Archive for Writing methods

Film school used to be the way to get a job or up your chances of selling your projects in Hollywood. Now the studios are making bigger and fewer movies and the action is shifting to other platforms.

On The Wrap, Brent Lang writes, “In the digital age, institutions including New York University, the University of California, Los Angeles and Boston University have torn down the old barriers between teaching television and film production, and merged film and interactive departments. The internet age has led film schools to encourage students to think about narrative in different ways than their predecessors did.”

He quotes Bob Bassett, dean of Chapman University’s Dodge College of Film and Media Arts: “Twenty years ago, people went to film school to become the best filmmaker they could become so they could go out and make films. Today, they have to be much more calculating about developing their skills, because those skills are what lead to paying jobs.”

The new outlets: YouTube, Funny or Die, and other sites, as well the the more adventurous cable TV outfits. YouTube has joined with various companies to start new channels. I wouldn’t be surprised if before too long we’re watching Facebook TV.

The formats are new, too. On the internet there’s no particular reason to think of programs in chunks of 30 or 60 minutes. There’s room for stories that take 30 seconds, and for all kinds of media combinations and interactivity.

I’ve always felt that the one big advantage of going to film school is the contacts you can make. You needed a path to reaching the powerful people who ran the film business. The digital media landscape is much broader and you have more ways in. I’m not naive enough to think it no longer matters who you know, just that it matters a bit less than it used to.

Does it make sense at all to go to even the new versions of film school—what I’d call digitelefilm school? Sure–you’ll learn a lot and find collaborators and make useful connections, too. That’s if you can afford it or don’t mind racking up big student loans. Otherwise, get out your Flip or point your New iPad at some actors, or teach yourself Flash or HTML5 animation, or make some stop-motion figurines and make something brilliant.

(What you still need is a good script–which is the missing link in most productions made for the web. A good place to start is my book, “Your Writing Coach,” published by Nicholas Brealey and available from Amazon and other booksellers. It’s not specifically about writing scripts but it IS about crafting the kinds of solid characters and storylines you need.)

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A lot of screenplay courses and books tell you that if you have a character who is unlikeable at the start, you should give him at least one positive characteristic or foreshadow his transformation. There’s nothing wrong with that–in fact, I’m pretty sure I’ve recommended that myself for certain projects. However, it’s not a rule set in stone.

If we look at Scrooge in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, what is there to like before he first ghost visits? Nothing. However, he’s so extreme in his miserliness and miserableness that he’s fascinating. He asks the charity collectors, are there no workhouses? Yeah, put those urchins to work!

In a more recent work–well, 1991–the film The Fisher King, the protagonist, played by Jeff Bridges, is a totally selfish, vain, arrogant man. There’s nothing to like, but as with Scrooge, the characterization was so extreme that it was fascinating to watch him. (Excellent film, by the way–if you’ve never seen it, give it a shot.).

In As Good As It Gets the filmmakers made a small concession to humanizing the character played by Jack Nicholson. Very close to the start they show him going into the bathroom and opening the cabinet to reveal several dozen wrapped bars of soap. He unwraps one, washes his hands with it, and throws it away. We get that he’s not being cruel just for the fun of it, he has problems. That little scene was added after test screenings because audience members reacted too negatively to his character.

In Bad Santa the character played by Billy Bob Thornton is totally sleazy to start with, which is funnier because he’s playing Santa at a mall. Test screenings led to the addition of several scenes that somewhat soften the character.  This is what the film’s director, Terry Zwigoff, said about the process, in an interview on Combustible Celluloid:

“The typical thing that happens is they show the film and they get maybe 20 people to stick around. They pay ‘em each 10 or 20 bucks, and then some guy comes running from the back of the house like in a game show, this chipper, upbeat type. ‘Hey how ya doing! Did you like the film? Did you like the ending?’ And you’re sitting there in the back and it’s truly horrifying. It’s like somebody took your baby and threw him up on the stage: What do you like about this baby? Do you like his nose? Maybe we should give him some plastic surgery, wouldn’t that be fun?!!”

The film, written by John Ficarra and John Requa, is also worth a look if you’re a fan of black comedy. Find the director’s cut, which is actually several minutes shorter and quite a bit darker than the original release.

The moral of these stories: if you have an unlikeable character, make him or her so strongly unlikeable that we will be fascinated and will want to hang around to see whether he or she changes. If there’s no transformation, or not a strong one, be prepared for a fight with the powers that be–and test audiences, but if you prevail you will earn the gratitude of the part of the film-going public that is tired of schmaltz.

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I have a hunch these are NOT what’s stopping you from writing your screenplay:
* You don’t have any ideas
* You don’t understand the basics of screenwriting
* You have a fear of success

I think maybe one or more of these IS what’s stopping you:
* Procrastination
* Too many ideas
* Writing blocks
* Not enough time
* No support from family and friends

If I’m right, the WRITING BREAKTHROUGH STRATEGY program is what you need in order to write the screenplay you know is in you. Here’s a little (one minute) overview of what it gives you. If you want to find out more or sign up, go to: But hurry, because it starts on Monday, January 16!


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