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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.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Safari Picture Update #2

So, work continues apace on the Untitled Safari Picture. As I said in the previous update, I had sent the first draft treatment over to the producer and then had a nice long phone follow-up meeting. We spoke for about an hour and 15 minutes, thrashing out various details until we were pretty much on the same page. I had a better understanding of what they were looking for, and where it diverged from what I had previously had in mind.

So then I set about reworking my treatment. As you know from these three posts, I started focusing on certain aspects of the script that made it more ensemble-like. The film is still not a "traditional" ensemble film, but with a few intersecting storylines it is related. I sent the revised treatment over to the producer yesterday, and should be speaking with him soon to discuss our status.

I feel that I definitely did a good job of getting a more cohesive story in there, and one which stuck more closely with their desires. I definitely cleaned it up a bit, but it still is probably more complex than it needs to be, and it may be simply a "killing my darlings" issue. I'll see. I'm also finding that I still have shortchanged one set of characters' story, and I'm not sure if they are really necessary at all. It may just be that I haven't fully connected them to the core, and that when I do, they may actually add quite a bit. Remains to be seen.

I think one of the biggest challenges I'm facing, in terms of meeting the producers' expectations, is one of realism vs. cinematic. They are pushing for this to be very realistic (which I'm all for), but at the same time many of the ideas that I have may be pushing the envelope a bit too much. Everything I mention could or even has happened, but the combination of all of them is where the realism breaks down somewhat. Whereas, if I stick purely to realism, it might be exciting in real life but it isn't a movie. So my challenge has been to strike the right balance between believable and exciting. I think I did a much better job of that in this version of the treatment, and hopefully will get even closer as we move closer to the final product.

So, that's that for now. After I speak with the producer I'll have a better idea of where we stand, when we'll be going down to Botswana (since they want to approve the treatment first), and what my next steps will be.


Monday, July 23, 2007

I Am No Wuss

Unk has challenged me to not be a wuss, and to accept his meme challenge. I, of course, am not one to back down from a challenge. Now, that being said, I did already answer this meme of eight random things about me over HERE. Still, I know that the Unknown One only recently came over here, so he may not have seen that post. Plus, I haven't posted anything for a few days. So I'm going to try to come up with 8 more things about me, related to screenwriting, etc. (Since, as you know, I try to keep this blog exclusively focused on screenwriting and film.) Let's see how I do!

1. Of all the links in my sorely-in-need-of-updating sidebar, I have personally met 29 of the people on there. Of course, being the socially motivated extrovert that I am, I'm always up for meeting more. So if you're on there, and I haven't met you yet, drop me a line. I'd love to meet you. For that matter, even if you're not on there, but want to meet up, let me know!

2. Though by nature I am not a "morning person," over the years I've learned to become more of one. This is due to necessity. When I was in college, if I had a deadline to meet (and I am very much a last-minute person), I would pull an all-nighter. But as I matured, I came to the realization that these were usually less-productive than going to sleep, and waking up again at an unnatural and ungodly hour to start working early and get that work done. Of course, not everyone can do this. Not being a morning person can make it difficult to work effectively if your mind is caught in the typical haze of those wee hours.

What I've found, however, is that my non-morning-personness is not like my Mom's. She takes a good hour or so to actually get going once she's out of bed. Coffee, of course, is a key component to that wake-up process. For me, I love the Joe as well, and it certainly helps. But my brain is not the part of me that doesn't deal well with the morning. It is my body. I simply hate getting up in the morning, but I also hate going to bed at night. I feel like sleep time is time that could be better spent doing other things, productive or enjoyable. So my challenge is getting out of bed. Once I'm up, however, I'm ready to go.

So all I need to do is force myself to crawl out of bed, and once I do, I can literally be working within less than 5 minutes. Thus my erstwhile schedule of writing at 5 AM. I'm not doing that anymore, but I do still enjoy writing first thing in the morning. So now all I need to do is develop a means of actually getting up when I want to!

3. I have delivered two seminars at each of the last two Screenwriting Expos, and been named a Star Speaker. You probably know this. But you probably don't know that I will be expanding this side of my work. I should be doing 4 seminars this year at the Expo, and I am also looking into the possibility of getting involved with other conferences and the like. I'll certainly keep you all posted, as well as post any discount codes I get!

4. Years ago, I used to volunteer at the annual IFP Market. (The first two years I worked there, it was actually called the IFFM -- Independent Feature Film Market -- but it was the same thing.) The deal was, volunteer for half the day, then get to attend things for free the other half of the day. I highly recommend doing this sort of thing. Developing writers are not typically known as independently wealthy, and many screenwriting and film conferences, markets, festivals and events can be cost-prohibitive. At the same time, however, they are enjoyable, potentially educational, and great opportunities for networking and making friends.

Most such events have similar deals to the one I used to take advantage of at the Market. Pick one or two that are near you and/or appeal to you, and contact them (in advance). Take advantage. You'll be helping them and they'll be helping you. Mutual benefit!

[Wow, finding 8 more is getting hard...]

5. My college was not very large, and had no real film program to speak of. But I was involved in the Dramatics Society there. I acted in two plays (Lettice and Lovage and A Few Good Men), and did lights for two others. An interesting footnote is that since my college (though not my university) was all males, we would typically change/rewrite female characters as males (no, we didn't play the females in drag). So in A Few Good Men, I played the role made famous by Demi Moore in the film version! And in a parody issue of my school's newspaper, we featured a poorly photoshopped image of me covering my "pregnant" belly and breast, a la Demi's famous Vanity Fair cover shot.

6. Whenever people ask me what types of screenplays I write, I typically respond, "anything but drama." I love watching dramas, and Sidney Lumet is one of my all time favorite directors. Plus, I absolutely love his book Making Movies. Still, I am just not such a serious-minded person that I get many ideas that are dramatic features. About the closest I'll get is a film idea that I have (and which many people I've told the idea to love) which is a period romance. But I also feel that I'm personally not ready to write it. Were I to try to write it now, I don't think I could do the subject justice with my current skill set. Luckily, the idea is not likely to become dated, so I think I can wait until later in my career to write that screenplay!

7. Unk mentioned both his motorcycle, and his three 4-wheel drive vehicles. Well, I am among the very rare people in L.A. who actually does not own a car. I live in an area that has many easily accessible-by-foot stores, and which is centrally located and near multiple bus routes. Plus, I have good friends who are typically kind enough to give me rides if we are going places together. This is one of the reasons why I include the slogan "Everywhere is within walking distance if you have enough time" on my MySpace profile.

What does this have to do with screenwriting? Two things. First, it presents challenges, since you need to be able to easily get around L.A. in order to meet with people, etc. But luckily, I'm also pretty close to both Beverly Hills and Century City, and can get over to Hollywood without too much difficulty. So as long as I don't need to get to the Valley, I'm pretty much okay. It also relates, because I'm hoping that with some of the money I'm making from this screenwriting assignment, I will finally be able to afford to buy a car. Wish me luck on that count!

8. People sometimes as me if I have an agent. I do not. But I also have not yet tried to get any representation. Being a script reader for so long has taught me the importance of not sending things out to people until they are ready. So let me stress this again, even though I'm sure you've all heard it a million times. Be patient with your career. Make sure your work is in the best possible shape before you start showing it to people.

When I finally begin looking for representation, I don't want to blow my chances due to a poor first impression. I know that if people are willing to read my work now, they'll also be willing to read it in a few months. Waiting a bit now can make the difference between getting representation (and thus more work and hopefully a successful career) later and struggling at this game for the rest of my life. Thus, my plan is to try to revise Hell on Wheels and my low-budget horror script in between work on the safari picture. Then, hopefully by the end of the year or early in the winter I'll have three good samples, and I'll be ready to seek out that next step along my career path.

Okay, Unk. How'd I do?

And anyone who hasn't been tagged yet, consider yourself tagged now.

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Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Inspiration of Purpose

I met Lisa Phelps Dawes at last year's Screenwriting Expo. She has an interesting background, and used it to start ScenePlay, about which I remember being intrigued when we spoke. Feel free to poke around her site and see what she has to offer.

Anyway, I just got an email from her about a new Flash movie she made. It is a good inspirational piece, if you ever find yourself becoming frustrated as a screenwriter. So take a peek and find some inner strength. It's just a few minutes long. Enjoy it HERE.

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Sunday, July 15, 2007

Responding to the Searches

To the person who arrived on my blog via a search for "goodlooking screenwriters," welcome! I'm certain you found what you were looking for. (Now I just have to hope that you were female.)

And to the one who came looking for "etymology of 'cream rises to the top,'" come on! I mean, sure there are many cliches and figures of speech that are difficult to comprehend, but cam we just think about this one for a second? Do you know where cream comes from?


Saturday, July 14, 2007

And Speaking of Ensemble Films...

This third consecutive post on the ensemble film, each of a different variety, is almost feeling like an ensemble post! Different sides to the same thematic material.

Anyway, last night I attended a free screening of The Ten, the new comedy by David Wain and Ken Marino, former members of The State comedy troupe. Very funny movie, and for those who do not know, it is basically a collection of 10 comedic short films (plus a framing story) that addresses each of the 10 Commandments.

(On an interesting side note, only after researching just now, due to the fact that the ten they listed were not identical to the 10 that I was raised learning in a Jewish setting, I've found that different Christian sects, along with Jews, break the commandments slightly differently, though based on the same 16 biblical sentences. But that is not really important to this conversation.)

Anyway, though the film is made up of 10 independent shorts, they are all clearly tied together based on a subject, and perhaps even a theme. Wain worded it as, if you break the commandments there will be consequences. A bit broad, but it works. Additionally, there are characters that recur throughout the various films, creating a more cohesive unit. And thus, this film features many aspects of the ensemble film.

In actuality, I would place it more firmly in the category of omnibus, but still, it relates.

Anyway, let me just say that this is a highly entertaining film, especially for those who like envelope-pushing humor. It is raunchy and edgy at times, and yet truly laugh-out-loud funny. Without spoiling much, let me just say that among the topics they hit on are (in no particular order) anal prison rape, sex, religion, nudity, drugs, STD-spreading dachsunds, bizarre skydiving accidents, the secret life of a ventriloquist dummy, etc. A really fun cast as well, including Paul Rudd (who is also a producer), Gretchen Mol, many members of The State and of Reno 911, Adam Brody, Jessica Alba, Famke Janssen, Rob Cordry, Winona (Forever) Ryder, and many others.

Not for the easily offended, but well worth a watch for those fans of edgy comedy!

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Thursday, July 12, 2007

Lots More on Writing Ensemble Films

[Beware: This one is a bit long.]

Thanks, everyone, for your comments on yesterday's post regarding ensemble films. After a long conversation with the producer yesterday, I have a better handle on this script (which I will discuss further in my next update post). But in brief, I'd say that I'm probably going to start this film out as somewhat ensemble-like, though the disparate parts may come together more cohesively by the end.

Still, since I've been doing a lot of thinking about ensemble films, and have been reading a decent amount about them, I figured I'd write a bit more here on the topic, as follow-up of sorts.

First of all, it is interesting that almost all of you commenters from yesterday stressed theme as the unifying and most important element. In fact, it is theme which has led this film towards its ensembledom. As I've described, in developing this film, I started with a strong statement of theme, and built my characters from there. But then I realized that some of those characters were not receiving enough weight or attention in the treatment I had first created. That, along with the producers' comments about having a somewhat more gradual build-up are what brought me to the concept of making it more of an ensemble picture.

By moving between the different character groups as the action rises through their various stories, I will have the opportunity to explore different aspects of theme and maintain more audience interest while the plot advances at a more realistic pace. Essentially I'll have three main groups, and they will all have some interaction with the others at some point in the film, though I have not yet determined if they will remain together through the end or split up again.

Another thing I found interesting in the comments was that nearly every film that someone mentioned in there was mentioned multiple times in other postings or articles I read about ensemble films. What this underscores for me is how few such films actually get made in Hollywood. And yet, a number of the commenters mentioned that they too were writing ensemble films, also despite the fact that almost every article or post I read on the subject counseled against attempting them. At least as a spec writer.

So what does this say? I'm sure some of us making this attempt would probably be better served by not doing it (and perhaps I'll find I'm one of those people, though I do have the benefit of the producer agreeing to the format in advance). But I'd say that anyone writing one of these should really be sure that is what they need to do to serve their story effectively.

I was going to go on now and discuss when it might be a good idea to do an ensemble film, and perhaps why. But I realized I may be proverbially reversing cart and horse. So let me step back a moment and discuss what an ensemble film actually is. My dad asked me in an email after yesterday's post what an ensemble film is. And while many of you other readers may have a better idea, I think it might be helpful to spell it out further.

My brief response to Dad yesterday was, "A film that focuses on more of an ensemble cast, rather than a single main character. e.g. The Big Chill, Diner, Magnolia, Babel, Grand Canyon, etc." But I think there is certainly more to it than just that. The Wikipedia entry focuses both on large cast and multiple storylines. And the different things I've read break such films down in a few different ways. I think ultimately, ensemble is a broad category that encompasses many different types of films, all of which embrace some sort of multiplicity beyond the simple "one protagonist, one plotline" unity of most films. Let's examine some of the various breakdowns people have made.

Konrad West broke ensemble films into three main categories. The Group Hero Ensemble has multiple heroes united to reach a common goal. The Mixed Hero Ensemble features multiple individuals united against a singular antagonist but with distinct goals. And The Non-Hero Ensemble features a more complicated character relationship where each character can be a protagonist and an antagonist in different storylines.

This is somewhat in keeping with the breakdown that David Landau made in his article "Dealing with Multiple Protagonist Syndrome" in the November/December 2004 issue of scr(i)pt magazine. In it, he made the somewhat arbitrary distinction between an ensemble story (what he sees as a truer "ensemble film," such as American Graffiti) and those with an ensemble cast or an episodic screenplay with multiple storylines (e.g. Pulp Fiction or Sin City). The ensemble cast he refers to might be similar to Konrad's Group Hero idea. And his episodic screenplay is in keeping with the Non-Hero Konrad described.

In the comments yesterday, Christina offered some other breakdowns, though in less of an effort to be comprehensive, than to simply describe a number of the types she's noticed. She mentioned ensembles that come together due to a single event, those focused on a stage of the lifecycle, those in which a single individual affects many others [I'm a little unclear on this one Christina -- can you clarify and give an example or two?], and those in which characters from multiple generations deal with the same situation or topic.

I like all of these breakdowns, because they show the diversity of the ensemble format. To my mind, X-Men (a Konrad Westian "group hero") is as much an ensemble film as is Crash or The Red Violin. And while some multiple storyline films are less ensembles and more omnibus (e.g. Twilight Zone: The Movie, Four Rooms, or New York Stories), films such as Short Cuts or Love Actually fall more in the former category.

Thus, to my mind, all you need to be accurately described as an ensemble film is the aforementioned characteristic of multiplicity beyond the simple "one protagonist, one plotline" unity. And then we can break such films down in different ways. I'll stick with the more simplistic delineation of closely connected, mildly connected and largely disconnected characters or storylines.

X-Men (or many other team superhero movies) feature closely connected ensembles, so much so that they become a singular group protagonist. Instead of showing multiple sides to a single character, they give different people the task of representing different aspects of character. Short Cuts falls very nearly on the polar opposite end of the scale, with only the barest bones of a connection between its disparate characters (as I recall -- it has been a while since I saw it).

Okay, so why do audiences like ensemble films when they are done well? And why might we consider writing one? As Linda Cowgill points out, they allow for a greater degree of realism in our treatment of subject matter. She mentions that the ensemble film is almost as old as the feature film itself, with D.W. Griffith's 1915 film Birth of a Nation followed merely one year later by Intolerance. With multiple storylines in play, we have the opportunity to end some happily, place more of a downer emphasis on some others, and leave still other strands unresolved, as is the case in real life. She points to the conclusion of Diner as a prime example of this. Since realism is one of our main thrusts with this safari picture, this is another aspect that I hope to take advantage of.

Cowgill also highlighted the need for a unifying agent, something to take the place of the traditional Aristotelian unities. To her, that unifying element can be a setting, an object or a common goal. I would see that unifying agent as potentially also being theme (as so many of you mentioned), or even a stage of life, which is something that Chris Soth also mentioned in this post (as did Christina in her comments).

So where does that leave my film? Well, I think I definitely will have the unity of the Botswana safari setting, and as the film progresses the disparate characters may also gain a unifying common goal. And as I said earlier, they will certainly also focus on a unified theme.

What about the issue of weight or attention in the film? Well as Chris mentioned, I highlighted further in my comments on that post, and Christina also addressed in her comments on my post yesterday, in most ensemble films one character gets a greater degree of attention than do others. Think of Wolverine in X-Men or perhaps Brad Pitt's character in Babel. I know that certain of my characters will be more important and gain a greater amount of screentime. But hopefully by looking at this film's ensemble elements I will be better able to make sure that none are so underused as to become unnecessary or distracting.

Whew, that was a long post. But hopefully one that is as helpful to those of you working on such projects as it was to me to lay my thoughts on the subject out!

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Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Assembling the Ensemble

I mentioned in my last post that I'm getting the feeling the producers are viewing this film as more of an ensemble piece than I had originally expected. Not sure, but that's the direction it seems to be moving in. I actually posed this question to them yesterday, and will see how they react.

Regardless, however, I'm curious what all of your thoughts are on ensemble films. I've never really written one before, so I'm not really sure how to go about it fully.

First of all, what are some of your favorite ensemble films? What do you like about them? How about ones you dislike and why? What would you consider the defining characteristics of such a film? How would you define an ensemble film, and why would one work better or worse? What is the difference, in your view, between an ensemble film and just a film with a lot of characters? What unique challenges do you think such a screenplay poses?

I've already formed some opinions on these topics myself, and have also done some poking around on the 'net for some good articles and blog posts. But I'd still like to hear your opinions on this as well. Let me know! Thanks.

Oh, and by the way, welcome to all those who are popping over here via AbsoluteWrite. I hope you'll stick around, and come back frequently!

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Friday, July 06, 2007

Safari Picture Update #1

A moderately brief update on the Untitled Safari Picture. I figured I'd try to keep a periodic journal of this collaboration, discussing the issues I encounter along the way while still not revealing many details of the film, at the producers' request. I hope you find it enjoyable and thought-provoking. So here is my first such update:

I got the first draft of my treatment to the producers last week, and had a phone meeting follow-up on Wednesday (yes, freelance screenwriters sometimes work on national holidays). When I sent it over to them in the first place, I knew it still needed a lot of work. And this meeting underscored some of the issues, and highlighted some others.

First of all, though I've done quite a bit of research, it is still really hard to write about a place and situation where I have no firsthand experience. I felt that while I had some good ideas, etc, I was quite clueless about many of the logistics of a safari adventure. And it clearly showed in the treatment. The good news on that front is that the producers understand this, which is why they've mentioned taking the writer of this film to Botswana for the safari research right from the outset of our first meeting, long before I was hired. And in our recent phone meeting, we did discuss a few of those logistical issues, and we're all fine with leaving some of those things a drop rough around the edges before we head down there, knowing that things are likely to change once I've been there.

I also felt that perhaps I had tried to do too much with this treatment. Like I was trying to keep too many balls int he air at once, when what it really needed was to be simplified somewhat. That is going to be a main thrust of my revision of the treatment -- trying to pare down some of the extraneous characters and moments to make a cleaner picture overall.

Along similar lines, I had an imbalance of attention to the various characters. While I had intentions for many when I did the character descriptions (the part of my treatment that the producers liked the best), some of that never came through when I did the actual story outline part. In part this was due to the aforementioned too-many-balls-in-the-air issue, so some less significant characters got neglected while I was trying to juggle things. So that was the first thing that I've already started to fix, more clearly delineating the beats in each main character's story arc. With this, I intend to trace their various points of intersection so that changes take place at different times throughout the film.

I am finding that this is becoming more and more an ensemble piece, and I'm not sure how good that is. I'm obviously running with it for now, but I still think the ensemble needs to be cleaned up more and perhaps shrunk. I've never written an ensemble film before, though I've often written about a smaller group of core characters -- usually around four. I'm thinking that I'm going to have to research this more.

One issue that arose, and which I'm going to have to figure out how to make work, is a sort of philosophical difference in the screenplay. I was moving into the serious action of the film much earlier, around the end of the first act. But the producers are pretty insistent on a slower build. With this they hope to be able to portray the grandeur of safari, one of the reasons they were interested in making this picture to begin with. I'm fine with this, of course, and want to show that beauty as well, but I'm concerned about maintaining audience interest for so long. That's something that is going to require a lot of my attention as I move forward on this.

Perhaps part of it will be simply adjusting my idea of what type of film this actually is. While before I was thinking of it as a large-scale actiony adventure, now perhaps I need to refocus on seeing it as a more quiet adventure with pensive moments interspersed with the action. Something more along the lines of The Ghost and the Darkness. Hmmm. This will take some more thought.


Thursday, July 05, 2007

More Kudos

Following my and Kira's respective announcements, another Scribospherian has announced he's received a pro writing gig.

Go on and give Chris a big virtual pat on the back. Congrats Chris!

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Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Fox-y Marketing!

I'm sure this has already been blogged by approximately 3,267,412 people, but I haven't yet seen mention around the Scribosphere. So I figured I'd throw up a Quik-E, er... quickie post about it.

This is friggin' brilliant marketing. (Make sure to check the video too.)

To promote the upcoming Simpsons Movie, a group of 7-eleven stores have been transformed into Kwik-E-Marts! What a brilliant way to spread buzz about the film and get fans and others interested. In addition to the altered store design and layout, there will even be Simpsons-themed food available, including Krusty-O's cereal and a Slurpee that has been renamed WooHoo! Blue Vanilla Squishee.

But beyond the simple "why didn't I think of that?" brilliance of the campaign, there's another reason I respect this marketing so much. The entire cost of the Quik-E-changeover has been borne by 7-eleven! That's right, Fox is not paying a cent for this big marketing bump. I'm sure this will make sense for 7-eleven as well, as I suspect those stores will see a sizable bump in traffic. But still very cool for Fox.

Now, there is one such rebranded store in L.A., at the corner of Sepulveda and Venice. And I'll admit that I was right at that corner this morning and didn't even notice it. I'm sure that's because I was more focused on getting back home after dropping my roommate at the airport than I was interested in staring at the passing sights, even if they would have placed me comfortably in Springfield. So I won't say it was a marketing failure, especially since I'll probably have to make a return trip one of these days, just to lap up the fun (and maybe a Squishee too).

Now I wonder if there is a statue of Apu's god in each store, so I can avoid feeding it a peanut. And maybe a secret garden on the rooftop where I can meet Paul McCartney!

(For a list of Quik-E-Mart locations, go HERE.)

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