Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The last day of Austin 2011...

Sunday arrived and after three days of not enough food or sleep and far too much booze, I was feeling ropey. BUT – today was possibly the biggest day of the festival in terms of amazing content. AND - a producer had asked to read one of my scripts, giving me a much-needed boost. So it was on with a coffee drip and a large amount of sugar to keep me going.

First up was a workshop on rewriting. With Terry Rossio. This was the session I’d been looking forward to the most. He said he’d felt there was a lack of practical writing advice at the festival, with a lot of very general tips on the process but nothing in-depth.

This was his answer – some weeks prior to the festival, writers were invited to submit a scene from one of their scripts. Rossio would then pick one or two of them and demonstrate live how he would rewrite them. One of my scenes went in before the deadline, so I had my fingers crossed....

The workshop lasted for nearly two hours, but I would willingly have sat there for four or five, because a. Terry Rossio is a really interesting guy who’s gotten the T-shirt in terms of writing and b. the group discussion generated by the session was brilliant.

Rossio began by explaining when he first became a writer. He had written a short story and his writing partner rewrote the last paragraph when they went over it. It was when he saw his partner’s rewrite that he saw the power of including certain words, of going over and over your text and polishing it until it “sings”. Giving the reader as much content as possible per syllable.

It’s really hard to summarise all the other things I learned during this 90 minutes, but I’ll give it a try:

  • Rather than description overload, you have to be in service of something greater. Read your script out loud – this is essential. It will tell you what needs to be cut.

  • Don’t think it’s “good” or “fine” – it can always get better. You have to believe that. Your killer line can always be better.

  • It’s “holds”, not “is holding”. It’s “a dog barks”, not “a dog starts to bark”.

  • Use one space, not two, in between dialogue sentences.

  • It’s amazing how often taking out the first part of each sentence in dialogue makes it sound better!

  • When going over scenes, ask yourself “Will this scene serve as an important lead-in? Will it help the plot?”

  • Performance dialogue needs silences, sounds, pauses and things like “mmm” and “uh”. Little odd pieces, idiosyncrasies.

  • Actors hate question marks in performance dialogue – they hate to be reduced down to asking questions. Also, they can do very little with just saying “no”. Experiment with how they can answer negatively without bluntly saying no. Rephrase questions into speculations, for example.

  • If it’s important how one character holds another in a certain way, for example, describe it. Otherwise, “holds” is fine.

  • Characterise the scene – what’s happening in it? What’s happening in the background?

  • In polishing, a lot of time gets spent fixing spaces and formatting. Don’t add any extra spaces that you will have to take out later.

  • The beginning of a script is the one time you should get a little flowery – the opening image is important for the reader to get a sense of the script.

  • Use “we see” if necessary but be very sparing with it and only use it in particular cases.

  • Put in dashes (- - - ) to add pace.

  • Every word counts! Try out a lot of different words for each action or movement to make sure you get the right one.

  • Give your script a “look” or logo – this will help you believe that it will exist as a product out there.

  • Each script should have a separate folder on your computer. Terry Rossio has around 25 sequences for each script he writes with his partner, with the 25 divided up between them. By doing this, they are thinking the same way the production team will – in terms of sequences. This process comes from using index cards, then writing up an outline. Once they are both finished writing, Rossio will cut and paste the 25 sequences into a master file, which is the completed script. Here’s the thing that amazed me – they don’t read through the whole thing until this point!

  • Printing out the completed first draft and reading over it on the page is essential.

Rossio put two scenes from people’s scripts up on a big screen and literally went over them, making rewrite suggestions in red. He took input from the audience as he went along and took some of our opinions on board. One point he did stress at the beginning was that all of this was just his opinion, that it was all subjective. But still, I could see how the changes he suggested were making the scenes tighter, more polished.

Everyone got very excited at the end because he promised to rewrite everyone’s scene and send them on by email! I can’t wait to see what he does with mine – and I really hope this session becomes a regular fixture at the festival because it was fascinating.

Then there was a run across to the Stephen F. Austin hotel, where Michael Arndt was giving a presentation on Endings – the Good, the Bad, and the Insanely Great. He developed and delivered this presentation at Pixar, where it apparently blew everyone away, and I could soon see why.

Arndt began as a script reader in a story department after film school and reckons he read hundreds of screenplays. He saw that most movies just don’t get made, and began to analyse why. His boss at the time claimed that there is no such thing as a bad script, only an unfinished one, i.e. that the writer didn’t refine it through enough drafts. Most screenplays Arndt read seemed to fail in Act 3, or have Act 3 problems. So he concentrated on identifying what it is that makes a good, bad or brilliant ending.

His theory is that a “good” ending will be at least somewhat surprising, whereas a “bad” ending is one you see coming from miles away.

But a truly great ending is a combination of three things; it’s surprising, positive and most important of all, meaningful. Films with great endings stay with you. They can even show you how to live your life.

Here’s just some (really, this was a long session) of what he covered:

What is the meaning of the story? The meaning of Star Wars, for instance, is “trust your feelings”. The meaning or true values of the film should be revealed in the climactic two minutes.

Your hero can be his or her own “enemy” – Rick in Casablanca is a good example of this. But the three movies he went through in the presentation, Star Wars, The Graduate and Little Miss Sunshine, all involve heroes who are essentially innocent.

There is usually an insult-to-injury moment for your hero – in Tootsie, for example, hero Michael Dorsey believes that the best actor will always get the part. But he’s wrong; he’s soon about to see that someone much less talented but more famous is going to get the part he deserves. This puts the audience on the side of an otherwise unsympathetic hero.

Your hero should ideally have three “arcs” during the story – an external arc, an internal one and a philosophical one. In The Graduate, for example, Benjamin’s external goal is to figure out how his life will be different. What will he do differently from his parents? His internal goal is to connect and find love. And his philosophical arc involves love versus conformity. Freedom versus rules.

The climax moment usually happens between pages 89-91 in a 100-page script. The hero will have had a moment of despair, when he or she has done everything they could, but it’s not enough. They’re going to fail anyway – on every level. Benjamin has failed to stop his girlfriend Elaine from marrying another man. He has failed to find a real connection. And now the jaded society of rules and cynicism has won. Then he turns it all around by making a kamikaze moment of commitment and interrupting Elaine’s wedding.

Arndt showed us the moments of despair and decisive action in all three films. It’s amazing that the two moments – despair and victory – in Stars Wars, for instance, are only 45 seconds apart. They should ideally be as close as that for the greatest emotional impact.

The hero’s decisive moment – the one that wins the day – has to be positive, surprising and meaningful, leading to a great ending we did not see coming.

Apart from his writing skills, Michael Arndt is a brilliant teacher who knows screenplay development inside out. Another writer told me afterwards that he nearly had a brain meltdown during Arndt’s presentation – his brain was buzzing with how all this related to his own scripts. I know how he felt – apart from Terry Rossio’s, this was definitely the session with the most implementable material. I felt like going to the nearest internet cafe and writing a script there and then!

However, instead I shared a cab down to the Rollins Centre, where Shane Black and Anthony Bagarozzi were holding a public reading of their latest screenplay, The Nice Guys. This being Shane Black, he didn’t have just any old actors playing his two heroes, recovering alcoholic enforcer Jackson Healy and boozed-up private eye Holland March. No, he had Peter Weller and Thomas Jane, both of whom kicked ass.

I really hope that they – and the rest of the uber-talented cast – get to do their stuff on the big screen soon. This is a gritty, hilarious thriller that’s got Black’s trademark wit all over it. There was a bit during the reading where Jane’s character was supposed to fall over a rail during a party and go tumbling down into a canyon. Jane staggered back, fell against his chair and went flying backwards off the stage, where he (and the chair) landed with a crash. Everyone winced – that must have hurt! I thought he’d accidentally gone too far with a stunt, but I heard afterwards from someone who was there during rehearsals that he’d been practicing!

That was it for the official festival activity, but the night was still young. I caught a concert at The Continental, where local legend John Dee Graham and singer-songwriter Sarah Walter Sharp did a great gig. Then it was on to the Beavis and Butthead party (held at a bar called Frank that serves hotdogs!) where I met Mike Judge, creator of B&B as well the best movie ever written about the workplace, Office Space.

The thing about Austin is that you always hear some stories you can never repeat. All sorts of inside gossip. Well-known, well-paid people letting their guards down and revealing that they too, have the same insecurities and self-doubt as anyone just starting out. Once again, I met a lot of people, and they ranged from people like me at the start of their careers to people who’ve been writing for 30 years. Showrunners, screenwriting stars and local characters.

This mix of people and the access all areas vibe is what makes AFF great. I look forward to going every year and this time was no exception. Roll on 2012 – I can’t wait!


Rob Hampton said...

Wonderful write-up! Thanks very much for posting this! I was at the Arndt 'Endings' panel - he kept going until 5:00, and practically had to be dragged out of the room! Austin really is as great a festival as one can imagine! See you next year!

eilism said...

Thanks Robert! Yes, he was still talking when I left - I had to split in order to make the Shane Black reading and it was a very close thing!

It was an excellent presentation though and one of the highlights of the festival for me.

TOC said...

Couldn't agree more. I was at the Michael Arndt session and it really blew me away. Sure, we've all read all the books on screenwriting etc, but it was so helpful to HEAR it all laid out - using some different vocabulary - to make the mystery of a great ending seem almost obvious - and attainable. I couldn't wait to get back to my own computer & start hammering away.

Great post.

eilism said...

Michael Arndt's a loss to university teaching - imagine taking his course! I was gutted I didn't bring my laptop, even on the plane home there was stuff I was dying to try out because of his material.

Taking a leap... said...

[...] It’s all too easy to make plans when times are good – there’s no challenge in that. The real planning starts when times are hard and you can’t see how you can achieve your goal. Like a character in your script, you have to take a leap into the unknown and make a commitment. As Michael Ardnt put it, a kamikaze moment of commitment. [...]