We’d all like to forget the bombs but they’re here to remind us of something important — the problems can almost always be found in the script. It’s easy to blame a bomb on the acting ‘talent’ of Ashton Kutcher or the further contributions to the art of cinema of director Paul W.S. Anderson, but sometimes the horror is in the shooting script or even the original spec. Maybe the screenwriter was to blame, or maybe it was the producer that didn’t recognize the obvious structural issues or the director who only cared about their paycheck, but the point is: the script sucked and there was no way this movie was going to work.
Last summer, I led a reader training course in which we read several scripts that were in development or production in Hollywood. Since then, a few of those movies have been released and I can’t help but say: we saw it comin’!
Wes Craven, the horror legend behind A Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream, recently roared back to the big screen with a big ol’ thud when he delivered unto us My Soul to Take, which was based on his original screenplay named 25/8 (a.k.a. Bug. Note: When a movie goes through three titles, it’s probably not a good sign.).
Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption, The Mist, Frankenstein (1994)) and Gale Ann Hurd (The Terminator, Aliens, Armageddon, The Incredible Hulk) have an incredible pedigree in genre movies so it’s no surprise to see that their first television collaboration is on the level of a studio-quality horror film. The aesthetics of The Walking Dead (which premiered with a 90 minute pilot on Halloween night on AMC and became the highest-rated cable premiere of the year) are superb: production design, makeup FX, creature design, extra work, action sequences, locations and performances are all top-notch.
When I first heard about the show, I immediately wondered why no one had previously thought to make an episodic series in the incredibly popular zombie genre? Over the past 10 years, zombies have invaded pop culture en masse, in movies, comic books and video games, so it seemed like a no-brainer to do a high-quality one hour drama set in a post-viral devastation setting that called for numerous point-blank head shots to survive (was that enough hyphens?).
Speaking of which, the show adheres to most of the traditional zombie conventions, one of which is that zombies can only be killed by major trauma to the head. I can safely tell you that if you love head shots, and I’m not talking about those glossies that actors carry around, then this is the show for you!
I watched The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo on Netflix Instant streaming (which is fantastic for spontaneously watching movies that you missed or never wanted to pay theater prices for) and I was underwhelmed. I have not read the book, so I can’t speak as to the faithfulness of the film adaptation, but I can say that as a stand-alone Thriller, I found it lacking on many fronts. A film should stand on its own as a cohesive and satisfying narrative and not ask the audience to fill in the gaps, no matter if it was adapted from any kind of popular source material or it’s part one in a trilogy.
I’m a big fan of the genre and I’m always on the look-out for the next Great Thriller. I’m hoping for a new twist on classic Thriller archetypes and story engines driven by a character that I can emotionally invest in such that when they’re in danger I feel true tension for them. Think of Clarice Starling fumbling around in the dark, pistol out, as the serial killer Jame Gumb shadows her with the night-vision goggles. True terror.
Lisbeth Salander? You are no Clarice Starling. (Yes, Lisbeth is an interesting character; she’s the best thing about the film, but for me, she can’t make up for the many flaws in the story.)
If The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo wasn’t based on a best-selling book and I read it as a spec, I would have sent it back to the slush pile. Here’s why…
5 things wrong with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (the Swedish movie):
1. Lisbeth and boys. Talk about repetition. Lisbeth Salander burns a guy alive in a flashback from her youth, ostensibly for revenge. Lisbeth tortures and rapes her probation officer, definitely for revenge after the bastard did the same to her. Lisbeth watches the serial killer burn in the overturned car…sweet revenge for all of those women he murdered. And in the end, Lisbeth steals millions from the unseen tycoon Wennerstrom and starts a new life; revenge for falsely convicting her new lover, Mikael Blomkvist.
Four Advanced Screenwriting Techniques used in The Social Network
1) Angel and Devil.
The use of two supporting characters who push and pull the Protagonist between Good and Evil.
In The Social Network, we’ve got Eduardo (Andrew Garfield), Mark Zuckerberg’s (Jesse Eisenberg) best friend from the dorm days and Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), who sweeps in and tempts Mark into his world of nightclubs and high-rollers. Not coincidentally, Eduardo and Sean hate one another.
One of the greatest tools for learning the craft of screenwriting is writing Story Maps of your favorite films. When I was working as a professional Reader back in the day I wrote coverage on the original spec script of The Sixth Sense the night before it was to sell for over $3 million in a bidding war. Although I wrote an analysis of the script, it would be years before I truly understood why the “big ending” works so well in terms of the overall narrative structure.
As any normal screenplay consultant would do, I decided to record some thoughts about the power of Story Mapping Raiders of the Lost Ark while driving on the 405 and 101 South to the first annual Inktip Pitch Summit in the Universal Hilton in Los Angeles.
Raiders of the Lost Ark is my favorite film of all time but it took me years to understand that seemingly “soft” climax that finds Indiana Jones closing his eyes while the Ark of the Covenant does all the work for him in laying waste to the Nazis. Action heroes don’t just close their eyes and let biblical chick-demons take out the enemy, do they?
Major movie studio screenplay consultant and professional Script Doctor Dan Calvisi decided to drive and shoot at the same time on the topic of unlocking the structural secrets of the action-adventure classic Raiders of the Lost Ark…
I got inspired to deliver a message about the power of Story Maps while driving on the 405 and 101 South to the first annual Inktip Pitch Summit in the Universal Hilton in Los Angeles.
I love Raiders of the Lost Ark — it’s one of my favorite movies of all time but it took me years to understand that seemingly “soft” climax that finds Indiana Jones closing his eyes while the Ark of the Covenant does all the work for him in laying waste to the Nazis. Action heroes don’t just close their eyes and let biblical chick-demons take out the enemy, do they?
It wasn’t until I created a Story Map for Raiders of the Lost Ark that I truly understood how the screenwriters pulled off this advanced technique. Please bear with me and don’t video and drive…
I encourage you to write Story Maps for your favorite films to unlock the structure and craftsmanship that makes them work so well.
You can learn more about my method and get my help to craft your own screenplay by purchasing my E-Book series.
I’m honored to have my original screenplay “Donnington” reviewed on the fantastic site “Scriptshadow,” which is run by the indomitable duo of Carson Reeves and Roger Balfour. I’m a big fan of the site and check in daily to see what the guys have written up. It’s the best way to keep up on what’s hot in the Hollywood spec market.
Christopher Nolan and his co-screenwriter Jonathan Nolan used the Story Maps method to structure the screenplay of Inception. If you analyze the narrative, you will see every one of the elements of the “Basic” and “Full” Story Map.
The most important element in the Inception screenplay is the GOAL of the protagonist, COBB, played by Leonardo DiCaprio. It is so important to this particular story that it covers up potentially problematic story decisions and inhabits three of the nine main dramatic elements in the Basic Story Map…
Robert DeNiro and Bradley Cooper on the set of "The Dark Fields"
The Dark Fields by Alan Glynn was one of my favorite books I read on the job for Miramax Films back in the heyday of literary development and now it’s in production as a major feature film starring Bradley Cooper and Robert DeNiro (from Rogue Pictures and Universal Pictures). It’s been a long road for screenwriter/producer Leslie Dixon and she deserves a great big hit movie. Of course, she’s no stranger to hit movies with a resume that includes Hairspray, The Thomas Crown Affairand Mrs. Doubtfire.
But even for a hugely successful studio veteran, it was a struggle to get a green-light. It took her years to get this film made. And this is how she did it: when Miramax failed to green-light it, she took the material on her own and never gave up on it. There were several stops and starts, including a big break when Shia LaBeouf signed to star in the thriller [Variety: 4/13/08], but when Shia dropped out the film would have gone back into development hell if not for the tenacity of Leslie Dixon.
So, once again, I tell you…Don’t Give Up.
Harvey is great with ballsy, mouthy bitches like me… The deal was struck.
Since I only knew my side of the origin of this project — I was tasked to do two rounds of notes on the book, the first pre-publication and the second post-publication when there was a script treatment — I emailed Leslie Dixon in ’09 and asked her about her stint with Miramax. Here was her reply…
(2004; Screenplay by Paul Haggis, based on stories by F.X. Toole; Directed by Clint Eastwood)
Million Dollar Baby is an incredibly focused story. Screenwriter Paul Haggis achieves what I call “story cohesion” by making sure that every element logically flows from strong main dramatic elements while generating conflict.
The first level of focus is on a crucial element in the “Basic” portion of my outline method which is called Story Maps: Theme.
The theme of Million Dollar Baby is “second chances.”
Congratulations and further good luck to my clients Joe Puterbaugh and Ron Cecchini and fellow The Writers’ Building member Stephen Hoover on making the semi- finals of the Silver Screenwriting Competition, the Top 20 which represents the top 2.5% out of more than 1,000 entries. Silver is quickly becoming one of the premier screenwriting contests so it’s fantastic validation for these hard-working writers and I’m proud to have worked with them.
In a movie, especially a superhero action thriller, there must be HIGH STAKES with SERIOUS CONSEQUENCES. Life or death. Loyalty or betrayal. Love or Duty.
In The Dark Knight, the screenwriters wisely push the story to the extremes of the conflict. To find those extremes, they began with Bruce Wayne/Batman’s character and mythology and used those elements to push him into an impossible situation.
Here are three “essential truths” of Bruce Wayne/Batman:
Bruce Wayne has sworn to protect the people of Gotham City.
Bruce’s alter-ego Batman is the only thing that can protect them.
Bruce’s one rule is not to kill.
The screenwriters will push Bruce into a position where he has only two options:
Give up his identity as Batman and turn himself in to the authorities, or
Kill The Joker.
In other words: an impossible choice. This is what great drama is built upon.
The glue that holds it together is Theme.
The Theme of The Dark Knight is “Desperation pushes men to act in self-destructive and chaotic ways.”
You know who your story is about and what it’s about and why you’re telling the story…but HOW are you going to tell it?
Think about the general way that you’re going to tell the story before you start to lay out the scene list. What’s your way into this story?
E.T. was crafted to be told from the perspective of a young boy, Elliot. We pretty much only see what he sees, know what he knows. The film even employs low angles to give the audience the perspective of a child.
The Usual Suspects is literally told to us by Kevin Spacey’s character, who spins a long-winded tale meant to answer the question “Who is Keyser Soze?” The answer is not revealed until the climax when we learn that he is Keyser Soze.
Citizen Kane uses the framing device of a reporter’s investigation, thus motivating a trip through the life of Charles Foster Kane, all in answer to the question “What is Rosebud?”
Slumdog Millionaire uses the questions in the quiz show as catalysts for flashbacks that show us Jamal’s journey from the slums to his lower-class job as a Chai server to his chance to win a million dollars on TV — these scenes show us how he gathered the information to answer the question at hand, a deft use of Cause & Effect. The quiz show becomes the spine of the story, providing the foundation for Jamal’s pursuit of his external and internal goals, which are, put simply, the money and the girl. It’s interesting to note that these two goals represent Jamal’s two worlds: the upper class world of money and the lower class world of danger and desperation.
These examples were the screenwriters’ chosen perspectives and central engines for the story. They could have chosen 100 other devices with which to tell these particular stories, but they chose these narrative devices, probably because they best exemplified the key elements in their Basic Story Map, like Goals, Theme and Arc.
Working, professional Reader Carson Reeves runs a site named “Script Shadow” – if you haven’t checked it out, you should do so now.
Script Shadow consistently publishes detailed reviews of spec scripts that have recently sold in Hollywood. Carson reads and reviews the Black List finalists (in which most of the top scoring scripts have been optioned, sold and/or put into production by the time of publication) and any spec that’s hot and garnered a six to seven figure sale or a greenlight. He also runs small contests (with the prize of a published review from him, not cash, which I like) and publishes articles about what goes into a great screenplay.
So now you know Hollywood’s dirty little secret. Bad scripts do sell! But here’s the thing about all of the above examples: THEY DON’T APPLY TO YOU. You don’t have agents or managers or the luxury of pitching movies over lunch to people who can actually make them. The ONLY thing you have…is your screenplay. And that’s why YOUR screenplay DOES have to be great.
I always suggest opening with a compliment — the “kill ‘em with kindness” approach — that way you don’t just sound like you want something from them but you’re here to contribute something to their obviously stellar output. Plus, everyone likes a little ego stroke, especially in Hollywood.
Open the letter by congratulating them on the success of their latest film and tell them how much you love one of their smaller, critically-acclaimed films. They will appreciate you noticing one of their lesser-known, more artistic efforts. I also suggest doing some research and pointing out an obscure fact about them and their work that could only have been known by someone who took the time to do their homework.