Tone Deaf

A couple days ago, I wrote about why creating an outline before writing a script is overrated.  Since then, I realized a more concrete observation about the limits of outlining:

Outlining fails to reveal anything about the tone, emotion, or feeling of the story you are telling.

Don’t believe me?  Here’s the observation that led me to that conclusion:

The Iron Giant and Terminator 2: Judgement Day would have the same outline.

One is an animated children’s story of friendship set against the paranoia of the Cold War.  The other is an R-rated sci-fi action movie.  I love both films.  At their most basic level, both stories are about a boy who befriends a robot, teaches that robot about humanity, and then is ultimately saved when the robot sacrifices itself on the boy’s behalf.

The difference between the two?  Tone.

The tone and feeling of a movie is generally considered to be the domain of the director, and while this may be true in certain contexts, the fact is that the screenwriter is usually the person who gets to decide what the film is about —

— And the “what is it?”, isn’t something that will be revealed by the outline.

My big, audacious vision for this project is to both write and direct my story, so I’ll be responsible for the tone and mood of the movie in the end.   But right now, I’m focusing on finding the tone for the film first, and then backing my way into an outline.

Focus on the tones, moods and the feelings of your stories — they will make your work unique.

Behavioral Science

I’m a procrastinator.  I get easily sidetracked.  And when it comes to writing, I have a terrible record when it comes to finishing draft after draft of a script.

But that’s not unusual for screenwriters.

The usual advice for procrastinators is, “break your challenge down into smaller tasks”.  Which of course makes little sense for a screenwriter…  A spec (uncommissioned) screenplay is 105-120 pages.  That’s a long, tough slog.

So let’s work on some hacks to get through the 120-odd pages of a first draft, by using some tricks of behavioral science.

Behavioral studies show that people are generally good at figuring what they should be doing in the future (“next week, I’ll work out 5 days”), and really bad at figuring out what they should be doing in the moment (“oooo – chocolate!”).  This is why almost no-one sticks to a budget or a diet.  We’re just not wired to think that way.

To counter these natural mental deficiencies, financial blogger Ramit Sethi promotes the idea of automatic savings — in his system, you set up your bank accounts to automatically deduct a portion of each paycheck into an account that pays all your bills and distributes your savings.  Then you’re free to spend whatever remains — no hassle, no budget.

We’re going to try to apply that level of automation to screenwriting.  Here are the initial systems I’m going to utilize to keep me on task:

  • Beginning writing at the same time every day
  • Writing an initial “daily-goal” statement at the start of each writing session
  • Writing to a daily page-goal, regardless of quality
  • Setting a plot point goal
  • Tracking my Churn Rate

I’ll explain these strategies in more depth and discuss their effectiveness over the next few days.  Let’s see how it goes…

Staying On The Horse

I went to film school at USC, and even though almost all of my classes dealt with movie making, we only took two screenwriting classes.

On a technical level, these classes covered Aristotle’s Three-Act-Structure and not much else.  The professors would just tell us to write a certain number of pages before the next class and then send us on our way.

As a result, most of our scripts sucked… and not because of a lack of talent… a girl in one of my screenwriting classes is now a senior writer for Mad Men.

One of my screenwriting professors was a television writer named Paul Wolff, and his entire philosophy of screenwriting was simply the phrase “Stay On The Horse”, which struck me as dubious in its simplicity.

I was craving structure, rules, theory… anything really, that would allow me to become a better writer.

But I got, “Stay On The Horse.”

I rationalized that Paul’s morsel of philosophy might work for sitcoms (maybe), but it couldn’t possibly work for feature film scripts.

A few years out of school, I decided to try writing movie screenplays.  I picked up Blake Snyder’s “Save The Cat” books, and instantly fell in love with them.  The Save The Cat books detailed the exact scientific formula for crafting perfect screenplays — 15 beats, 40 scenes, 110 pages, and you’re done.

The core of the Save The Cat method is the “Beat Sheet” — the 15 specific story developments that add up to a properly plotted movie.  Essentially, the Beat Sheet was a glorified outline.

Using what I had learned, I crafted an amazing outline that hit the Save The Cat beats perfectly.  By following this outline, I busted out a script in no time…

… and it wasn’t very good.

No worries.  This is all part of the process.

For my next project, I adapted a novel.  130 pages later, script was done…

… and it had the same problems as the first.

These scripts weren’t bad, but something was off in both of them.  The characters were hollow, their motivations didn’t seem authentic.  Scenes raced by, but didn’t feel connected.

And then I realized what the problem was.  I didn’t stay on the horse.

What Paul meant by that phrase was that you had to let a story develop naturally, without forcing it.  Staying on the horse also meant that you had to make sure your characters were dynamic people who had authentic motivations that kept them acting in ways that were worth watching.

Both of the scripts I had written using the Save The Cat Beat Sheet suffered from the same failings:  I was so concerned with hitting the proper beats that I didn’t develop the kind of characters who would strive to reach those points in organic or satisfying ways.

The bigger problem was that I would create cool moments inside the scripts that were connected by implausible plot developments.  Everyone would end up in the right place for the Big Moment, but how they got there wouldn’t make sense, or worse, would be boring.

The solution:  Stay On The Horse — Keep your characters moving in truthful and organic ways.  If your story runs out of momentum, it’s because the problems your protagonists are facing aren’t challenging enough.  Go back earlier and ramp up the difficulty, then make your characters struggle to overcome these problems.

Want an example?  I’ll give you my favorite:  At the beginning of the Matrix, Morpheus has already located Neo, and the Agents have already established a Mole.  Instant momentum.  More importantly, the Matrix hits a point when the momentum of the plot becomes self-sustaining — When Neo goes to meet the Oracle the Agents’ ambush has already been set.  For the rest of the movie, every scene that follows is the logical and organic result of the characters we already know behaving truthfully.  Even though the Matrix clocks in at a hefty 136 minutes, it never feels slow because it Stays On The Horse.

Want an example of when a movie has Fallen Off The Horse?  There are too many to count.  Basically, if you have ever been watching a movie and thought to yourself, “What’s going on here?” or, “What’s this leading towards?” — You’re watching a movie that has fallen off the horse.

This recently happened for me when I was watching Hugo.  The movie looked great, and the characters were interesting, but about 45 minutes in, all I could think was, “What’s going on?”,  “What do these people even want?”  and, “What’s the point?”.  Hugo has a neat ending that ties up the story nicely, but by that point, I didn’t care.

Stay On The Horse.

As for the “Save The Cat”  books, they are delightful to read, and quite insightful for many reasons.  To be honest, “Why didn’t we learn this in film school?” was a thought I had over and over again while reading them.  More importantly, the “Save The Cat” method gives you an excellent way to figure out what is missing from or isn’t working in a completed draft.

But now that I’ve written a couple scripts, my advice about the “Save The Cat” method, and writing Outlines in general is this:

Outlines are an important roadmap for a script.  But an Outline isn’t a story.  Craft your story first — then go back and use an Outline to figure out where it’s weak.

Right now I’m working on the “short story” version of my next screenplay.  It starts with “Once upon a time”…  And it already feels richer and more compelling than anything I’ve ever laid out as part of a sterile outline.

Directing A Movie 101

Let’s get to the nitty gritty, shall we?  Here are my postulates about getting a film made:

  • The quickest way for me to direct a feature is to write my own script.
  • The script has to be great.

Well that seems easy enough, right?

Aside from the obvious assumption that a great script has the highest probability of becoming a great movie, a great script also serves as the best way to attract recognizable “name-brand” actors.  Recognizable actors equal financing.

Financing merits it’s own paragraph —  I don’t have the money to finance a film myself, so I will be seeking investors.  These investors will be looking for marketable elements in any script they finance.  As mentioned above, attaching recognizable actors is a top priority, but other elements include:

  • The movie is in a lucrative genre
  • The movie has awards potential
  • The movie has an obvious marketing hook

My goal is to direct big, world-building type of movies.  These types of epic movies generally have a large scale, and make significant use of special effects.

So let’s add another postulate:

  • To function as the cornerstone of my career, my movie should should be large scale, and utilize special effects.

Hmmm, that could be a problem.  Since I’m a first time director, the budget for my film will probably be relatively small.

That makes epic filmmaking a challenge, since when I think “EPIC”, I think:

  • Exotic locations
  • Expansive sets
  • Large casts
  • Big, important themes

Themes are free… and though complex sets and large casts can be expensive and unwieldy, exotic locations aren’t necessarily more expensive than just shooting in LA (where I live).

Right now, I’m currently developing four different ideas that I think are feasible as films.

  • An action horror movie
  • A highjacking film
  • An alien abduction horror film
  • A supernatural thriller

I don’t want to dive too deeply into the relative merits of each project (this is a public blog, afterall), but the important thing to notice is that each idea takes place within a recognizable genre.

Now I just have to decide on which project I want to develop further.

Square One

It’s been over 2 years since the morning I started this blog, so you’re probably wondering if I ever accomplished my goal?

— One. Million. Dollars —

… Not by a long shot.

What went wrong?

That one’s a little more complicated.

You see, the point of starting this blog was to commit to an audacious goal that would have a major impact on my life.

Earning $1 million certainly fulfills both those criteria.  But I failed, and before I get into understanding what I did wrong, I need to analyse how the goal itself was wrong for me.

To start with, the goal was too vague.   Saying “One Million Dollars” actually hindered me from having to plan any strategic way of earning that money.  Was I going to start a business?  Was I going to write software?  Was I going to rob a bank?  It was all up for grabs.

The goal was audacious.  It has a nice ring, and frankly, I do want to make one million dollars.  I liked the monetary amount, it gave a nice solid number to benchmark my progress.

I didn’t want to be one of those people who says, “I don’t care about money, I just want to pursue my passion”, because usually when people say that, they’re insulating themselves from failure.

But passion is the fuel that will keep you going.  And the problem with choosing “$1 million dollars”, was that I went down a lot of wrong paths, without realizing that they didn’t lead anywhere.  I worked on reality shows, I wrote screenplays in a genre that I knew was wrong for my talent, I started online companies that I knew I would never be fully committed to…

Suddenly I realized that my life had become like the audition scene in Walk The Line — the scene when Johnny Cash can just adequately sing someone else’s song.  He fails to impress, and the lesson Sam Phillips teaches him next is the turning point of the movie:

“If you was hit by a truck and you was lying out there in that gutter dying, and you had time to sing one song… One song that people would remember before you’re dirt. One song that would let God know how you felt about your time here on Earth. One song that would sum you up.  You tellin’ me that’s the song you’d sing? … Or… would you sing somethin’ different. Somethin’ real. Somethin’ you felt.”

The irony of my failure is that I actually have a pretty good idea what I’m passionate about (the story-telling element that Ridley Scott calls “World Building”).  But that hasn’t been what I’m working on.

So I’m turning it all around.

I’m going to build worlds – in commercials, video games, movies, and television.

And my audacious goal is to write and direct a feature film.

I’m not sure about my methods, and it’s going to take me some time to even fully develop the processes and rituals that are going to get me there…

This is Day 1.

Meanwhile, 5 Months Later…

Did I mention my main plan is screenwriting?  Hmm… well there will be more about that later…

Update on all progress:

– 2 TV Pilots written

– 1 spec TV show outlined

– 3 reality show proposals completed

Next Steps:

– 2 Reality Company meetings this month

– 1 meeting with one of the largest agencies on the planet.  Wish me luck.