Saturday, December 31, 2011

Screenwriting lessons from my favorite movies of 2011

Instead of crafting one of those dreaded top-10 lists, I've decided to write what I learned about screenwriting from some of my favorites of 2011 (in no particular order). What have you learned?

Mild spoiler alerts below!

I loved a million things about this movie, but I especially liked that it was equal parts funny, sad and heartfelt. Comedy CAN be found in traditionally unfunny things, especially if you know a lot about a world or experience and feel it's your story to tell.
Download the 50/50 script PDF

Crazy Stupid Love
Never underestimate the power of a good twist! Genius Dan Fogelman laid the foundation of Emma Stone's real identity so that it was surprising but still made perfect sense. Sometimes in comedies and romances I think we forget about plot twists, which can be created by manipulating the audience's assumptions.
Download the Crazy Stupid Love script PDF

Like Crazy
I blogged about this before, so forgive me if you already read it...but this movie really got me thinking about the ever-discussed character arc. I had boxed myself in by thinking, "The character must learn a lesson" when perhaps it's more helpful to think, "the character must transform." The difference between Felicity Jones in the first scene and Felicity Jones in the last scene is absolutely heartbreaking - and a testament to her performance.

Young Adult
Perhaps society is ready for an unlikable female protagonist after all. I think this movie worked because it was ever-so-obvious that you're not supposed to like Mavis. But more than that, Young Adult may be a lesson in theme: everything in this movie emulated Mavis' ongoing adolescence, from her E! TV habits to her food choices to her Hello Kitty shirts. Also: nebulous, dark endings can work. Moving on doesn't always mean happily ever after.

The Descendants
Setting is so important! I am constantly telling people to be specific and actually USE the setting they've chosen. When I finish your script, I should be able to see where it is and understand why it's set there. In The Descendants, the Hawaii landscapes provided beautiful shots as well as a rich thematic discussion of what "paradise" is like on the inside versus the outside. How does your setting exemplify your theme? This movie was also an interesting exploration of grief, which can be a terribly inactive and boring emotion to watch onscreen. Instead of a story about a man losing his wife, this movie was a story about a man coming to terms with his dying wife's affair. It was complicated and different, and gave him active things to do.
Download The Descendants script PDF


Also, sometimes a big movie can spring from a small, emotional idea. At its core, this movie was about losing your best friend to her future husband. Growing up. Accepting that things can't always stay the same. Pairing this emotional journey with the ticking clock of the upcoming wedding gave us big comedy set pieces. Interestingly, Bridemaids wasn't the movie many of us expected; they never did make it to Vegas. I think the big "female Hangover"-esque romp that this movie was marketed as could have been fun too...but maybe the fact that this was a fairly small, bittersweet friendship story is why we all liked it so much.
Download the Bridesmaids script PDF

Cedar Rapids
This is another example of the importance of specific settings. The mundane Midwesternness of the location informed every single scene. Also, John C. Reilly's character was beyond entertaining...please write a Dean Ziegler into your script! Now that I'm thinking about it, this movie also demonstrates that conflict doesn't just come from the antagonist. Ed Helms' pals got him in just as much trouble as the evil Kurtwood Smith did. Lastly, stakes come from how much something means to your character. Maybe the Two Diamonds award isn't a big deal to you, but it was a big deal to Ed Helms.

No Strings Attached
Make your B-plots visually entertaining! I loved the Glee-like sets where Ashton worked. This movie also had great character details; Natalie's job as a doctor softened her otherwise tough exterior, and all the supporting characters were funny and specific. Also I want to be Liz Meriwether and create hit shows and call bitches pumpkins.
Download the No Strings Attached script PDF

Horrible Bosses
Uncertainty is your pal. What uncertainty is pulling us through your story, making us wonder what will happen by the end? In addition to the hilarious dialogue, Horrible Bosses offered up a number of questions that made the story unpredictable: Will they go through with this plan to kill the bosses? Will all three of them go through with it? Maybe just one or two? Will any of them get caught? What complications will they encounter on the way?
Download the Horrible Bosses script PDF

Martha Marcy May Marlene
Want to craft an exciting role for an actor? Give your character an unsettling truth or trauma hidden underneath layers and layers of tension. In this movie, every scene peeled back another layer - but Elizabeth Olsen could never quite communicate her complicated feelings.
Download the Martha Marcy May Marlene script PDF

Midnight in Paris
This movie was just fun. Magical. Wouldn't it be exciting if you could meet Hemingway? Movies aren't real life; they're better. Do something you can't do in real life.

I have zero interest in sports or baseball and I loved this movie. It wasn't about baseball, it was about a guy who had to do the impossible. Give your character an absolutely impossible task and see how he or she tries to accomplish it. Also, isn't Peter Brand the coolest supporting character ever?
Download the Moneyball script PDF

The Muppets
Self-reflexivity is hard to pull off - but when it works, it's delightful. Maniacal laugh, maniacal laugh.
Download The Muppets script PDF

Source Code
This was one of the most underrated movies of the year. Study it for its clever structure! I loved that Jake Gyllenhaal had competing goals and couldn't really try to accomplish them both simultaneously. This movie was also impressive in that we saw the same scenes over and over without getting bored.
Download the Source Code script PDF

Friday, December 30, 2011

Nominations open for WD's 101 Best Websites for Writers

Thanks to fellow blogger The Bitter Script Reader for putting this on my radar: Each year, Writer's Digest's unveils its list of 101 Best Websites for Writers. If you would like to nominate this blog (or another blog or website), send an email to: with 101 Best Websites nomination in the subject line. Write a brief note asking for WD to consider the site for inclusion in the 101 Best Websites list and make sure to provide both the NAME of the blog/site, as well as the URL. The deadline for nominations is January 1st. Happy voting!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Jane Espenson is blogging again!

The only reason you probably ever found this blog is Jane Espenson, a TV writer who has worked on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly, The O.C., Gilmore Girls, Once Upon a Time & more. She used to regularly update her blog with writing advice, and one day was kind enough to link to my little blog. Eventually, Jane decided she was out of things to say. (If you're new to the blogosphere and haven't read her blog, though, you should definitely go through the archives!)

Luckily for us, Jane is blogging again - via The Huffington Post. She writes in her first post, "Is TV Writing the Best Job Ever?":

Hello, Gentle Readers. Who's up for a good blogging? I know I am! I used to blog on my own site, expounding on the art and craft of television writing. But I stopped one day when I realized that I had expounded myself into the ground. There was nothing left for me to teach. That was a few years ago, though, and since then I've learned new things and refined my thinking on a lot of the old things. Right now, I'm writing for the network hit Once Upon a Time (ABC), and for my own web series Husbands, so I'm topped off to overflowing with knowledge.

Yay! Welcome back to the web, Jane! It looks like even the pros regularly "refine their thinking" about writing. I'm glad to hear I'm on the right track.

Also, if you haven't seen her webseries Husbands yet, you can check it out here. Below is the official teaser clip:

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The best screenwriting books

Professional screenwriters John August and Craig Mazin recently spoke in a podcast about the helpfulness of screenwriting books, concluding that such books are not necessarily detrimental to your development as a screenwriter, but cannot replace analysis of actual screenplays and films. John & Craig also cautioned against any book (or consultant or "guru") trying to boil screenwriting down to an overly simple, one-size-fits-all formula. (I agree that despite the psychological appeal, there is no quick scheme or solution to writing a script.) Also problematic is that many book writers and seminar organizers have few or no produced credits, leading Craig to believe that many of them operate in bad faith.

However, I think that a commenter on John's blog made the valid point that John and Craig may have trouble remembering what it's like to be an inexperienced, aspiring writer. They throw out phrases like "first act" and "midpoint," expecting that we know what they mean. Craig also suggested that a pile of books would cost about $80, forgetting about libraries. Did you know that for zero dollars, the County of Los Angeles Public Library system lets you reserve books (from their network of 88 libraries) online and emails you when they're ready to be picked up at your local branch? (Strangely, there is also an entirely separate City of Los Angeles library network.) As a cash-strapped girl who often gets stuck on a diet of whatever's left at the back of the freezer, I've found the library to be quite beneficial - and the brand new West Hollywood branch is also a gorgeous, free writing space.

John suggested that unlike screenwriting gurus who hold expensive seminars, college professors teach screenwriting in good faith. Let's look at one example: NYU currently costs $41,606 a year for tuition, room and board. So if you go for four years of undergrad, that's $166,424 for a film degree. If you move to LA after school and get an assistant job that pays $25,000 a year, I bet you'll have a pretty tough time paying off your student loans. I actually got into NYU and really wanted to go, but even with financial aid, loans, work study and a $13,000/yr merit scholarship, I was told I would still need to come up with $20,000 a year. (Apparently, I was supposed to have this on hand in a Walter White duffel bag somewhere). I'm not saying professors aren't teaching in good faith - I loved many of my IC professors, and it's not like they're pocketing gobs of cash while selling superfluous services to writers - but private film schools aren't cheap. For financial or other reasons, many writers get interested in screenwriting after college and don't know where to turn for guidance. You can start reading professional scripts (and you should), but you might not know exactly what you're looking for. Sure, some screenwriting books are complete crap, but I think books can be useful in getting you to think about screenwriting in new ways. I figure that if you learn just one helpful thing from a book, panel, blog, interview, etc., it's worth it. I certainly feel that my knowledge of and approach to screenwriting are things I've compiled from hundreds of things I've read, heard and watched.

The important thing to remember is that there is no quick fix to your writing - or your career. I often write complex notes to people and see them write back, "So, if I just switch this scene and this scene, it'll fix everything?" Facepalm. No! I just wanted you to think about your script in a new way. Often, we think of character arcs in movies as lessons character need to learn...but Like Crazy (my constant example, sorry!) made me see the arc as a study of how characters can become drastically different by the end of a movie. It's not about Felicity Jones learning to follow international visa rules, or even whether she and Anton Yelchin will stay together; it's about the fact that they will never again be the people we saw in the opening scene. The transformation is heartbreaking.

As far as careers go, people also send me emails like, "So, I just need to enter a fellowship and then I'll be good?" Facepalm again. There is no quick fix to your career. You need to write something great and get someone important to read it (and like it) - and unfortunately, both of those things entail multiple attempts, tactics and false starts. As Craig noted in the podcast, our psychological desire for certainty and simplicity is understandable - but you won't find it in a Hollywood career.

So, back to the screenwriting books. I've read many of them, and Save the Cat by Blake Snyder is definitely my favorite. You may criticize the book for demanding that screenplays adhere to a super-strict structure, but it's been a very useful tool for me. It was the first book that made me think, "Okay, this makes sense. I can do this," rather than intimidating me with lofty thoughts about the hero's journey. (But hey, read about that too!) Also, I tend to write things based on characters I love or lines of dialogue that pop into my head - and that can make me want to ignore structure. Blake's book forced me to focus on structure, in addition to giving me a practical framework for analyzing scripts and films. I have printed out the BS beat sheet and used it to break down dozens of movies. Now when I'm struggling with a midpoint, I can flip through my binder of breakdowns and look at how 15 similar movies dealt with midpoints. In Legally Blonde, the midpoint is when Reese stops trying to win back Warner and starts trying to exonerate Ali Larter. At The Holiday's midpoint, Cameron Diaz finds out that Jude Law has kids and isn't some deceptive womanizer. Both can inspire you to think about your script's beats in a new way.

Below are some of the most popular screenwriting books. If you'd prefer to buy copies so you can refer back to them later instead of borrowing them from a library, I've included Amazon links.
Save the Cat! The Last Book You'll Ever Need on Screenwriting by Blake Snyder
Save the Cat Strikes Back
Save the Cat Goes to the Movies
Story by Robert McKee
Screenplay by Syd Field
The following aren't specifically books about writing, but are fun and informative books about the industry:
Small Screen, Big Picture by Chad Gervich
Billion Dollar Kiss: The Kiss That Saved Dawson's Creek and Other Adventures in TV Writing by Jeffrey Stepakoff
Hello He Lied by Lynda Obst
Writing Movies For Fun & Profit by Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant
The Mailroom by David Rensin
Bossypants by Tina Fey
Feel free to comment about any screenwriting books or TV writing books you've found helpful!

Also, a quick note about my script consulting. In the podcast, Craig theorized that many script consultants start notes services because of underemployment. True! The production companies, festivals and contests I read for simply don't send me enough work to add up to an entire income. If I only needed one job, I wouldn't have five. But I like to think that my prices convey that I'm not doing this in bad faith; I'm simply making a fair and modest hourly rate. I never try to up-sell people, and I'm honest about shows I haven't watched or genres I don't like. Do I give encouragement to people whose scripts need a ton of work? Sure...but I'm also honest about whether their work would be taken seriously by professionals, and I acknowledge that we all have to start somewhere. Some of those who have asked for my notes are attempting their first scripts, and I evaluate them as such. Whether you think I'm qualified enough to offer notes is completely up to you, and I don't begrudge anyone who would rather go to someone with more than four years of professional reading experience. Most aspiring writers turn to their friends for free notes, and if those notes plus studious analysis of real scripts are enough for you, great! However, some people (in LA or otherwise) have complained to me that their friends only give feedback like "I like it" and "cool." I can't give you a simple quick fix for your script, but I can be more specific than that.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

PaleyFest 2012!

PaleyFest 2012 takes place March 2-14 in Beverly Hills.

Individual tickets go on sale today! Events include Mad Men, American Horror Story, Sons of Anarchy, Modern Family & more!

You can also follow @paleycenter on Twitter.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Terriers available on Netflix streaming!

FX's one-season PI character drama TERRIERS is available on Netflix streaming! I LOVED this show...kind of an adult VERONICA MARS. Check it out:

Thursday, December 1, 2011

You haven't seen...?

I can relate to Edgar Wright, who sometimes gets chastised for not having seen popular films. From his blog:
I hope in my time I have never chastised anyone for not seeing a movie. Neither am I a big fan of the phrase “I can’t believe you haven’t seen…” accompanied by an exaggerated expression of surprise. (Case in point: When I bought the first season boxset of ‘Breaking Bad’ at Amoeba, the cashier said with a smirk “You haven’t seen this yet?”) 
 I basically believe that you can’t be late to a party if the party never stops. 
Back in January, I did my second New Beverly season showing some of my favourite films and indeed saw some of them on the big screen for the first time. Which gave me an idea… 
For my next programming stint, why not screen classic or cult movies that I have yet to see and always wanted to see on a big screen.
He'll be showing films from Dec 9-16. Check out the listings here.