FRIDAY'S SCRIPT TIP:

CASTING STORY IN GENRE


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Okay, so our story is about a TV interview - two guys sitting in chairs talking to each other. Oh, and we're also going to go behind the scenes and show how the interview was set up - you know, the research and contracts and stuff. Oh, and this movies is about an old interview - which cuts one of two ways: you either are old enough to know about the interview and have probably seen it, or you are young enough to not know about the interview... so you also don't care about the subject matter. By the way, the interview is on DVD - so you can watch the real thing, not the movie recreation, if you are really interested. Why watch some actor play the President, when you can go down to Blockbuster and rent a DVD with the real President? The original interview could be seen for free in your living room, this movie will cost you $11.50 at the cineplex - plus $5 for a soft drink and $5 for popcorn and $5 for candy you could buy for $1 in the store. Okay - how do you make this movie worth seeing? How do you make it exciting?

You cast the story in a genre.


JANE AUSTIN'S THE GODFATHER?

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When you are up for an assignment, you usually have to "pitch your take" on the story - find a unique way to tell the story that makes it more interesting and exciting or adds another layer of story, character and/or meaning. That's what we will be doing - finding a point of view or method to tell our true story to make it unique and interesting. Instead of telling our story as a standard drama, we are going to use the conventions of a popular genre and turn what may have been a dull drama or talking heads or a series of events from a real person's life into a comedy or a thriller or a romance or an action film or some other genre that people will line up to see. We are going to use genre as our take on the material.

The historical drama ELIZABETH was one of my favorite films a few years back because they prevented the story from becoming a stuffy history lesson in corsets by "casting it" in the gangster genre. It became THE GODFATHER in frilly shirts - with Queen Elizabeth as Don Corleone having to deal with all of the treachery and skullduggery and double and triple crosses of being in power. Trying to decide who to align herself with when gang wars broke out. And dealing with those advisors who have their own secret agendas and alliances. I had never seen an historical film about people long dead that was as exciting as ELIZABETH. By treating the story as if it were a gangster film - and even turning the scenes of violence into something that would be at home in a gangster film, they turned history into an exciting genre film. The whole movie was told as if it were THE GODFATHER... including, after all if the betrayals are played out... the Queen's final violent revenge plays just like Michael Corleone's revenge in THE GODFATHER. The same scenes - just with frilly shirts and corsets.

PRESIDENT ROCKY BALBOA?

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FROST / NIXON casts itself as a boxing film - sort of like ROCKY. We have an underdog taking on the undefeated champ. Instead of researchers, we get Boxing Coaches - kind of a Trainer and a Corner Man. Everyone keeps telling Frost he has no chance of winning this fight - he is hopelessly outmatched. And from what we see of Frost - he doesn't have a chance. He is a talk show host about to take on the President Of The United States... a President who managed to resign from office without anyone ever laying a hand on him. No proof or wrongdoing. He's like the Champion Boxer who retires without anyone ever laying a glove on him. How can this talk show host possibly manage to last 4 rounds with him?

The 4 rounds element is built into the story - Frost had 4 interview sessions with Nixon, and the film treats each as a round of boxing. In fact the number of rounds and conditions for the fight are set up in a meeting that could have been between Frost and Don King. The first battle is all about how the battle will be fought - how many rounds, what are the rules, how much will be paid... and even who will televise the bout. The Champ gets paid the same whether it's a network or syndicated on a bunch of independent stations. In these negotiations, we see what a powerful opponent the Champ is - Frost doesn't have a chance! He's gonna have to do that full Rocky work out, including beating the meat (if you'll pardon the expression).

But after the fight is set up, the Trainer and Corner Man get pissed off again and again at Frost because he's spending more time in the spotlight as the Contender than he is in training. He's screwing up! He's gonna get K.O.ed in the first round!

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Each of the four interviews plays out as a round of boxing - with questions and answers as punches. There are even two corners, where the Trainers and Corner Men from each side watch the fight as it unfolds - even doing the debate version of yelling "Throw a left! Throw a left!". And the questions and answers become exciting, because it's not just an interview - it is a championship boxing match between a completely overmatched contender and the undefeated champ. We see the questions as punches, the answers as blocks and counter punches. And you, as an audience member, start to look for that undefended area where you might land a punch. "Ask him about...."

As with all great boxing movies, our over matched contender takes a beating in the early rounds, but right before the last round has that big talk with his Corner Man and Trainer (is Oliver Platt or Sam Rockwell playing the Burgess Meredith role?) and works through his pain, uses that secret punch he learned in training but seems to forget when he's in the ring getting pummeled, and goes out to win the fight.

This turns FROST / NIXON into an exciting film... about an old television interview.

WITHOUT ANNETTE

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Best Documentary nominee MAN ON WIRE also casts it's story in a genre. Here we have the true story of Philippe Petit, a tight rope walker who did ballet on a wire stretched between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in 1974. Basically we have the standard documentary material: news footage of the tightrope walk and the aftermath (Petit's arrest) plus some current interview footage. Like FROST / NIXON, it's mostly talking head type material. How do you make it exciting? The tightrope walk is absolutely amazing, but it's just a few minutes long - not enough to make a feature from. We need to use all of the interview material, all of the footage from the past (even some boring stuff of Petit practicing in his back yard) and we need to find a way to make it exciting....

So they cast the story as a crime-caper story like THE HOT ROCK or OCEAN'S ELEVEN or BANK JOB. This gives the events a form, and turns them into a story. By using the conventions of the genre, we have a method of telling the story that is exciting even when Petit is not on his wire 1,350 feet above the street.

The elements of a caper film are: Coming up with the crime, assembling the team, casing the joint, finding an inside man, buying the equipment, doing a trial run and discovering the problems, problems with a team member - can they be trusted?, smuggling the equipment in, things going wrong, almost being caught, pulling the caper - split second timing - and getting the goods, a double cross, the police and an arrest, jail or some other aftermath - usually losing the loot.

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Almost all of those scenes/plot elements become part of the story in MAN ON WIRE, but instead of stealing a priceless diamond or robbing a casino or breaking into a bank vault, the criminal activity here is illegally dancing on a tight rope stretched between the Twin Towers. They have an inside man in the building, they have members of the team they can not trust, they do a trial run where things go wrong (more old footage of Petit), they almost get caught smuggling in the equipment (a great, tense, scene - recreated to add visuals to the talking heads), and after the successful tightrope walk, Petit is arrested... was a team member involved in that? By casting in a genre, the documentary becomes more than just a bunch of people talking about an amazing event in the past, it's a 94 minute thrill ride that explores how this man's art is seen as a crime by the authorities, and how every time he pulls one of these stunts he needs a trusted support team... who he may not always be able to trust. Instead of talking heads retelling a collection of events that end with Petit's amazing wire walk, or a bunch of talking heads reminiscing about Petit dancing on the wire; we get a riveting crime story. If you haven't seen this film, check it out!

If you have a drama or real life event or historical story that may need an interesting take in order to attract a mass audience, consider "casting in genre". Your story holds the key to the genre: FROST/NIXON is a battle between two talking heads... a fight. MAN ON WIRE is about a daring daylight illegal activity... ELIZABETH is about the brutal struggle for power within a small connected group. Look at your story - what are the elements of it that already fit in a genre? Now look at the elements of that specific genre - how many of them match your story? Now all you have to do is write the story as if it's in that genre - think of the characters and situations you would find in that genre - how many of your characters and situations match or come close?

Casting in genre is a great way to take a standard story and highlight the excitement below the surface of the events. To add an additional layer to your story, and use the emotion-generating tool of genre to turn talking heads into a movie that makes you want to jump to your feet and cheer at the end. It should also be noted that all three of my examples were Oscar nominees, so casting in genre may elevate the quality of your script while it's making it more exciting.


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Expanded version with more techniques to flesh out your Supporting Characters and make them individuals. Using the hit movie BRIDESMAIDS as well as other comedies like THE HANGOVER and TED and HIGH FIDELITY and 40 YEAR OLD VIRGIN and many other examples we look at ways to make your Supporting Characters come alive on the page. Print version was 48 pages, Kindle version is around 170 pages!

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Expanded version with more ways to create interesting protagonists! A step-by-step guide to creating "take charge" protagonists. Screenplays are about characters in conflict... characters in emotional turmoil... Strong three dimensional protagonists who can find solutions to their problems in 110 pages. But how do you create characters like this? How do you turn words into flesh and blood? Character issues, Knowing Who Is The Boss, Tapping into YOUR fears, The Naked Character, Pulp Friction, Man With A Plan, Character Arcs, Avoiding Cliche People, Deep Characterization, Problem Protagonists, 12 Ways To Create Likable Protagonists (even if they are criminals), Active vs. Reactive, The Third Dimension In Character, Relationships, Ensemble Scripts, and much, much more. Print version is 48 pages, Kindle version is once again around 205 pages!

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SECRETS OF ACTION SCREENWRITING

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