Sunday, May 10, 2015

An Interview With Screenwriter Bragi Schut, Part II

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.



ON CLEMENS, wracked by fear! He scrambles
to pull his legs through.

     Close it! Close it!

Anna and Wojchek struggle to push the
door shut. SLAM! The creature strikes it
from the other side, almost forcing it
open again.

Everyone retreats to the center of the
room. Clemens is frantically reloading
his pistol, fingers fumbling to pack
the powder, load the ball.

          CLEMENS (CONT’D)
     The ice chest! Get the
     ice chest!

Anna and Wojchek hurry to push the heavy
ICE CHEST in front of the door which
continues to BUCK violently. – Clemens fi-
nally gets the pistol loaded and waves
them back.

          CLEMENS (CONT’D)
     Look out!

Clemens FIRES both barrels through the
door. We HEAR the creature HOWL in rage.

A momentary silence -- then we HEAR a
CREAKING NOISE from the ceiling that
causes the men to wheel around and train
their weapons upwards.


We hear its heavy footfalls on the deck

     It’s looking for a way

     Quiet, woman!

Clemens and the others plaster themselves
against the walls of the cabin.

We hear it jump down from the deckhouse
ceiling and begin to circle them.


Anna has inadvertently retreated to the
rear of the cabin and backed up against
a porthole.

     Anna, get away from

Anna looks to Clemens, puzzled, but be-
fore anyone has time to react -- two
gaunt arms EXPLODE through the porthole
and enfold her.

She SCREAMS as the arms drag her half
way out the porthole. Clemens lunges
after her and grabs hold of her legs.

Wojchek snatches up the pistol and with
an expression of mounting rage, rushes
at the window, JAMS the pistol through
the gap and FIRES!

We’re rewarded with an INHUMAN SCREECHING
and Anna is abruptly released. Clemens
drags her back into the cabin where she
collapses in his arms.


We hear the sound of the creature’s foot-
falls slowly heading aft. Wojchek pans
the pistol, tracking the sound through
the walls.

Ka-THUMP! We hear it jump down to the
Mid-deck and diminish slowly.

     It’s leaving.

     ...going aft...

     I don’t understand. It
     had us trapped.

Clemens glances out the porthole.

     The sun. It fled from the


The first dim rays are visible on the

From THE LAST VOYAGE OF THE DEMETER, script by Bragi Schut
Q – So, the Nicholl script, SEASON OF THE WITCH, was eventually produced and released in 2010. Can you give us some background on that project?

A - SEASON OF THE WITCH was a bumpy ride to production. That script traveled through a number of studios before it finally got made.  It was developed over a good six-year period.  I probably have some 20 different drafts on my computer.  The draft that won the Nicholl was very different than the draft that was finally produced.  Not so much in terms of plot, but certainly in terms of tone and characterization. Although there were some significant changes to the plot as well.

The director, Dominic Sena, just had a different vision in mind for the film, so there was a lengthy development process.

The initial idea for the script came from a scene that I saw in Bergman's movie THE SEVENTH SEAL. There's a scene in which a group of knights are transporting a woman accused of witchcraft to some village where they're going to burn her. I remember watching the scene and thinking to myself that that scene could become a whole movie of its own. And what better twist could there be than finding out that this woman whom you think, initially, is a victim, is actually a witch. That reversal, that twist, was very exciting to me… So I started to play around with the idea.

Q – So, the Nicholl win happens, and as part of the Fellowship, you are expected to write a script over the next year. What was your project?

A - I actually never got the opportunity to write a script for my follow-up year.  Basically, you can't collect on the Nicholl Fellowship money if you are currently employed by studio. And in the wake of my SEASON OF THE WITCH sale, I was continually employed for the next couple years.

I remember talking to some of the other Nicholl writers, like Andrew Marlowe (AIRFORCE ONE, HOLLOW MAN, CASTLE), Ehren Kruger (THE RING, REINDEER GAMES, & the upcoming television miniseries, THE TALISMAN), and I don't believe they collected their Nicholl winnings either. So it's a good problem to have.

Q - Screenplays from 50 or 60 years ago were far different than those written today. Shots were indicated, often with camera placement and movement in extreme detail; scene action was far more detailed, and script lengths were often well above 150 pages. Since the late 1960s-early 1970s, screenplays have been getting shorter and more concise. In recent years this trend has even gone to a kind of minimalist style referred to as “haiku.” I’ve heard respected professionals refer to “100 as the new 120” for page length. Has this impacted your approach to your writing? And what do you think of the trend as far as finding writing assignments and/or getting your “spec scripts” read?

A - We know each other as screenplay collectors, so you know I'm a fan of those older scripts as well, and I've read a number of them. I refer to them frequently and I love that older format. I try to bring a touch of that to my own material. You can't take it quite as far as they used to in the old days because modern readers expect a different format, but I find it intriguing.  It's another tool we can use as writers: format. I'm writing a period piece war movie right now and I'm referring to a lot of older scripts like THE GREAT ESCAPE, THE DIRTY DOZEN, and THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI for inspiration.  In some ways, that older format lends itself to the material. But I just finished a big science fiction assignment and I would never use that format for something like that.

I think the writer has latitude to do what they want with the format. If you compare somebody like Walter Hill (ALIEN, SOUTHERN COMFORT) with someone like Frank Darabont (THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, THE WALKING DEAD), those are two hugely different styles.  And you’ve got guys like Tony Gilroy (the Jason Bourne films, NIGHTCRAWLER, STATE OF PLAY), who really mess with the format. I love reading Tony Gilroy's stuff but his format is very different.

I guess, the bottom line for me is that it still boils down to story. Story and characters. And format is just another tool we can use.

Q- At the same time that feature scripts are getting shorter, there has been a movement in television from single, stand-alone stories to over-arching meta-stories that inter-relate, and allow for far deeper character and story development. Has this moved you away from feature development, and toward small screen development, or do you try to work in both?

A- I still try to work in both. I love working in TV and I love working in features. And they're just different animals. But yes the trend for overarching meta-stories in television is very exciting.  I like that term “meta-story.” I'm going to steal that.
Q - From your own experience, do you see a difference in the way a “spec script” is evaluated compared to something written on assignment? Is there more latitude given to experiment with construction and plot for one over the other?

I think they’re evaluated the same: do they work, or not? Concerning spec scripts, obviously you have a lot more freedom in the writing. An assignment has to fulfill whatever the requirements of the assignment are. But in terms of how they are evaluated, I think people hold them to the same standard:   They've got to be great. They've got to be well told stories with interesting characters and captivating plots.

Q - Today we see fewer and fewer scripts getting produced that are not already a part of some franchise or adapted from a prior medium such as graphic novels, games, and traditional novels. Have you moved away from developing your own “spec” ideas and toward finding assignments and projects that are effectively already “pre-sold” because they exist in a prior medium or franchise?

A - You have to do both. The spec scripts bring the assignments in. Obviously, the assignments are great.  And you're right in saying that adaptations have a much greater chance of being produced than an original spec, but creatively, the specs are important to me. Those are original ideas, which makes them, in some ways, much more personal. And even if the spec doesn't get produced, as I said, it still gets read and it will bring in work. 

Lastly these things go in cycles, so I would not be surprised to see the spec market booming again. It may or may not happen in the film universe, but we're already starting to see a bit of a spec market in television. A couple of years ago that was unheard of. Now places are buying and optioning spec TV scripts. I just optioned a spec pilot to a company and we’re now packaging it. That's a relatively new development.

Q - Assuming you agree with the premise, do you see any indication, any “light” at the end of this “tunnel” Hollywood is in, producing super-hero movies to the exclusion of almost everything else unless they’ve got A-Listers (actors, directors) attached?

A - I don't think the super-hero genre is going anywhere, but I definitely see audiences looking for original stories too. Stories that are new and are not based on anything else. How else can you discover something new?

Q - SEASON OF THE WITCH and THE LAST VOYAGE OF THE DEMETER, your 2009 Blood List script (currently in development as this is written), are “period” projects, one set in Medieval Europe, and the other set in late 19th Century Europe. A commonly heard bit of advice to new writers is to avoid submitting period stories when trying to break in because they cost more and are harder to produce. Do you agree or disagree, and how?

A - I don't think I remember LAST VOYAGE OF THE DEMETER being on the Blood List. Are you sure about that? [LM - It was on the list, available here.]

Regardless, yes, there are probably smarter genres to take a crack at than period piece movies.  I just have the misfortune of being passionate about stories that take place in the past sometimes. My brain just goes there. And I'm a firm believer that you have to write what excites you. That is where you will do your best work. That's not to say that I don't like writing stories in other time periods… It's more about world building for me I guess. I just love escaping from the present.  Or from reality I should say.

Q - So, a moment from an Ingmar Bergman film inspired SEASON OF THE WITCH. How did LAST VOYAGE OF THE DEMETER come about?

A - I'm a huge huge fan of Ridley Scott's ALIEN, as well as [the sequel] ALIENS.  I was trying to find a way to do a story like ALIEN, but different. And it's very hard to do anything in space with a creature and not be compared to ALIEN. So I started exploring other venues. At the time I was working as a model maker at Digital Domain. One of the guys in the model shop had worked on BRAM STOKER'S DRACULA. He was showing me his portfolio one day and I saw that there was a model of the ship in the portfolio.

It was a wonderful model, just beautiful...  This old ship with sails covered in blood. I was just staring at this model and suddenly I saw a way to do my monster movie.

Q - You mentioned that you actually wrote LAST VOYAGE OF THE DEMETER before SEASON OF THE WITCH. A lesser-known fact about the Nicholl Fellowship is that you can’t enter a script based on material from another writer. Since DEMETER is rooted in Bram Stoker’s DRACULA, it could not be entered. (I am acutely aware of this because one of my own scripts, THE SLEEP OF REASON, which I had considered submitting to Nicholl, is also based on the Stoker novel.) Had you originally intended to enter DEMETER?

A - I actually did enter DEMETER. And I was crushed when I never heard back. It didn't even make it into the Quarterfinal round. I found out after the fact about that rule. Who knows whether that had anything to do with it or not. I'd like to think it did.

Q - Both SEASON OF THE WITCH and LAST VOYAGE OF THE DEMETER appear to arise out of situation, the former from a premise of knights transporting a woman to be judged a witch by the Church; the latter about the un-described sea voyage Count Dracula made on his trip to England in the Stoker story. Many screenwriters claim that they write from character, rather than from situation or plot. I have gone on record (in this space, and in my book on screenwriting) as saying that I prefer the situation/plot approach, but I will use whatever works, given the project, and I have. Do you prefer plot over character as a starting point?

A - That's an interesting question. I've never thought about that much. I guess if I had to analyze my own scripts, I would say that it's been a mix of plot and character. SEASON OF THE WITCH and THE LAST VOYAGE OF THE DEMETER are both clearly situational as you pointed out. But I have another spec that's kicking around right now that started with more of a character concept.

Q – Without giving too much away, I noticed that your conception of Dracula in DEMETER is far closer to his physical presence in one of the earliest versions of DRACULA, F.W. Murnau’s 1922 silent film, NOSFERATU. And he resembles the vampire (Barlow) from the 1979 version of SALEM’S LOT. But with that as a starting point, what you do with it is closer to ALIEN than it is Bela Lugosi or Christopher Lee. I loved how much mystery and menace you brought to the story. So what led to that “take” on your villain? And if you are able, can you say whether that approach is in the current production?

A - We actually struggled with that in the development of the script. Because people are so used to Dracula being personified as this learned, intellectual, conflicted passionate person. The Gary Oldman version. Or the over sexualized vampire version from the Hammer films.  The tormented half man/half monster. But in Demeter I really wanted to avoid that stuff and make him this animalistic force that is feeding off the crewmembers until it reaches its ultimate destiny.

That probably comes from the fact that I really wanted to do something that was a monster movie. And to me the most primal elemental terrifying monster I could think of was something that didn't have any vestige of humanity in it. It was purely something that would devour you. Something that would eat you because it needed sustenance.

The only glimmer of humanity the creature ever shows is at the very end of the script when it comes face to face with the female crew-member. There's a moment where the creature looks at her and seems to hesitate.  Her face seems to stir some dim memory in him. That moment was meant to acknowledge that there was a soul underneath all that but it was a bit of an afterthought, frankly, and doesn't fit in much with the tone of the rest of the script in which it is purely an animal.

Q - Another script you wrote, THE PASS, has a rather unusual pedigree. First, there was an historical event (commonly known as “the Dyatlov Pass incident,”) that happened in 1959, in the Ural Mountains in the former Soviet Union. A party of hikers were massacred, leaving any cause as both unexplained and extremely bizarre due to the details found on and around the bodies--they had few external injuries, but massive internal ones; they were found a fair distance away and almost naked, their clothes still back at the tent, despite the zero temperature; and there were no tracks that could be identified from would-be attackers: a great, thus-far unsolved mystery.

Recently, a film was produced and released in 2013 called DEVIL’S PASS, written by another writer (Vikram Weet), and directed by Renny Harlin that is based on the same incident, and done in the currently popular documentary-styled, “found footage” approach (Ex. - THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT) with a character in the story shooting the film you see. Your script, also based on the incident, has a completely different, and, I would say, more unusual take on the event. But you tell the story in the more traditional, objective narrative style. Yours, then is narratively wilder without the stylistic razzle-dazzle indicated, while the produced film has a much more conventional explanation for the mystery, while using the flashier subjective camera and docu-drama narrative approach. Can you give us some background on how you came onto the project--or were the two scripts unaware of each other? What transpired? How did we end up with the film Renny Harlin directed?

A - THE PASS was a strange project. I'd been spending a lot of time on Wikipedia looking for true incidents to hang a horror film on. In particular I wanted to do an alien abduction story. But I wanted to do the scariest version of that story possible, so I went looking for an alien abduction incident that resulted in actual human deaths.  And I quickly found out that there really aren't any.

They are all told by survivors. The closest that we have is the Travis Walton story which was already adapted.

But the Russians have one, the Dyatlov Pass Incident.  And it is truly terrifying

So I stumbled upon the story and started to adapt it. Partway through my script, I had a call from a producer named Roy Lee who had stumbled on the same story. So instead of both of us trying to bring separate versions of the story to market, we decided to team up.

We took our script around town and discovered, ironically, that there was already another competing project out there on the same subject. There is actually a third script on the subject as well. And believe it or not, that script is written by a Nicholl writer too. We actually traded scripts out of curiosity, and their approach is equally different.

So that makes a total of four Dyatlov Pass scripts that I'm aware of. And there may be more. 

I still haven't seen the Renny Harlin film. But as far as I know their approach is very different.  Roy Lee and I are still trying to find a way to get THE PASS made. We've had some interest lately, so who knows. These things have a way of coming around.

Q – You were kind enough to let me read one of your unproduced (at least at this writing) scripts, a horror piece called ABOMINATION (the source story for this script was co-written with Chato Hill and the story is also the basis for a graphic novel from Bragi’s own Mythos Comics venture). If I were to try to describe it in the fashion of film-marketers, I’d say it is very loosely “DANCES WITH WOLVES meets the 1951 film THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD”! And since it’s not a western, nor is it a UFO story, it’s amazing that’s still apt! But it’s set during World War II in the Arctic of all places, and it involves a group of Inuit (once called Eskimos), a very fresh and unusual setting, indeed. Can you give us any background on this project?

A - ABOMINATION is a script I had a lot of fun writing. I developed it with Chato Hill, who's a great writer and a frequent collaborator and an old college friend. ABOMINATION, in my mind, is really part of a triptych. Taken with LAST VOYAGE OF THE DEMETER and SEASON OF THE WITCH, it really completes my period/monster fetish.

At least until I get the itch again…

Chato and I are having a great time with the graphic novel, because the response has been really enthusiastic. So, in a way, I feel like the movie has been made.  It’s right there.

We’ve had interest from a couple of places and hopefully it will find a home at some point. But it is a bit of a tough sell. For whatever reason, Hollywood has some peculiar rules about things that will or will not succeed.

I didn't know this until somebody told me but apparently snow is not a strong selling point for movies. Sounds ludicrous. But I'm not joking. Apparently it's a rule: movies in the snow don't do well. 

So we’re up against some rules like that.  [Being a] period-piece, frankly, also doesn’t help us. But for every rule, something will come along and disprove it.

Q – Another script, SAMARITAN also has a “fraternal twin” in the form of a graphic novel that you produced and published through your company, Mythos. This is a dark, urban noir story, kind of a grittier, more realistic take on Frank Miller’s and Christopher Nolan’s approaches to Batman as a “Dark Knight.” What can you tell us about the gestation of that story?

A - Samaritan is a script that’s very close to me, very personal to me. Actually I wanted to direct it myself, so when I wrote it I took a very disciplined approach and made sure that I didn't let the budget out-of-control. I wanted it to be something that could be produced for a million.

The genesis of that was really the fact that my wife was pregnant with our son at the time.  I had a lot of stuff kicking around my head about fatherhood and the meaning of fatherhood and whether or not I was good enough to be a dad. 

And I started to realize that I wanted to become a better person for my son. And that idea was very interesting to me. The idea of a broken-down morally questionable figure, who actually learns more from his son than the son learns from him.

So that was the basis for Samaritan.

I loved the idea of a redemption story about somebody who isn't perfect but who wants to be better than he is because of how he’s seen in the eyes of someone else. #

I’d like to extend my thanks and appreciation to Bragi for consenting to this interview. With his embracing of theatrical, television, and the graphic print mediums, and his focus on the major genres of horror, thriller, and science fiction, arguably the most popular niches in Hollywood today, his success is an example to emulate.


Quote of the Post: "That script traveled through a number of studios before it finally got made.  It was developed over a good six-year period.  I probably have some 20 different drafts on my computer.  The draft that won the Nicholl was very different than the draft that was finally produced.  Not so much in terms of plot, but certainly in terms of tone and characterization."

Thursday, May 7, 2015

An Interview with Screenwriter Bragi Schut, Part I

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.



A room with a massive domed ceiling. The marble floors are littered with rare furs. At one end, seated on a darkened dais surrounded by PHYSICIANS, is CARDINAL D’AMBROISE (note: in the dim light, seen only In silhouette). 

     Gentlemen, the Cardinal 
       (by way of 
     Your eminence, the Knights. 

The Cardinal leans forward. And as he leans into the torchlight, we see he is deathly pale, almost ghostlike... 

     Is it true? You are 
     called LaVey? 

LaVey steps forward. 

     Yes, but how--? 

     Please! Come no closer. 
     I am stricken. 
     The Black Death is in me. 

He glances sidelong at his PHYSICIANS who are hovering just out of arm’s reach. 

     Leave us. Go! 

     But your eminence... You 
     grow weaker. 

     No. I die. And your leeches 
     and ointments are of no 
     use. Now go! 

The Physicians – they share a look. And quickly gather their jars and medicines... and make a general exit. Once they have left, the Cardinal turns to LaVey. 

          CARDINAL (CONT.) 
     France is in the grip of a 
     terrible evil. The King has 
     fled his kingdom, and left 
     his subjects to die— 

He is interrupted by a sudden COUGHING fit, which wracks his entire body. He tries to stifle it with a handkerchief. When he draws his hand away, we GLIMPSE the white silk, flecked red with blood. 

       (recovering a bit) 
     --it is whispered over all 
     the land that the end is 
     near, that the hour of our 
     judgment has come. 

He looks up, as if to gauge LaVey’s reaction. But LaVey doesn’t have one. 

          CARDINAL (CONT.) 
     What do you believe? 

     That we live in dark times. 

     A guarded response. 

     I’m a knight, not a priest. 

     And as a knight... as a 
     soldier of God, you hold no 

     What would you have me 

The Cardinal looks to DeBelzaq, who takes his cue and steps forward. 

     The truth. The plague is a 
     curse, called up from Hell. 
     Brought upon us by the Black 

       (with a touch of 
        surprise) witch? 

DeBelzaq, registering the tone of LaVey’s voice, raises an eyebrow. 

     The charges have been proven 
     without question. I myself 
     heard the confess-- 

       (a placating gesture) 
     DeBelzaq. Please. 

       (to LaVey, again) 
     Three weeks ago a woman was 
     found in the forests, wander-
     ing...mad, muttering strange 
     words that none could under-
     stand. She came to a small 
     village near Marseille. 

     That place is gone now. 
     Wiped out by the plague. 

     From there she traveled west, 
     from Marseille to Avignon...
     and everywhere she went it 
     was the same. In her foot-
     steps followed death. 

     I don’t understand. Why are 
     you telling me this? 

     The witch must be taken to the 
     abbey Severac, in the mountains, 
     where our Benedictine brothers 
     are preparing an ancient ritual 
     to destroy her. Only there can 
     the witch be slain and the curse 

     And me? 

     You... must deliver her. 


His eyes darken, but he says nothing. 

From SEASON OF THE WITCH, screenplay by Bragi Schut

Bragi Schut is a writer & director living in Los Angeles who has written projects for Sony, Universal, MGM, Relativity, Syfy, and CBS among many other film & television companies. His original adventure/horror script SEASON OF THE WITCH starred Nicolas Cage & Ron Perlman and was released by Relativity in 2011 grossing $92 million worldwide. Schut also created CBS’s cult alien invasion series THRESHOLD directed by David Goyer, executive produced by David Heyman, and starring Carla Gugino & Peter Dinklage. 

Bragi has written numerous other screenplays including horror spec THE LAST VOYAGE OF THE DEMETER at Phoenix Pictures, original sci-fi project SINGULARITY for director Roland Emmerich, comic book adaptation CRIMINAL MACABRE at Columbia for Dark Horse, and franchise adaptations of popular anime series BATTLE OF THE PLANETS for producer Chuck Roven and GAIKING for Toei and producer Gale Anne Hurd. 

Recently, Schut wrote sci-fi disaster tentpole INVERSION which is prepping a Spring 2016 shoot with director Scott Waugh (NEED FOR SPEED) and rewrote neo-noir script REAPER for director Brad Anderson and Amasia Ent. He is currently writing event miniseries THESEUS for Syfy, rewriting his original pilot MAGICK for Eclipse Television, and attached to direct thriller FAMILY ALBUM. 

Bragi, a graduate of the University of Wisconsin - Madison, was previously selected for The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences’ prestigious Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting Award. He was also chosen for the exclusive Writers Guild Showrunner Training Program

Q – First, give us a little more on your background: where you’re from, your interests, any writing, screenwriting, or film-making training, etc. 

A - I was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York but I spent some years abroad as a very young child. I lived in both Thailand and Germany. I attended LaGuardia High School of the Arts in New York City, which is the school that the old TV series Fame was based on. That was a pretty formative experience for me. That's what got me thinking seriously about a career in the arts. 

At LaGuardia I majored in art taking a lot of classes in watercolor, oil painting, human anatomy classes, art history, that sort of thing… But I also was reading a lot of comic books at the time and was heavily into comic art. I think in some ways that led me to my love of film. After all, comics are essentially movies in sort of a storyboard format. 

I still have an interest in comic books to this day, and I am partners in a small comic company called Mythos Comics. We go down to Comic Con every year and Wonder Con and put out a bunch of our own material. 

Q – UW-Madison doesn’t have a screenwriting or film-making program or major that I’m aware of, correct? 

A - Correct, UW-Madison doesn't have much of a filmmaking program. The best you could do when I attended was to major in communications and focus on filmmaking and screenwriting. But they did have a number of very good classes. There was a professor named David Bordwell. Bordwell wrote a book called Film Art, that's actually used at a lot of the bigger film schools. I heard, at one point that it was one of the text books that they used at USC and UCLA. 

So anyone who was serious about filmmaking at Madison tried to get into all of Bordwell's classes. Other than a couple of screenwriting classes, that was the extent of my film education. But I made it a point to read a lot of books about the trade when I got out to LA. Syd Field, Robert McKee’s “Story,” “Save The Cat,” “The Hero With A Thousand Faces,” a lot of Joseph Campbell stuff, Bruno Bettelheim, etc... 

It's something that I still try to do every so often. I find it helpful to continually brush up on that stuff.  

Q - Prior to your breakthrough, how did you get into screenwriting, and how many scripts did you write? 

A - The Nicholl fellowship was really my breakthrough. I think I had written two or three scripts before the Nicholl. One of those ended up getting optioned after-the-fact. LAST VOYAGE OF THE DEMETER was actually written before SEASON OF THE WITCH. I remember there was some concern about my eligibility for the Nicholl at the time. But because of the wording of the Nicholl eligibility requirements, and because of the fact that I hadn't actually received any payment yet for LAST VOYAGE OF THE DEMETER, I was still eligible. That made all the difference. 

Q - Did you find representation prior to your industry break-through with the WGA and the Academy? 

A - Yes, I did. I was rep’d (managed) by BenderSpink. They had helped put me in touch with an agent by the name of Brant Rose. I had signed with Rose weeks before the Nicholl win, if I remember correctly. So that certainly helped put me on my agent's radar. And then, after the Nicholl win, SEASON OF THE WITCH sold. So it was sort of a one-two punch. 

Q – New writers are often told that querying is a waste of time, that you have to network and develop contacts and relationships to the exclusion of all else. Some advocate just focusing on getting an executive assistant job or starting in the mailroom at a major agency instead. I’ve always thought you should do all of the above, attack on a broad front. How did you connect with BenderSpink? 

A - I get asked that question a lot. New writers are always worried about getting an agent. And I understand it because I had the same worries. But it does take care of itself. Once you've written a number of scripts and if you keep submitting them to festivals and screenwriting competitions and friends, someone will notice it. 

Agents monitor and look for talent at all of those competitions. Frankly, the competitions make their jobs easier. They do all the reading and the agents just ask for the winning scripts. 

You should also be giving your script to friends, colleagues, anyone you know in the business. If they like it, they’ll fight for it and pass it on... 

That's what happened with BenderSpink. I had written a script and given it to a bunch of my friends. One of them was an assistant at Imagine Entertainment. He liked it enough to send it to a couple of managers. 

I still remember that. It was an exciting moment, because I was a PA at the time sweeping the floor at the Jim Henson stages. My cell phone rang, I picked it up and it was Brian and JC Spink telling me that they had just read Demeter and liked it. 

Getting an agent happens a million different ways. But the bottom line is that if you’re a hard-working writer and keep writing scripts and keep pushing your material, agents will notice you. Somebody will find your material. Getting an agent isn’t the hard part. Writing ten scripts and sending them to several dozen script competitions, and not losing hope after receiving back dozens of rejection letters, is the hard part. Facing the blank page and pushing through it is the hard part. 

Q – Where do your writing interests lie? Specific genre(s)? Favorite films, writers, directors? 

A - In general, my writing interests include horror, action, science-fiction, fantasy... genre fare.... I've written one comedy. But I don't really consider that typical. I grew up in the 80s, so my list of favorite films would include things like RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, STAR WARS, GHOSTBUSTERS, MAD MAX, DIE HARD, THE THING, E.T., ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, all the usual stuff that a kid in the 80s would probably have been into… 

That said, it's hard to have a real love of film without discovering some more obscure films. I love stumbling on obscure films that nobody's heard of, and being blown away by it. I have lists and lists of movies like that that I don't want to bore you with. 

Then there are films that I love for the sheer creative energy behind them. Like AMELIE, or THE ARTIST, or PAN’S LABYRINTH... Speaking of Foreign films, I have a huge love for those. SEVEN SAMURAI is one of my all-time favorites. THE WAGES OF FEAR. METROPOLIS. The list goes on and on… 

Q – Besides the Nicholl Fellowship, you were selected for the Writers Guild Show-Runner Training Program. Which came first? 

A - The Nicholl Fellowship came first. The Show-Runner training program came in the wake of THRESHOLD (Bragi’s 2005 CBS television series). 

Q – Were you more interested in television or features? What, if anything specific, were your career goals? 

A - My interest was predominantly in features. But we live in a very interesting time right now where television has really become a sort of long-form version of film. Production values have exploded, the stories and creativity are just stunning... So I feel very fortunate to be able to play in both arenas now. # 


Quote of the Post:

"I still remember that. It was an exciting moment, because I was a PA at the time sweeping the floor at the Jim Henson stages. My cell phone rang, I picked it up and it was Brian and JC Spink telling me that they had just read Demeter and liked it."

Watch for Part II in a few days! 

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Character Interiors: Bringing The Inside Out

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.



Chance still watches TV as Franklin and
Hayes appear in the doorway. They are
surprised to see Chance.

     ...Why... Hello, we thought
     we heard something...
       (moves to Chance,
        hand outstretched)
     ...I’m Thomas Franklin.

Chance remains seated, takes Franklin’s
hand warmly in both of his like the
President did on TV.

     Hello, Thomas... I’m Chance,
     The gardener.

       (a beat)
     ...The gardener?
       (thinks it’s a
        joke, laughs)
     ...Yes, of course... Mr.
     Chance, this is Ms. Hayes.

Hayes moves to shake Chance’s hand.

     Mr. Chance, I’m very pleased
     to meet you.

       (doesn’t rise,
        Again shakes with
        Both hands)

Chance turns back to the TV. Hayes and
Franklin exchange looks, there is an
uneasy pause.

     We’re with Franklin,
     Jennings and Roberts,
     the law firm handling
     the estate.

       (a smile, totally
        at ease)
     Yes, Thomas--I understand.

     ...Are you waiting for
     someone? An appointment?

     I’m waiting for my lunch.

     Your lunch? You have a
     Luncheon appointment here?

     Louise will bring my lunch.

     Louise?... The maid?...
       (a look to Hayes)
     But she should have left
     earlier today...

       (smiles at Hayes)
     I see...

       (a beat)
     All kidding aside, Mr.
     Chance, may I ask just
     what you are doing here?

     I live here.

Franklin stares at Chance as Hayes unzips
her briefcase.

From Jerzy Kosinski’s script for BEING THERE, 1979

Character Interiors: Bringing the Inside Out

“Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars.”
---Kahlil Gibran

“We are armed with language adequate to describe each leaf of the field, but not to describe human character.”
---Henry David Thoreau

“Character is what you have left when you've lost everything you can lose.”
---Evan Esar

Is it the Chicken’s Story or the Egg’s?

     I have mentioned elsewhere in print that many writers devise their stories from character. In other words, they have in mind a person or persons, and from that they generate a story. An example of this would be Paul Schrader’s screenplay for AMERICAN GIGOLO. It was the result of a discussion on character-types held in a class he taught. The occupation of gigolo came up. The character literally implied the story. Other examples of this approach are historically-based bio-pics, particularly those very loosely-based upon their source, or fictional tales like SCARFACE and FORREST GUMP.  My story, THE SLEEP OF REASON, started with a question about a character in a famous novel. The answer to that, in turn, generated the plot.
     I often prefer to have a situation, a dilemma, or a fictional world from which to develop a character. This is because of the character’s potential for collision with the story, and it gets me “the biggest bang for my buck.” So, in this approach, the situation comes first, the character second. Very often, the environment, the situation, and the problems arising from these have far more potential to generate interesting stories than proto-characters in some pre-story isolation (unless they are especially unique characters such as television’s Adrian Monk {MONK}, or Dustin Hoffman’s character, Raymond Babbitt, in RAIN MAN). There’s an old truism that no matter where one looks in the world, under the skin, we are all alike. If that is so, while I admit it can and does go the other way, as a source for interesting feature-film screenplays, I generally put my money on the problem rather than some interesting individual. But others prefer to find an intriguing character and see what happens, trusting the presence of the particular character to provide the needed audience appeal.
     In my experience and observation, generating stories out of character alone often results in forcing the writer to settle for what I would term, routine plots, plots overshadowed by the character’s extra-measure of razzle-dazzle. And this is true for the Schrader film. It uses a fairly standard mystery plot, but what interests Schrader in his film is the character, the world of that character, the look of that character, and the frisson he inserts at the end when the gigolo gains the ability to love. Ultimately AMERICAN GIGOLO fails to stand out because the story itself offers nothing sufficiently new. We’ve seen that sort of plot many times before, despite Schrader’s injection of that character. And the look of the film got it only so far: “all flash and no cash,” “all yack and no shack.” Also, its Bressonian inspiration is missed by almost everyone, though, I suspect, for Schrader, that hardly mattered. FORREST GUMP achieved greater success, I believe, because it found a profound and universal truth out of its focus on the character, namely the values to be found in living simply, or simply living. 
     But writers starting from character generally don’t hold the same acceptance for starting from plot as I do for their approach. They may be rationalizing that plot-based writing undermines the truth these writers believe they are revealing about their people. If the character is formed out of the needs of the story, they might be arguing, the character does not have that quality of randomness found in reality, that quality of truth that demands, “take me as I am, no matter the result.” They seem to believe that it exudes artifice, a feeling of having been constructed, of not being real. I would counter that this is self-delusion: bad stories can come out of plot, character, or the movie you saw last week, just as easily as anywhere else. And if the story seems to them artificial and contrived, that is not the fault of the design approach itself, but rather the craft employed in said approach.
     In comedy, character appears to be less important. It’s the jokes that make the comedy, some believe. But the truth is that except in the rarest cases, pure joke-only comedies don’t have the “legs” that those based in character do. And, from Chaplin and Keaton, through W.C. Fields, and Laurel & Hardy, and on to Woody Allen and the present, the best comedy writers have always known this:
“The hacks who would do The Ed Sullivan Show… and then disappear, faded because there was no believable character behind the stories and jokes. Their lines were funny on paper and people were laughing at the lines because they aren’t bad. But at their best, jokes are a vehicle to present a character.”
---Conversations with Woody Allen, p. 64.

A Servant of Two Masters

     Still, many writers need to believe they are writing people who, if they haven’t actually lived, would be able to, should God so choose. These writers go so far as to build elaborate back-stories for their people, filled with life experiences, set-backs, family members, and friends. They’re given flaws to hinder them in the story, and even flaws that have no apparent reason-for-being, except that a trivial flaw in the character carries just the right degree of verisimilitude: “It’s there because it’s there, not out of any story need!” cries the writer. Such flaws function just as any extraneous details do in life: because the character is real, not written. The flaw in Evelyn Mulwray’s iris in CHINATOWN, for example, may appear trivial, but serves as metaphor, a more subtle version of Achilles’ heel. Such elements offer a quality of real life to the work. Actors love this sort of thing because it gives them sources for the detail, the business they bring to the individual on the page. It’s, of course, obvious, however, that even this falls well short of creating living, breathing, human beings, even with the actor inhabiting the role.
     All of this, I would argue, is a byproduct of the nature of cinema to create a kind of reality. Photography captures images of reality and displays them. Cinema heightens that, first with movement, and then with sound. But, the addition of artificial lighting, and then image and sound editing begins the process of deception. Artificial settings and, ultimately, story take it the rest of the way. These are not real events, not real problems, not real behaviors that have been recorded and revealed. And these are not real people. Most films embrace this tendency toward realism, offering stories that look like they could have actually happened. Others make their non-realities look that way, too, achieving a fantastic result. I have no quibble with any of this. In fact, I, too, embrace it. I only question the belief that, out of fidelity to them, as a writer, my highest goal ought to be to serve my characters. My highest goal is to serve my story, have my characters serve my story, and this out of fidelity to my audience. Ultimately, then, the writer serves the audience, and this through character serving story. If the story serves the character, it is the tail wagging the dog. In fact, one way to look at this dichotomy and relate it to our notion of transformation (see my 9 articles on structure beginning here) is that while character serves story, one might ask "who or what is behind the wheel, who or what is driving?" In the beginning, story drives character. But by the end, character must drive story." The change in drivers articulates the “transformation.”
Characters Aren’t People, Too!

     Many writers believe that characters in films can be realized as thoroughly as those in novels. On the surface it looks so. After all, once on the screen, there they are: living, breathing, walking, talking. The presence of the actor in the role is deceiving, however. Characters in films are just not that well-formed. We aren’t inside their heads, so we can’t experience the events of the film as they do. Whenever Hollywood tries to get inside a character’s head it has the effect of pulling us out of the story and the filmic reality, rather than in, making the film less realistic instead of more.
     In fact, as concerns our knowing and understanding the people around us, neither are they sufficiently formed and so understood in life. Does one really know his friends enough to predict their every behavior? Does one really know oneself? At least in novels, the writer can reveal his characters’ thoughts. Movies “ain’t so lucky”—very often when they try, they look quaint or downright silly: like in those old detective movies where the private eye narrates the story: “I had to find out what was in that room. I walked in, there was a thud, and my world started spinning. Then... darkness!”
     CITIZEN KANE is a clinic on the impossibility of understanding character: it demonstrates that no one really knew Charles Foster Kane, not even we, the audience, after witnessing seemingly every relevant detail in his life. We had to be shown the sled before even that single relevant truth of his life became clear. And, once revealed, was even that the pivotal insight to Kane? No, of course not! So, characters in story cannot be real. We can only make them look that way. And when that takes precedent over the story, itself, that’s, as we’ve said, the tail wagging the dog.  
     What’s the larger purpose of character in story? We’ve seen that it is to render a kind of reality; but, why? Not because characters are merely supposed to be real. As we’ve shown, how could they be? But also, why should they be? No, characters, despite their acknowledged prominence in stories, are still there to serve stories. The ones that get the most attention in the story are really just avatars for, and representations of… the audience! The writer’s responsibility to his characters, must, of necessity, be subservient to the larger story.
     Writers: trust me! Once you get past the discomfort this may be causing you, you will feel much better. It sets you free, after all. You don’t have to artificially constrain yourself out of some misguided sense of duty to a truth that has never, and can never exist! Suddenly you can make your characters do and be everything you (and the story) need of them. You’ve had no difficulty applying this notion to the events of your story, so... have none applying it to your people!
If a Character Dies in the Woods, Does He Make a Sound?

     The question remains, then: how are characters well-realized in film? Just as screenplays must render novel-length stories in a third or less space than their literary cousins, characters must be rendered in minimal yet potent detail. The notion of the iceberg-tip is apt. Much of character development in film must be implied--there, yet below the surface. And this is made possible by the illusion of reality created by the presence of the living, breathing actor inhabiting the role. Screenwriter, Stirling Silliphant (ROUTE 66, IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT, CHARLY) illustrates this in his interview by William Froug in The Screenwriter Looks at the Screenwriter, p. 318:
“ the end (of  DR. ZHIVAGO, screenplay by Robert Bolt), when Alec Guinness is narrating and saying the government said no one was to come to the funeral, but thousands came, you see people walking around the coffin. He’s in the center. Julie Christie comes running across through the crowd and up to him and she says nothing sentimental, after all they’ve been through in this movie together. Russia has fallen. Millions have been massacred. These people have been through hell. Her man is dead. They’ve been lovers. And she says to the brother, ‘I knew him’ and the brother says, ‘I know.’ And she says, ‘Can you help me?’ That’s all there is to the scene. Tears you apart. Now that is writing... It strips down to its very essence the emotion of the scene... That’s Hemingway’s one-eighth theory, with seven-eighths below the surface. But to build the top of the iceberg, you’ve got to have it afloat. And it’s in knowing what you can leave out, because you know it, that you have confidence.”
     It is my belief that, with a few exceptions, primary characters must first fit their roles reasonably. They must seem right for the position they occupy in the story’s universe. This does not mean they cannot have features that deviate from that requirement, but that, for the most part, they feel right for what is or would have been demanded of them before the potentially role-altering events of the story put them to the test. My exceptions to this are usually found in a certain type of comedy, where the central character is a true fish-out-of-water, and is totally inappropriate for the role he/she inhabits. Primary characters need to meet their audience’s expectations so that their suitability for their role can become a baseline from which the dilemma of the story can challenge them.
     Most of what become your characters must, of necessity, be left implied. They are people that the audience, itself, is left to build. What is unseen and unknown about them becomes chosen and assigned them by the people watching them and identifying with them. In truth we know them no better than we know the trees we grew up climbing as kids: we know the branches we can depend upon, the best limb from which to hang a swing, but of the tree itself? What can we really know? So, if a character dies in the woods, does he make a sound? Even Bernie Bernbaum (John Turturro, MILLER’S CROSSING) never knew.
Do Tell

     But, returning to that allusion to the iceberg, realism, immediacy, and space constrictions demand that character be revealed only as the result of the business of, and events in, the story. Therefore, it must be accomplished through some few telling-details, details that imply a whole lot more where they came from. A great example of this is found in Francis Ford Coppola’s film and screenplay, THE CONVERSATION. Gene Hackman’s character, Harry Caul, a freelance intelligence operative who eavesdrops electronically on people and companies for hire has a solitary hobby of playing a jazz saxophone. It has the effect of accentuating his utter loneliness, especially at the end when he sits in his living room playing for no one. Around him, his house has been gutted to the beams themselves--he’s searched in vain for a bug he fears is eavesdropping, now, on him. His trade is sound, so his deepest self emerges as sound. Even his name, Caul--a covering of an infant’s head from the amnion at birth--offers comment on his character: hidden, unaware, sightless. Another example would be in Colin Higgins’s film and screenplay, HAROLD AND MAUDE, where both Harold and Maude attend strangers’ funerals for their own reasons, and Harold repeatedly fakes suicide for his mother as a last-ditch bid to awaken and win back her dormant love. These are telling and behavioral details. 
     I should also note that I use the term, “behavior,” to include dialogue and its performance, as long as they meet those internal story needs. As such, this would include examples such as: the behavior of the characters of Radar and Lt. Col. Blake in the original film, M*A*S*H, when they talk over one another to the effect of drowning each other out; the character of Woodcock in BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID when he successively, at each new train robbery, re-warns the Hole-in-the-Wall gang of his empowerment by “E.H. Harriman of the Union Pacific Railroad” while standing inside the railcar even as they blow the door. Details all, these add to each character, informing us and providing signatures of who and what kind of people they are.
     Detail is the currency of character in cinema. It has the great power to inform us with sufficient information to know what is most important about them. The mirrored sunglasses of the head-guard overseeing the chain-gang in COOL HAND LUKE say in a glance all we need to know about him: if the eyes are the windows to the soul, he’s unreadable, emotionless, heartless, without a soul, the embodiment of “the system.” The stapler that the character of Milton covets in OFFICE SPACE tells us everything we need to know to understand him: it’s one of the most trivial items in any workspace, a tool many of which are known to be poorly designed and prone to jamming. So Milton’s obsession with keeping his Swingline illustrates how powerless he is in controlling the things in his world. Even popcorn movies like the Indiana Jones films use detail effectively: Indy hates snakes, yet his weapon of choice is a snake-like whip, allowing him some measure of control and mastery over the thing he fears most. A telling detail can render people with amazing facility. But, when it comes to detail, less is more. 
Speaking in Tongue

     A common criticism of characters in the works of new writers is that they all talk in one voice. To most critics this means there is no discernible difference between otherwise different characters. They use similar words, similar rhythms in their speech, and they sometimes even hold similar values despite their opposing roles. Writers can spot this in their writing by listening to their dialogue in performance. Most will be amazed at how it sounds as compared to how it seemed when played only inside their own heads. I strongly recommend writers do a table-reading of the script with actors (or at least vocalize their scripts’ dialogue aloud) before the script goes out. This is an important and necessary step in the review process, and no effort is truly complete until it has been performed.
Put it on the Resumé

     Other criticisms include the catch-all that the work “needs more character-development.” Having read a great deal of story analysis over the years, I have found that very often, this criticism is reader-shorthand for, “something’s missing, but I don’t know what it is.” The critical reader may be inept or he fails to connect with the piece for any number of reasons from personal taste to a bad hair day. Some inexperienced analysts look for novelistic characters in screenplays, not allowing for the effect the direction, the editing, the actors and their performances, the visual behavior and the telling-detail all eventually bring to the synergy within the film. So, pointed toward their characters by the analyst without a clue, writers evaluate their people and naturally discover that more can be said about them. Really, now: is that ever not true? Nevertheless, they consider the problem, and decide to put in exposition introducing back-story. This is intended to fill out and explain the character’s mysteries, to serve as motivation for them, to give them elaborate resumés, all in the belief that this will bring them to life. Instead it has the opposite effect. It slows the story down, and it very often trivializes the characters it is meant to support. This is because the manner of how the events from the back-story affected them deep down inside has not been revealed, only the events themselves, reducing the characters to psychological stereotypes. Knowing that “his father beat him” only gets us so far in understanding someone. As concerns childhood trauma, having “lived it” beats having “heard about it” by a Mississippi-mile, what with all the twists and turns such a thing could take. And yet, characters still need to have a past: history, experiences, and details that define them and make them unique. The art lies in “telling” us just enough and no more.
     So, character development does not come from a laundry list of experiences or accomplishments. It comes from something else. It comes, first from some telling detail(s) out of their past, and then, as we’ve said, from behavior, and behavior under pressure: what they do and how they do it when it matters most. This we can see. This we can understand. This we can feel. Why? Well, because our own imaginations, experiences, and empathy fill in the remaining details. For in that moment, by manifesting that behavior, they embody a potential us. And placed in a great story, they do it better than we ever could.
Stress Out

     Character development grows in direct correlation to the degree to which your character is under duress. How that character behaves when the stakes are high reveals more about him or her than any exposition could ever do. When the bullets start to fly and the allies have all deserted him, does he stay or does he go? If he stays, how does he stay? Does he take the fight to the enemy, or does he dig in and cover up? If he takes the offensive, how? What is his unique action? What does this say about him? Is he thinking or panicked? If panicked, does he finally rise above it or freeze? And on it goes. How that character acts under those stressful circumstances is all the character development that may be necessary.
     History is rife with stories of little guys emerging out of the ranks, taking the initiative, and winning the day, while some big, strong, loud-mouth cowers in the foxhole. Acts define us, not words. Have your characters act rather than wait and react. Have them take the initiative rather than receive it. The old saying that the best defense is a good offense is truer in movies than it is in football. The hero needs to stay a step ahead of the audience to keep them watching, and that generally means taking the fight to the enemy. When Warren Beatty, in THE PARALLAX VIEW, tries to join the shadow agency killing government leaders and witnesses in order to stop them from killing him, he isn’t waiting for their next move against him, he’s going after them first. As George C. Scott said in PATTON, “If you put your hand... into some goo... that a moment before was your best buddy’s face... you’ll know what to do.”     
     It’s been said, too, that a person’s “character” is proved by what he does when nobody’s looking. That kind of private behavior, also used sparingly, can become another powerful technique for achieving development in your stories’ characters. For the writer, fortunately, the audience is looking. The writer is free to reveal all manner of private behavior: Paul Newman as Lou Harper in HARPER, re-using the coffee and filter from his trash; Robert DeNiro as Travis Bickle in TAXI DRIVER staring at himself in the mirror, taking up the challenge posed by his mirror-self, and saying, “You talkin’ to Me?”; Cary Grant, in HOLIDAY, alone, doing back-flips in a hallway for the sheer joy of it; Al Pacino, in INSOMNIA, as that legendary hero-cop, covering up the evidence after accidentally killing his own man because he broke police procedure. By its unseen nature, it has the power to render character in dramatic, humorous, explicit and sometimes unflattering ways. By its unseen nature it carries a quality or imprimatur of honesty, genuineness, an authenticity that brings the audience within the character’s inner circle, a confidante now, even a kind of ally. Thus won, the audience has become an advocate, and the character’s development is completed. #

“You cannot dream yourself into a character; you must hammer and forge yourself one.”
---James A. Froude