and bringing it all to a climax with a visually stunning and thoroughly exciting ending.
I chose to do this by forcing my characters to have to keep changing “horses” throughout the chase. This was not unlike the way Gene Wilder keeps getting thrown off the train in Silver Streak, and it opened up all sorts of visual, action-packed, and comedic possibilities. So the method I used was to merely list all the ways one might travel, and to-where, from the normal to the bizarre. When I had a diverse-enough list, I simply sat down and designed connective bridges from one to the next, creating set pieces or sequences commonly called, as we’ve described elsewhere, “whammos,” by Syd Field and others, essentially sequences of scenes built around successive mini, three-act movies within the larger story.
My Russians consisted of four agents in total: Mushkin (the Boris character), Valnya (the Natasha character), a small and sadistic fellow named Alexi (modeled after Artie Johnson’s nazi from Laugh-In crossed with Roman Polanski as the knife wielder in Chinatown, now with a Russian accent), and Khan, a giant Mongol modeled after Lurch in The Addams Family.
Once I had ideas for my scene sequences, I drew a diagram. I wanted to see my movie on one piece of paper. This was very important for me at the time, just starting out, because I wanted to see that I had a whole narrative. I think it was Churchill who said, “Never jump a chasm in two leaps.” I wanted to see that I had a single leap from start to finish.
But listing the sequences wasn’t enough. I wanted to convey the progression of the narrative, and indicate the turning points or act breaks. So I drew a horizontal line at the top left, going right to about half-way across the page. This would be Act 1. From the line, I dropped vertical lines, an inch or 2 long, each, which would, between them contain the sequences. I had 4 or 5 for Act 1. Then, below them, I drew another horizontal line across the page starting about 2 inches in from the left, and ending about 3 inches in from the right. This would be Act 2. I dropped several more (8-10) vertical lines as in Act 1. These would be the middle act sequences. After that I drew a third line below it starting about 4 inches from the left and going to about 1 inch from the right, and dropped lines for 4 or 5 more sequences. Then, writing as small as I could, I described each sequence as briefly as possible. Allowing for my keyboard (adjust the sequence count accordingly), it looked something like this:

|ACT 1---------------------------à
|       |XXXXXX |       |XXXXXX |
|       |XXXXXX |       |XXXXXX |
     /ACT 2-------------------------------------------à
     |       |XXXXXX |       |XXXXXX |XXXXXX |XXXXXX |
     |       |       |       |XXXXXX |       |XXXXXX |
                          /ACT 3---------------------------à|
                          |XXXXXX |XXXXXX |XXXXXX |XXXXXX |
                          |XXXXXX |XXXXXX |XXXXXX |XXXXXX |
                          |XXXXXX |XXXXXX |XXXXXX |XXXXXX |
                          |       |XXXXXX |XXXXXX |XXXXXX |
                          |       |XXXXXX |       |XXXXXX |
                          |       |       |       |XXXXXX | 

I wanted to know that I had “a movie.” This diagram gave me the confidence to plunge into the actual writing. It made all the difference. It was like a roadmap. And it was fascinating to see by the time I typed FADE OUT (on page 118) how faithful I was to the diagram, even though I invented all sorts of new stuff for the story as I went along. My diagram kept me on track, and everything I created after that was conditioned by my knowledge that it had to hit the major points along the way.
For me, it’s not about “how many pages you write each day.” Nor is it about placing “butt in chair.” It’s about feeling good about your story. It’s about knowing you’ve got something that can go a hundred pages or more. Until I know that, I don’t write anything other than little notes. Once I do, I can’t stay away from the keyboard. I’ve written a complete 105 page script, from start to finish, in only three sessions, from Friday night to Sunday night. How? By knowing just enough about where I was going, yet not enough to know where I’ll have gone. By knowing the map, but wanting to see the country.
I used my diagram method two or three times more before I finally was able to put the approach aside as unnecessary. Today I have a different method that works just as well. But I’ll always look back with nostalgia at the diagram that got me started, and showed me I really did have a story, after all. For me, the whole thing was an exercise to teach myself how to write a movie narrative from scratch.
I got a referral to an agent at the Swanson agency on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. They were Raymond Chandler’s agents, William Faulkner’s agency, and they rep’d most of the other greats of the golden era in Hollywood. So, I figured, it couldn’t get any better than that. But it didn’t work out so well. The agent had just come from an Academy screening of a major contender that year, a drama, with a stand-out role that won the lead actress an Oscar a month or so later. He handed me my script and said it wasn’t for him, and that, instead, I should write something like (the actress’s movie). I thanked him for his time and crawled out.
Later, I wondered if the people who wrote Animal House, Used Cars, Ghostbusters, or one of the National Lampoon movies—all cleaning up at the box-office in those years—ever had their scripts handed back to them while being told to write Out of Africa, Steel Magnolias, Beaches, Norma Rae, or Places in the Heart. Then I remembered Preston Sturges’s Sullivan’s Travels. Making people laugh is a noble pursuit. And this is true even after one hob-nobs with members of the Academy at a screening of one of those serious movies they like to think puts them up there with Shakespeare, Eugene O’Neill, and Tennessee Williams. As for me, I went back home and wrote another script.#
Addendum to this post: Carson at ScriptShadow just posted an article on the 5 1/2 Scripts You Don't Want to Write. So, after reading it, is my script above, The MacGuffin, one of them? While it sounds like it, it was a core intent throughout conception and drafts to make it fresh and unique while still working within the homage arena--"the same only different," in other words. I still think I did this, over 20 years after the fact.  

Lee A. Matthias

Quote of the Post:

I wanted to see my movie on one sheet of paper.
---Lee Matthias

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