Category Archives: movies

Process (Part 1)

I’m in a great writers group with a bunch of close friends. Everyone’s really talented and experienced at writing in one format or another, but someone who wanted to try writing his first feature was having a tough time getting started. That’s when the lightbulb went off: we’d been offering support, reading each other’s work, but when it came to the nuts and bolts of our craft, we weren’t really sharing our processes. So as an exercise, many of us wrote documents explaining the process for the type of writing we were most experienced at in order to share with the group. I’ve been a professional feature writer for over a decade now so I wrote a document about my feature writing process. I thought it might be interesting to share it here, and I recorded a podcast today in which I vowed to do exactly that, so here it is. It’s long, so I’m splitting the document into three posts. Here’s part one!

MY FEATURE WRITING PROCESS

My process is very concept driven. For me, a screenplay has to have an intriguing idea at its core. If I’m going to spend months or longer writing something, if I’m going to try and move heaven and Earth to get something made, it has to be an idea that captures the imagination. Most of my ideas tend to fall within a certain “box” that I’m known for: character-driven action with humor and heart. Sometimes I’ll lean in one direction or another, depending on what “target” I’m shooting for.

Recently I’ve been interested in near-future sci-fi, watching a lot of stuff in that genre, and imagining the kind of movie I could write in that space. Sometimes an idea will just appear; I was imagining what my kind of Sundance movie would look like and the idea for a screenplay I wrote last year came to me. I was in the shower, but still, that’s where my brain tends to wander and I do a lot of thinking. But when I’m not in the shower and I want to work on something new I tend to start with:

LOGLINES

I have an exercise I do where I list five or six movie stars I like and then brainstorm an idea for each of them. I find this a very helpful exercise because different actors have different essences. So even if I’m brainstorming action-thrillers for example, Tom Cruise and Matt Damon are very different actors and can lead to very different ideas.

Once I have five or list good ones, I show the list to my writers group, my manager, and my wife and figure out which of the ideas resonate the most with people. Then I take a good hard look at the “winner” and ask myself, do I really like this idea? Is it worth putting a lot of time into? Am I intrigued enough to dedicate myself to this idea for a while? When I’m taking general meetings and an exec asks me what I’m working on, I’ll often pitch one or two loglines, just to see which ideas resonate with people.

IDEA FILE

Once I have the logline, I create a WORD file and that’s where I start brainstorming. Everything that comes to mind: characters, bits of dialogue, scene ideas, set pieces, story beats, whatever random stuff I have I put here. I’ll put all my questions into this file and start to think of answers. If there’s a mystery to be solved, I put all the pieces of the puzzle here. This is sprawling mess of a doc but I want to have everything somewhere, for when I start assembling these pieces into something tangible.

BEAT SHEET

When it comes to structure, I use a modified version of Blake Snyder’s 15-point beat sheet that he wrote about in his book Save The Cat. Mine has only 10 beats or so, depending on what I’m feeling. It usually includes:

1) Set-up

2) Catalyst (usually around page 12)

3) Debate

4) Break into Two (page 25)

5) Fun and Games

6) Midpoint (page 55)

7 All Is Lost (page 75)

8) Break into Three (Page 85)

9) Climax

10) Closing Image

Those page numbers are guideposts and not set in stone. But if you take out the funky names and just leave the page numbers, then I generally know what’s going to happen at (approximately) pages 12, 25, 55, 75, and 85, and the very end. This can evolve over time but what this does is take an intimidating amount of pages (usually around 110) and break ‘em into manageable sequences.

Then I’ll write a document with a sentence or paragraph for each of the above beats. It’s usually about 3 pages long and if I do my job, someone can read those 3 pages and get a good sense of the entire movie. Probably the best beat sheet I’ve ever written was for a “Die Hard at a high school prom” movie idea. In that one, I used all 15 points in the beat sheet, and in three pages, you totally get the whole movie. I actually pitched that one with a movie star attached and production companies couldn’t pass fast enough. But I still think the beat sheet is pretty great.

NOTE-CARDS

When it’s time to break the beat sheet into note cards, I use a corkboard that fits about 36 3X5 notecards, six rows across and six rows deep. I write down the main scenes in each beat from my beat sheet. I use a double-sided sharpie: the medium tip for the “what’s this scene about” line and the extra-fine tip for an extra 3 or 4 details below that. I try to write as little as possible on each card, I’m just trying to write the main beats of each scene. I do this so I can sit back and look at the corkboard and visually see the movie coming together. In Save the Cat, I think Blake had a system involving 40 notecards. I never do that many. I tend to break off a row at the end of an act, so each act takes up two rows on the board. Why do I do less than Blake? It has to do with allowing myself to improvise between the beats. I’ll explain more about this in a future post.

NEXT TIME: From treatment to scriptment to first draft!

New Year

I don’t usually make new year resolutions but last year, in this blog, I made a resolution to blog faster and more often. I failed completely. And in public, no less. Oh well. I could beat myself up about it or I could do what we should all do when we fail at something…try and do better the next time.

So here I am at the end of the first “work-week” of the year and honestly, it’s been going fine. Last year I co-created a new horror/comedy web-series called 20 SECONDS TO LIVE.

20STL logo web

It’s taken a lot longer than we’d anticipated for a couple reasons: we had no money but we were adamant that the series look fantastic. It’s been said before: fast, cheap, good…pick two. We picked cheap and good. But coordinating schedules with talented people generous enough to donate their time meant we pushed shoots often. By the end of the summer, we had three in the can and wanted to shoot two more before the end of the year and call that our first season. Then I got married, which took me off the grid for nearly a month. Then the holidays came and…it was looking like we’d never shoot them.

But someone (not me) suggested we start the new year on fire, shooting two episodes back to back on the first weekend of January. I thought we were crazy to consider it…but we did it! We worked with a fantastic crew and a stunning gang of actors. I can’t wait to share specifics but honestly, we’re focused on getting everything ready to unleash the series as soon as we can. I have to admit, it feels good to hit the ground running, as opposed to easing into the new year.

In addition to the web-series, there are a couple of TV opportunities I’m waiting to hear about and I’m starting work on a new feature screenplay. All that and I’m going to blog more! I’m not calling it a resolution. I’m just saying it out loud. In public. Let’s see how it goes this time.

The Big Show

Thought I’d follow up my last blog, where I discussed how much mental real estate you can contribute to multiple projects. I was tracking about five categories of stuff in my head. Here’s where I am now:

1) Getting married.

2) What was the question again?

Seriously,  our big day is almost here and my brain is fried. In theater terms, I describe it as putting on the biggest show of your life…one performance only! You have one hour to rehearse and tech and there’s no dress rehearsal, but your cast and production team are the people you love most in the world and everyone’s allowed to drink during the show. And if you’re lucky, you have the greatest co-star ever (which I do).

In addition to our endless wedding-related to-do list, I’ve managed to squeak in some other stuff.  My feature script THE FREELANCER is making the rounds. My producers and reps are going out with my new spec TV pilot. We shot a third episode of 20 Seconds To Live, the new web-series I co-created with Ben Rock. Along with out amazing producer Cat Pasciak, we’re shooting two more for the first season, but we recently pushed production until after the wedding.

And we got a new kitten. If I have anything to teach you it’s this…maybe getting a kitten a few months before you get married is not the best idea. Luckily, she’s a lovable little scamp.

IMG_3307

I also got a random bit of good news. Earlier this year, I submitted a short play of mine to a one-act festival in NYC, then promptly forgot about it. Turns out they received over a thousand submissions and picked twelve including my one-act “Rocket Sex”! So if you’re in NYC, you can see it in Program A of the Collective:10 Play Festival. I’d be there to check it out, but would you believe, it’s during our honeymoon.

In other random news, my friend Courtney Rackley created a cool rom-com web-series called “Firsts“. Last year she asked me to write an episode that ended up being the season one finale. So here’s my episode, First I Love You. I think there’s some dirty language in there (I should remember, but y’know, brain fry).

There. Now I can cross “update blog” off my to-do list. The big show opens in a couple days, closes the same night, and it just might be one of those legendary “You really saw the Beatles live?” kind of events. I know it will be for me, since I get to marry the best girl in the world.

My brain may be filled with way too much real estate right now, but there’s room enough to squeeze in something important that I always need to remember: I’m a very lucky guy.

PSH

Years ago, I saw Philip Seymour Hoffman doing a Q&A after Capote. When asked about his reputation for being “difficult” on set, he talked about how most people wake up in the morning, put on their armor, and go out to face the world while keeping their private selves private.But his job is to be private…in public. And that’s just not easy.

It’s something we take for granted. We marvel at someone’s brilliance, the way they can reveal something truthful and authentic about the human condition. But what’s the cost of doing that every day? What’s the cost of making a living being private in public? We’ll never know for sure.

We can only feel the sadness for an artist gone to soon, and thank him for letting us inside his private self, if only for a short time.

Sundance by the numbers

Number of times I’ve attended the Sundance Film Festival, including this year: 9

Days we attended this year: 4

Films we saw this year: 5

Amount of films we usually see: 7 to 10

Amount of time we spent cursing the terrible new waistlist system: too much

Elijah Wood sightings this year: 2

Elijah Wood sightings (lifetime): 5

Percentage chance that I’m stalking Elijah Wood: 50

Percentage chance that Elijah Wood is stalking me: 50?

Celebrity sightings in bathrooms: 2 (Michael C. Hall and Dane DeHann)

Random run-ins with friends whose names are musical styles: 2 (Disco)

Days we skied: .5

Parties/lounges attended: 8

Meals where we actually sat down and ordered food: 2

Meals where we were standing at parties eating off tiny plates: lost count

Free drinks: a billion?

Celebrity encounters: 1 (ended up strolling next to Joshua Jackson. Told him we missed “Fringe”. He smiled and hustled away – into another dimension perhaps?)

Great movies we saw: 1 (Dead Snow 2, an incredibly entraining horror/comedy about nazi zombies)

Pretty good movies we saw: 2 (A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night – the best black and white Iranian vampire movie ever made – and Cooties – a horror/comedy about teachers trapped in a  school during an outbreak of a virus that turns children into mutant cannibals – really)

‘Meh’ movies we saw: 2 (War Story and Foxy Merkins, though the latter wins for coolest title of the year)

Star-making moments witnessed: 1 (Ana Lily Amirpour, the writer/director of A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, gave a Q&A after her film that was electric, ballsy, and loaded with sass. The second biggest disappointment of the festival, after the new wait list system, is that my fiancee didn’t get to hug her)

Roommates sharing our two-bedroom with a loft condo: 6

Roommates who got the dreaded Sundance plague: 1 (me)

Days it’s had me in its grip: 7?

Day I’m finally feeling almost human: today

My First Movie Star

I was watching the season premiere of “Justified” the other night and saw a familiar face: actor Michael Rapaport. I’ve been a fan of Michael’s ever since he played struggling actor Dick Ritchie in “True Romance”. But there’s another reason I have a soft spot for him.

Movies take forever to get made and one of the reasons is that building momentum just takes time. It begins with a script, of course. But after that, you need a producer to assemble the team. You need a director to lead that team. You need a studio or an independent financier to provide the money. And of course, you need actors to bring the magic.

I love actors. One of my favorite things in the world is when an actor loves something I’ve written.  My first film, “The Air I Breathe“, was an incredible ride and one of the reasons is that so many actors liked the script. My director and co-writer Jieho Lee met with almost every actor who read it (including, funny enough, Justified’s Timothy Olymphant). We ended up with a stellar cast that was pretty unbelievable for a first time feature director.

But there was another script that was almost my first. Back in the late 90’s, I wrote an ensemble crime drama called “Shooting Blanks”. I optioned it to some ambitious Orlando producers who worked their butts off to get the movie made. They assembled a great cast and director and came very, very close  to putting the financing together. But alas, it never happened.

The first actor who formally attached himself to that script was Michael Rapaport. We never got to meet, and the movie was never made. But every time I see him in something, it makes me so happy.

Michael Rapaport was my first movie star.