Seminal seminar

I chose the Japanese poster of Taken as the cover because it’s one of Keith Strandberg’s top ten favourite fight-oriented movies (the others being The 36th Chamber of ShaolinAbove the LawBattle Creek BrawlThe CrowEnter the DragonFist of FuryFive Fingers of DeathThe Octagon and Rapid Fire).

As for the title, Keith (a screenwriter/producer) wrote an unpublished manuscript titled Action Film Making Master Class (which he copyrighted and uploaded online in 2009). A reference to Alien 3 as being recent indicates that he had this book project since 1992 – a year after the completion of American Shaolin made Seasonal (a Hong Kong film company) realize that they had hit a brick wall in terms of distribution.

What I’m doing with this article is the equivalent of writing a magazine article which contains a book excerpt. This goes a long way in drumming up business, so what a better way to drum up business than giving readers what seem to be a lion’s share of the manuscript but is actually a small fraction that only covers the writing process.

Duly noting that publication is the difference between having a manuscript and having a book, Keith’s work will only be published if it is publicized. As for the legal aspect, I only used a small percentage of his manuscript – a big enough portion to advertise it but tinier enough that it makes sense for you to buy it. This is what he has to say about writing…

The gist:

While a bad story will sabotage an otherwise great movie, a great story will often help a bad movie. I know that statement makes it sound like the screenplay is not at fault when a bad movie is made, but that’s not true. Many failures at the box office (or the video cash register) can be directly traced to the screenplay.

The ideas:

How do people come up with great ideas? Do they wake up in the middle of the night with the entire plot line of The Terminator fully formed?

Well, sometimes, but that’s pretty rare. The way that an idea is formulated is as unique as the ideas themselves: what works for me might not work for you, and vice versa. There are some common denominators to the idea generation process. Brainstorming is non-judgmental. You come up with ideas, write them down and don’t think about their quality. Things to avoid in this first step: labeling your ideas bad or good.

Try to get the longest possible list of ideas. Don’t look at them right away – let them stew for a day or two then take them out when you have a fresh perspective. Many ideas which I thought were diamonds had lost their luster when I reviewed them in the cold light of day. On the flip side, ideas that I thought were not very well conceived turn out to be pretty good. Never throw any idea out – it might not be right for just now, but it could resurface later (or be combined with something else). When you get the list of your best ideas narrowed down to five or ten, decide which one you want to work on right away.

The hard work is in the expression – if you consider several of the hugely popular movies (such as Home Alone) were not necessarily great ideas (we all might have come up with those), but the way they were written and then made was far superior to anything out there. It’s a conceit to think that all ideas are unique. Many times in conversation with other writers or film professionals, I’ve found many similar ideas coming from disparate people. Often, ideas come from recent events, or other similar sources, so the movie’s genesis could be exactly the same, and the resulting product can often be similar.

The research:

One of the reasons why I continue to write for magazines like Law Enforcement TechnologyMass TransitS.W.A.T. and others is because I get to talk to so many people from so many walks of life. If you are doing a police story, the best thing to do would be to do your own interviews – basing your characters on real police officers, not ones you’ve seen in the movies or on TV. If the source which you are using got things wrong, mixed up even the smallest bit, it will be magnified in your story. The easiest stories to write are also the hardest because they require not so much research as imagination. The best stories combine both e.g. Raiders of the Lost Ark.

The concepts:

There are two kinds – HIGH and LOW. The former is simple and universal, so can usually be explained in one paragraph or less (the best stories can be described in one sentence). These stories don’t call for much deep thinking. Most action movies fall into this category. Low concept movies are harder to pigeonhole, so they can’t be summed up in one paragraph. They are normally relationship movies like Driving Miss Daisy or Steel Magnolias. In either scenario, they tend to adopt a narrative structure akin to a play which consists of three acts.

The length:

Unlike novels or nonfiction, there are not that many words. Where a mainstream novel can easily be upwards of 400 pages (or in the case of Stephen King – over 1,000 pages), the average screenplay is about 100 pages long. Half of that is empty space, so that the words fit into the confines of the format. That’s not a lot of writing, really. What is down there on the page has to be really well done.

The details:

A screenplay is not meant to be read. It’s meant to be seen. That means that lengthy description is not a prerequisite of a screenplay. It often just gets in the way. Economy of words is important to a screenplay, as you have to tell the story within a limited number of pages. With a novel or a nonfiction book, you can tell your story in as many pages as you want, and indulge in typing beautifully flowing passages, but you shouldn’t do that in a screenplay. First off, you’ll look like an amateur. Secondly, you’re wasting your time. Remember that in a novel, you’re trying to create a world, but in most movie screenplays, you are writing something that is going to be filmed.

You still have to set the tone, and give the people a sense of what the story is going to look like, but the actual physical look of the picture is not determined by you. It’s up to the director and the art director. For example, the writers of Batman set the “tone” but the “look” of the movie was up to Tim Burton (the director) and Anton Furst (the art director). In the case of fantastical stories (such as Alien) where the world described doesn’t exist anywhere but in the imagination, these screenplays rely more on feeling than actual description.

You have to impart a certain amount of immediacy and purpose to a screenplay, because there can be wasted pages in a novel, but every scene in a screenplay has to have a reason for being there. It costs so much to shoot a movie. Every scene takes so much time, it’s important to realize that you can’t just write a scene because you like it. It has to work in the overall picture. If it doesn’t, cut it. That doesn’t mean that the deleted scenes were wasted. Chances are they will appear in another screenplay.

The adaptations:

Novels that have been turned into movies are usually disappointments. A novel can be so much broader in scope and depth than a movie could ever be that it’s almost asking for trouble to adapt a best-selling book. One recent example is the 1990 attempt to adapt Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987). As documented in a book titled The Devil’s Candy: The Anatomy of a Hollywood Fiasco (1991), it was plagued with troubles from the start.

Everyone had an opinion about the casting. There were attempts to alter the story in subtle ways that the studio thought would increase the audience. Well, everyone was wrong, and the movie flopped. There have only been a few novels made into successful movies e.g. Gone with the Wind. The mythical lure of a built-in audience is too great for the powers that be. Some movies are made from short stories (e.g. The Lawnmower Man) because this is easier to do (the movie has to expand on the existing story rather than distill it).

The format:

Most screenplays fit into a standard format. The only way to understand the format is to look at a bunch of correctly formatted scripts. Although there are some conventions, the format of a screenplay varies greatly from screenplay to screenplay. Any rules or regulations which I give you will be proven wrong by the first screenplay you read. There are some general guidelines to follow. You can experiment with what you are comfortable with, mix and match the different formats you will see. It’s not so important to be exactly like another script, but to be consistent throughout your script. For example, if you are only capitalizing the first occurrence of character name, but then in the middle of the script, you start to capitalize everyone’s names, it can be disconcerting for the reader. Suddenly, they are concentrating on the formatting, and not the story.

The guidelines:

1) Character names are capitalized on FIRST use, then normalized from then on except when used to identify who is speaking the dialogue, where they are usually capitalized and centered on the page.

2) Scenes in a spec script, or a non-shooting script, are not usually numbered.

3) Pages are usually numbered at the top right.

4) If the scenes should be numbered, they are numbered in the right margin, because screenplays are bound on the left side, making it very hard to see the scene number in the left margin.

5) Dialogue is set off by indents from the margins.

6) Often, screen directions that include ACTION or SOUNDS are capitalized for effect.

7) Camera movements (which should be kept to a minimum in your script), e.g. BOOM, RACK FOCUS, ZOOM, PAN, are normally capitalized.

The Terminology:

INT. – Interior

EXT. – Exterior

B.G. – Background

O.S. – Off screen

V.O. – Voice Over

C.U. – Close Up

E.C.U. – Extreme Close Up

ZOOM: Change of Image with Lens

PAN: Camera swivel

BOOM: Camera movement up and down

DOLLY: Camera movement on a track

CRANE: Higher Camera movement

RACK FOCUS: When the lens focuses quickly from one object to another (usually front to back or back to front)

The fights:

The most troubling words in an action screenplay are: They fight! These two simple words can result in 3 – 8 (or more) days of work i.e. the expenditure of a great deal of time, bumps, bruises and lots of money. I’ve seen scripts where the fight scenes are called out in depth, while in others these two words say it all. It’s up to the writer, ultimately. In my scripts, I don’t bother calling out all the details of the fight. I set the situation up, establish the basic parameters, the tone, I delineate any special features, and then wrap it up in an interesting way.

The meat of the fight is going to be done by someone else anyway, and they are going to change almost everything I would write, so there’s no reason to write it. In a spec script, you might want to spell out the details, though it doesn’t have to be in blow by blow fashion. Just a general feeling is good enough. It’s just as well because you can get a movie like Beverly Hills Cop where the star is mostly doubled. The standard format for action pictures and fight sequences is to place the hero in mortal danger, against odds that would make the strongest and bravest of us raise the white flag, then let them fight their way out of it. Movies like Commando make their money that way.

The dialogue:

There are times when ad libs are called for but you want to keep this to a minimum. Too often, I’ve been treated to dirty words and other expletives when I’ve asked for ad libs. There are times when the actors will have some input into their character, but you know the characters better than anyone else. Don’t back off your position. You can listen to what someone has to say, and if it’s a good idea, you can let them do it. You have to be careful – if you let them change the dialogue too much, they’ll get the idea that they are in charge. They are in charge of their performances, but you are the one who created the characters.

Why is dialogue so important? After all, films and videos are visual. True, the best possible way for a film to tell a story is to show it, but some things also have to be spoken – and that’s where dialogue comes in. Dialogue at its best will do several things at once: it will advance the story, it will illuminate the character talking (and perhaps other characters), and it will touch the audience. Dialogue at its worst will jar the senses, will make the audiences shake their heads in disbelief, and just kill time between action scenes.

The exposition:

Many times, there isn’t a need for exposition in dialogue. For example, the idea of love between two characters doesn’t have to be said – the audience can get it from a look, or a kiss, or from what isn’t said. Essential plot elements sometimes cannot be shown, and have to be said. It’s a general rule of thumb in any kind of writing to not have your lead character do any exposition. Exposition is usually the domain of secondary characters. Let’s say you have a scene where the other characters are going to find out that the protagonist’s wife and children were brutally murdered by the big bad guy.

The worst possible way to handle this scene would be for the lead to say this: Don’t you understand? My wife and kids were brutally murdered! I have to get him. I can’t let him live. The lead is talking almost directly to the audience, explaining a piece of information that is vital to the story. This is better handled in a more subtle way, perhaps by having the lead leave the room and have someone else explain that he is upset because the bad guy killed his family, or maybe have one of the other characters find the newspaper clipping about it, or have the lead bad guy boast about it.

The assignment:

To find out how much dialogue contributes to the storyline, try something: rent a movie that you haven’t seen before, and watch a couple of scenes with the sound turned completely off. Watch the expressions and actions of the people involved to see if you can tell what is going on without the sound. Then, watch the same scene again and this time listen to the dialogue. How much did you miss without the dialogue? What ideas and plot points were imparted solely within the dialogue?

The homework:

Take one of your favorite movies and concentrate on one of the pivotal scenes then turn off the TV and come up with some ideas of how the scene could have been changed. List the different changes. Pick the best idea for changing the scene. Rewrite the scene you’ve chosen, and play it back through your mind. Decide whether it’s better, and why.

The profanity:

I’ve always had a debate with the people at Seasonal Film about swearing in our movies. On the one hand, for a story to be realistic, there should be swearing. Bad guys swear all the time – every other word out of their mouths, usually, is an expletive. I hate to have swearing in my movies. I think it shows a distinct lack of creativity. It’s easy to write swear words, but I’m always reminded of the saying that people swear because they can’t think of anything witty or intelligent to say.

I’ve sat through movies where every other word is the f-word, so I fast-forwarded through the dialogue. I’m concerned about kids in the audience. They shouldn’t swear, but if they hear their heroes in the movies swear, they’ll swear too. They hear enough profanity – they don’t have to hear any more from my movies. That’s my position, and why my movies don’t have a lot of swearing in it.

The rules on one hand:

#1: Enter a scene at the last possible moment.

#2: Leave at the first possible moment.

#3: If a scene doesn’t do more than three things at the same time, get rid of it.

#4: If your scene doesn’t advance the story, cut it.

#5: Each scene should have a beginning and an end.

The outlining:

I outline every scene before I write, so I know exactly where I am going, who is going to say what, how it is going to start and end. I try to see it unfold in my mind, on my own internal screen, before I write it. That doesn’t mean that I am going to follow this outline completely. I might get some additional ideas during the writing, which I will incorporate into the scene, or I might decide to write the scene a different way, but at least it gives me a framework to follow. There are some writers who don’t outline at all, who just sit down and bang it out. There are stories about screenwriters who have written a complete script on the plane from L.A. to Cannes, or lock themselves into a hotel room for two weeks then emerge with a finished script. I’m not like that. I’m more methodical. I refuse to rely on any muse.

The selling:

Once you are established, it’s easier to get people to read through a script. Witness the 3 million given to Joe Eszterhas for Basic Instinct or the 1 and a half million given to Shane Black for The Last Boy Scout. With a first script, you are competing with dozens (sometimes hundreds) of other scripts. You have about 10 pages to grab someone and make them keep reading, because most busy executives give up on an unknown script if it doesn’t make them keep reading after page 10.

William Goldman, the novelist and screenwriter (the mind behind The Princess Bride) is one of my favorite writers. His screenplays are perfect examples of selling the story. He maintains that a screenplay should be a good read. You can tell that by his screenplay writing style. Humour is laced throughout – not just in the dialogue but in the screen directions and the exposition in the screenplay itself.

His scripts are a pleasure to read and a great education in the technique. One of my favorite insider books is his Adventures in the Screen Trade, which also happens to include the complete script for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. It’s a great book and a great deal. I recommend that you buy and study it.

The development:

For me, development (the time to write the script) takes about 2 months, and then we proceed into the next phase – pre-production. I’ve read about other projects and their development, and I know that this development stage can last up to 5 or more years. I am a firm believer in the vision of a writer or creator. If you try to listen to too many people, that vision will ultimately get distorted and lose the special ingredient that it had in the beginning. A tip-off to a project that has problems is when the writers are not the same as the person/people who created the idea. When there are more than two writers on a project, watch out!

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