BIZ TIP TUESDAY:
The Independent Feature Project (IFP - now FIND) is an
organization set up to support indie film projects. It's a
fantastic organization that helps connect writers, directors and
crew people. They screen indie films for members with Q & A
sessions afterwards. When IFP members
make films, they are often screened at a nice cinema in
Hollywood, followed by a reception for the film makers. Because
these receptions often feature free beer, I'm usually there. My
friend Kris and I have seen hundreds of Indie films that have
never found distributors at IFP screenings.
People who think that Hollywood movies are formulaic ought to see
a hundred IFP screenings. The average film is about a
misunderstood artistic boy (often a painter, poet, sculpter, playwright) whose parents think he should grow up and find
a real job, but his grandmother understands him and knows that he is really a genius... then she dies. Leaving him alone against the entire world!
The protagonists in many of these films are agoraphobic - not
only does the world misunderstand them, they actually fear the
outside world. Sometimes when the grandmothers die they become
more withdrawn, sometimes that's what gives them the strength to
venture out into the world. But usually once the grandmother is dead, the parents
ramp up the pressure to give up painting or playwriting or sculpture or poetry or whatever and get a *real job*.
And the misunderstood artist usually becomes more withdrawn... until some art critic wanders past, sees their work,
and brands them a GENUIS and some hot girl throws herself at him and he rubs his parents noses in his sudden success.
Um. that's the plot of THE FAREWELL isn't it?
I've seen a hundred of these movies, and they are all the same - some have better focus than others - and
all are some crazy form of fantasy for the filmmaker. Secretly, *they* are the misunderstood genius with
the parents who want them to get a real job (but often funded the film where they are the villains!) and these
filmmakers hope once people see their amazing talent on screen, they will be branded a genius and given $100
million to make some self-indulgent art film that is never expected to make a cent.
This type of story has become such a
cliche that there was even an IFP movie that was a parody of the
typical IFP movie called THE BASEMENT AND THE KITCHEN about a misunderstood boy
who has been living in the basement since his father died (father thought he was a genius) and the boy
believes that the woman who claims to be his mother is an imposter.
After 45 minutes of typical self-indulgent indie film cliches,
it's revealed that the mother IS an imposter, and the kid has reason
to feel misunderstood - they think he might be half alien. Of
course, by the time this is revealed (and we finally realize they
were making fun of the cliches) I had already dozed off a couple
of times. The problem with making fun of boring movies is that sometimes you end up with a boring movie. When
I finally realized it was a parody of all of those Dying Grandmother Movies (rather than just another one of them)
I had a good time. It was really a clever flick.
These "Dying Grandmother Movies" are all very personal stories
- too personal!
WHAT'S IT ABOUT?
It's important for your script to be emotional and personal -
if you don't care about your story, how can you expect 20 million
people to care? But in order to get those 20 million people to
show up and shell out their $12 in the first place it has to be
a story they are interested in seeing.
It has to be something they want to see, BEFORE THEY HAVE SEEN
Your script about a guy hiding in his basement may be the most
amazing, emotional script ever written. It may grab the audience
from page one and never let go. It may tell the secret of life...
But 20 million people are not paying $12 to see a self indulgent movie about a
guy in his basement. They want to be ENTERTAINED. They won't
stand in line unless they believe your story will be something
that will take them away from their troubles for two hours. A
story that will be passionate and heartfelt... and fun.
You have written the most amazing story - one that has the
reader crying - but an audience doesn't know the film is good
until AFTER they've seen it. That's the problem.
What attracts them to see it in the first place?
In the case of a movie, you have a poster and a trailer. The problem with a trailer is that it is
only 2 minutes and 30 seconds. That is the maximum time allowed by the MPAA. So we aren't going
to get much character depth or that amazing dialogue or that big dramatic scene... we are just going
to get the *idea* of your story. The concept. And that will either attract people to see the movie...
or not. You may not think that is fair, but it's a fact of life. Want an intteresting experiment? Write a
two and a half page "trailer" in screenplay format for your screenplay. Oh, and don't forget to include the
title in that "trailer" - you want to make sure people remember what to go see. Two and a half pages (minus
the title mention(s) - oh, and the cast and director mentions (they won't be mentioning the writer's name) -
isn't much time at all! You'll be *lucky* to get the story idea across!
So that story idea better be interesting.
WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW?
This is a problem with many straight dramas about small stories - they have a small idea *and* small execution.
They are low key concepts told in a low key way. You often hear that old advice "Write what you know" - but I
think that is the worst advice ever when it comes to movies. You can write CATCHER IN THE RYE about teen angst,
alienation, and rebellion and maybe strike a chord in readers. Books are a personal thing - we read them alone,
and they speak directly to us as an individual. But a movie is a different medium, designed to be viewed by a
large audience at the same time. You might read a book in bed or in the tub, but would you see a movie while
sharing a bed with 350 strangers? Would you ever share a tub with 350 strangers, even if a movie wasn't involved?
Some of you may have answered yes - if you did, you might be the kind of person who should write what you know.
But for the rest of you, the kind of story that may appeal to you in a novel may not appeal to you on a cinema
screen... and writing what you know may not be a good idea. Though I have had a variety of day jobs in my past,
none were all that interesting... and my current job is to sit on my ever-expanding butt all day typing words.
Even *I* don't want to see that on screen! If I were to Write What I Know it would bore the heck out of everyone...
So I add imagination.
Lots of imagination... since I sit on my butt all day.
Instead of Writing What I Know, I *Write What I Feel*. I have felt heartbreak, I have felt alienation, I have
felt unappreciated, I have felt like rebelling, I have felt betrayed, I have felt love and joy (just so it isn't
all downer stuff). I have had emotional experiences that I can explore in a screenplay - but I don't write the
story that way it actually happened (which might satisfy me, but I doubt would satisfy 20 million ticket buyers).
So instead of writing a self indulgent story, I take those emotions and find a way to explore them in a more
interesting concept. Something that explores the emotions I have felt in a character with a much more exciting life.
That way, the excitement attracts the audience to pay their $12, and the emotions (hopefully) give them an experience
that was worth the money.
I wear the disguise of fiction - and write about an interesting world populated by people we can identify with...
instead of a normal world populated by normal people... which you could see just by looking out your front window.
You can tell a story of an ordinary man in an extraordinary world... or an extraordinary man in an ordinary world.
But extraordinary and extraordinary cancel themselves out to create boredom, as do ordinary and ordinary. That's
why Superman has to be launched as a baby to Earth, and why typical city cop John McClane has to take on 40
storeys of international terrorists. Imagine a whole movie that takes place on Krypton where everyone has
the same power as Superman (I think there's a line from THE INCREDIBLES that explains that), or a whole movie
where John McClane just writes speeding tickets and answers loud music complaints? We need the contrast between
extraordinary and ordinary - no matter which way that goes. The problem with "Write What You Know" for most of us,
is that we end up with ordinary and ordinary.
The "Dying Grandmother Genre" adds the wrong kind of wish fulfillment - instead of imagining that extraordinary
thing might attract those 20 million people, it adds the extraordinary thing that only the filmmaker cares about -
being called a genius. And that is a fail.
GREAT BUT SMALL?
But do all films need to be big? Can't a film just be *good*? Very few people went to see GHOST WORLD in
the theater - and it was a great film! A film that made me laugh and cry. That's because that summer everyone
went to see the Marky-Mark PLANET OF THE APES in the theater - a lousy film.
GHOST WORLD is kind of a "dying grandmother". It may be a great film,
but it's about a girl who graduates high school and realizes she
now must be a part of the world she despises in order to survive.
It's small. Personal. Ordinary and ordinary. Not interesting to 20 million people with
$12 to spend who want to escape their troubles for a couple of
hours. The story has no cool hook, no amazing idea... it's just a good story.
Sure, after they see it, the audience would have liked GHOST WORLD... but they just never
wanted to see it. The SUBJECT MATTER seemed uninteresting. I don't
know many people who liked THE DaVINCI CODE after they saw it,
but they sure lined up to pay $12 to see it... and now they may line up to see the sequel. Part of that was
hype - but there was something to hype. You have Tom Hanks stumbling on a huge conspiracy - that Jesus
got married and had kids! Now the church has sent this monk-assassin to kill him. Hey, I'd pay $12 for
that! I *did* pay $12 for that - cool idea, bland execution. Even an indie film needs a hook - something
to attract the audience at the *idea stage* - something to put in the trailer.
GHOST WORLD made every critic's Ten Best List that year... but only made $6 million *total* in its entire
theatrical run. Here's the problem - the film cost over $7 million to make, plus a big chunk of change to market.
You not only need a great film - you need to give the ticket buyers a reason to want to see the film.
(Yes, Scarlett Johansson was in it, we didn't know who she was then.)
Your concept is one of the most important elements in a
script. And one of the most difficult to get the hang of. If a
producer can't see the POSSIBILITY of making money on a film made
from your script, why buy it in the first place? If your subject
matter is something that seems like it would have no trouble
attracting 20 million people with $12... you may have a sale.
This doesn't mean you should hack up some idea you don't care
about, it means you should find
the story that YOU want to tell that an AUDIENCE wants to hear.
That's the difficult part - finding the story that is both.
By now some of you may be yelling "SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK!", and that's fair... except I
would argue one of the things that made that film interesting to the initial ticket buyers was
that this was *not* about an ordinary person in an ordinary world, but a guy who is downright
*crazy* trying to make it through an ordinary world. And that's the *concept* of the movie -
the story idea. It's about a bull in the china shop of life. This isn't a story about a guy who
is shy or has some mild anger management problems - this guy can't read a book in the comfort
of his bed without going crazy violent and yelling at his parents and everyone else in 100 yards.
He's an *extreme* character. Extraordinary. He can't fly like Superman, but he wears a garbage bag
outfit. The story is *about* this guy who probably should not have been released from the mental
institution trying to navigate the ordinary world - and that's a story hook. Some other writer may
have tried to make the protagonist in SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK more ordinary - but that would have
killed the story. You *can* write a small story, as long as you focus on what makes it interesting.
The audience won't know how brilliant your script is until
AFTER they've paid to see it. Why are they paying to see the
movie? What interesting world does your (personal) story take
place in? How is this PERSONAL story also going to interest those
20 million people with $12 to spend on a Friday night?
And that personal story you just have to tell about the misunderstood genius? Um, that "Dying Grandmother"
story is more formula than anything Hollywood is making. Just an *indie* formula. Just because something is
small and personal doesn't mean it's good. Don't write what you know, write what you *feel* and add your
imagination and creativity. We aren't *journalists* we are *screenwriters*. Creative people!
Extraordinary and Ordinary - you need a combination of both, not just one or the other.
If you haven't seen GHOST WORLD, it's dark and witty and probably worth a rent. SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK is also out
on DVD and BluRay. You know who plays the best friend character???
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