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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.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Re-Search and Ye Shall Find

Without saying too much specifically (yet), I'll just say that I'm deep into some research at the moment. And it got me thinking that I have never really posted about the research process. Which is somewhat peculiar, because I love research. It is actually one of my favorite parts of the writing process.

About the closest I got to posting about research was HERE, where I discussed some of the research I did for Hell in Wheels. But the details of that post might tell you a bit about my process.

When I'm beginning work on a screenplay, it usually starts from a mere kernel of an idea. Some cool little tidbit I heard about, or a "wouldn't it be cool if..." kind of concept. Once I decide to start focusing more attention on that, and wanting to develop it more into a screenplay, I do what I would call "immersion research." What I mean by that is that the research is less focused, and more about learning the subject and world of the idea. This research focuses on two distinct methods and areas.

The first is research for subject matter. I read everything I can about anything connected to the world of the film. I pick up books and watch TV shows or videos that focus on the subject matter. I also do lots of web searches for various terms, letting one thing lead me to another with a decided lack of focus. When I'm involved in this phase of research, focus can be a negative. I am not trying to learn specific details, but rather aiming to become a junior expert in the subject.

This purpose of this research is manifold. Firstly, it helps me become more comfortable writing about the field. But more importantly, it will often supply me with details that aid me in developing my kernel of an idea into a full-fledged outline. Many of the specific plot points that happen in Hell on Wheels, for example, came from such immersion research. Specific weapons, set-piece scenes, and minor characters all grew out of details I came across during my unfocused research on the Transcontinental Railroad specifically, and western frontier life in general.

In another script that I had done research for (and which remains unwritten to date, but which I still hope to write eventually), I made a more significant discovery during the research process. I had started from a really interesting kernel for a period romance film set in a cigar factory in Cuba at the turn of the 20th Century. So I set about reading as much as I could about cigars and Cuban culture. A short passage I read in one book was excerpted from another book, but I found it intriguing, and set about tracking down the slightly hard to find book. When I finally got my hands on it, and read it, I realized that it actually supplied the perfect thematic background for the film. And from that theme I was able to develop characters and plotlines.

Other good methods for this type of research include visiting locations, or maybe even volunteering for work in a certain field. These certainly require more effort, but can prove well worth it. I have an idea for a film on modern piracy which I may or may not ever end up writing, but if I do proceed with it, I intend to take a trip down to the docks in San Pedro, and possibly see if I can arrange a few visits on board some commercial ships.

In addition to the subject matter research I do during the immersion phase, I also do genre research. I watch lots of movies, both good and bad, that relate to the screenplay I want to write. They might be in the same genre, or they might cover similar subject matter. My point is not to copy from them. In fact, I usually try to do the opposite -- see what has already been done and try to avoid doing it again. This happened to me in the first screenplay I ever finished. I was writing The Joint Effort, a "weed comedy" (of which you can read the first page HERE), and had a lot of funny tidbits that I wanted to put in. But then I sat down and rewatched Half Baked, which I hadn't seen in a very long time, but which I consider the best of the genre. To my chagrin, I realized that a number of the cool ideas I had were actually from that movie, and simply buried in my subconscious, origins forgotten. So I had to eliminate them, and find more good gags to include.

I also watch as many related movies as possible to discover what makes the good ones work, and the bad ones fail. That helps guide me in my development process as well. This is not the same as copying details from other films. Rather it helps aim development efforts in the right direction.

So that's the "immersion research" phase. Following that, as the concept kernel continues to gestate, and I start to put the pieces of my initial outline together, my research becomes more focused. For example, I might try to learn how specific weapons work, or how a specific type of job is performed. It is during this phase of research that I will begin to do interview research as well. Were I to meet with a person with some expertise in a certain field, it would waste both of our time if I arranged to meet him/her during the immersion phase. That would entail just sitting down to "shoot the shit." And while that might be entertaining, it would presumably be less effective. But once I'm looking for more specific details, meeting with experts can be quite helpful and beneficial.

For The Joint Effort, I met with an editor from High Times to ask some specific questions about cultivation and breeding (and before you ask, no -- I never put this knowledge into practice in real life, just in the screenplay). A different time, I met with a well-known creative executive from the advertising world in order to learn more about the way a certain character would do his job. And by the way, in both of these cases, all it cost me was a coffee or some sushi. People are generally happy to talk about themselves if you just ask.

Anyway, that is my overall process in research. I hope it gave you some good ideas, or inspiration. What other types of research do any of y'all do? Any favorite researching stories?

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Saturday, May 12, 2007

How Well Do You Know Your Writing?

Got the feedback, as mentioned, from my writing group last night. While I am certainly more critical of my own writing than apparently any of the other people there were (and thus it didn't feel like they tore me a new one, as Emily suggested in the comments to my last post), they definitely highlighted a number of things that I hadn't thought of. Some were definitely things I will incorporate/change, others which I'll think about, but will probably ignore. (That's what you should really do with all feedback, by the way -- consider it open-mindedly, but don't take it as capital-T-Truth. Trust your gut, of course, to a certain degree too.)

Anyway, what surprised me most about the feedback was where their comments diverged from my own thoughts about the script. One of the major ones was the vamps vs. Western aspect. One of my main goals with this script was to have a pretty even balance of Western material and vampire movie stuff. I feel that is one of the things that always made the previous vampire Western scripts that were laughed out of town flawed -- they just set a vampire story in the old West, but that was it. So I strove for a story, characters, theme, etc. that balanced the two evenly.

Still, following my execution, I felt that things came down too much on the vampire side of things, and less on the Western side. According to all those in attendance, however, this was not the case. They all felt the opposite -- more Western than vampire movie. And in retrospect, when I think about it, I kind of see where they are coming from with the comment, and I have some stuff to think about for rewrites.

There were other things which I felt weren't working as well as they could, but the group felt they weren't problems. Of course, there were the inevitable issues that people raised that I hadn't noticed, but that's to be expected, and was the point of getting feedback in the first place.

Still, all of these things raise an interesting issue. I thought I had a pretty good handle on where my script stood (minus the things which I hadn't noticed, which I expected), but apparently I largely misjudged a number of aspects. So, how well did I really know my own script? How problematic is it that I didn't have the right feel of things? How likely is it that I've misjudged other aspects that simply weren't raised?

Mind you, I'm not questioning everything about my writing. I know it is in the ballpark, etc. I'm just curious, more than concerned, about some of those points.

How well can anyone know their own work? How well do you?

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Thursday, May 10, 2007

Update on a few things

Not much to say at the moment, but just wanted to give a brief update.

Got the writing group coming over tonight, and will receive some feedback on Hell on Wheels. I've told them that I want just the bad stuff (with maybe a bit of good at the end). Basically, I know this draft needs a LOT of work, and I don't want the constructive criticism to be adulterated. I want the truth. it will be hard to hear, I'm sure, but I'm looking forward to it.

Also, I'm a few steps closer now to the "good news" I mentioned at the end, two posts ago. Still nothing 100% set yet, and I won't say anything until it is a done deal, but I am hopeful that I'll be able to spread some good news to y'all very soon!

That's about it for now. Just touching base. :-)

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Brief Movie Review: Waitress

I got the chance to see Waitress last week as a preview screening, but I didn't have the chance to post about it until now, after it has already opened. Anyway, a brief review.


A good, solid, small film. This movie will not change the world, nor may it even be remembered strongly in some time, but it is definitely an enjoyable and effective film.

Especially, I liked the way it worked quite well as a true dramedy; the comedy was really funny, and the dramatic elements were realistic, sad, moving and touching. The acting was good, and it was really wonderful to see Andy Griffith up there! Jeremy Sisto was quite good (and scary) as the husband, and Keri Russell did a solid job in her role. I've never been a huge Nathan Fillion fan (I expect to hear it from some of you Joss-heads out there), but I thought he did a good job as well, in an understated and genuine performance.

But what I think was best about the film was what can also be most instructive to us as writers. Complexity. Just as the comedic and dramatic aspects blended nicely to make a realistic portrayal of life (the true draw of a dramedy), other aspects were equally complex. When we find characters cheating on their spouses, it is not a clear, black and white "this is wrong." We learn to see multiple sides of the issue. The characters are also complex and well-written. Griffith's character is well-written in a fun way, and Sisto's character is interesting where he could have easily become a caricature. Russell's character isn't entirely complex, but definitely unique in a number of ways.

So bottom line, go see Waitress. It is fun and entertaining, and you might learn a thing or two about screenwriting in the process.

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Thursday, May 03, 2007

Feeling Suspicious?

Just wanted to get a quick word out about a friend's movie opening this weekend. Civic Duty is an indie effort focusing on terror cells and the like. My old friend Andrew Lanter produced the film, and obviously they have some steep arachnoid competition this weekend. Still, they're hoping Civic Duty plays as counter programming of sorts.

I have not seen the film yet, but read a very early draft of the script, and it was interesting, as I recall. Didn't do coverage on it, so I have no notes to refer back to. But I'd still recommend at least considering seeing it, and I know Andrew would be thrilled if you helped support the effort!

Apart from that, a few brief things...

I finished the first draft of Hell on Wheels as planned, more or less. It has now been sent to my writing group and I'll be getting feedback from the group next week.

I plan to post again later today to give a review of Waitress, which I saw a preview screening of on Tuesday.

Also, I had an interesting meeting on Monday night, that could turn into something really great for me, or could turn into nothing. Who knows? Not going to say much about it now, but I hope to have good news to spread in the not too distant future. Think positive thoughts for me. Thanks!

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