Saturday, August 03, 2013

My thoughts on your thoughts on yesterday's post

I love how some posts will spark heated debate. Yesterday’s was certainly one of those. A number of people defended SAVE THE CAT and others maintained that it’s unfair to blame a bad movie on the script. So much more goes into a finished motion picture. Instead of commenting on your comments six times yesterday I thought I’d do it all at once today. As always, feel free to weigh in, rebut, or buy my book (Sorry. Had to slip that in there.)

If you read yesterday’s article carefully you’ll see I don’t disagree with the CAT defenders as much as you think. I never said you should avoid the book. You should read books on structure and learn from them. My problem is that when people slavishly follow the steps their movies can become very formulaic. Author Snyder gives the disclaimer that his fifteen steps are merely to be taken as suggestion, but let’s face it – that’s not how most readers see it. There’s a magic formula. Follow it to riches and an invite to Spielberg’s Oscar party.

Reader Stephanie Palmer linked to her rebuttal and made some excellent points. The script is merely one part of the process. So many other things can go wrong. And Ms. Palmer was a studio executive so she knows of what she speaks.

But I would add this, with all due respect, the process has become harder because screenwriters have to address studio notes. And many of those notes are counterproductive. Why? Several reasons. Often the executive giving the notes is not qualified to do so. They’ve never written anything, they lack experience, and their knowledge stems from the books they’ve read, the movies they’ve seen, and the courses they’ve attended.

Trust me, writers know in two seconds whether you’re one of these executives. You’ll use catch-phrases and refer to tropes and we know instantly you just got back from a Robert McKee seminar or a cat is still alive because of you.

Another reason: since no one knows why certain movies click while others don’t studios naturally try to duplicate success. Why do you think every comic book character except Little Lulu has their own blockbuster? Why is there another DIE HARD with AARP member, Bruce Willis? Writers are often steered away from originality and more towards what is deemed commercially successful. Hollywood spends a lot of money to make these movies.  It only stands to reason they want to hedge their bets. 

And third: Writers are given notes that have nothing to do with strengthening the dramatic narrative. They’re told to do at least five block comedy scenes. They’re told to provide more trailer moments. They’re told to put a scene in a certain location because a product placement deal has been made. They're told to rewrite the character to accommodate Rebel Wilson because she's a hot property and they want her in the movie. 

Yes, good movies are hard to make – but these elements just make it harder.

So I’m going to end today pretty much just rephrasing what I said yesterday. Story structure is vitally important. Read these books. Use them as a tool. Use their guidelines as a starting point. But don’t let them clip your wings. If there was a computer program that could spit out a salable screenplay Hollywood would never call you again. But there isn’t. Screenplay writing is art. It’s a celebration of imagination.

And if you’re going to read books, don’t just concentrate on structure. Read books about character development. For my money, THAT’S your real starting point. Good, fresh, original, compelling characters.

Actors get movies made and no actor ever signed on to a project because the story beats were in the correct order. CATS are fine. CHARACTERS are better.


John said...

There's always been something of a bandwagon effect in Hollywood -- remember the glut of ultra-long musicals that came out in the wake of the success of "My Fair Lady" and "Mary Poppins" in the 1960s (I mean, they even had Clint Eastwood singing in "Paint Your Wagon" for chrissakes). But what you're seeing a glut of today is attempted to borrow from everywhere possible and then fit it into the required plot-by-numbers story, or my personal pet peeve, the 'reboot' remake where they take a comic book character, update the actors and basically do the same story they did introducing the characters' backstory in a movie 10-20 years earlier.

It may be the cost of doing business nowadays with the budgets involved and the demands that a movie have legs outside the United States that nobody wants to take a chance on an untested premise. But it does seem like if you don't have any art house theaters in your neighborhood, the most challenging offerings at the local multiplex is how to get though the refreshment counter line for under $20.

(And -- just for the heck of it, since it was mentioned above -- here's "Little Lulu In Hollywood".)

Andrew J. said...

Most depressing (or perhaps just more recently depressing) to me is that the execs in foreign countries have now adopted/ are giving the same notes. I don't believe they "read the book" - I believe they're getting their formulae by osmosis. France, Germany, Australia, Austria, Sweden, China, Romania... the same structural (and odd procedural) stuff comes from them all. You sell something to Ulan Bator (say...) and a week letter you get a badly-translated note asking you to "ramp up the arc of the protagonist's beats in the first part of the second act."

And they still know nothing of the exigencies of structure, time/pace, budget & schedule, or character development/delineation, to say nothing of common sense ("Can you add the following 8 things and make the script 5 pages shorter?" Got something from Spain last week: please cut all outlines from 3 pages to a single page... and add more jokes, scenes, characters, set descriptions... )

I increasingly feel this isn't something about television or about execs, per se. It's just something human.

Mister Charlie said...

All you said makes perfect sense, Ken. Writing IS an art, embedded in a business. And as for learning foundational skills, in any endeavor you need launch your own voice off of. One needs to know how to draw a chair correctly to then draw it abstractly, artfully. Music is the same, as is writing. I thought you were clear on your first post but this is a good summation.

Anonymous said...

The commercial arts. Need we say more? There is a reason we have FINE art museums. Granted, since the 50's, in this country, pop art and other trends have looked at the effect of popular culture on art. But that is different than enshrining the departed painter of light Thomas Kinkade, at the center of the National Gallery. Note that Kinkade probably sold FAR more canvases and prints, and plates, then Jackson Pollock and all the abstract expressionists combined. If he were to judge the fine art world by Hollywood standards we would have no choice but award Thomas Kinkade the spotlight. He was dollar-for-dollar more popular.
The issue is, every once in awhile, almost totlaly by a confluence of luck, a Hollywood movie becomes MORE than a commercial enterprise. It's always an accident I think.

Sami said...

I recently got a scathing email from an editor about a piece I had written. The editor complained vociferously about me not followong "the rules." (This editor is also a contractor. That's right: her "real" job is to remodel kitchens and such.) Anyway, I read somewhere (Stephen King's book about writing, I think) that writers need to learn the rules, then learn when to break them. I think that's true about writing and life in general. (I declined to accept that editor's suggesions on my work and pulled my piece. She should stick to countertops and tile. Or become a junior high English teacher where her rules are most appropriate.)

As far as movies go, it's been a long time since I paid to see one. I usually just get DVDs from the library. This way I can turn the thing off twenty minutes in when it's clear I am not going to enjoy it and not feel like I'm wasting time or money. To be honest, I find I rarely get past the first twenty minutes on most everything.


gottacook said...

There's also the difference between the artistry that went into the writing (also editing, art direction, directing, cinematography, etc.) and whether the end product is itself a work of art. It can go either way, of course. Two movies that I would enjoy rewatching are 2001: A Space Odyssey and Back to the Future; one is enigmatic and leaves you to draw your own conclusions, the other is ingeniously worked out and satisfying. Both are enduring, although one can be regarded more as art, the other as an entertainment. But both involved lots of trial-and-error* while searching for the right way to go - that is, nothing seemed formulaic.

(For example, the BTTF time machine was originally planned to be stationary, until Zemeckis and/or Gale realized the enormous story advantages of making it mobile. As for 2001, Arthur Clarke's book The Lost Worlds of 2001 is all about the paths not followed as he and Kubrick wrote the movie, and includes alternative chapters from Clarke's novel. At one point they were going to show aliens but wisely decided not to.)

Wendy M. Grossman said...

John: I remember William Goldman wrote that CHARADE was one of the most expensive Hollywood movies ever made because of the number of failed imitations that followed.


The Mutt said...

I would take it as a rule that the best films are written and directed by the same person, because there is a consistent vision about the story and characters.

Then I read about Casablanca, which suffered through every single Hollywood nightmare story about making a film and still turned out to be one of the greatest ever.

First rule? There are no rules.

Mark Jordan Legan said...

The best thing I ever read on this topic is by Nicholas Kazan. It was a great article he wrote for the WGA Magazine, Written By. Just google Nicholas Kazan and On Receiving Notes and the link will come up - fascinating and insightful.

Breadbaker said...

Here's the link Mark mentioned.
The story is wonderful.

As a non-writer, may I share a related insight? I am a breadbaker, of course, but purely for home consumption. There is a book out, Flour Water Salt Yeast, by Ken Forkish, that is having much the same effect on our community as the Cat book is having on the scriptwriters. I should first of all say that the book is wonderful and has been quite influential on what I do.

When I first got it, I was impressed by how well he explained some of his techniques, although he presents them not quite as didactically as some might, he does recommend following his recipes pretty closely. The first loaf I made I followed it religiously. It was wonderful. But I also knew, from 35 years of experience, that there were parts of his technique that could be safely ignored. For instance, he weighs all his ingredients. 25 grams of salt will also have the same volume every time; if you know the volume, you don't have to measure it.

More importantly, I realized his techniques didn't really account for everything I wanted to make in bread. His doughs are quite wet, and you can't make a bagel, a braided challah, a roll, with such a wet dough. So I've been adapting his technique, combining it with my own techniques and other breadbakers' techniques, into something that is quite different from what I was doing before I read Forkish, but still really my own and not his. The results, by all accounts, have been excellent.

Johnny Walker said...

I applaud your contention that "Screenplay writing is art. It’s a celebration of imagination." but it just makes me all the more baffled that you don't love Kickstarter.

No more studio notes. No longer are projects chosen and driven solely by corporate greed. It truly is a chance for there to be "art for art's sake". As soon as the artist no longer needs the middle-man, the sooner all of these horrible obstacles become a distant memory.

Which, if you agree, means you should be *encouraging* big names to get on Kickstarter, not discouraging them.

Anonymous said...

Ken, please to be explaining how the following statements by you don't contradict and destroy each other and the universe along with them:

From your post on Friday: "What do producers and studio executives tell young writers they’re looking for most when they read spec screenplays? A fresh, unique, exciting voice. Something distinctive that separates your script from the others."

From your post on Saturday: "But I would add this, with all due respect, the process has become harder because screenwriters have to address studio notes. And many of those notes are counterproductive. Why? Several reasons. Often the executive giving the notes is not qualified to do so. They’ve never written anything, they lack experience, and their knowledge stems from the books they’ve read, the movies they’ve seen, and the courses they’ve attended."

By Ken Levine said...

Very simple -- they say they want fresh voices and when they get them they try to conform them. It seems a little absurd, doesn't it?

Johnny Walker said...

darmund, I believe I can take a crack at that!

Exec: We read your script, and it's exactly what we're looking for: A fresh, unique, exciting voice! It caught our eye immediately!

Young Writer: Fantastic! I feel so lucky that you "get" what I was aiming for! I was worried that a big Hollywood studio would only want to play it safe...

Exec: A myth spread by difficult and bitter writers! We do have some notes for you, though. I hope you don't mind.

Young Writer: No, of course not.

Exec: That's the spirit! At the top of our priorities is the cat at the end.

Young Writer: Yes, isn't it a wonderful surprise that she doesn't go back to save it? Probably the single most unique and fresh thing in the entire script.

Exec: Oh absolutely. It's just that our market research indicates that audiences *like it* when heroes save cats. And we don't want to make something that nobody wants to see, right?

Young Writer. Uh, right.

Exec: So maybe, instead of her not saving the cat, she could save the cat... a few times throughout the film.

Young Writer: So you want to change it so that instead of not saving the cat, the hero saves the cat... multiple times.

Exec: Great idea! Why not give audiences MORE of what they want to see?

Young Writer: I'm just worried that this will make the script less fresh, less unique... and more like that big hit in the theaters right now, "Hero Saves The Cat".

Exec: Well it'll certainly have some similarities to "Hero Saves The Cat", but that's why we want YOU to make these changes. So you can put your inimitable, fresh, exciting voice into the script.

Young Writer: Right.

Exec: Great. Better get to work. I need the new draft by tomorrow morning.

Young Writer: Tomorrow morning...?

Exec: Well we're not going to get this into the theaters by July if we can't start production by Monday.

Young Writer: *gulp*


Exec: *sigh* (presses button on his phone) Get me Damon Lindelof on the phone.

Kaleberg said...

Sounds like there's an opportunity for the next big writing book and movie structure fad. Consider a title along the lines of "Lose the Cat" and cover maybe 50 or 100 great movies that violate a good number of the rules and explain why it worked so well in each case. If you are a new writer, you might want to try this. After all, getting real writing work is a long shot, but popular writing guides can become serious best sellers. Who knows? Maybe someone will buy it and turn it into a movie.

Mike said...

@Johnny Walker: Isn't that the plot to What Just Happened? CopyCat.

Johnny Walker said...

:) It's a story as old as Hollywood itself.

Speaking of which, in a weird bout of synchronicity, I just stumbled across a profile of Damon Lindleof (Hollywood script-doctor extraordinaire) called NUKE THE CAT, where he basically describes the very scenario I did. It's well worth the read.

Nuke the Cat: Damon Lindelof Explains the New Rules of Blockbuster Screenwriting

Mike said...

@Johnny Walker: I think I've found the problem:
“My skill set as a writer is actually less significant than my knowledge of pop culture in general, and maybe when it comes to these movies, my ability and willingness to crib freely from the amazing comics, film, and TV I grew up on is far more important than actual talent.”

Lindelof doesn't say Nuke the Cat. If anything, he's reiterating the book in his own cliched writing.

cadavra said...

An independent producer once hired me to rewrite a script. He said it was "coming along," but the plot lacked focus and the characters were flat and uninteresting. I assured him I could fix both of those things.

A day after I turned in my draft, he called me in a steaming outrage:
"What is this shit you handed me?"
"What's wrong with it?"
"You wasted all this time on the plot and the characters!"
"You told me that's what you wanted!"

And needless to say, he never paid me. I don't think the picture was ever even made.

Mike said...

@cadavra: That story is improved by adding the words "origami", "pop-up book" & "surprise!".