Thursday, May 31, 2012

Screenwriting Article - What The Hell Is Backstory???

Good Will Hunting has some of the best backstory integration ever in a script.


It’s essential to every screenplay.

Yet so few writers understand how to apply it. 

Some choke their screenplays with so much backstory, their story suffocates and passes out.  While others add so little, it’s like their characters were born the second they typed “FADE IN.”  How much backstory should you be adding to your screenplays?  The answer lies in why you’re adding backstory in the first place. 

Backstory is the key to character depth.  Some teacher or writer started a rumor a few years back that nobody cares about a character’s past.  The only thing that matters is the present – what the character is doing right here and now.  The sentiment of that opinion is correct.  The character present – the choices your hero makes right now – have the biggest influence on how your character is perceived.  But your character can’t make a single choice that isn’t motivated by his past.  Which is why backstory IS relevant.

For example, if a character was sexually abused growing up, their choices in pursuing a serial rapist are going to be different from someone who’s never experienced abuse before.  Or, if you want to go to even more of an extreme, than someone who’s a closet rapist themselves. 

This is why laying out an extensive backstory for your characters is essential.  The more you know about your character’s past, the easier it is to inform their present and future.  In fact, as far as I’m concerned, it’s one of those things that separates the great scripts from the average ones.  I can tell when someone’s done their backstory homework.  Their characters all act and speak specifically.  Whereas when a writer knows nothing about their characters’ backstory, their characters speak in generalities and clichés, usually those that echo popular movies they’ve seen. 

For example, one of the reasons Will Hunting is such an amazing character is because of how well Matt Damon and Ben Affleck knew his history.  They knew the neighborhood Will grew up in, the friends he ran with, the girls he slept with, that his father beat him, how his father beat him, that he was self-taught, how loyal he was, how he’d kill someone before embarrassing a friend while out for drinks.  They knew the same thing about Sean, Robin Williams’ character.  They knew when he met his wife, how he met her (during the Red Sox game), the type of cancer that killed her, how long he had to take care of her.  These two characters were memorable BECAUSE of how well the writers understood them.  And that all goes back to how much research they put into their characters’ backstory.

Not only that.  But the more backstory you know, the more intricate and textured your story will be.  The backstory is where you’ll find out Marty McFly wants to be a rock star, that he’s become best friends with a mad genius, that his father’s been a loser geek his whole life, that his mom used to be a bad girl, that he’s fallen in love, that the clock tower died in the 50s after a giant storm.  The backstory is where you’ll find out John McClane’s wife moved to Los Angeles to pursue her career, leaving him behind.  It’s where you’ll find out Thor’s complicated relationship with his brother.  It’s where you’ll find out Hannibal used to eat his victims.

But how do you integrate backstory into a script?  How do you know when you’re writing too much backstory or not enough?  First, you need to understand the two types of backstory – VISIBLE backstory and INVISIBLE backstory.  Invisible backstory will account for 90% of your backstory research.  It’s everything from where your character grew up to their first love to their level of education to their biggest tragedies to their biggest fears to who they had the best sex of their life with.  Yes, all that stuff matters.  The more you know about your character, the easier it is to make them original and interesting.  The thing is, rarely will invisible backstory show up in a script.  It’s there more to inform your own relationship with your character.  It’s there so you can understand them and motivate their choices.

For example, if you’re writing a Romantic Comedy and your hero, Kate, is about to get married to the love of her life, the boring yet “perfect” Thaddeus, and the dangerous guy she had the best sex of her life with, Cabe, just happened to come back into town, you’ve created the perfect opportunity for conflict. Without having done your invisible backstory research, this knowledge, this opportunity for conflict, may have never presented itself.

VISIBLE backstory is different.  These are the 3-4 major things that have happened in your character’s past that WILL PLAY A PART in the movie itself. You only want to bring visible backstory up if it’s going to be relevant to the story in some way.  So in Taken, we learn that Liam Neeson has been a terrible father and husband.  He was not there for his family, which resulted in his wife falling out of love with him and running off with another man, taking his daughter with her.  His desire to win his daughter over again, to repair that relationship, is what creates the bond necessary for us to root for him saving her once she’s kidnapped.

Or in Bridesmaids, Kristin Wiig’s failed bakery stole a big part of her confidence away.  When it went under, she was forced to take a job she hated, leaving her desperate to find a man.  When she starts dating the police officer, baking again becomes a major theme in their relationship. And when she experiences her rock bottom at the end of the second act, baking visually represents her rebirth.

The point is, visible backstory represents 3 or 4 major things that will influence the story.  Your character may be the world’s pre-eminent Depression-Era nickel collector.  But if collecting nickels never influences the story in a relevant way, then log that under the “invisible” category, not the “visible.”  You only want to mention backstory that influences the plot (“Save the Clock Tower!”) or a character arc (Sean not being able to live life after his wife died in Good Will Hunting). 

So now that you understand backstory, how do you get it into your story?  Do you just throw it in there willy-nilly and hope for the best?  Of course not.  The way backstory is placed in your story is almost as important as the backstory itself. The worst thing a writer can do is have a character dive into their backstory unprovoked.  You guys know what I’m talking about.  Your characters may be between chase scenes.  It’s a quiet moment.  Then all of a sudden one of them launches into a monologue that starts off like: “I was six years old when my father first beat me. I still remember it like it was yesterday…”  Ugh.  Groan.  Please never do this. 

Instead, use Scriptshadow’s Fabulous Five Ways For Better Backstory Integration. You’ll thank me afterwards.

Resistance – One of the best ways to reveal backstory is through resistance. The character revealing their backstory shouldn’t want to.  This eliminates the falseness that comes with your character revealing backstory in the first place.  For a great example of this, watch the “Cage” scene in Silence Of The Lambs.  In it, Hannibal refuses to give Clarice the information she wants until she tells him the lamb story.  She’s desperate not to tell him, but she knows it’s the only way she’ll be able to get to Buffalo Bill before he kills the girl.  So she tells him.

Argument – Hiding backstory is easily achieved when two characters are going at it.  Because we’re so wrapped up in the argument (or conflict), we’re not aware that the writer is actually giving us key pieces of backstory on the character(s).  Watch the Good Will Hunting scene where Will talks to Sean in therapy for the first time.  Will starts challenging Sean’s credentials, and ultimately, his love for his wife.  The end of the scene gets very heated, with Sean physically choking Will – something he clearly deserved.  The conflict in the scene is top-notch, but check out what we learned during it – Sean’s storied education as well as how much he loves his wife.  Use those arguments baby.  They’re backstory batter.

Another Character Reveals The Backstory – You want to avoid your hero revealing his own backstory.  It just never comes out right.  A great way to avoid this is to have someone else reveal it for him.  Check out the limo scene in Die Hard for a great example.  We need to know why John has come to LA to visit his wife.  Instead of John telling the driver (which would’ve been totally out of character), the limo driver takes some guesses.  He figures out that she left to pursue a bigger job.  He figures out that John thought she would fail and crawl back to New York.  John never says a word about his life in this scene and yet we get a ton of backstory on him.

Showing, Not Telling – This screenwriting staple is a great way to reveal backstory.  Why?  Because you don’t have to say a word.  You show it instead.  And showing always resonates more with an audience.  In Moneyball, there’s a scene where Brad Pitt’s character comes to his ex-wife’s place to pick up his daughter.  Do we ever get a monologue about how he screwed up his marriage and wasn’t there for his family and now rarely gets to see his daughter?  No.  But we get a scene where he awkwardly waits in a living room with his ex-wife and her boyfriend while his daughter gets ready that tells us everything we need to know about his past.  Great screenwriters use this technique as much as possible.

Bits and Pieces – The longer you dedicate a moment to revealing backstory, the clearer it becomes that you’re revealing backstory.  The naturalism of the scene disintegrates, and pretty soon it feels like the writer’s stopped the story cold to directly remind the reader what’s going on.  A great way to combat this is to reveal backstory in bits and pieces.  Spread it out instead of throwing it at the reader all at once.  This will hide it, making it harder for the reader to discern that backstory is being disseminated.  One of the best examples of this is Field Of Dreams.  The reason Ray reuniting with his father in the climax is one of the great endings of all time, is because the writer mentioned Ray Cancella’s issues with his father in tiny bits and pieces throughout the screenplay.  You were never bombarded with any huge father backstory moments. So spreading out backstory in small easy to digest pieces is a super way to hide it. 

And there you go folks.  You now know everything you need to know about backstory – one of the more underrated facets of screenwriting.  I can’t stress enough that if you haven’t done an extensive amount of backstory research on your characters, your story is never going to have enough depth to impact a reader.  So go back to your current screenplay and see if that depth is there.  If it isn’t, it might be time to go back to the beginning of your character’s life.  Find out everything you can about him before your story started. I promise that once you do, your story is going to come alive.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Screenplay Review - Ezekiel Moss

Genre: Supernatural Drama
Premise: Set during the Depression, a widow and her son are visited by a strange man who may have the ability to communicate with the dead. 
About: This is the writer’s breakthrough screenplay.  Before this, he was one of the writers on the HBO show, “In Treatment.”  He’s repped over at CAA.  Ezekiel Moss finished high on last year’s Black List. 
Writers: Keith Bunin
Details: 104 pages – Black List draft

Scriptshadow Casting Suggestion: Cillian Murphy for Ezekiel?

I’ve been meaning to read Ezekiel Moss for awhile but everybody keeps telling me, “It’s a good script but really slow.”  That “but” was the killer.  You don’t want any “buts” before you pick up a script.  You want “ands.”  You want “thens.”  But please, no “buts.”

But it turns out the slowness of Ezekiel Moss hit a reading sweet spot for me.  I was heading home from LA.  And since I find it impossible to do multiple things on travel days, I basically had one task – to read a script.  It was one of those rare times when I wasn’t rushed.  The script was slow-developing?  Fine with me.  I had hours to spare.

Add to that the melancholy feeling you get when going home after a trip and I was in the perfect mood for this story.  You’ve spent the last month of your life preparing for something, and then one day it’s just….over.  It’s like “What do I do now?”  You feel kind of empty.  Yet “empty” is the perfect mood to read Ezekiel Moss in.  The characters in this script are all empty.  They need something to fill up their lives.  And little do they know, that something is each other.

It’s 1934, the heart of the Depression.  It’s a small town, too small “for anyone to care about the name” according to the writer.  11 year old Joel Carson has a giant imagination and zero friends.  He lives with his widowed mother, Iris, an emotionally fragile woman, in the tiny Inn she runs.  Iris finds occasional moments of happiness sleeping with the salesman who stop by her Inn every week.  She hates herself for it, but if not for that, she’d be too lonely for words.

The thing with Iris’ job is that it’s predictable to the point of boredom.  The faces may change, but it’s the same travelling salesmen, the same practiced smiles, the same broken promises.  That is until the darkly intense Ezekiel Moss shows up with his witch-like partner, Hepzibah Webb. 

The two ask to stay in one of her rooms for a week and they come with two stipulations – stay out of their way and don’t ask questions.  Iris knows something is up but a girl’s gotta put food on the table so as long as it doesn’t incriminate her, they can do whatever they want. 

Joel finds the odd but vulnerable Ezekiel fascinating, and starts following him around, trying to figure out what it is he and Hepzibah do.  It turns out they travel from town to town to find people who’ve lost loved ones.  And that’s where things get interesting.  Ezekiel has a special talent – he can allow spirits to possess his body.  He can allow the dead to speak to the living.  Or, at least, that’s what he and Hepzibah claim.   

After seeing one of these possessions himself, Joel is a believer, and he runs to his mother to tell her what’s going on.  But because Joel’s imagination has always been so outrageous, Iris doesn’t believe him.  Nor does she want to believe him, as she’s begun to fall for Ezekiel. 

While all that’s going on, the town priest gets wind of Ezekiel.  He’s heard of these two. They’re wanted in towns all over the region for conning people out of money at a time when money is most in need.  It’s time to put a stop to this.

The thing is, all Ezekiel wants is to be normal, is to not live with this curse.  And if this priest tells him he can save his soul, Ezekiel’s ready to take that chance. He now has a child who looks up to him and a woman who’s falling for him.  If he can be “normal,” then maybe he can be part of a real family for once.  In a way, that’s his goal, even if deep down he knows it will never happen. 

Did I mention Ezekiel was slow?  Yeah, reading it feels like every two pages should be one.  But it still works!  Why?  Because the character development here is freaking top-notch.  I mean take a look at Iris.  Here’s a woman who was soul-mate in love with her husband before losing him.  During the accident, he shielded her to save her, ensuring his own death in the process.  She was pregnant with Joel at the time.  Which means there are moments, moments she’d never admit out loud, where she wishes he would’ve lived instead of Joel.  She seeks closeness from the company of other men, even though they’re gone before she wakes up.  The entire town calls her a whore behind her back.  She’s poor, can barely pay the bills.  She ignores the one sense of community the town has – church, alienating herself even more.  I mean that’s a f*cking complex character!  A sympathetic character.  The kind of person you want to know more about. 

But what’s great about Ezekiel is that everyone has a deep backstory – specifically about someone they lost.  And while in most stories, these tropes can become cliché and eye-roll worthy, here, they’re intricate parts of the plot.  Because Ezekiel can speak to the dead, he can bring these figures back.  The characters can resolve their issues with these ghosts.  That was my favorite part about Ezekiel.  People’s backstories actually mattered!

Another reason the slow-build works is that Bunin uses very simple but effective storytelling methods to keep you interested.  First there’s the arrival of Ezekiel Moss.  Everything about this man is interesting.  You want to know more.  You want to turn the page to see who he is and what he’s about.

Once you do find out, there’s a new mystery: “What are Ezekiel and Hepzibah doing here?  What’s their business?”  And as you gradually figure that out, a threat presents itself – the priest.  People are closing in on Ezekiel.  Their business is in danger (conflict).  So even though everything’s moving along at a deliberate pace, Bunin seems to use just the right amount of suspense or conflict or mystery to keep us involved. 

With that said, we could definitely move things along faster.  Bunin has a terrible habit of commenting after every line of dialogue. And not just commenting – but giving a really detailed comment that just sucks up page real estate.  For example, later in the script, Ezekiel is speaking to Iris and says, “Don’t you hope that someday you’ll get married?”  Immediately afterwards we get this action line:  “Ezekiel is asking this question for all kinds of reasons. Iris is deeply affected but she still keeps things light.”

I mean, just get to Iris’ response! That entire action line has already been implied.  This is done ENDLESSLY throughout the script and if Bunin could cut out 75% of these lines, the script would fly.  Right now, it’s in danger of being tossed because of Hollywood’s ADD epidemic.  And that’s too bad.  Because it’s a very powerful story.

For those interested in writing supernatural/horror movies, Ezekiel Moss is a good script to study.  The character development is top notch.  BECAUSE it’s top notch, the dialogue’s strong (a great understanding of character usually results in strong unique dialogue for each character).  And then everything just feels authentic – not easy to do when you’re setting your story 80 years ago.  I really liked this.  Speed it up a little and maybe we have something great. 

[  ] what the hell did I just read?
[  ] wasn’t for me
[xx] worth the read
[  ] impressive
[  ] genius

What I learned: Beware character descriptions that contradict themselves.  I see this all the time for some reason.  “Joe is intelligent yet a bit of an imbecile.”  “Linda is one of those people who’s both happy and miserable.”  Uhhh, what does that mean?  Which one am I supposed to go with? Remember, writing a character description is not about it reading cool on the page – it’s about conveying the character as clearly as possible to the reader.  So here in Ezekiel, Iris is described as having a “winning mixture of toughness and fragility.”  I suppose you can make an argument that this makes sense but to me it’s just confusing.  All I want to know is “Who is this character?”  And that line doesn’t tell me.  Go for clear.  Readers like clear. 

Monday, May 28, 2012

Screenplay Review - The Final Broadcast

Genre: Drama
Premise: A strange cult kidnaps a girl from a small town and uses a local radio talk show to promote their twisted beliefs. 
About: This is the duo who wrote one of my favorite scripts from last year, “When The Streetlights Go On” (finished #2 on last year’s Black List). Not sure if they wrote “Broadcast” before or after “Streetlights” but if you liked that script, you’re going to be plenty satisfied with this one. 
Writers: Chris Hutton & Eddie O’Keefe
Details: 127 pages - undated

I’m still baffled by these writers.  I do not believe they’re only 23 years old.  Not because the writing is so specific or so good, but because they seem to understand things about life that you don’t understand without an older perspective.  I mean, when your generation’s most famous singer is Justin Bieber, you don’t reference The Beatles.  When you grow up during the Iraq War, you don’t know the intricate make-up of Vietnam.  Yet these two seem to know things that are way beyond what their years would imply.  I guess they’re just old souls.  But I won’t be convinced until I see them in person.  

I mean let’s start with the first page - a centered 30 line paragraph detailing the world you’re about to be transplanted into, which includes segments like: “The Final Broadcast takes place in an era neither here nor there. It could be 2012 as easily as 1952. It’s a vacuum; an America that exists only in our collective unconscious. The kind of place Edward Hopper might have painted.” 

Normally I’d slaughter writers for this.  The audience can’t see this paragraph. These aren’t titles or a voice over.  It’s never meant to be seen onscreen.  So if it’s not in the film, it shouldn’t be in the script! And yet I believe it’s indispensible to the story.  We need to understand this world.  We need to wrap our heads around its idiosyncrasies and rhythms and tone to understand how it’s going to play out on screen.  And this paragraph does that. So I’m in. Even though I’d never recommend anyone else trying it. 

But what really sets these two apart – and I probably mentioned this in their last review – is how every single scene in their screenplay feels different.  Read the first 10 pages of Broadcast for example.  We get a monologue from a “Carl Sagan Lite” character in some cheap PBS show about the origins of the Universe.  He tells us, in no uncertain terms, that our existence is pointless.  It’s jarring, unnerving, unsettling, and yet there’s a poeticness to it all that propels you forward. You need to read more.  You WANT TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENS NEXT – the only thing that truly matters in a screenplay.

So what does happen next?  Well, we meet a girl named Teresa Carnegie, who happens to be the daughter of the host of that show.  She’s watching a drive-thru movie with her friend when she’s kidnapped by some very nasty men. 

Afterwards, we run into Gary Glossup, a transplant from the big city who’s just moved in to take over the local talk radio gig.  Gary’s DJ’ing career is turned upside-down when he receives a live call from the men who took Teresa.  They call themselves “The Association” and proclaim that the end of the world is coming.

Because the local cops are morons, Gary has no choice but to get involved in the investigation and save Teresa, a task that’s personal to him as he lost his own daughter many years ago. 

So Gary buckles down and starts investigating the kidnapping, which brings him to another boy who went missing some weeks back named Billy Turman.  Rumors were that Billy was abducted by aliens.  But he was eventually found hanging from a tree during Halloween.  Everyone just assumed he was a prop, until the smell clued them in. 

Gary’s helped by a strange young reporter named Claire who happens to be in town doing a report on a rare moon eclipse.  But when Gary finds out that her credentials don’t check out, he begins to wonder if she’ telling him the truth.  As the eclipse draws near, more insanity begins to unravel, and Gary finds himself questioning everyone and everything around him.  All of this leads, of course, to a shocking conclusion. 

You know that show The Killing?  You know how you’ll be watching an episode of it and you’re wondering why the f*ck nothing is happening??  But there’s still something entrancing about the tone and the characters that keeps you going?  And since you want to find out who killed that damn girl, you stick around?  Well imagine The Final Broadcast as the best episode of The Killing ever written times a thousand – because it has that same kind of dark spooky tone, but it’s actually entertaining! 

And because there’s some actual urgency to it (the eclipse – ticking time bomb!) it moves where The Killing does not.  Speaking of urgency, I have to point out that while these guys do break their share of rules, the core dramatic storytelling pillars are in place.  You have the GOAL – find the girl.  STAKES – her life, as well as the lives of others the cult keeps kidnapping.  And URGENCY – the impending eclipse, when they promise to kill Teresa by.  So with that core there, they can go off-book in a number of other places.

Like the way they write their scenes.  I’ve been Twit-Pitch Reviewing every night and not enough people are surprising me. I’m not talking about big surprises.  I’m just saying, when you write a scene, you have to know that TYPE of scene has been written tens of millions of times before.  So it’s ESSENTIAL you add a minor twist or two to keep it fresh.   

I was just talking about this with a professional screenwriter the other day in fact.  She had a scene that had been in thousands of movies before but she still had to write it.  Just the fact that she knew she had to approach the scene differently put her ahead of 99% of the writers out there, because most writers don’t think about that stuff. We talked it through and found a few new elements which would allow her to write a unique version of the scene, and it turned out rather well.

So here, in The Final Broadcast, we have the sort of common “femme fatale” trope.  Our hero sees the drop-dead gorgeous stunner at the end of the bar and we’re assuming we’re going to get that boring predictable “one-up each other” clever dialogue laced with sexual subtext scene. Then, in the end, he’ll convince her to come home with him.  Instead, he buys her a drink from across the bar, she walks over, hands him the drink, says she doesn’t go out with men twice her age, and leaves.  The conversation is over before it even started.

“Hmmm,” I thought, “that’s a little different.”  And the thing with this script is, it’s packed with dozens of moments like this.

I can’t stress how important this is because it’s the only time I truly get excited by a screenplay these days - when I’m not sure how scenes or a story are going to unravel. That was my experience with “Streetlights” and that was my experience here. 

It’s rare that I give a writer two consecutive “impressives” in a row.  Their follow-up is almost always a let-down.  But these guys have done it.  And in many ways, this is actually a step-up from “Streetlights.”  It’s more structured.  It’s cleaner.  But it doesn’t quite reach the heights of that script and I think it’s because there’s a lack of character connection here.   We really identified with and bonded with the main character in “Streetlights.”  Here, it’s more about the story/the plot.  Luckily, the plotting and story were top-notch, which is why this still makes the “impressive” pile.  I love these writers. 

[  ] what the hell did I just read?
[  ] not for me
[  ] worth the read
[x] impressive
[  ] genius

What I learned: I always say – don’t write 5-6 line paragraphs in a screenplay.  And I’ll continue to say that until my very last script read.  However, any rule can be broken if there’s a direct correlation between the rule and the writer’s strength.  These two are so good with prose, so smooth with their writing, that I actually ENJOYED reading their long paragraphs, which is incredibly rare.  Take for instance, this description of Gary: “He was once a very handsome twenty-five year old.  However many years and many six-packs have softened his features a bit; softened everything but his old school heritage and sense of resolve. He’s a man cut from the same cloth as Newman or McQueen. The kind of guy they just don’t make anymore.”  That’s a long freaking paragraph.  But it flows so naturally and gives you such a great understanding of the character, that you allow it.  So a big part of breaking the rules is understanding your strengths. If you’re great at dialogue, you can get away with 8 page dialogue scenes.  If you’re great with prose, you can write longer paragraphs.  The trick is to never blindly assume you’re good at something.  Make sure you KNOW.  Because that’s the reason behind a lot of bad writing – writers assuming they’re good at something they’re not.  Play to your strengths people!

Monday, May 21, 2012

Scriptshadow in LA - Packaging Material

So because I’m in LA this week running around like a crazy person, there won’t be any reviews.  Well, maybe I’ll have an Amateur Friday review but it’ll depend on time.  I’ll try to post bite-sized chunks of content in the mean time and I’ll start with a little background detailing The Disciple Program sale.

On that crazy first day two months ago when Tyler and I first went out with the script, within about 4 hours, the script had attached an A-List producer and an A-List actor and was being brought in to one of the major studios.  Within about 5 hours, some very big numbers were being discussed.  But here’s the thing.  The A-List actor hadn’t read the script yet.  Or at least, we didn’t know if he had.  He was off shooting a movie in another part of the world.  We knew someone close to him had read the script and was confident the actor would want to do it.  But we didn’t know if he had personally read it.

And this was where I experienced first hand one of those weird confusing things about Hollywood. Sometimes actors will attach themselves to projects without reading the script.  The thing is, I guess, that an actor attaching himself to something doesn’t mean that much in the grand scheme of things.  He’s not signing any official contract.  He’s just saying he’s interested in the project enough to put his name on it.  So he’s not really risking anything if he attaches himself.  Still, as far as the studio is concerned, just his name can be enough to pull the trigger on the sale. They like the script anyway.  But now they have an actor who can open a movie.  Kaboom!

But here’s what you have to keep in mind.  If an actor hasn’t read a script before he’s attached himself to it, you’re taking a risk.  Because what if he reads it later on and doesn’t like it?  Then the package the studio bought is no longer in place and that big splashy sale you made is in danger of becoming like 90% of all script sales – another screenplay that never makes it to the big screen. 

So Tyler and his agents decided to pull back and package the project more securely. That meant getting an actor that they knew was going to make the movie, as well as a director.  The thing with directors is that it’s very hard to get a good one attached to a script.  Remember, unlike actors, who can make 3 movies a year, directors take years to make a movie.  So they’re much pickier.  Getting anyone of significance can be extremely challenging. 

So now you have a great script, an actor who’s telling the studio he definitely wants to make the movie, and a director.  It’s basically like the movie’s being handed to the studio.  They can see it.  They don’t have to do anything.  That’s appealing.  And it’s better for the writer when that happens too.  As coveted a prize as making that big spec sale is to a screenwriter, the people on the other side of the fence look at it much differently.  They see spec sales all the time, shrug their shoulders indifferently, and say, “It’ll never get made.”  And they’re usually right. 

The only thing anyone really cares about or puts any stock in is GETTING THE MOVIE MADE.   That’s the true finish line.  That’s when you get all the respect, all the accolades.  And the reason why is because it’s really f*cking hard to do.  Which is why having produced credits on your resume ups your profile so much.  So in a lot of ways, carefully stepping back and packaging The Disciple Program was important for Tyler’s career.  Because if Disciple gets made, he’s officially in the mix.  His profile shoots up and his quote shoots up as well.  A produced screenwriter is a BIG deal because that writer’s proven that his words get movies made.   Since that’s all anyone wants to do, everyone in the business is seeking THOSE screenwriters out first.

Still, I keep thinking back to that day when we sent the script out and think, “If Tyler would’ve sold it that day, it would’ve been a HUGE story that people would’ve been talking about for years.”  I mean, nothing like that had ever happened before.  There were so many weird variables to selling that script– and in that amount of time (5 hours??).  With no reps.  With a first time writer that no one had even heard of 3 hours ago?  It would’ve raised Tyler’s profile in a completely different way.  Because going through that packaging process took so much time, a lot of that had been forgotten, and the buzz wasn’t as high.  There was definitely a trade-off to going that route.

I think when I first started all this, I thought the process was a lot simpler.  You send a script out and people either buy it or they don’t.  But there’s a lot of planning – a lot of strategy that goes into it.  Do you go out to actors first?  Try to get a director?  Who do you go out to?  Who do you avoid?   Do you prep everyone?  Or do you spring it on them out of nowhere, like we did? That approach was what got the project so much buzz in the first place because everyone was trying so hard to figure out what Disciple Program was and where it came from that they were calling everyone else.

I think the route Tyler ended up taking was the better one for his career.  But I’m not going to lie and say I don’t think about what would’ve happened had it sold that day.  It would’ve been mayhem.  Not even Deadline would’ve been able to ignore the Scriptshadow factor if that had happened.  J  What do you guys think? 

Friday, May 18, 2012

Screenplay Review - The Disciple Program (Amateur Friday)

This is a re-post of the original Disciple Program review that I posted on February 24th because....The Disciple Program just sold! With Mark Wahlberg and Morten Tyldum attached, an awesome new director who directed a film called "Headhunters" (google for the trailer). Congrats to Tyler. I know he had higher offers out there but his goal was to get this movie made so he's been carefully working with WME packaging the thing so that this is a movie and not just one of the 9 in 10 script sales that never gets made. I'll be putting together an interview with Tyler soon so we can go over all of the nitty gritty details with you guys. It's been pretty interesting watching the entire process of a script from that crazy first day to finally selling. Lots of stuff I never knew goes on behind the scenes. So for the weekend, chalk one up to SS and a fellow Scriptshadow reader. We're on the board!

A review of the screenplay that's turned into one of the rarer more interesting screenwriting stories in awhile.  And yours truly found himself in the middle of it. :)

Amateur Friday Submission Process: To submit your script for an Amateur Review, send it in PDF form, along with your title, genre, logline, and why I should read your script to Keep in mind your script will be posted in the review (feel free to keep your identity and script title private by providing an alias and fake title). Also, it's a good idea to resubmit every couple of weeks so that your submission stays near the top of the pile.

Genre: Thriller
Premise: A man begins an investigation into his wife’s mysterious death, only to find that it goes much deeper than he imagined.
About: The first amateur script to ever crack The Scriptshadow Top 10. Tyler was an unsold unrepped writer out of Brooklyn when he sent this to me. After I sent the script out to half a dozen industry contacts on Wednesday, the script has found its way into every agency, management company, and studio in town. Late yesterday, Tyler finally made his decision to go with WME, who will put a package together for the project and go out with it in the near future.
Writer: Tyler Marceca
Details: 114 pages

Poster courtesy of Brian Kelsey!

As the creator of this blog, I dreamt of this moment. I wanted to find a script that nobody else knew about, that no studio or producer or agent or manager knew existed and celebrate it here in front of the world for the first time. I was hoping to do this on a regular basis. But as we’ve found out together over the past three years, good scripts are hard to come by.

Well, I finally found one. And it all happened rather unexpectedly. Tyler contacted me out of nowhere to consult on his latest screenplay. My prices have gone up a bit in recent months so I got the feeling he was reluctant. But in the end, he decided to go for it, and sent me a script called “The Disciple Program.” “Cool title,” I thought to myself, then prepared to note away.

I don’t know what time travel feels like but I’m assuming it feels something like this. I remember starting the script, then looking up and seeing that I was on page 30! *And I hadn’t written a single note down.* Just for reference, I usually have a couple pages of notes by the end of the first act.

Hmm, I thought. That’s odd. This never happens. But a small part of me was still worried. I’ve read a lot of good first acts, only to find a writer who doesn’t know how to navigate a second act. So I kept waiting for the jenga pieces to crumble. Not because I wanted them to. Good God, finding a great script is every reader’s dream. But because that’s what usually happens. I didn’t want to get my hopes up.

But ten more pages passed and it still wasn’t crumbling. Ten MORE pages passed, and it actually *started getting better.* And then the midpoint came and I realized, Holy Shit, this is the real deal.

And when you hit the real deal as a reader, it’s the most exhilarating feeling in the world. The only thing better are those divine moments of inspiration you get as a writer.

So afterwards, naturally, I called up Tyler and said, “Where the f&%* did you come from???” And he said, “Brooklyn.” After talking to him for awhile, I learned that this script had actually started from a contest – The Writer’s Store “Industry Insider Screenwriting Contest.” They do a unique thing where they give you a high concept yet slightly generic logline from a professional screenwriter (in this case it was Robert Mark Kamen – the writer of “Taken”) and then you send them ten pages at a time, for which they provide feedback, and in the end they name the winner. He informed me that he had just won that contest. (I believe their new logline for this year’s contest is out if you want to check it out!).

That didn’t surprise me at all. In fact, Disciple Program looks like a winner from the very first scene. It takes that old screenwriting axiom of “Make your first ten pages great” and crushes it with a thousand megatons of failed screenplays. Great is for amateurs. It goes for amazing.

We meet Jocelyn, a psychiatrist at a mental hospital – that’s gotta be a rewarding job – who’s been tasked with probing the mind of a convicted serial killer. He’s not quite Hannibal Lecter territory. But I’m guessing this guy’s nibbled on his share of human flesh.

At this point I’m musing, “Okay, this might be a cool scene. Scary ass lunatic in a tiny room with a vulnerable woman. Only one guard nearby. I’m digging it.” Well, a few pages later, the man regurgitates a shiv, grabs the guard, stabs him a dozen times before he can blink, then, still handcuffed to the chair, he starts reaching out, desperately trying to do the same to Jocelyn, who’s inches out of his reach.

As long as she stays in this exact spot, he can’t get to her. That is until he starts CUTTING OFF HIS OWN HAND WITH HIS SHIV, desperate to get across that table and kill Jocelyn. Who the fuck is this guy? Is he nuts?? Well, yeah, I guess he is. But this goes beyond “nuts.” It’s like he values killing this woman more than his own life. That can’t be normal, can it? Then, just when it seems like he’s going to succeed, guards race in and save her.

In the meantime, we meet Jocelyn's husband, Roger, one of those predator drone pilots. He gets to send planes into hostile territory, take the enemy out, fly home, without ever leaving his computer. When Roger hears about the attack on his wife, he hurries over to the hospital. But when he tries to console her, she’s stand-offish, distant. We realize that even a near-death experience can’t repair the issues these two have going on. Roger clearly wants to be closer to his wife. But she’s put up a wall.

So Roger takes Jocelyn home, figuring a little rest will calm them both, and maybe he can deal with this tomorrow morning. But he never gets that opportunity. When he wakes up, he finds Jocelyn dead in their swimming pool.

The coroner calls it an accidental drowning, but Roger has a funny feeling about it. Something’s not right here. So he looks deeper, going so far as to inspect the body himself, and what he finds is shocking. On the back of her neck is a piece of carefully placed synthetic skin, meant to blend in with her real skin. He rips it off to find a small pin prick.

There’s no doubt now. Somebody killed his wife. But who? And why? She’s just a psychiatrist who works at a mental hospital.

That’s where Roger begins the investigation. He wants to talk to Cut-Off-His-Hand Dude. Not surprisingly, the guy isn’t the best conversationalist. But to his credit, it’s looking like his attack and her murder are unrelated. Yet when Roger checks the security tapes, he sees that in the hour leading up to his wife’s attack, every camera in the facility was turned off. Hmm…Strange.

It doesn't take long for Roger to realize that if someone wanted his wife dead, they probably want anyone looking into her death dead too. As if on cue, a couple of highly trained killers move in, Nurse Kathy and The Arsonist, gas Roger in his home, and take him out to a remote cliff to put an end to his life.

Roger barely squirms out of that one, and when he does, he realizes just how bad this is. While Nurse Kathy and The Arsonist are two of the most lethal killers on the planet, they’re chicken feed compared to the people he just pissed off. These men will stop at nothing – NOTHING – to kill Roger. What they don’t account for, however, is that Roger’s just as determined as they are, and he WILL hold responsible the people who killed his wife.

Where do I start with this one? I basically loved everything about it. Surprise, huh? Seeing as I’ve been tweeting about it every 10 seconds for the last 72 hours. The only thing that sucks about The Disciple Program is figuring out where to start with its awesomeness.

I guess I'll start with its consistency. Bad amateur scripts have one good scene followed by 10 average scenes. Then another good scene, followed by 6 bad scenes. Tyler made sure EVERY – SINGLE – SCENE was worth reading here. There were no bridge scenes. He didn’t take any scenes off. Every single scene mattered. Every single scene was *dramatized.* That’s what was so cool about The Disciple Program. It never allowed you to NOT like it.

The next thing I noticed was the intelligence. Most bad scripts feel like they were slapped together by someone who keeps “Jackass 3” saved on their Tivo and eats Fruit Loops for dinner. There’s no depth to the writing. There’s nothing about the world they create that you haven’t seen before in other films or TV shows. So it all feels generic. Here, there was a genuine intelligence, uniqueness and understanding of the world in the writing. It was so convincing, in fact, that I called Tyler afterwards and asked him how long he’d been on leave and when he had to go back. He laughed and assured me he’s never been in the military. But I don’t know. I think there’s more to that story.

What really made this stand out though were the characters. Every single character in this script is memorable. I can’t BEGIN to tell you how rare this is. From the wife to Roger to the nurse to “The Arsonist” to the big man in charge, Ambrose, to the military men Ambrose hires (Arroyo and Vickrey) to the even bigger man in charge, Beau. This is the area that really separates the top dogs from the lap dogs. Strong writers know how to make their characters unique. Newbies don’t put any effort into character creation, therefore it’s rare for any of their characters to stand out.

I’ll say it again but they – along with everything else - felt so SPECIFIC. The way Ambrose goes about recruiting a couple of dangerous U.S. soldiers with sordid pasts to help him take down Roger – I’ve never read a scene like that. It was just so convincing. I’m used to writers bullshitting their way through those scenes. I felt that Tyler had either been in that exact same situation himself (yes I REALLY thought that) or he’d researched the shit out of how these conversations typically go down (which is even scarier when you think about it – where do you find people who have been in that kind of situation before?).

And the scene construction here – it’s just SO good. Every single scene BUILDS. There was suspense, conflict, curiosity. It was like each scene had its own story. Each scene stood on its own.

One of my favorite scenes was when Nurse Kathy and The Arsonist gas Roger. He wakes up, paralyzed in a car. He can SEE The Arsonist and Nurse Kathy in front of him, but he CAN’T MOVE. They’ve drugged him. So all he can do is watch helplessly as they set up his fake suicide – a plan that includes manually inserting a liter of whisky into his stomach then pushing his car off a cliff.

It was one of the most intense scenes I’ve ever read. He’s just WATCHING them casually plan his death and there’s nothing he can do about it. All you’re thinking is, “How the hell is he going to get out of this one??”

(spoiler) Then, just as the arrogant gloating Nurse Kathy puts the finishing touches on her Rembrandt, she looks into his eyes, as if to taunt him one last time. And there’s something she sees that’s not quite right. In a brilliant payoff (that’s too complicated to get into here), Roger wasn’t paralyzed at all. He swiftly GRABS her and proceeds to take both her and The Arsonist out, forcing Kathy, in particular, to suffer just as horrible a death as she was planning for him.

And that's the thing about this character - he was so badass! He was so capable, so clever. Usually, when I read these screenplays, the methods by which the characters get out of situations are entirely dependent on the writer helping them. Here, Tyler writes himself into corners, practically daring himself to find a way out. This forces him to come up with really clever solutions to things. Every time it happened, I would just get this big smile on my face. A smile of, “I fucking never see this in screenplays. This is nuts!”

Another thing I'm always telling you guys to do is to make sure your script builds. Make sure that each challenge in the script is bigger than the last. Most of the scripts I read go in the opposite direction. Writers throw everything into those first 45 pages then don’t know what to do next. So the rest of the script is one long balloon deflating.

We start Disciple with serial killer Edmund, move up to third tier villains The Arsonist and Nurse Kathy. Then we get to Ambrose, who’s just about the coolest most confident villain you'll ever meet. He hires two military men and goes on a personal vendetta to end Roger’s life. But Ambrose is nothing compared to our final villain, the man above him, Beau. This guy practically runs the CIA with an iron fist. So you really get the sense that our character is going up against bigger and bigger obstacles.

I haven’t even gotten to the dialogue, which was amazing (Go read the scene where Beau and Ambrose are out on their respective building decks with Beau giving Ambrose the business – fucking awesome). This had some of the best monologues I’ve read in a script. There wasn’t a single moment in the story where I didn’t believe what was coming out of a character’s mouth. That NEVER happens when I read a script.

Let’s see…the pace was great. The structure was great. The writing was top-notch. Am I leaving anything out? I mean, when I read a script, I’m charting about 8 things that show a mastery of the craft. They include things like character, structure, dialogue, pacing, conflict, theme, that sort of stuff. Most amateur scripts I read are lucky to have 1. This may be the first script I’ve read to have all 8.

There were really only a couple of things I thought could be improved. There are times when the prose feels a bit overwritten. I discussed this with Tyler and he’s just a guy who likes words. He’s not out to prove that he knows more than you. His inspiration is writers like Brad Ingelsby (The Low Dweller) so that’s just his style. I’d like him to keep it a little simpler but then again, I’m not the one who wrote this great script. So I’ll trust him.

And next, I felt like there was a missed opportunity with the Predator Drone. It pops up late LATE in the script. But I would’ve liked to have seen it featured somewhere. I mean you have this guy who pilots predator drones. That’s got set-piece scene written all over it. I suggested a scene to Tyler of having to access the drone from some ratty old laptop when surrounded in the remote cabin (he’s stuck in a remote cabin near the midpoint) and have to use a really bad internet connection to get the drone out there to kill his assassins before they move in and kill him. Tyler’s response to that idea was about five seconds of silence, lol, so I knew where I stood with that one. I’m just going to leave the writing to him. But I would like a bigger predator drone scene.

A couple of weeks ago, finishing Disciple, I knew I had found something special. I knew that these kinds of moments don’t come around often – finding a really great script from an unknown writer. But I had no idea that it would blow up as big as it did over the past few days. I mean, I had producers calling me saying they’d been forwarded the script by four different people in the last hour. I heard over a dozen producers were flying around trying to put the project together with multiple packages. My phone blew up (I don’t know how – nobody has my number) as I quickly realized I was in a strange sort of interim manager position since Tyler didn’t have any reps. That’s what was so unique about this. Usually when this kind of thing happens, it’s a calculated thing with agents and managers carefully orchestrating the buzz. It’s never really been done like this before so nobody knew – even seasoned producers - where to go or what to do. Including myself!

And it was a little nerve-wracking and fun talking with Tyler during the process, who when I first told him I was going to send the script out to some contacts, expected to field 3 calls, maybe 4 tops. He didn’t expect to be on the phone for 8 straight hours two days in a row. He didn’t expect to have to turn down calls from producers who just days ago he would’ve sold his left arm to talk to. It was insane.

But towards the end of yesterday, when Tyler finally signed with WME, and he finally had a second to just breathe, he said something that really stuck with me. He said, “Carson. I don’t want to deal with any of this stuff. I just wanna write.” And it was a really cool moment because I remembered that all of this craziness was just that – craziness. And what matters most is the writing. To that end, I think Tyler’s set for a long time.

[ ] Wait for the rewrite
[ ] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[x] impressive (Top 10!!!)
[ ] genius

What I Learned: I have a funny little postscript to this experience. So after I finished The Disciple Program, raced to my phone, called Tyler, and asked him where the hell he came from, we had a couple of laughs and then he casually mentioned that he’d sent me a script 8 months ago for notes. What?? I said. You’ve sent me a script before?? There’s no way I would’ve forgotten a script by this writer. So after the call, I went back through my notes and indeed, found an old script that I covered for him. I quickly remembered it. It was a script with all sorts of talent. But the story itself was all over the place and muddled. And I remember giving him that note. That he needs to focus his story more because the talent is clearly there. And just 8 months later, he came up with this. And I think that should serve as a motivator to every writer out there. You’re going to learn with each script. You’re going to get better with each script. You just have to keep writing. So stay inspired. Your own breakout moment could be a script away. :)

Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Scriptshadow Writer Scale

LEVEL 10!!!

Back when I taught tennis, there was something called a NTRP Rating. To this day I have no idea what NTRP stands for, but its purpose was legitimate. It ranked players on a 7 point scale. So a player with a solid forehand, decent backhand, and consistent serve in the 80s, might be a 4.0, while a player with a high national ranking who could pound groundstrokes consistently deep into the court with heavy topspin, might be a 6.0. This allowed us pros to group players according to their level as well as place them in the right leagues and tournaments.

That always had me thinking: Why don’t they do the same thing for screenwriters? Because I think one of the big problems with screenwriters is they have no idea where they stand. Assuming an imaginary 10 point scale, there are millions of 1s out there who believe that they’re 10s. And that’s because there’s nothing to go by. It’s frustrating not just to see these writers deluding themselves, but if a writer doesn’t know where the checkpoints are, how can they possibly know what they need to do to get better? And hence, the 10-Point Scriptshadow Writer Scale – a detailed breakdown, from 1 (lowest) to 10 (highest) which tells you where you stand. Are you ready to find out your level?

If you’re on your first or second screenplay, you’re probably at Level 1 status. Level 1s usually know very little about storytelling. They often start their stories with no idea of what’s going to happen from scene to scene, making everything up as they go along. They’re not yet aware that events must progress in a logical fashion to make sense to a reader, and therefore much of their story bounces around illogically. Characters are often replicas of characters from their favorite movies and therefore display no originality. Dialogue scenes can go on for 10 pages at a time with no point – they’re just people talking. Most Level 1s assume screenwriting is easy and therefore put very little effort into the final product.

A level 2 writer has typically read 1 screenwriting book (usually “Save The Cat”) and is therefore aware of the 3 act structure, giving their stories a little more form than a Level 1. The problem is, while they know where the act breaks reside, they have very little idea what to do inside of those acts, particularly the second act. Their dialogue is typically on-the-nose and feels false as a result. Also, the writer hasn’t learned the importance of clarity yet, leaving out key pieces of information that they erroneously assume are obvious. This ensures a lot of head-scratching on the reader’s end, as they’re constantly trying to keep up. For example, the writer may know that their protagonist is a recovering alcoholic, but they don’t tell this to the reader. So when that character falls off the wagon and starts drinking again, it’s supposed to be this big powerful moment, but means nothing to the reader. Many Level 2s believe that since they’ve written a few screenplays, they know everything. They don’t. Not even close.

Level 3s are still often writing personal stories with very little market appeal, making it nearly impossible to sell their script or get noticed. Their structure is getting better – particularly the first act – but they still don’t know what to do with their second act, resulting in 60+ filler pages whose only purpose is to get them to that ending. Ironically, their scripts tend to be on the long side, usually 125 pages or more, and they *insist* that they need every single one of those pages, even though more than half the pages are extraneous and/or repeating information. Another problem is that their dialogue scenes are way too long, and usually consist of two characters discussing topics that the author thinks are interesting, even if they have nothing to do with the story.

Level 4 is usually where the writer first learns the importance of a strong goal that drives the story. Not only does this give the story a point, but it makes the main character active, since he has to go after something. Because these two things are so important in creating a great story, the jump from Level 3 to Level 4 is one of the most important a writer will go through. Level 4s also write good first acts, since having a character goal makes setting up the story a lot easier. But they still falter when they get to the second act, as even though they know where the protagonist is going, they don’t yet know how to create obstacles, reversals, surprises and interesting relationships, the things that keep the second act entertaining. But if you can make it to Level 4, which can take between 1 and ½ to 2 and ½ years depending on your talent level, you put yourself in a strong position to make it as a screenwriter.

Level 5 is when a writer first *really* understands the importance of concept. They’re no longer trying to write Academy Award winning scripts that change the world. They realize that in order to get noticed, you need to write something that appeals to the studios, and a marketable concept is the best way to go. Level 5 is also where writers first typically stress “showing” (tell the story through action/visuals) as opposed to telling (characters explaining through dialogue). They’re also learning to hide their exposition more so that characters aren’t speaking so on the nose. Their story is becoming more invisible. Although they don’t add conflict to every scene, they’ve started to subconsciously pick up on its importance, and therefore have quite a few strong scenes. Level 5s will occasionally place in contests as contest runners will see the potential in their work.

Level 6 often signifies a writer who’s in it for the long run. This writer has read a lot of the screenwriting books and has taken the best from all of them to develop his/her own approach. He/she also understands the importance of reading scripts, which they read a lot of. Level 6 is also when character development first starts to become a major focus for the writer. They’re just as interested in developing characters with full arcs as they are plotting their story out. Their scenes are also much better as they understand how to get into scenes late and leave early, giving their scripts a crisp “straight to the point” feel. There’s more conflict (in the plot, in the characters, in the relationships, in the scenes) making a larger chunk of the script entertaining. The thing is, while a Level 6 KNOWS all these things, they haven’t yet perfected them, giving the scripts an unpolished feel. Level 6s will place high in many secondary contests, possibly even winning a few.

Level 7 is when a writer really begins to “get it.” They’ve had all these pieces they’ve been perfecting for so long, but now those pieces are finally starting to fit together. It’s one of the more magical times for a writer, as they’ll experience a lot of “Ah ha!” moments. Outside of a strong marketable concept, Level 7s often look to the power of irony (i.e. a lawyer who can’t lie) to make their concepts and stories even juicier. Characters become the primary focus, specifically creating characters who are relatable and who have interesting problems and backstories that need to be resolved by the end of the story. Structure is never an issue with Level 7s. The dialogue is also a lot better since they keep their scenes short and to the point and have done enough character work that their characters speak distinctly and specifically. The problem with Level 7s is that they sometimes stress the craft side of screenwriting so much that their scripts feel a bit mechanical. Everything is where it’s supposed to be. The characters are all going through transformations. And yet there’s something missing that prevents the story from connecting with the reader. The writer hasn’t yet learned how to make all of these things feel natural, feel invisible. Level 7 is usually when writers start to make money off of their work, getting small jobs here and there. A few of them will even get lucky, selling a script if they have a really great concept. This is why you sometimes see so-so professional writers. They’re Level 7s who caught a break.

A level 8 writer has almost all of the screenwriting tools at their disposal and is working on perfecting more advanced techniques, such as dramatic irony, invisible set-ups, and thematic consistency. They can easily recognize when a scene or section isn’t working and know how to fix it. This skill is essential for working in the industry since that’s what you’ll be doing most of the time – rewriting your own and other people’s work. Level 8, in my opinion, is also when you first start “moving” readers emotionally with your work. It’s when you first create characters who really resonate with people, who feel real to them. This extends to the story as well. Often when reading a Level 8 writer, the reader isn’t aware that they’re reading a script as they’re too lost in the story. Their dialogue scenes often have subtext and in most scenes, there’s usually more going on than what’s on the surface. Strangely enough, Level 8s still struggle with the second half of the second act and can get overconfident, believing that their writing is good enough that it can overcome a weak premise, ironically putting them back at Square 3 – writing an unmarketable script. Level 8s are making a living off screenwriting, but aren’t yet trolling the 90210 zip code on Trulia for their next home.

A level 9 writer has gotten to the point where they can break time-tested screenwriting rules and still get away with it, since they know how to counteract them. Level 9 writers are specifically aware of what the studios and producers want and cater their premises accordingly. They know, for example, that to get a non-book-franchise movie made, you need an A-list actor to play the lead – which means coming up with an intriguing protagonist role with a lot of meat that an A-lister would love to play. Their execution is first rate and they know how to make every single moment interesting – even that damn second half of the second act. Level 9s don’t stop at making their primary characters interesting, but make sure every single character in the script is memorable and changes in some way. These guys are the meat and potatoes of the industry and are responsible for most of the movies you enjoy. They get paid at least 500k per job and are sought after for all the big assignments.

Level 10 is master status, Aaron Sorkinville, Academy award winning screenwriter. There are only 20-30 of these writers working and they know EVERYTHING about screenwriting. They know how to manipulate every single button inside of you using conflict, irony, sympathy, character flaws, all to make you laugh, cry, angry – WHATEVER they want you to be! They know every trick in the book to keep you turning the pages as well – anticipation, obstacles, mysteries, dramatic irony. They can write a character who seems like your best friend even though you’ve only known him for a few minutes. They can make you fall in love with a woman even if women aren’t your preference. Every scene has a specific purpose. There is no fat. They can completely ignore rules and still make it work. But what really separates these guys from the rest of the pack is how fast they work. They not only give you a great screenplay, but they can do it in a very short amount of time, something only a coveted few in Hollywood can pull off. Which is why they’re paid so much money. Once you reach Level 10 status, you can quit. Cause you’re at the top of the mountain baby.

Now is the Scriptshadow Writer Scale perfect? No. There are some writers who are naturally gifted with dialogue, for example, who still might be a Level 2 in every other category. But generally speaking, these are the observations I’ve made after reading every type of script from every type of writer under the sun. So how do you accelerate your ascent up the scale? Simple: LEARN AS MUCH AS YOU CAN ABOUT THE CRAFT. Read all the books. Read a ton of scripts. Write! Trade scripts with a screenwriting group. Get constant feedback. Study! It doesn’t mean you have to listen to everything you read. In fact, I encourage writers to perfect their own unique approach to screenwriting. But you can’t perfect something you don’t know anything about. So keep at it. Hopefully this scale gives you an idea of where you stand and where you need to get to. Good luck. :)