Friday, 3 March 2017

BITE-SIZED TIP #1 - HIGH CONCEPT

Short post today. Being why I've called it a bite-sized tip. 

Look at the script you're working on. 

Ask yourself - and be honest - is it HIGH CONCEPT?

What is High Concept?

Pretty simple - High Concept is something that can be explained really easily. 

It's also where STORY is more important than the CHARACTERS. 

Here's a test. 

Someone says, what's your story about?

How do you describe it?

1) Can you say it succinctly in ten words? Such as - A young boy has the power to see dead people - The Sixth Sense.

2) Or do you start by saying, well, it's about this girl, and she has trouble with her mother, but then she gets to college, and she discovers...

Do the 'what's your story about?' test.

If you fall into category 2 then you don't have a high concept story.

That means you have a DRAMA. 

Now there's nothing wrong with dramas - it's just that you have a far higher chance of selling your script if it's high concept. 

But don't worry - or think that your drama has been a waste of time. Quite the opposite. You've been working on an EMOTIONAL story for the past - however long - that's great. It should mean you have well-developed characters and a story with a heart. 

Now it's time to take that well-constructed drama and find a HIGH CONCEPT setting. 

One way to do this is to change your story's genre. 

How would your drama play out if it were a HORROR, or a THRILLER, or a SCI-FI? 

They're the three genres that sell the best. 

Sure, this will require a re-write from page 1 - but writing the new THRILLER or HORROR, or SCI-FI won't be as difficult because you've already developed your characters for so long in your drama. 

The bite-sized take away from today is to aim for HIGH CONCEPT.

Why?

Because that's what sells.

Take the drama you've been working on and re-write it in a high concept genre. 

Thursday, 2 March 2017

2016 BLACKLIST - LIFE ITSELF

LIFE ITSELF

35 votes on the 2016 blacklist which made it the second top screenplay of that year.

Written by Dan Fogelman.

Logline: A multigenerational love story that weaves together a number of characters whose lives intersect over the course of decades, from the streets of New York to the Spanish countryside and back.


THE STORY:

This is a complicated tale to summarize. There is no one single protagonist. There are about 6 main players. And as the logline suggests, these players are spread out over several years. To summarize this story would be to give away many of the plot points. Which I'd rather not do as this is a great script, very worth reading. 

This story is about connectivity. It's really about the butterfly effect - that the smallest of actions can lead to the biggest of actions. 

The first main player we meet is WILL. Will is an enigmatic chap who sees a therapist as his wife and mother of his child died in a bus accident. 

From this jumping off point we look back into the past and how it came to be that the bus accident occurred. After that, we look forward into the future and see how the bus accident affected Will's child. 

I'll leave the story summary there as to give any more detail really would give the story away. 

INITIAL REACTION:

When I first read the logline I rolled my eyes and groaned... I imagined a slow paced, deep character study that was going to be so soporific it would soon have me unconscious. 

How wrong I was. 

Even though this story eschews the single protagonist mold that Hollywood loves - it manages to keep you invested in every character and each set of character's story.

How does he do this? 

EMPATHY.

That's the main takeaway for today. 

Every character we care about. 

How do you make an audience care about a character or multiple characters?

The first step toward creating characters we care about is to put them in positions that we can RELATE TO.

Think about that word.

RELATABILITY.

Thrillers are very exciting. CIA operatives doing international espionage is a lot of fun, but as far as reliability goes? Almost no one watching a CIA film is going to have actual international espionage experience.

The only way to make a CIA thriller relatable is through the relationship problems the characters have because we all have relationship problems. 

LIFE ITSELF is not a CIA thriller at all. It is a plain drama. But every character story is about relationship problems - which is something all humans can relate to. 

Have you ever noticed that sometimes you go and see a movie and you come away having had almost no emotional experience at all? 

Then other films make you cry and really shake you up, get you thinking?

The reason for this is RELATABILITY.

Creating an emotional connection between your characters and your audience will create a far more well-received screenplay than focusing on plot and structure. 

Don't get me wrong - a film with no plot and structure and ALL emotional connectivity would be a terrible film. Plot and structure are the frame over which you drape the emotional element of your story. 

So - in specific how do you make an audience like your characters?

Think about real life... we judge people on the ACTIONS they make. 

Put your hero in a situation that requires a REACTION. Think about what the expected reaction would be.

Then, here's the trick - switch up that reaction. Surprise us with how the hero reacts. But make sure that the reaction is altruistic. We love watching heroes who sacrifice their own happiness for the sake of others.

The reason I bring this up is there is a main character in LIFE ITSELF who is presented with a problem.

He makes a decision that at first seems rough and uncalled for. 

Then as a reveal at the end of the story - we come to understand that the decision was really a huge self-sacrifice. He essentially gave up his joy and happiness for the sake of his wife and child. 

That really hit me on a gut level when the beat was revealed. I was blown away that someone should sacrifice so much for the sake of their loved ones - and here's the kicker - the loved ones didn't even KNOW that he sacrificed so much.

It is one thing to sacrifice when those you are doing it for are aware you're doing so. 

Then it is the next level up to sacrifice for people who don't even know you are doing so. 

That is true altruism. 

Look at DONNIE DARKO - the one thing that made that film sooooo exceptional was that Donnie gave his life to save the life of a girl - who would NEVER KNOW that he died so she could live. 

That is a powerful story point. 

LIFE ITSELF is full of powerful story points. Which is why it succeeds.

It is a lot like WHEN HARRY MET SALLY in that it spans decades and is a really true look at life. 

That's another good word to consider when you're trying to write a story that lands on an emotional level. 

TRUTH.

I find myself tuning out of so many films these days simply because the story doesn't ring true. 

It doesn't matter what world you are creating - be it a sci-fi, a western, a horror - the story beats need to ring true in accordance to the world rules you are creating. 

My major problem with the LOVE story in Ben Affleck's The Town was how unreal the life story was of Ben's love interest Claire - played by Rebecca Hall. 

In the story - Claire lives a solitary existence and she can't find any decent man. 

Then along comes Ben and even though he's a bank robber she loves him. 

I'm sorry - that doesn't ring true. 

Have you seen Rebecca Hall? She is incredibly beautiful, intelligent, charismatic. In real life, women like Rebecca have countless beau's seeking her affection. 

In The Town - we were supposed to believe someone like Rebecca had no other options in her life. 

It just didn't ring true. 

When writing your story - don't write what you NEED TO HAVE happen for the sake of your story - consider what would happen in real life.

If you have written a female lead who is charismatic and beautiful and intelligent but just can't find the right guy - you need to give us a REALLY good reason why she can't find the right guy. It can't just be that all the guys she dates are idiots - because - in real life - there are countless great guys out there. 

Only in badly written film scripts are all the guys out there - bad eggs. 

So they're the two TAKEAWAYS for today. 

RELATABILITY - and TRUTH. 

If you can create characters that RING TRUE in the world you are creating, and if you can make us RELATE to them, your script will sing. 

As did LIFE ITSELF.







Monday, 27 February 2017

2016 BLACK LIST - BLOND AMBITION

TITLE: Blond Ambition

Written by: Elyse Hollander

Length: 119 pages

Top of the 2016 Blacklist with 48 votes. 

Rep: John Zaoirny - Bellevue Productions


Logline: Chronicles Madonna in the 1980s New York as she struggles to get her first album released while navigating fame, romance, and an industry that views women as disposable.

SUMMARY:

The logline really sums it up - We start with Madonna at the start of her booming career in 1984. Her first album has dropped and it's an uber success. Everyone wants her and things couldn't look better. 

We then jump back one year earlier. Madonna doesn't have half the recognition she has in the opening scene. But she doesn't have no success. She is in a successful band called the Emmy's, and they're signed to Sire records, one of the big four record companies. 

But things aren't going their way. Her A&R rep only wants to have sex with her, and her agent at Sire won't even try to convince his boss to release their record they've recorded.

Madonna is frustrated. Her band-mates seem more interested in getting drunk and being cool than actually striving for success. 

The problem is the production of their album. Whoever produced it, did a really bad job. All the mixes are waaaaay off. Madonna knows that their only chance of success is to get a really good producer onboard. She tries to get the producer who did David Bowie's last album, but she can't even get an interview with him, she's that off his radar. 

Everything seems to be lost - until - a Latin DJ by the name of Jellybean enters her life. 

Jellybean is the most sort after remixer in all of New York. He's also impossible to get a meeting with. But that doesn't stop Madonna. As Jellybean is DJing at the coolest club in NY, a dance-off begins on the dance floor. Madonna cuts in on the dance off - and whips her opponent's ass. 

Jellybean sees this and is intrigued. 

Their relationship develops from there. After much coercing, Jellybean eventually agrees to produce Madonna's album. 

History tells us just how successful that first album was - so that's not where the intrigue of the story is. What keeps you hooked is watching just how determined Madonna is and seeing what she will do to achieve her goal - world domination. 

INITIAL REACTION:

Very often I'll read a screenplay that's at the top of the blacklist and have almost no idea WHY it received that many votes. But not this year - at least not with Blond Ambition. 

This script is solid from start to finish. It's great even if you're not a Madonna fan. I'm apathetic about Madonna - I can appreciate and respect when a singer-song-writer is as successful as she is, but my iTunes has none of her songs in it. This script is so well executed, a love for her music is not necessary. 

You know what makes this script successful? It's all about a woman's drive to succeed. There's a lesson in that for screenwriters. People love to watch stories about underdogs succeeding - but they love to see the underdog EARN their win. 

If the road to success is too easy, the opposite happens - viewers will get annoyed with your hero, they'll start to hate them because they had their success handed to them. 

CONCEPT:

BIOPICS are always in demand. Why? Because people LOVE true stories. Even when we know how the story ends - we love to see the journey and the fight that these people went through to achieve their goals. 

A biopic about Madonna is sure to make money. She is one of the most successful female music artists in the world. Arguably THE most successful in the modern era. 

There is one downside to writing a biopic about a famous musician - the film will only work if the rights to the music can be bought. And that can send the budget up into the stratosphere. 

I highly recommend writing biopics - and if you want to see a guide on how to do it well... read this script. 

FORM

This would be the 'worst' part of this screenplay. It is densely written. But when I say 'worst', please note that I write it in quotation marks for a reason - the writing here is stellar. 

I only skim read the descriptions - as they were waaaaaay over written. But there are two ways to read a script. 1) Speed mode. Where you skim read, or 2) Normal mode - where you take in every line. 

Most people skim read to get a feel for a script - if you can read 120 pages in 60 minutes and still understand the story - then that - in itself - is testimony to the writing ability of the writer. 

If I were a producer with an eye to making this film - then I'd sit down, take my time with the script and savor every word and every scene.

So as a writer, you have to try to find a balance. 

You want to write a lean script so readers who are skim-reading can zap through your story and still understand it. But you also want there to be substance to your tale. 

This script, I feel, is over written by about 20% - but it's still a damn fine read.

STRUCTURE:

Biopics are funny when it comes to structure. If you're telling a true story - you are bound by the facts that happened in real life. 

But here's where good writing comes into. 

You can have the EXTERNAL EVENTS play out as they did in real life - but you - as the writer - control what goes on INSIDE your hero. 

So to that end, you can create a more traditional structure while still staying true to real life events. 

It's interesting to note that MADONNA'S FLAW is NOT resolved by the end of the script. 

Madonna's flaw is that she uses people to get what she wants - the sacrifices are her personal relationships. 

With that in mind, this story is actually a tragedy. 

A tragedy is when a hero learns of their flaw - but even though they know about it - they choose to KEEP their flaw - and ultimately their life is doomed. 

A great tragedy is Leaving Las Vegas. If you haven't seen it, or read it - it's a great film and book. 

But the thing about M's flaw is that it drives her to succeed. It's very interesting in that regard - the one thing that destroys her personal relationships is the one thing that allows her to excel far beyond all her contemporaries.

CHARACTERS AND DIALOGUE

Both executed incredibly well. 

The way to tell if a writer has really put time and effort into their characters - is to judge them by how well they write their smaller characters. Even the bit players here shine. 

Here's a tip - try to name every single one of your characters in a script. When a character is named - RECEPTIONIST or NURSE #4 - that character suddenly doesn't feel real. Give them a name and they suddenly feel real.

Dialogue is well done here also. Each character has their own voice and way of speaking. It's a great example of how to do dialogue well. 

VOICE

The strength of your VOICE comes down to how easy it is to read your sentences. 

Sometimes I'll open a screenplay and it will take me three reads of the first paragraph to understand what happened. That's bad writing. That's poor sentence structure. 

Then, other times I'll open a script such as this one and the first paragraph is so easy to read your eyes slide across the page with ease. 

Here's a tip - try to write the way you talk. For some reason, writers often assume a different voice when they write. They feel there is a certain style they have to adhere to. 

There really isn't.

Writing is simply conveying a story. The easier it is to understand the story the better. 


PRODUCTION

This film is period. Being set in the eighties means it's almost as expensive as setting it in the 1900's. 

Also, the cost of licensing the music would be uber expensive. We're talking millions - just for the rights for the music. 

Also, it's about Madonna - so all the big name actresses would want in on this role - so - again, you're looking at a lot of money for the leading role. 

I'd say this film couldn't be done on much less than 20 million. That's the absolute lower end.

Realistically I can see this film being made on or around the 40-million-dollar mark.

But if it were well executed - it would stand to make a good return.

Which, really - is what the film BUSINESS is all about.