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Varieties of Screenwriting

There are several sorts of ambitions you might have while sitting down and writing a film.

The first that comes to mind is the dialogue driven piece. John Hughes and Richard Linklater have proven themselves to be worthy representatives in this case. They sit people in a room, have them engage in conversation and make the most climactic moment in the film occur verbally. The moment in Before Midnight that truly makes us gasp is not somebody dying in a car crash, but rather, Julie Delpy telling Ethan Hawke, that after an 18 year relationship, she no longer loves him. And while The Breakfast Club has its far share of scenes with sight gags and sequences in which our five heroes tiptoe around a scrupulous principal, the most revolutionary moments involve the kids opening up and discussing their…

*gulp*

…feelings.

Another style in question is the mood piece. For this example I have chosen Spike Jonze. The interaction between characters takes a back seat to scenes in which the lead character may be sitting alone by themselves and doing nothing. This sounds like a brutally boresome experience at first glance, but in the grand scheme of things, many people absorb the scenery which surrounds them. We watch extended close up shots of dust accumulating and snow falling. We study the seemingly simple expressions that a character may omit, then interpret them to a higher extent. Such films only ever happen when the writer ends up directing his or her own work, but they’ve garnered mass appeal.

Last but not least (and more than likely the kind you can find at a theater near you), is the popcorn film. We do not watch these to be spiritually reawakened, endure some sort of “out-of-body” experience or to be lectured on topic regarding the declining state of mankind. No! These are the films which we crave after a hectic work week or a grueling cycle of exams. We wish not to be questioned regarding our stance of a political or religious matter, but to enjoy old fashion good guy goes after bad guy, Saturday fun. This description could be made applicable to films such as Kung Fu Panda, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World or Super 8. And dear Lord, these are the ones I consider myself most grateful for.

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My Inspiration

Quentin Tarantino. Woody Allen. Diablo Cody.

These are the names which stand out and grab attention in the screenwriting world. Even those unfamiliar with screenwriters are acquainted with these writers and could even tell you at least five of the films their names are attached to. The person who I look up to? Brad Bird.

Starting out with small but hearty *batteries not included, Brad Bird has climbed the corporate ladder and has reached unimaginable highs. Truth be told, I was actually a fan of Bird’s work…long before I actually knew his name. I was 8 years old when The Iron Giant came out. It was so enthralling, so rejoicefully entertaining that parental units and elder siblings were required to accompany me to the film twice.

Bird probably became a more serious writer, however, when he began his filmmaking with Pixar. In 2004, The Incredibles became a monster hit, both financially and critically. It delivered numerous, beautifully staged action sequences which kept the momentum at a rigorous pace. It maintained gut-busting laughs without the aid of bodily humor and instead used precise timing and its characters’ offbeat traits to make us giggle. But even more impressive is how adult some of the dialogue managed to be. We see how Bob Parr’s petite, unsympathetic boss turn his employees into cookie-cutting, clock punching robots. We watch as the two parents share a heated exchange regarding the safety and stability of their children. Since when could cartoons have consequences?

Even more impressive is his involvement in 2007’s Ratatouille. We immediately assume that a movie about a talking rat who likes to cook and helps struggling garbage boy with his talent will involve pies-in-the-face and groin kicks. Actually, in spite of the fact that rats can’t communicate with humans and humans can’t communicate with rat, Bird trusts his characters to see outside the box. Yes, this is a world in which we see background characters throw pots and pans at the very sight of Remy (the rat). But surprisingly, there are multiple character that, when told he can cook, watch him, eat his food and compliment him. We also have a character named Cosette, a high end chef who initially gives off a strict, unwelcoming presence. Most films would say “okay, we’ve established that she’s mean. Let’s move on.” But here, Bird enables her to open up and progressively expose her good intentions and vulnerability…almost like…a real person.

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Character and Chemistry

Often pushed to the wayside and downplayed in terms of its significance is the presence of character. You might think that virtually every film on the shelf has plenty of characters but you would be wrong. Real characters – ones who enable us to climb inside their heads for two hours – carry around a distinct set of -istics and -isms around with them, everywhere they go. In Prisoners, Jake Gyllenhaal goes on excessive blinking sprees which become progressively worse based on how uncomfortable he is. In Drive, there’s a scene in which Ryan Gosling resembles a sheepish, puppy-dog like kid as he tries to persuade his squeeze that they can start of life together. Seconds later, he transforms into a rage-fueled maniac, stomping a hitman’s skull into a pulp.

Many writers are unsuccessful in their efforts to create such realistic, compelling heroes, which often results in the director playing over their scenes with montages and pop songs. As a result of that, we never truly go on an adventure with them. Even worse, some films still try to establish these characters without such crutches and still fail. There’s no reward in seeing Dane Cook and Jessica Simpson finishing each others sentences and then each saying, “jinx, you owe me a Coke”.

One word should never act as the centerpiece to a person’s personality. Otherwise, they will also have only one dimension to their name. Should a writer feel the need to do otherwise, the least they could do is preventing it from compiling the character’s entire identity. True, Russell Brand did play a sleazy, cuckolding party boy in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, but he was also direct, willing to give advice and even provided encouragement to his fellow man.

Much like a Rubik’s cube. characters should be able to evolve into states and make decisions that the audience could have never predicted, just as they were coming to think they knew them. Only on the occasion in which filmmakers deliberately try to hide their emotions, their interests and background should we feel as we don’t know them.

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Spec vs. Commission

There are two sorts of screenplays you can write. A speculative screenplay is one you write without the promise of seeing so much as a dime for all your hard work. This isn’t because anyone weaseled someone else out of it but because the writer, who may not have established themselves yet, chose to compile this screenplay on their own schedule, for their own fulfillment. Do not fret, speculative screenplays, when deserving enough, can also be the most profitable. Writers, Terry Rossio and Bill Marsilii, ended up selling their draft of Deja Vu for $5,000,000. However, to be pulled out from countless others and to be offered such as generous price, no less, is a rare occurrence to everyone in this profession.

Commission, the type of screenplay you’re hired to writer before compiling anything, is probably considered safer. It’s safe to assume films along the likes of Harry Potter and the Hunger Games fall under this category. Why? Because to adapt a young adult novel and put it in the structure of a script is no different than copy and pasting in a word document. But commission isn’t just limited to having it based on a book, article or previous film. Kristen Wiig impressed Judd Apatow on the set of Knocked Up to the point he flat out asked her if she had any film ideas in mind.

Truth be told, either one of the opportunities would be a cinephile’s dream come true. Becoming that person who’s spec screenplay emerges from the thousand others striving to gain attention is even less likely that being the person to actually win a ring toss. And while people who reach the point of commission have probably established their names through previous works, there is the strong possibility that in being asked to pen something, they also have “upstairs people” overlooking their every word choice and the structure of their work.

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Genre

While movies are often criticized for formula, there actually is a certain code of conduct that a film must adhere to when labelled under a certain genre. For this example, I give you the romantic comedy. Real rom-com lovers deserve humble, sincere beings, willing to demean or humilitate in the names of the characters they love. They should be sunny and warm, giving viewers the sense that they are part of this relationship. A film such as The Ugly Truth gets this wrong!

In it, the two leads debate about their perceptions of love and lust, acting as if their own personal viewpoint is how the entirety of the human race feels. They are so wrapped up in their “I’m right-You’re wrong” logic, that come the third act, Gerard Butler finds himself confessing his love for Katherine Heigl…but not without referring to her as a psychopath. And in a moment which Heigl’s character unintentionally wears vibrating undergarments to an important business dinner, the composer chooses to accompany the scene with score which inflicts so much unease, it makes us feel as though we’re walking on a tightrope above Niagara Falls while watching it.

Let’s take a look at another genre: horror. Despite the declining state of films that make us check under the bed, horror is the genre which is supposed to be the most visceral. We attempt to further immerse ourselves with 3D glasses and eardrum violating sound effects when the ability to become part of this world is easiest with LESS going on. Moments in which a vulnerable young woman saunters down a shadowy hallway are moments which we often found giving our utmost attention. But why must we defuse this tension with pop-out scares other repetitive scare tactics. Didn’t The Shining prove to disturb audiences, slowly and quietly, when young Danny envisions the mutilated corpses of two young girls outside a room? Didn’t the seemingly innocent smile on Damien Thorn’s face in the last shot of The Omen get under our skin without the aid of rapid editing or pots ‘n’ pans abruptly hitting the floor?

If you choose to grab the fan base of a certain genre, be sure to keep the consistency in tact.

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My Ideas

For the time being, there are several ideas for screenplays I have in mind.

The first and one I am most passionate about is a biopic concentrated on the lives of “hack” directors, Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer. The film would be from a sympathetic viewpoint, perhaps showing that this dynamic duo had more creativity and more passion than their final products would imply, with formulaic and uninspired minds of film companies and movie producers swaying them in the wrong direction (no pun intended…okay, maybe).

Another project I’ve been considering is a memoir of my own experiences and misadventures endured while working at the Carmike 8 Theatre for three years before it was shut down in early 2013. My down to earth coworkers and the laid back atmosphere would eventually inspire me to emerge from my shell and give me a newfound zest for life.

Last but not least – but without a doubt the most ambitious – is one titled, Reworld. In it, everyone across the globe goes to bed on Jan 21st 2012, waking up on August 14th 2007. All of their “memories” of what has (or more appropriately what will) happen are still instilled in their minds. Parents of an autistic child must enter a heated discussion, contemplating whether or not they should take precautions in erasing the disability of their daughter, who is now back in utero. Other subplots would consist of a family, reconnecting with their father who died in a freak accident and him coming to terms with what he missed, a man who notices how little change has happened to him over the course of the years and other pondering situations.

Lesser developed ideas for screenplays I have include an extended family getting into a religion based argument on Super Bowl Sunday and the story of a person who goes from considering suicide to making some of the best moments of his life…all over the span of one day.

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Breakthrough

One of the most notorious obstacles in the world of screenwriting is getting your name out there. Like other careers, the challenge is largely attributed to competition. The competition in the world of screenwriting, however, is much worse. You don’t get to prove your legitimacy with a college degree. Hopeful up-and-comers are not strained through a process in which they are evaluated for their level of education or their number of years spent with a company. We all start at the bottom. Gregory Widen was an undergraduate at the time in which he sold his script for “Highlander”, resulting in a $500,000 pay day for the ex-firefighter.

A worldwide screenwriting competition titled, “The Academy Nicholl Fellowship”, collects thousands of applications each year, with their most recent contest assembling more than 7,200 eager contenders. The only way to truly emerge – corny and painful as it might sound –  is to stay true to your original image. Do not attempt to cater to a demographic you don’t identify with. Under no circumstances should you try duplicating the style or plot of other screenplays merely because they were successful and that’s what you want too.

Unless you are born into the house of Francis Ford Coppola, an opportunity in this profession is not granted to you on a silver platter. Competitions are always a viable option. Monster House screenwriter, Dan Harmon, also recommends having a copy of your work on standby so as to push onto those who might be able to move it up the ladder. It may sound like an act of desperation. It may prove to be largely in vein. However, his current line of work makes it advice worth listening to. But submitting and pushing screenplays isn’t enough.

Imagine Steven Spielberg is holding your 162 page piece you’ve poured sweat and blood into for the past eight years. Is your journey complete? Has your big break finally arrived? You have to consider that those worth delivering a copy of your screenplay to have read hundreds of other pieces, red pen at the ready. To make a significant impression, a screenwriter needs to think of a story not yet exposed to public eyes. If you think it bears so much as the tiniest resemblance to another film, scrap it! Characters must also be original. A renegade cop who doesn’t play by the rules and quirky female love interests who ramble and stutter when in the presence of “that special someone” are no longer serviceable travel companions.

Feel free to experiment with the pacing and order events. Take risks not yet taken in the medium. Think about its transition to the big screen and how well it can actually be brought to life. Conversations must also be engaging. Think about how Joss Whedon took advantage of the icons portrayed in the Avengers and used their characteristics for comic relief, self reflection and interaction.