Friday, September 26, 2014

Is Relatability Important in a Script?

At some point, we've all gotten notes about "relatablity." That is, how well audiences can identify with the characters, settings, and events in our scripts. To hear many talk about it, it's a make-or-break deal for screenplays: unrelatable ones are "unsellable" or, arguably worse, just flat out unsatisfying slogs to read.

But do characters and stories really need to be relatable?

In the last few years, we've begun to see refutations of the notion that relatability is actually an essential part of storytelling. Rebecca Mead of the New Yorker tracks the (surprisingly) brief history of the word itself and how reductive and dismissive its demand on creative works can actually be. According to Mead, not even storytelling hero Ira Glass is excused from thoughtlessly using the word.

Film Crit Hulk's 2013 Screenwriting 101 also posits that screenwriting theory's obsession with relatability is a distraction from creating genuine empathy-- that the primal, emotional connection between characters is the actual essential part, rather than the depiction of specific circumstances relatability implies. You can jump into FCH's enthusiasm for emphatic screenwriting in section 7 of this excerpt.

Less about straight relatability and more about taking risks with your audience, Black List favorite producer and speaker Lindsay Doran has earned attention and plaudits from the screenwriting community for spinning principles of positive psychology into storytelling insight. They're too many to detail here, but her take on defying our reliance on happy movie endings is particularly resonant with writers, creatives, and, if you trust her examples of successful movies, audiences. The New York Times detailed Doran's career and philosophies in 2012 and she continues to produce films and speak about the power of giving audiences the ending they didn't know they wanted.

We can probably all agree the characters need to be interesting, and that we need to care about whether they succeed or fail -- but not necessarily because we personally have experienced what they've gone through, or because we "like" them ("likable" has become even more of a dirty word than "relatable" in the screenwriting world).

Then again, maybe "relatable" doesn't have to be an idea that boxes us in as writers. In a recent interview, HOW TO GET AWAY WITH MURDER creator Peter Nowalk said of hatching the show, "I’m always coming up with ideas — maybe it’s because I’m unoriginal — where it’s a normal person caught in an extreme circumstance. There’s so much good TV on right now, I just wanted it to be loud and extreme and relatable. I was like, 'What [would happen] if I murdered someone?' It started there and then I wanted to do something with a procedural element." So perhaps an idea can be high-concept and exciting but also relatable, if you approach it from the place of putting a regular person in an extreme situation. Doesn't BREAKING BAD's Walter White also start out as a regular person before making extreme choices and putting himself in extreme situations?

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY writer Nicole Perlman suggested in an interview that relatability might be especially important for non-human characters or sci-fi worlds. When asked about keeping characters like Rocket and Groot relatable, she said, "I would say that it’s just like any other science fiction movie – the tree and the raccoon are either aliens or they’ve been subjected to experimentation, and there’s no reason why they’re unusual for a science fiction film. But I do think that what makes them relatable is that they’re going through real emotions, and they have real feelings for each other as friends, and that’s extremely universal."

"It’s funny, Rocket ended up being my favorite character of the group. And even though he’s a raccoon, he’s the most human in the group, in a lot of ways," she continued. "He’s been through a lot, he’s distrustful of people and slow to warm up, but he’s really loyal to his friend Groot and there are all these very human elements to him. So I think in some ways he’s the most relatable character in the entire movie."

Perhaps relatability has more to do with the essentials of humanity than any particular situation or plot choice. What does it mean to you?

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Interview: Screenwriter Dan Schoffer of Starz's THE CHAIR

Screenwriter Dan Schoffer has an interesting credit on his resume: he wrote a feature script that's been made into two different movies, NOT COOL and HOLLIDAYSBURG, each directed by two separate directors. Then, the whole experience was filmed for the reality show THE CHAIR, which airs Saturday nights on Starz.

The two movies are currently playing in theaters in NYC and LA through next week. They're also available on iTunes, Amazon Instant Video and other OnDemand platforms.

On Twitter, he's @danschoffer.

I talked with Dan about his experience with the THE CHAIR, finding a manager, "write what you know" and how a blind email query (!!!) led to the career he has now.

What's your background? How'd you get started in screenwriting?

I grew up in Margate, NJ and went to college at the University of Pennsylvania, where I double-majored in English and Theatre Arts. While I realize that the practical merits of these two majors are easy to poke fun at, the truth is that my liberal arts education absolutely prepared me for being a screenwriter. Turning in papers on their due dates is pretty much what I'm still doing today.

College was also where I took my first and only class in screenwriting. It was a one semester "Intro to Screenwriting" course, and it was exactly what my 20 year-old self needed. I had always been a film buff throughout my childhood, but I knew nothing of the nuts and bolts of the screenplay form. The internet was a different place in the late 90's/early 00's -- we didn't have access to every script ever written -- all we had was Drew's Script-O-Rama, which was basically just transcripts. And so this intro course was a real eye-opener, introducing me to actual scripts and to the world of sluglines, Final Draft, and Courier 12.

How did you get involved with THE CHAIR?

Like many of the other breaks in my career, this opportunity came through producer Josh Shader. I've been lucky enough to work with Josh for nearly 6 years now, and in many ways, my "first break" was his returning my blind query email in the fall of 2008. Thankfully, Josh saw some potential in my writing (an ENTOURAGE spec, of all things), and we began collaborating on feature ideas from scratch. After a failed crack at a high-concept rom-com, I pitched him my idea for an ensemble movie about college freshmen who return home for Thanksgiving break weekend. I remember Josh (rightfully) saying that the bullseye on an idea like this was miniscule, but I think he sensed my passion for the concept and he encouraged me to stick with it. Characters and ideas started flowing, and I fell in love with the innate timeframe of freshmen returning home on a Wednesday and going back to school on Sunday. This idea ultimately became the screenplay HOW SOON IS NOW, which we sold to MTV in 2011. They ended up not making the movie over at MTV, but were gracious enough to grant us back the rights to shop around. For the next year or so, we came close with independent financing at a few places, but we just couldn't get over the hurdle. This is where Chris Moore comes into the picture...

Josh and Chris had worked together on the AMERICAN PIE franchise, and had begun collaborating on another project when Chris told him about his concept for THE CHAIR. At this point, Chris was still searching for the right screenplay to bring his crazy concept to reality. I've been told that Chris read some 150 scripts by the time Josh slipped him HOW SOON IS NOW. Maybe it was just fatigue on Chris's part, but I feel fortunate that his search stopped there.

What was the notes process like on THE CHAIR? 

The notes process was the most insane three months of my life. I was rewriting both Shane's and Anna's movies at the same time last fall. Sometimes working on one script in the morning, and the other in the afternoon. And per Chris Moore's instructions, all the main characters had to keep their original names, meaning I had to keep straight multiple versions of Scott and Tori and Heather etc. It was a logistical nightmare. But it was also the most exhilarating few months of my life.

My biggest frustration was the realization that neither director wanted to film the movie I saw in my head. They viewed my script as the jumping off point to fulfill their creative desires. And while it's for the TV show's benefit that Chris Moore chose two directors who would deliver wildly different movies, for me, it was really hard at first. I loved my original script. I spent 4 years working on countless drafts and I wanted to see that movie made. But after meeting Shane and Anna, it was clear that wasn't going to happen. Film is a director's medium. And once a director comes on board, the screenwriter (even in the case of an original screenplay) is there to serve the director's wishes. If you don't do that, you get fired.

Would you consider directing your own work in the future?

Absolutely. I'm dying to direct to my own work. Although... I did see someone on Twitter suggest that for season two of THE CHAIR I direct one of Shane's or Anna's scripts. I wouldn't be opposed to something insane like that, either.

How did you get your manager?

Once again, through Josh Shader. After pitching Josh the idea for HOW SOON IS NOW in fall 2009, it took a full nine months before we got the script to a place where he was ready to show it to anyone. And that nine month period was tough for me. I was a 25-year-old wannabe screenwriter with no industry connections of my own. Josh was the first person to take a chance on me, yet he made no promise that he would ever show the script to anyone. He wasn't going to tarnish his reputation by sending a shitty script around town. So I had to prove myself with my writing. Ultimately, around June 2010, Josh sent the script to a few managers he respected. We got lots of positive feedback and interest, but the most passionate group by far was over at Magnet Management. I signed with them that summer and am still with them today. I feel so lucky to have landed with managers who believe in my writing and support me so thoroughly. Young writers get obsessed with finding agents, but I firmly believe that a good manager is the most crucial first step in building a career. In my opinion, a great manager is someone who let's you know they're in it for the long haul, and then backs that up by developing you when they know full-well it's going to be a couple years before they get any return on their investment. That's what I found with Magnet.

What's something you've learned or how have you changed since moving to LA in 2007?

I've learned to have patience. Lots and lots of patience. The film industry moves at a snail's pace. It takes forever to get a read. And even longer to get a response. And usually that response is going to be "no." But this is where patience comes in...because it only takes one person to say "yes." As writers, we dream of bidding wars for our original screenplays. But that almost never happens. Instead, it's usually one person taking a chance on your script and saying "yes." But that's hard to find. And to actually get a movie made, you'll need multiple people to say "yes" at multiple stages of development. As I've said, the idea for what became NOT COOL and HOLLIDAYSBURG came way back in 2009. At this time, I'm currently rewriting an original script for Dimension Films that I first started working on back in 2010. These timelines are par for the course. If you're expecting to write a screenplay, sell it overnight, and have it made right away, you're in the wrong profession.

What's the best or worst writing or industry advice you've ever gotten?

I think the worst writing advice is the old "write what you know." While there is certainly some truth to that adage -- mainly that you should trust that what interests you will interest other people -- I don't think "writing what you know" is something you should actively seek out. Because you're going to do it anyway. We can't help but write what we know. It's called "voice," and it seeps through everything we put on the page. A couple years ago, those Aaron Sorkin supercuts came out on YouTube and everyone started complaining that he re-used the same dialogue/patterns/jokes over and over. He was suddenly being derided, when his only crime was being prolific. We don't complain about a Neil Young guitar lick sounding too much like a Neil Young guitar lick, so why should we complain about a writer sounding like himself. Meanwhile, Sorkin won an Oscar for a screenplay about Facebook, after publicly admitting that he had never even been on Facebook. I love that script so much. And it's a perfect example of a writer using their voice to write about something they originally knew nothing about.

As far as industry advice goes, it's probably the advice my dad gave me when I was playing sports as a kid: "keep your head up." Just like you can't let striking out at the plate get in your head for your next at-bat, you can't let yourself get down on your writing because someone else doesn't like it. It's such simple advice, yet it's so hard to apply. And I struggle with it every day. Whenever someone passes on or criticizes my work, I can't help but take it personally. Because it is personal. It's your work being judged.  And it hurts when people don't like it. But you can't let every pass or criticism feel like an indictment of your talent. As I said before, it only takes one person to say "yes."

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Interview with Dan Schechter, Writer/Director of 'Life of Crime'

Dan Schechter is the writer/director of LIFE OF CRIME, a film starring Jennifer Aniston that's in theaters and on VOD now. On Twitter, he's @danschechter.

What's your background - how did you get started in screenwriting?

My background is horribly cliched for this line of work: A Jew from Long Island. I went to Emerson, where I studied in writing for film specifically... and then I saw people direct my writing and decided I wanted, nay needed to direct.

Did you ever have a job in the industry, like a PA or assistant?  

No. I like to admit in moments like this that I came from money. I'm not RICH rich, but not needing a day job necessarily for a lot of my twenties was a massive advantage I like to acknowledge because I know most people are not so lucky. The only money I made in the "biz" in my 20s was from re-cutting people's films (like a polisher). That and cutting trailers. Both jobs were incredibly fun and introduced me to some lovely filmmakers and friends. (And of course taught me valuable lessons).

What was your first paid writing opportunity? How did that come about?

In 2005 I wrote a feature called The Big Bad Swim (a comedy about an adult swim class), that I didn't direct, but a friend did. Neither of us was paid for this, and since back in 2005 no one was really making micro-budget features (films for under 100k), we made that movie for about 400k because we had to shoot it on film. We raised the money through many friends and family members.

In 2006, I wrote a script called Goodbye Baby (about a girl who wants to be a stand up comic), which became my directorial debut. For that film, we got very lucky: a single investor put up probably more than we should've spent, almost 800k. I got paid on that, but in hindsight, it wasn't particularly deserved because I was still learning on the job and lucky to have my film financed at all really. The movie hardly made any of its money back and I still feel terrible about that.

Is there anything you've learned since you started, or something you wish you'd known or done differently?

Countless things... Even though it wasn't my first feature, I often wish Supporting Characters (a comedy I made in 2012, about two best friends) was. I think I learned on that film to be more personal, write from within. You have to sort of sweat cliches out of your pores when you start, I think. Most first films are just unconsciously copying other movies... but Supporting Characters was the first time I felt I connected with audiences because it was very truthful to who I was and what was happening to me. I think most first time feature filmmakers should follow examples like Mean Streets, Clerks, Swingers, Brothers McMullen, Tiny Furniture, etc... get your feet wet in a world you know inside and out, that you are the best possible person to tell that story.

How did you get your agent and/or manager?

A good bit of luck. My first feature that I directed, Goodbye Baby (mentioned above) got into Slamdance in 2008. I cut a small trailer for that film and a manager I won't name here saw that trailer and liked it and reached out to me.  I think he liked it because the movie looked commercial (which my sensibility mostly is.) I also later learned that being both a writer AND a director made me all the more appealing (doubling my odds, essentially). He then sent that movie to three agencies: Gersh, UTA, and Endeavor. My agent, Phil, saw the movie at Endeavor and called the manager and said, "Stop sending this movie to other agents, I want to rep him." And we just clicked... Then William Morris and Endeavor merged and I lucked into being repped by the second largest agency... Phil still reps me to this day and has been very kind to and patient with me. The manager and I have since parted ways due to what I believed was his "chronic negativity."

Is there something you still struggle with when writing scripts?

Sitting down and writing them. I FUCKING HATE WRITING. I have no discipline, and it's very hard on my ego to believe in it enough to finish. I don't mind writing this, this I'm enjoying. This is free association and I know what to say... but writing a script... creating something from nothing... nothing is harder for me than that. I've found ways to deal with this. 1) LIFE OF CRIME: Adapt a really good book you connect with that already has amazing characters, set pieces, and a story that all makes sense. 2) SUPPORTING CHARACTERS: Or write something semi-auto-biographical because basically you're just writing YOU and your friends or family and that's 1,000 times easier, to do a slice of life movie about your world. I literally sometimes wrote out conversations that happened that day... and they were pretty good.

How do you decide what to write? Is there any particular theme or topic you find yourself coming back to?

I think I'm so hard on myself and my ideas, that if something keeps nagging at me and coming back up in my mind, it must be fairly good. Right now I'm writing something for Jen Aniston. I have no idea if she'll do it, but I felt I saw how much she was capable of that I hadn't seen her do and I wanted to write a new character for her. I also wanted to say some personal things about me and my family, and so I just kept adding to that character's life, like a Christmas tree. Characteristics for her, story-lines she's dealing with, characters in her life...

It's like: you'll be listening to your iPod... all the music comes and goes and suddenly a song comes on and you KNOW it has to be in the movie. Life is like that... you'll be doing weird shit all day and then at some point you'll be golfing at Chelsea Piers (NYC reference) and say to yourself, This should be in the movie. Even if you don't know why, there's usually a good reason and I love to follow those instincts. Movies feel to me like they already exist and its our job to find them. Like the guy who asks the sculptor how do you sculpt an elephant from stone, and the sculptor responds, "you just sculpt away everything that doesn't look like an elephant."

How did your involvement with Life of Crime come about? Did you get the rights and stuff or was it an open assignment that came to you?

LOOOOONNG story short:
I took the book off my shelf in 2008.
No idea who owned it.
In 8 days, I had a draft that I wrote for fun by basically transcribing a very, very good book and making some smart editorial decisions. I bet the script was 95 pages or so.
I mailed it into Leonard's contact info from IMDB.
They liked it, didn't know who owned rights.
It took TWO YEARS to track down the rights. (In this time, I had given up and joined my parents jewelry business.)
Turns out a 30-year option lapsed a YEAR after I wrote spec.
They looked at it like found money and gave me a year to attach talent (handshake deal, no rights) because they liked me and my "vision."
In a year-ish, we got Mos Def, John Hawkes and then Jen Aniston.
A year after that we had financing, which is another long boring story with a  happy ending.

What interested you about the story in Life of Crime?

Everything. It was everything I couldn't write for myself. I wrote a spec called THE KING OF PRUSSIA. A thriller that took place in King of Prussia, PA. I had 40 speaking parts, too many locations, and plot that was very complex and I wasn't entirely sure it even made sense if someone was paying close enough attention. But, it was pretty good so I tried to make that and failed. Then I read LOC and it was like, ahhhhh..... here are 7 amazing parts, in 6 locations basically and I just loved it. I loved Mickey, the lead. Louis and Ordell (who were in Jackie Brown...) All the parts were characters I treasured, and I truly felt I could do it better than anyone. I saw it in my mind and got the tone. I wanted to protect it like a mother bird.

What's something you learned from working with stars like Jennifer Aniston and Tim Robbins?

Well, one, that people are that big because they're enormous talents...but I think I learned that actors are always still actors. They want approval, they want a director with a vision and an opinion. They want to play. They both struck me as people who didn't have a major ego that interfered with their work. They were ABOUT the work, and the character and were there to serve the story.

Also, Jen said green tea is very good for you so now I drink it a lot.

Are there any recent films or scripts you find inspiring? What have you loved lately?

Calvary. I'm shocked more people aren't talking about it. I think because I'm so judgmental of films, it's very hard for me to "shut off." But sometimes you sit in a movie and you just know you're in the hands of a fucking pro from the first frame, the first line, and I can let go and enjoy the ride. I felt this way about Calvary and also felt it took on MASSIVE themes in such a clean, unpretentious way. I also felt this way about Planet of the Apes. Those two films knocked me on my ass. I hate being preached at, but I love being asked to think.