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Fun Joel's Screenwriting Blog


-- On Screenwriting and Related Topics

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Location: Los Angeles, CA

I moved from NYC to LA in October, 2003. And though I still think NYC is the greatest city in the world, I'm truly loving life here in the City of Angels. I'm a writer, reader, and occasional picture-taker.

Friday, July 29, 2005

Blogger/Screenwriter Gathering, Update

Man, I've been slow at getting moving on this. But I've pretty much got everything set. Unfortunately, I'm also really busy today, so I won't be able to send out the evite today (I don't think). So...

If you are a blogger/screenwriter, will be able to make a party on 8/21 (yes I know it's a ways away yet), and haven't heard from me directly about this, please send me an email with your email address, and I'll throw you on to the evite when it goes out!

This is all for now! :-)


Wednesday, July 27, 2005

And Then There Were Two

As those of you who were watching already know, Mark and Shoe's script, "The Sperm Donor" became one of the two finalists on Bravo's Situation: Comedy. Of course, I knew that already, but I didn't want to let the cat out of the bag too much in advance! ;-)

In all honesty, I thought the show was a fun watch, and simply watching those writers in the pitch room was an intimidating enough few minutes. Anyway, I hope you'll keep watching, and I wish my boys a ton of luck! They've got their work cut out for them. You'll all get to vote at the end of the season!

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Monday, July 25, 2005

Weekend Acquisitions

First of all, I seem to be vindicated. As I'm sure you already heard, The Island had some pretty disappointing box office, coming in fourth for the weekend. Always nice to see my words confirmed at the box office!

Also, there were two scripts acquired this weekend which I read at some point. New Line purchased a script I read for them last week, Happy Campers, by Peter Gaulke and Gary Swallow. I can't say much about this project, since the ink is still fresh on the deal, but it is a children's comedy with some good slapstick humor and a bit more heart than the typical.

The other was Quest to Ref (story requires registration), by first time feature writers Ben Watkins and Guy Guillet. It was purchased by Universal, not the company for whom I read the script. When I read it, I gave it a RELUCTANT PASS, meaning it was a good script, but just not right for the company for whom I read it. In part, I described the script as, "A very funny and relatively original script that speaks in support of its authors." The script was a little weak in plot at times, but most importantly worked because it was truly very funny, unlike so many alleged comedies out there. And it treated its characters with dignity and respect, where too many others look down on their comic protagonists. Tone goes a long way in making this a winning script. Glad to see these guys getting their due. It was an enjoyable read, and I'm glad that the "cream rises to the top."

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Sunday, July 24, 2005

Okay, Here's the Situation...

...Situation: Comedy, that is. So hopefully you've heard about this show starting up this Tuesday on Bravo, and if you haven't, well, you have now! It's basically like Project Greenlight, but for sitcoms, rather than feature films.

Why am I mentioning it? Because FOFJ (Friend Of Fun Joel) Mark Treitel is one of the finalists! They started with 10,000 submissions, and narrowed it to 10. The first episode moves from those 10, down to 5, then to 2. And the rest of the series will show those two becoming pilots. At the end of the season, we all get to vote, and then one gets aired. Or something like that!

The Village Voice praised Treitel and partner Shoe Schuster's script, Sperm Donor, as such:

The only faintly promising pitch comes from a duo who present their idea as "Who's the Boss? meets funny" -- —a reminder that plenty of past hit sitcoms weren't actually all that hilarious. Maybe that's why the art form is dying: Our expectations have risen, while the networks keep serving us updated versions of Who's the Boss?

Sounds good, huh? Just don't tell Alyssa Milano and Tony Danza!

Anyway, if you want a preview, click here and go to "Situation Comedy" under "New Episodes" at the bottom of the page. Either way, I hope you'll check out the show on Tuesday night, and put your best thoughts out there for Mark and Shoe!

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Friday, July 22, 2005

On Format, continued

My last post, about including character ages, generated a small flurry of comments. There are obviously many potential reasons for this. Perhaps the short length of the post encouraged more people to read and comment on it. Maybe I'm just gaining more loyal readers who feel they should be commenting (and I thank you for that!). Could be a combination of reasons.

But I think at least one major contributing factor is that it was about screenplay formatting. There has been much ink set to paper on the topic of "proper" screenplay format. Perhaps even more pixels have been darkened -- hell, I even commented on it already myself! But I feel this warrants a few more words on the subject.

Yes, format is important. If you submit a screenplay printed in the wrong font, you will look like an amateur. If all of your sluglines use non-standard format, you will look like an amateur. If you never capitalize your character names upon introduction, or alternatively if you capitalize your character names throughout the screenplay -- all together now -- you will look like an amateur!

This is the most important purpose of following the proper screenplay format. So that you don't look like an amateur. Thus it is understandable that neophyte writers (at least those who are somewhat serious about their writing) pay such close attention to "correct" screenplay format. They somewhat rightly realize that if they don't follow the correct format they will... well, you know the rest by now. And they should pay close attention to such things.

That being said, formatting is a tool, and if clarity requires that you break a formatting rule, so be it. If on occasion you can make a point more effectively by breaking a rule, do it. You do not need to be beholden to a specific format, just because the books say you should. In this month's issue of scr(i)pt magazine, Bill Martell mentions that he invented a diagonal split of action on the page. Three (or more) pieces of action, split by ellipses, and indented respectively further across the page. If I could figure out how to format an indent, I'd show you an example (any web geeks out there, let me know). But no script formatting book would ever include such a thing.

You'll notice I said earlier, "If all of your sluglines use non-standard format." This doesn't mean that you can't have a few that are different, for emphasis. Also, remember that screenplay formatting changes gradually over the years. Read some of the top screenplays from the 60s or 70s and you'll be amazed at how many of our "rules" they break. Nowadays, for example, it is relatively common, and certainly acceptable, to have sluglines that are a single word. This might previously have been written as "INSERT" or "ANGLE ON." Now, it is fine if you just have a slugline that reads "THE TIGER."

The bottom line is that producers want to make good films, and readers want to find them. If I get a script that is completely in incorrect format, I'll assume the writer is an amateur, and he or she will be fighting an uphill (though not unwinable) battle to get to RECOMMEND. Not impossible, but highly improbable. If, however, I'm reading a script in overall proper format, with a few rules broken here and there, I will not care one bit.

So learn the proper script format. Follow the rules. But don't obsess so much over it. Focus much more of your time, energy, and effort developing your actual writing skills. Just make sure you have a good reason for breaking a rule when you do so.

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Thursday, July 21, 2005

For God's Sake...

...PLEASE always in all circumstances put your character's ages when you introduce them in a script!

One of the most annoying things I encounter way too frequently when I read scripts is character intros without this. (It's happening in a script I'm reading right now, so I had to let off some steam and blog it before I forgot.) When I do coverage, I'm supposed to write the ages of the characters. So what I end up having to do in these cases is think for a little bit and then take a semi-educated guess. I really hate writing something like, HANK (early 20s?). It's not the "early 20s" part that bugs me. It's the damn question mark.

Okay, you don't have to write the ages for truly minor characters, like POLICE OFFICER #2. But if your character is at all substantial, do yourself, and me, a favor and take the few seconds it takes to put in their ages. Acceptable ages could be specific ages, e.g. (12), or even approximations, e.g. (teens), (35ish), or (late 50s). But put something. Please!

And now back to your regularly scheduled programming...

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Screenplay Review: The Island

I often see movies coming out that I was given to read professionally, at some point. So I thought it might be interesting to go back to my coverage and get a review of the screenplay out there. Maybe I'll make this a recurring feature. Who knows? I'd like to start with this weekend's big budget Sci-Fi action flick, The Island.

I read The Island as a general writing sample for screenwriter Alex Kurtzman, and did my coverage on 12/10/04. Draft version was dated 11/19/04, so it was presumably one of the later drafts for the script, if not the shooting script itself.


Here's the logline I wrote:

Two people uncover lies, discovering they are actually clones raised for their organs, and set about saving their peers.

Not the strongest logline ever written, but you get the picture.

In brief, my comments seem to be in keeping with some of the others I've recently read in reviews of the film overall. The plot is highly derivative, but the details are strong. And judging by the commercials and trailer I've seen, those details come through in some pretty strongly visual action sequences. Clearly such things (along with the popularity of the stars) indicate some decent commercial potential for this film, but a stronger and more inventive script might have offered even stronger potential. As is, this film is likely to do relatively well, but will prove largely forgettable.

What follows is a slightly modified version of the comments I wrote in my coverage of this script. This may also give you a feel for the style in which coverage reports are written, for those who have never seen one. I've left in references to specific plot points that might not mean much to you here, but the comments were attached to a synopsis, and thus would also make sense to the reader of the coverage. Hope you'll get the gist:

The Island is much stronger in its details than in its conception. While the concept of the film overall is highly derivative, many specific plot points are both clever, and wittily written. There are also some plot holes that further weaken the script overall. Thus, as a general writing sample, The Island offers mixed comment on Kurtzman'’s skill as an author.

On a macro level, The Island is sadly derivative of multiple films and books of the genre, offering little to add to the pantheon. The film'’s concept is overly familiar, and many specific background elements (such as the "“evolution"” of later generation clones) have similarly been over-utilized in films of this sub-genre. In order to make this film stand out, it would need a much more original central concept.

Still, on a micro level, Kurtzman'’s skills seem significantly more promising. Many of the specific plot points are more surprising than is the concept overall. Minor twists, as well as the more significant, are generally presented adeptly. There are some decent moments of humor as well, to lighten the tone a bit. Some of these occur at inopportune times, but still the idea is right and it works more often than not.

Nonetheless, even on a smaller, detail level there remain some flaws as well. These particularly fall in the area of plot conception. For example, if the wristcuffs are able to read all of the agnates' vital signs, why would they not also be used for security purposes, preventing Lincoln from snooping around in the first place and allowing them to be tracked later? There are other similar flaws that, though not utterly destructive to the story, still add up to some shoddy and distracting craftsmanship.

Ultimately, Kurtzman shows himself worthy of further consideration. But his skills are certainly far from a certain success.

Okay, so that's it. Simple, but to the point. There is definitely room for commercial success, and I suspect this film will in fact succeed. But I think it could have had much more promise with a stronger and more inventive central premise.

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Tuesday, July 19, 2005


It's too bad I'm not a Libra!

Lately, I've found my thoughts turning more and more towards a pursuit of balance. I've already mentioned that my new part time job threw my writing schedule into flux and caused me to try to find the right balance between the (unrelated to film) job, my freelance (related to film) work, and my own writing. I'm getting closer, but still working on it.

I'm sure I could benefit from more balance in my diet as well. And thankfully I'm seeing a very slow rise in my bank account's balance.

But the main balance that is at the forefront of my thoughts right now is an imbalance that is negatively affecting my writing. I've gotten somewhat back on track with the writing of Hell on Wheels, but it is still progressing slower than I'd like. And I think a big part of this is because of it's particular (sub)genre. As you may recall, it is a vampire western. Not a simple vampire flick, nor a straight ahead western. It's a film that requires balance between those two halves. I don't just want it to be a vampire film that happens to be set in the American West of the 1860s. Michael Lee and I designed an intricate plot that is directly tied to the era and locale in which it is set. I want both halves to be equally strong and appealing.

See, when you work in a hybrid of genres, or specifically in a hybrid genre (such as Romantic Comedy), there is really no reason to use the hybrid unless they each contribute equally. We've all heard how anyone aspiring to write a salable RomCom must make sure that it is both very romantic, and very funny. That whole balance thing again.

Okay, so the reason this is giving me problems right now is that while I want Hell on Wheels to have equally strong western and vampire elements, and I feel the outline did achieve that goal, my writing is not. While I've never written a vampire film before, I have written horror, and am pretty familiar with the vampire genre. What I have not done before is ever write anything set in a period other than the present. And though I've certainly watched my share of such films, I'm also no expert on them. Thus, while I have a decent handle on the conventions of the western genre, I find myself at a loss every time I'm dealing with any specific detail of life in the old west.

I've done quite a bit of research, but not necessarily enough on the details of life in that time. And I'm a semi-obsessive researcher. I find myself wondering what kind of money they used. Was it only coins, or did they use paper money? What did they carry such money in? A little pouch? Or was there some kind of wallet or purse? And such things are not merely irrelevant details. They all come into play while I'm writing, and I find myself stopping, or at least slowing, because I feel that without these aspects, my script is losing its balance between the genres. I feel my vamp elements grow more prominent due to a more realistic and detailed feel to them.

I try to push through them, and tell myself this is just a brain-dump draft that I can fix later. But I'm still having a hard time truly believing that. I feel like I'm just not prepared enough. Not really ready to be writing this. Am I just using this as a procrastinatory tool? Do I just need to watch a few solid westerns and pay attention to the details? Or do I really need to do more research before I go on? What is the right balance between these approaches?

In the meantime, I'm just trying to crash my way through, like the Aries ram I am.

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Monday, July 18, 2005

The Enneagram (Part 5 - Subtypes)

I've just seen the importance of posting regularly! It was just a few days of slow posting while I was off doing other stuff, like writing and working, and all of a sudden I see my hits drop significantly! So anyway, I figured I'd better get a post out tonight to maintain that regular readership. ;-)

Anyway, a while back I mentioned I was going to post about another aspect of the Enneagram that I had come across. Figured now would be a good time to make good on the promise.

What makes the Enneagram a particularly useful system for film characterization are the numerous layers of complexity it offers up. These complexities offer possibilities for pairing up characters as foils or protagonist and antagonist, and present potential story arcs. In addition to type wings, and stress or security points, another way to differentiate different characters of the same type is with subtypes.

Basically, the idea is that each of the nine types can be expressed in any of three ways: self-preservation, social, or sexual. Essentially, these break down, respectively, to those who are primarily concerned with their own selves and security, communal bonds, or their interpersonal relationships particularly with a partner.

By way of illustration, let's look at the Two: "The Helper." His basic desire is to feel loved, and he will express this desire in distinct manners depending on his subtype. The self-preservation Two takes care of other people's needs, at times childishly, in a bid to "buy love," expecting to be repaid in kind. Social subtypes aim to enhance their social standing by having parties, setting people up, and interacting with other people, in general. Sexual Twos, may be characterized by seductive and potentially manipulative characteristics.

Thus, much as a single character type might fall across a spectrum of psychological health, or might be either of two wings, each type also may take on any of the three primary instinctual drives. In fact, many say that "subtype" is really the wrong term for such aspects, and that "instincts" would be the more accurate term. To be certain, we each possess all three instincts in varying degrees. It is the one that most drives us that would be considered our home instinct, or subtype. While the overall character type may be a result of our formative years -- our "programming" -- the instincts represent our naturally in-born character traits. They are the nature to the primary types' nurture.

The more I explore the Enneagram, the more I see its versatility as a character development tool. Sure, there are nine basic types. But with all these distinct layers of complexity, we see there are really hundreds of different types, if not more.

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Wednesday, July 13, 2005


So first of all, I've added a few more links to various sections in my side bar. I'm not gonna highlight 'em all, but give a gander (how come you can't also give a goose? Oh wait, you can, but that means something very different and will likely get you slapped. Never mind).

Also, I've had a thought. Amazing, isn't it? ;-) No, really, I've noticed how interconnected the blogosphere is, of course, and have also found a bond with the others in the screenwriting 'hood thereof. So I was thinking, most of us live in and around L.A. Wouldn't it be great to have a little Screenwriting Blogger Get-together?! Or would that be a Blogging Screenwriter Get-together? Well, whichever. I'd love to put faces to the names of those of you whose words I read on a near-daily basis. Leave a comment here if it is something you think you'd be up for, probably in a nice laid back bar in my area (since I'm organizing). Don't worry, I live in a pretty central location. If I don't hear from all those of you who I think might be interested, I'll send an email directly to ya. Let me know! I think it'll be fun.

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Monday, July 11, 2005

On Character Names

In a post on a slightly different topic, Kristen over at My Back Pages mentioned the topic of choosing a new name for one of her characters. And it got me thinking that choosing character names is a topic worth discussing. Clearly there are many more pressing matters that determine the worth of your screenplay. Even presentation may be more significant. But on a more subtle level, character names contribute to the undertones your script presents, and deserve similar attention to the titles you choose for your films.

One of the more significant issues I encounter in relation to character names is the use of overly generic names. Certainly there is a certain realism to having characters who all have typical names like John, Debbie, or Mark. But at the same time, this facilitates potential confusion on the part of the reader, who has to think about which character is David and which is Josh. The problems are exacerbated when the names are somewhat similar in sound or structure. This was why Kristen was considering changing her character's name. She didn't like the way two female characters both had names ending in "A" -- Julia and Kendra. I would see the same issue if you had characters named Jim and Joe. I can't tell you how many times I've read amateurish scripts and had to stop as I read a character's dialogue so I could look back and ask myself which character was actually speaking. I mean that I could see the character's name was "Bob," but I didn't remember if Bob was a certain character, or his brother or something.

Now clearly this problem becomes more obvious when the writing quality is poorer. If your characters truly speak with unique voices, the reader doesn't need to even look at the character prompt to know who is speaking. But even if you do write the characters individually, why complicate things unnecessarily (unless there is a reason to give them similar names, such as a thematic commentary)?

I like to choose names for my characters based on a few things. Sometimes I look at subtle references to their character in their names. I don't mean to spell it out too clearly, but rather just to make a slight hint at the values of the character. I believe that names have a certain power and significance, and I try to at least slightly capture that.

For example, in one of my scripts, I had a character who was a real pop-culture junkie, and worked as an ad exec. I chose the name Carson, both as a reference to Johnny Carson, and to add in a little contemporary feel in relation to Carson Daly. Another character in that script was a stock trader, a bit overly money-driven. Rich would have been a bit too obvious, but Chip worked for me. He came from a WASP background, and as a trader was something of a gambler. An earthy, artsy, hippieish black female character got the name Jolie, and I could feel her glowing through the name. And I named an impish bike messenger Pan, though we later learn in passing that this was merely a diminutive nickname based on his surname. They were the four central characters in a comedy, and they each have distinctive names that not only separate them from each other, but also from the typical names of characters in general.

Other times, I might choose names based more on their sound. In Hell on Wheels, the main character is named Zane. There aren't many names that begin in "Z," and this automatically gives him some uniqueness. I also chose the name as a slight tribute to Zane Grey, the famous Western novelist. His mentor, a vampire hunter with a slight dark side is named Stagg (his last name, in my mind, but the name he goes by). It just sounded right, hinting at a wild hunt, stalking, and an inner strength.

My overall point is that a distinctive name can go a long way, without necessarily sacrificing any measure of realism. Don't overthink them, digging down deep into word origins, and the like. But if you pay attention to the way they sound, and the vague general resonances they present, you can add a bit more sophistication to your script. At at the very least, even if the names you choose have no significant positive effects, at least do your best to avoid the negative effects of boring names that exacerbate and highlight the lack of uniqueness in your characters themselves.

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Sunday, July 10, 2005

On Batman Begins

Considering that I make my living in the movie business, I see a shamefully small number of films in the theaters each year. I do see some, and I also watch plenty on cable and DVD. I just don't get to the theater that frequently.

Chalk it up to a combination of lack of money and an erratically busy schedule.

Regardless, I did see Batman Begins last night, finally. And I'll agree with the buzz floating around that this is one of the best superhero movies ever made, and certainly the best Batman film. I'd like to drop a few random comments on it, and also address the script itself, a bit. And hopefully this will become something of a steady thing for me, when I see a movie worth discussing in this forum.

To be honest, I was not particularly familiar with the work of David S. Goyer, who receives story credit, and co-screenplay credit along with director Christopher Nolan. But he's clearly made quite a name for himself in the comics-to-film genre, with his credits including the Blade films, one of The Crow sequels, and some upcoming superhero flicks, among others. This film definitely worked as "hitting the reset button" on the Batman movies, as I read the quote in an interview. But onto a few specifics (and with their randomness, this is not a traditional "review").


First off, I loved what they did with the Scarecrow character. I'm no Batman comics aficionado, but in the various incarnations I've seen, this character never truly lived up to it's potential. But here, for the first time I've seen, he was a truly scary villain, and one that actually made sense. By connecting the fear aspect to a psychotropic drug, it explained how a stupid masked figure could actually be the source of such horrific horror. And Nolan deserves credit for the way in which this was portrayed on screen. The special effects for these scenes were among the more visually pleasing, and deftly handled, of any in the film. They didn't have to hit us over the head; a little pyrotechnics went a long way.

Furthermore, the Scarecrow was an excellent choice for the first film in this new series, thematically speaking. Goyer's script (I'm going to be giving him most of the credit on the screenplay side, though I don't know if this is accurate or not) focuses thematically on facing one's fears, and does what most good scripts will do with a theme. It presents various angles on the subject, exploring them through different characters or subplots. Personal fears can swallow us. We can try to suppress them and/or overcompensate for them. We can also confront them and do battle with them. In so doing, we might simply destroy them, or might actually find ways to internalize them and turn them to our advantage. Each of these points are made and explored to a certain degree in this film, giving it a greater sophistication than some of the earlier Batman films. (And don't get me wrong, I loved Burton's take. I just feel this is a better take.)

Goyer and Nolan are also to be commended for the film's pacing and structure. They resisted the easy urge to make this into a slam-bam action film, with non-stop set pieces. Instead, the film seems more influenced by the Asian action films that have recently grown in popularity Stateside. Movies like Hero, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and House of Flying Daggers. The film's pacing and structure helped create a more thoughtful and incisive movie.

The one aspect of the script that most bothered me was the dialogue. Too frequently it veered into the expository and spot-on, "let me tell you how I feel inside" variety. For example, I liked the fact that it was young Bruce's fear of bats that forces the family out of the theater, only to be gunned down by a desperate thug. This adds a lot more resonance than there was in the earlier Batman film, in which it was more a simple random act, as I recall. (I'm told the current version is truer to the comic book.) When I saw this, I said to myself, "Ah. Nice touch, to give Bruce more of a reason to blame himself and his fears." Then, a few scenes later, just after the funeral, we see young Bruce turn to Alfred and say something along the lines of, "It's all my fault. I killed them."

Come on! Trust your audience at least a little. We're not idiots. We can figure this out without you spelling it out for us. I felt the same way in much of the stuff regarding Rachel and Falcone. (And by the way, if his name is Carmine Falcone, shouldn't he be played by an Italian actor, preferably and Italian American, rather than some Brit? But I digress. ;-) As Rachel begins to explain Falcone's grip on Gotham, and then Falcone takes it to the next level, much of it could have been distilled into a single action or two, or even just a brief line of dialogue. At least when Liam Neeson's character rambles on about what the League of Shadows has done, it is with style and some subtlety. Plus, the slight twist regarding his character adds some subtext to it, in retrospect. But I simply felt too much of the dialogue was on the weaker end of things.

That being said, I still think the script was pretty solid overall, and the film itself was excellent in terms of superhero film in general, and Batman in particular. Well worth the watch for any of you out there who still haven't seen it.

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Thursday, July 07, 2005


So according to BlogPatrol, I passed 1000 total visitors on the blog today, so that excites me! Thanks for reading and for all your support. (Of course, according to SiteMeter I passed that mark already a number of days ago. They list me as having about 250 more visitors -- no idea what accounts for the full discrepancy. But anyway...)

It's been 44 days since I started the blog, and this is my 31st post. My top referrer is The Artful Writer. I've also seen a relatively steady growth in visitors, and in the number of distinct referrers. So thanks again to all of you! I hope that I continue to write stuff that maintains your interest, and I hope this all continues to grow. Here's to a great 1 1/2 months so far! :-)

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Also Just Out...

The new issue of scr(i)pt magazine is now out (Wedding Crashers on the cover). I have two articles in it. On page 8 you'll find a short news piece about an awesome new philanthropy, the Screenwriting Museum Project. It aims to expand the acclaim and attention that screenwriters receive in the world at large. I'll be posting more about it in the future.

Then, on pages 24-28 I have "Kid Stuff" -- an interview with three different people involved with films made for the family and children's market. As one of the most successful and prominently expanding market niches, such films deserve a lot more attention than they currently receive. I interviewed David N. Weiss (Shrek 2, Are We There Yet?, The Rugrats Movie), Alex Schwartz (Executive VP of Production at Walden Media), and Tom Rogers (The Lion King 1 1/2, Kronk's New Groove, Jungle Book 2).

I hope you enjoy the articles!

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Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Screenwriting Expo

The program for the Screenwriting Expo 4 is now available online. I am scheduled to present two seminars on Sunday, November 13. I hope many of you will register for my seminars. Of course I will post about this again in the future, but I just wanted to get the word out now, since it is up on the web now!


Tuesday, July 05, 2005

One More...

I forgot that there was one more link I wanted to add, so I threw it on this morning.

Sam and Jim Go To Hollywood is one of the more unique screenwriting blogs out there, if you can call it that. They're actually doing some entertaining podcasting about getting their start in the film biz. Entertaining stuff when you have the time to listen. I'm still catching up on the back 'casts, but I've enjoyed what I've heard so far.

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Monday, July 04, 2005

(Blog)rolling On

So I made a few changes and additions to my blogroll in the sidebar.

First of all, I added a link to The Blank Page, a group blog written only by WGA members, or those of affiliated guilds. It was started by Jacob Sager Weinstein, and focuses largely on business issues facing professional working screenwriters.

I've also added a new section to the links: "More Screenwriter blogs." These include screenwriters whose blogs I read with some measure of frequency, but who are not (yet) professionals, per se. Still, they are blogs that I enjoy reading, and feel they have insights and experiences that anyone could potentially learn from. So they get the "Fun Joel Stamp of Approval"®.

I had posted the other day about Andy Coughlan's blog, and that I had been considering removing the link. But now that he's posted a second useful article on the screenwriting side of things, and also tells me he's planning to do more of that once the short is done, I've moved him to this section instead.

Man Bytes Hollywood is written by David Anaxagoras, a recent UCLA MFA Screenwriting grad. He jokingly fears that his only contribution to the world of screenwriting may be the progress bars that are growing semi-ubiquitous in the screenwriting blogosphere. He wrote the CSS code. Personally, I'm impressed with his orderly scheduling.

My Back Pages' Kristen Havens has a keen interest in monsters, fantasy, and horror. From what I can tell, she challenges herself and takes chances, both good things in my book.

I haven't been reading Todd's Moviequill for long, but it seems like it would be particularly useful for the newer screenwriters out there. He has given a lot of thought to the LA vs. everywhere-else problems that neophytes face, and I think he seems dedicated to developing his craft.

Perhaps it is because Shawna Benson has been Shouting Into the Wind, but again, I've only recently begun to read her blog. Still, she's been blogging for quite a while, in relative terms. In addition to her writing, I find she has some interesting insights into the business overall. She also recaps Done Deal's list of remakes and sequels each month, which I think is a decent pulse of some of what is happening out there.

this savage art... comes from William Speruzzi, a fellow New Yorker (I'm a former NYCer, but once a New Yawka, always a New Yawka!). As an indie screenwriter and filmmaker, he brings a different sensibility to some things.

Finally, Neil Kramer over at Citizen of the Month has been added into my group of Other Writers. He's a screenwriter, etc, in L.A. and has some funny posts in a similar vein to Pauly D's, over at Words For My Enjoyment.

Oh, and Happy Independence Day, everyone! Embrace your independence.

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Sunday, July 03, 2005

Can You Teach Screenwriting?

Craig Mazin has done it again. Over at The Artful Writer a discussion has been raging about whether screenwriting can be taught, and who if anyone is qualified to teach it. The discussion has even spilled over into some of the other screenwriting blogs out there. Last night I posted a longish response in the comments at Artful Writer, but then I hit an error (prob from my end) and the comment never posted. So I decided to just post my response here. It's probably worth reading through the comments over there first, however, since I won't be reiterating much of what the others have said.

Craig wrote:

I simply do not understand what most of these people do. Here’s why: I believe that screenwriting is a vocational craft, and therefore ought to be taught like a vocational craft.

I believe the majority of books that exist are academic in their very nature (they are texts), and screenwriting is not a liberal art....

How can someone who hasn’t done the job teach the job? Remember, I define the “job” as “writing a movie”, NOT “writing a screenplay”.
I think that this comment and some of the responses to it overlook a specific point. We've all heard the famous adage, "Those who can do; those who can't teach." I believe there is, in fact, some truth to this comment. But I see this as both a good and bad thing. While there are certainly many teachers who are not well-qualified (and you absolutely must check them out before you spend your money on them), the lack of credits does not preclude one from being a good teacher.

I have taught (in other fields) previously, and I recognize that being a good teacher is a skill in itself. There are plenty of people out there who probably had a better handle on the material that I taught than I did. But I happen to be good at teaching. I know how to communicate material, transmitting it differently to different students, finding new ways to help them understand and incorporate the material.

Similarly, many excellent screenwriters will be horrible teachers. Just because they may be highly talented does not mean they will be able to teach the skill. And yes, I do believe that some major elements of screenwriting can be taught. This does not mean that a good teacher can make anyone into a good screenwriter. Talent is a necessary component. But a good screenwriting teacher can help someone develop their skills if they already have the talent.

Mazin wrote:

Do not take screenwriting advice from uncredited self-anointed experts who simply haven’t earned the right to teach you. There isn’t a screenwriting teacher on the planet who makes more money being a great screenwriting teacher than he would being a great screenwriter.

Hell, mediocre screenwriters probably do better.
This argument simply doesn't float with me. Look at most of the talented musicians in the world. The vast majority learned from people earlier on in their professional developments (I'm not counting those few self-taught prodigies). And in most cases, those music teachers that were able to nurture the talent of a developing musician were not highly successful musicians in their own rights. Those people are too busy working as successful professional musicians.

In my opinion, teaching screenwriting -- be it in a class, via a book, through giving feedback on screenplays, in seminars, or in any other format -- requires certain skills. You have to be able to examine and evaluate what makes for a good screenplay and be able to transmit that information to the developing screenwriter. Usually, this does require some experience in the industry, but I do not believe that because I have not yet sold a screenplay that I am completely unqualified to teach. I've worked professionally and made my living from evaluating screenplays. I recognize that I still have a lot to learn myself, and therefore I do not try to teach areas with which I am unfamiliar or unqualified to teach. But at the same time, I believe that I do have some wisdom (for lack of a better word) to impart, and that I can help novice screenwriters become better at their craft.

Nonetheless, I still agree that all of the other things Craig and the others mentioned are also important learning tools. Definitely read as many screenplays as possible, both good and bad. Seek out feedback from as many people as possible, in as many contexts as possible. Get out and experience life, and observe how others interact. And without a doubt, the best way to develop your skills is simply to keep writing, and evaluating your own work with a critical eye.

Before you take a seminar or class, or hire a script consultant to give you notes, check him or her out. Ask around for other people who have used them. Read their websites or books to try to get a feel for whether you believe in their talent and knowledge. There are plenty of charlatans out there, but there are also plenty of people who can help.

And lastly, on the subject of books, my opinion is similar. I've read some pretty crappy screenwriting books, and some that don't quite suck but also offer very little of original value. But at the same time, many of them are excellent, and others may at least offer a few new ideas that you can incorporate into your arsenal of screenwriting tools. I still read screenwriting books, and explore the tools that resonate with me. Certainly the weaker screenwriters out there will end up turning out the "facsimile screenplays" that Craig mentioned in his post. But the better writers out there will be able to find elements in some of the better screenwriting books that will help them along their path, and help them develop into better screenwriters. And they'll be able to do so while remaining true to their own voice and style.

Of course, that's just my opinion!


Update: My comments from last night showed up there after all. Heh heh. Sorry for the confusion!

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Friday, July 01, 2005

Altered States

Okay, so I sat down and revised my weekly schedule. This actually seems to be the thing, these days, in the screenwriting neighborhood of the blogosphere. Hopefully it works for all of us!

It's interesting. I try to maintain a good balance between my writing, my other work, and the other things in my life. Plus, as I've mentioned, I really like having some variety and flexibility, though I also know I need some regimenting and scheduling.

Thus, I've recognized my fatigue-induced limitations, now that I'm working part time, and admitted that I can't get up at 5 AM to write every day, like I had been (at least on weekdays). The new schedule blocks out time on specific days (not the same time each day), but I've also tried to build in some flexibility. While some of these blocks are labeled "Write," others have the built in variety of "Write/Work." So if I have a work deadline of some kind, I'll do that, because I recognize I must also do that stuff.

Still, my plan is to have a minimum number of hours within each of those blocks for writing. For example, one of my "Write/Work" blocks is Monday morning, from 8:30-12. Now I recognize that I frequently will be working during part of this time, since I usually have coverage to do over the weekend, due Mon AM. At the same time, I'm aiming to do at least an hour of writing in this slot, and ideally two or more.

I don't know whether this new schedule will work or not, but I'm hoping it will. I do, of course, recognize the potential pitfalls, and if I'm not succeeding in sticking to this schedule, I'll re-tweak. I'll keep ya posted! :-)

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