Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Preposterous Film

Along with Genre Hacks, I've been posting preposterous ideas and storylines for feature films on my spinoff blog...

Preposterous Film

So check it out.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Levin's Tips, Week 6 -- Let's talk about the First Act!

Hello everyone,

Let's make a quick analysis of the "First Act" and its components. The First Act is composed of the two opening Sequences of your movie. Usually, the First Sequence (the first 12-15 minutes of your script) sets up the the character and the Status Quo. If your script was a fairy-tale, the first sequence would be the "Once upon a time, there was a Hermit who washed his laundry in a river".

Then comes the Point of Attack. This is the "But one day, a GIANT SHARK emerged from the river and prevented the Hermit from washing his laundry!" This is the wrench that's thrown into the machinery, the problem that makes the movie change gears!

The Second Sequence is usually the protagonist grappling with the problem. For example, in our imaginary movie, this is the sequence where The Hermit tries to find different rivers to do his laundry (there are no other rivers!) or calls the cops (the cops laugh at him!) or simply tries to live in his filthy clothes (he can't, his imaginary friend complains about his smell and kicks him out of the house!) or tries to bait the Great Shark to the different part of the river with an otter he found downstream. (The Great Shark is displeased by the taste of the otter! Otter, it turns out, is an acquired taste!)

"The Studio vetoed the scene where the Shark eats the Otter. Apparently Otters are just too cute to be eaten on screen!"
Then comes the End of the First Act. This is a major turning point that launches your movie in a new direction. This is usually a moment of "This is what my movie is!"

Maybe The Hermit wages war against The Great Shark after The Great Shark eats the Hermit's Hut! Your movie is a battle for survival! It's a heart pumping thriller about the Man and the Beast because this little mountain creek is too small for both of them!

Or The Great Shark eats The Hermit's Hut and the rest of your movie is a low-key road movie through the woods, examining the relationship between The Hermit and his imaginary friend Mr. Goldfarb who has an insatiable craving for Oreos! (Mr. Goldfarb and his obsession with Oreos symbolizes The Hermit's desire to go back to living in civilized society.)

Or this is where The Hermit discovers The Great Shark can talk! It's a comedy in the tone of E.T. where the two friends seize each other up and establish a symbiotic relationship! (Watch out for the adorable scene where The Hermit not only gets to wash his laundry again, but he also washes the fins of the Great Shark!)

The Great Shark's name is Mr. Fizzles!
Either way, there needs to be a feeling of "Alright, off we go!" moment at the end of your first act. An explosive launch, a propulsion of momentum! Status-Quo should shift in a real way, your protagonist should commit to a road that s/he can't return from.

For example, there should be no more question of "Oh, The Hermit can just go back to his house..." NO! THINGS HAVE CHANGED FOREVER FOR THE HERMIT! Nothing will ever be the same! Either he has no Hut anymore to go back to or he just discovered a talking fish! Again: Nothing will ever be the same!

And, finally, let's have a quick talk about the Opening Image. This is an underrated tool when it comes to finding out what your movie is supposed to be, especially if you're doing a rewrite. This opening image should, ideally, distill the theme/tone of your movie into a perfect scene.

For example, is your movie a cynical, global biting satire about the gun trade around the world? Why not start it with a montage where we track a single bullet from its inception in an industrial factory in the West to its eventual destination: the head of an African Child Soldier. See it here.

Or your opening could be more dialogue driven. Maybe you're writing a low-key romantic comedy and your main character is a neurotic comedian obsessing over his mortality. Then, maybe, you can have him speak right to the camera and tell a joke that completely captures who he is. See it here.

While I'm at it, here is what I think is a bad example of an opening scene. Here is the opening minute or so of Interstellar. It establishes the world through narrative exposition (a device that will not be used consistently through the movie), introduces Cooper through a weird dream sequence where Cooper's plane is crashing (which makes it seem like the movie is going to be about Cooper dealing with his anxieties of flying or something). Of course it's beautiful as fuck because it's Christopher Nolan we're talking about here, but it's a rather lazy opening to what the movie is eventually about.

We told you never to badmouth Nolan ever again! NOW, PREPARE TO DIE!
Alright, well, that's it from me folks. Hope you've picked up a thing or two and somewhat smiled.

Footnote: Some people have commented that Sharks do not live in rivers. To that, I say, here is a wikipedia entry that might tickle your fancy

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Levin's Tips Week 5 -- Plot

What's the difference between a Song and just Noise? A song is still noise, essentially. It's just orchestrated and conducted to evoke emotion out of you.

Plot, as a concept, is similar. It's just a bunch of events. But if you make them connected and emotionally resonant, then you can make it sing.

So, what makes a good plot? Let's talk about two very simple, fundamental elements.

                               CHARACTER CARES

If it's not personal, it's probably not that good.

There is a reason in all the detective movies the protagonist is looking for his wife's killer. There is a reason Liam Neeson in Taken didn't go all around the world tracking down... just another client. No, he was looking for his child. In the Hangover, our gang aren't tracking down their best friend out of some weird obligation, they're doing it because it's his wedding on the line. In Bridesmaids, the entire premise is based on how our main character feels like she's being frozen out of a real important part of her best friends' life.

We talked about how one of the major objectives you have in your screenplay is to make your characters suffer. This is how you make them suffer. This is how you imbue an "event" with emotional resonance so that your plot sings. This also makes your character ACTIVE as he will WANT that personal thing very, very badly.

Of all movies, James Bond series gives a pretty good glimpse into this phenomenon by the way. When Bond has a personal stake in what's going on in addition to saving the world, the movie is suddenly much better. Golden Eye (his relationship with 006), Casino Royale (his relationship with Vesper Lynd), Skyfall (his relationship with M) are much better movies than Quantum of Solace and Spectre.

So if your character saves the world/does something objectively important and it still feels underwhelming, maybe you need to hit a place closer to your protagonist's heart. Walter White did a plethora of stuff more objectively important than what happened with his family, but very few things hit as hard as that personal story does.

                            ESCALATING OBSTACLES

Here's a sequence of events that really happened to me:

- I was writing in a coffee shop just like any other day.

- Fortunately, the writing was going great. I was writing the final sequence of a script and it was thrilling as intended.

- Unfortunately, my heart started pounding like mad and it got freaky after ten minutes.

- Fortunately, there were other people in the coffee shop and they were helpful and soothing. They said I must have drank too much coffee and that's that!

- Unfortunately, then they started to freak out, saying: "Holy shit, your heart is beating out of your body. I can see your clothes shaking!"

- Fortunately, someone who seemed to know what she was doing approached me and asked if I was feeling okay. I was elated and asked if she was a doctor.

- Unfortunately, she said "kinda" and proceeded to say that she believes in the power of prayer and knelt down and started to speak to Jesus.

- Fortunately, we called 911 and the paramedics arrived promptly.

- Unfortunately, even they were freaked out and put an oxygen mask on my face.

- Fortunately, one of the paramedics said "I know what to do!" and went for his bag.

- Unfortunately, it was the biggest motherfucking needle I ever saw and he said, verbatim: "Now you're gonna feel like something just punched you in the heart. Like in Pulp Fiction. You've seen that movie, right?" which freaked me the fuck out.

- Fortunately, just as the needle touched my sin, my heart rate -- after the needle put the God's Fear in me, I guess -- stabilized and I no longer needed the giant needle.

THE END. (Also, I'm fine. It was a silly thing.)

So, that's not what I would call a great plot (I'm a pretty passive protagonist) but it has one thing you need in a plot that works: Those twists and turns and escalating obstacles.

The audience know there's going to be an "all is lost!" moment in your movie. Your challenge is to make it much worse than they think it's going to be. Like, for example, they could be like: "Hey, at least the paramedics came! He's safe!" but then THAT gets even worse by the revelation of the giant needle.

Also, this doesn't mean make your movie an endless series of defeats. Every story needs to have balance and dynamism. We need victories that bring us to glorious highs and defeats that bring us down to deep, dark lows. Neither can exist without the other.

Alright, that's that. Next week, we're going to talk about the First Act!

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Levin's Tips, Week 4 -- Structure

Structure is a tricky thing, because it's very easy to mistake the map for the territory. Some of the worst scripts I have ever read were perfectly structured with eight clear sequences, but they had no life to them. It was like watching a funeral procession made of eight little caskets pass by.

Unless you're self-financing your feature, your script will go through some readers and they will write comments to their bosses, or maybe to you directly. Here's a comment that no reader has ever written:

"I loved this script. It made me laugh, it made me cry. The characters are indelible and feel like real people. The ending fucking wrecked me. I hope this gets made by someone who understands the material, it might even be an Oscar contender. BUT I couldn't figure out where the sequence 6 started and ended, plus the mid point turn was unclear. So, unfortunately, I have to PASS on this script."

Your end game is to write something that moves people, makes them laugh, scares them, [insert emotion you mean to evoke]. It's not to write a "perfect" script. So, these terms and concepts are just tools for you to bring life to your script. Not the other way around.

                                On the other hand...

Have you ever watched a movie and thought to yourself:

"Why is this plot even in the movie? Who cares about that bullet or whatever, go back to Batman!"

"What the fuck, it feels like this movie had 11 different endings! Oh wait, more Hobbits."

"Didn't they already introduce Deadshot? Why do we need a second and a third introduction?!"

"Oh wait, the movie just... ended? Really? I sat through this and it ended on... Joaquin Phoenix fingerbanging a sand woman?"

"Man, I really liked the first half with Seth Rogen and Adam Sandler, but this stuff with Eric Bana and the house is really dragging-- Holy shit, why is this movie almost 3 hours?!"

I'm a firm believer that this movie could have been a stone cold classic with just a little bit more structure.

You should know about Structure because that's how you fix all these problems.

For example, what does it mean when a movie "drags"? It means your character has been following the same goal in the same way for a long time, and maybe you need to throw in a curveball. So, the solution is clear: Your sequence/act is running too long. Remember how we need to be switched up every other 15 pages? You didn't do that properly.

Structure is also a good tool to get to that honest, authentic place where you evoke the emotion of your audience. For example, Community and Rick and Morty are deliriously anarchic and it might feel inconceivable that they are actually really tightly plotted... but they are.

So, I know this has been especially on the esoteric side of things but, to me, the Structure part is pretty clear: Keep your audience engaged, 15 pages at a time, build to a First Act Ending where your audience has that "Here we go!" feeling, throw them a curveball at the Mid Point they didn't expect that either focuses your movie or diverts it in an interesting way, then hurt your heroes until they bleed and are forced to change as the Second Act Ending comes in... and build to a satisfying Resolution that addresses the themes you worked through in your story.

So, yeah, do that friend, and you're golden!

See you next week with a discussion about Plot and how that fits into the scheme of things!

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Levin's Tips, Week 3 -- Character

People fall in love with characters, not stories.

There are dozens of predictable romantic comedies that only work because the characters are so well drawn and we want the central duo to end up together. There are thousands hours of  listless TV shows involving doctors, lawyers and cops that are just... existentially unjustified to exist at this point and time. But they work because the central character is amusing/fascinating/different, take your pick.

There is no easy way to teach people to create indelible, memorable characters. But, hey, here are two "tricks" I use. Maybe they'll work for you too!

                              Online Impersonation

No, no, it's way less sketchier than it sounds, I promise!
There are lots of sites (reddit being the chief one among them) that have personal advice/help forums.

So, let's stay you're writing a thriller about a stay home suburban man with a wild past who discovers an alternate version of himself, the road-not-taken version of himself who did not settle down and kept on roaming, is haunting him.

Let's say you have the structure of the story but this character, you can't quite get into his head. What does he sound like? What are the specific details that differentiate him from the rest of people? What does it mean to have had a crazy past and a serene present?

So, maybe you create an account on reddit and write a post asking for advice. Something like this.

Chances are, you will get a lot of advice from people who have been in your situation. They've been there. As they talk about themselves, you get a better idea of what it must feel like.

I know this sounds a bit morally fucked up or something but I feel like, or maybe I justify it by saying this, we sort of become our characters at the moments when we inhabit them, so it's okay?

So, there you go. That's character-building-exercise number one. Then there is...

                                       MBTI TABLE

If you haven't heard about the Myers-Briggs test, go here first. If you have the time, take the test.

I'm an INTP, my wife is ENTP. So, naturally, we get along... Just like Varys and Tyrion!
Now, I know many people think this is all bullshit, and it might be honestly, but if you have a bunch of characters and you want to figure out their voices, assigning them MBTI types works wonders. Of course, it's all broad outlines and you don't want to write stock characters, but it can be a helpful start in getting into their shoes.

So, let's say you created your characters. Then what? What do we do with them in, you know, the actual screenplay?


Choices reveal character.

Let's say your character is a brave woman.

The best way to convey this to the audience is to put her in a situation that %99 of people would get the fuck out of, but she doesn't. She stays and she helps.

Or, say, your character is logical and introverted. Then maybe you put her into Disneyland, but instead of enjoying the rush of the place like her friends, she chooses to figure out how a certain roller-coaster works on a structural level.

You see the pattern? Give her a choice that contrasts with what anyone else would have done.

And super-bonus points if you put your character in a situation at the beginning of the movie where he/she makes a certain choice, then, at the end of the movie, you put him/her in a similar situation and he/she makes the other choice, conveying to us his/her change.

The poster child for this is Robert De Niro's character in The Deer Hunter. At the beginning of the movie, he has a deer in his sights. He shoots, he scores. After his experience in the War, he goes hunting again. This time, he can't bring himself to shoot the deer.

But change is hard. In fact:

And once they do, they make different choices to prove to us that, yes, they have changed.

Well, that's that for now. Next week, we will talk about more heady stuff like screenplay structure and sequences. Stay tuned!

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Levin's Tips -- Storytelling 101

What does Transformers 3, The Godfather and Dude, Where's My Car have in common?

They're all stories.

                                   The Story

A story is about someone who wants something very badly and is having trouble getting it.

Let's break that down, shall we?

 "A story is... about someone..."  Whose story is it?  Through whose eyes, and more importantly through whose emotions do we experience the story? Who takes the actions that drive the story forward? This is the first big choice the storyteller must make, and there is always more than one answer.

"...who wants something..."  What does this protagonist want? What primary desire is forcing him/her/them to take action? Whether or not they get it is the DRAMATIC QUESTION that the story tracks and ultimately answers.

"...very badly..." Why does s/he want it so much?  What's going to happen if he/she DOESN'T get it?  This defines the STAKES of your story.

"...but is having trouble getting it."  What are the obstacles? Who is the antagonist, or what are the antagonistic forces that is keeping the protagonist from getting what s/he/they want?

But why? What happens if you bungle this up?

                                   Introducing: The Care-O-Meter!

Cinema is a visceral medium. 99 percent of the time, whether we like a movie or not depends on whether we gave a shit about the people/animals on the screen or not. Imagine the TV Show House if House wasn't interesting, would anyone have watched it and thought "Oh my, look at all those fascinating medical mysteries!" The intellectual component of it is definitely a part of what makes a story tick, but unless you have lovable characters/engaging situations, it's tough for the audience to care. Think of how your non-film-school friends/family members talk about movies. "I love the Joker, he was so fun! He was the best part of the movie!"

The Care-O-Meter is a tool we use in the class to help you identify which parts of your script are "cooking" and what parts are "falling flat". For example, you might discover people really care about those supporting character you have, and maybe you should bring him/her more up to the forefront of your story. Maybe people are really not feeling that funny set piece with the lions running around the circus.

What can you do to fix this?


The first photo that came up when I googled TENSION!
You've probably had this experience: A character is about to do something and you want it to succeed so badly. You're FEARING he/she is going to fail, you're HOPING he/she is going to succeed. Best movies evoke this in us and no matter how complicated they may seem, they can be traced back to that very simple "Someone wants something very badly and has trouble getting it!"

12 Angry Men: You're desperately hoping the Juror 8 is going to convince the others and fearing that the accused young man is going to be hanged/go to prison for the rest of his life.

Why did I choose this film specifically?

Because look at that poster helpfully spelling it out!

Of course not all tensions are life or death. But if you write a romantic comedy, you better make sure that we HOPE love will bloom between your central couple and FEAR they're not going to make it. The trick is go deeper instead of bigger. Whiplash, for example, makes you care about whether if a kid is going to become a jazz drummer or not SO MUCH that the entire movie feels like a heart attack.

Look at your script. Is there a way to heighten the audience's engagement with your story? Perhaps your antagonist isn't strong enough, so we don't FEAR that much. Perhaps your character doesn't seem to want that much from life, so we don't HOPE that much either. 90 percent of script problems can be boiled down to this Tension/Hope/Fear triangle.

And next time when you talk about your script with someone who has read it, pay specific attention to how they feel about it emotionally. Ask them where they felt most engaged and where their Care-O-Meter hit zero. This is essential for you to pinpoint the problem areas and the strong elements in your script!

On that note, feel free to check out some tips on How To Take and Process Feedback and How to Give Feedback.

For more on finding the story, check out Writing The Feature Script: Week Two - Finding The Story

For more tips from Levin, check out Rewriting (A.K.A. Welcome To The Rest of Your Life)

See you next week!

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Sceenwriting Is Rewriting: Interview with Jack Epps!

As part of the class I teach at USC, Rewriting The Feature Script, I encourage my students to read Screenwriting is Rewriting, by Jack Epps. Not only does the book mirror all the week-by-week assignments in my course, it is one of the most useful screenwriting manuals I have ever read (and I've read quite a few,) particularly for advanced students.

Jack Epps Jr. has been working as a screenwriter for over forty years. He is best known for co-writing iconic movies like Top Gun and Dick Tracy. He also did extensive revisions on movies such as Sister Act and Die Hard 3. Today, he is the chair of the writing division of USC's School of Cinematic Arts.

SH: Why do we need a book on "Rewriting" and how is this book different than all the other books on screenwriting?

JE: As professional writers know, most of our time is spent rewriting our own work or someone else’s work. The importance of first drafts is way over-rated. If you want to succeed as a screenwriter, then you better be a great rewriter or they will hire someone else who is a great rewriter. First drafts are fine, but they are only a sketch of an idea. The real work is done in the rewrites – that’s rewrites with a huge “S.” Knowing how to rewrite successfully is the key to a successful career.

Most screenwriting books only focus on the first draft and pay scant attention to rewriting. Screenwriting is Rewriting assumes the writer has written a first draft. The primary goal of my book is to focus on rewriting. There are chapters that review essential fundamentals, since it is the failure to execute these fundamentals that cause major script problems. The book is based on my years of professional experience as a screenwriter. Most of my time was spent rewriting. I expected to rewrite even before I began the first draft.

SH: Why do you distinguish between different kinds of rewrites or "passes"?

JE: One of the great mistakes aspiring writers make is they often try to resolve every note in one giant rewrite that usually results in a much weaker, flawed, screenplay. I learned during my career that it was much easier, and more effective, to execute a series of small focused rewrites rather than one giant rewrite. Each pass focuses on a different essential aspect of screenwriting. First, start with the major fundamental elements, and then work through the notes.

The challenge in writing the book was that every rewrite is different. There is no “one size fits all” approach to rewriting. I broke the book into eleven different passes so writers can choose which pass best fits their needs. They may also consider combining passes. This is not a “checklist” book. It’s a resource guide, and it is meant to be flexible.

SH: What are some common mistakes screenwriters make while rewriting? How can the book help?

JE: “Preciousness” is probably the biggest mistake an aspiring writer can make. They’ve written a first draft and they are enamored with it. They think it’s perfect, and not a word should be changed. In my experience, that’s not the way it works professionally. Another common mistake is that aspiring screenwriters often favor plot over character. Plot serves character. A great plot is essential, but it must serve character. Another mistake is to “throw the baby out with the bathwater” and start all over again on page one. Page one rewrites usually result in a weaker, less inspired, imitation of the first draft. There must be some gold that can be mined in the next draft. It’s important to know what works. Try to protect what works and revise the problems.

SH: Much of the book is structured around responding to notes - notes from producers, executives, and peers. Why is it so important to get feedback while rewriting a script? 

JE: It is really hard to have distance and perspective on your own work. Good notes give the writer perspective on how the work is “actually” being perceived—not how they “think” it is being perceived. But notes are not always clear or right. One of the challenges of rewriting is learning how to interpret notes. Notes are not always what they seem, and often the solution to the note is not what is suggested or apparent. I focus a lot in the book on interpreting notes. It’s also important to find people you trust to give you good notes, and to learn to let go and embrace the change necessary to take your screenplay to the next level.

SH: Manuals like "Save The Cat" are directed at amateurs who say to themselves "I've got a movie idea, and I think I'll write the script!" Is it fair to say that your book targets more advanced writers, students, and professionals?

JE: Rewriting itself is an advanced skill. My book is written for aspiring writers as well as professionals. I am assuming the writer is experienced and has written one or two scripts. For the professional, I hope it works as a way to help jump start their rewrite— to serve as a refresher. As professional writers, we often drift from away from screenwriting essentials. The book also serves as a refresher for professionals and helps them refocus their work.

SH: What is the best way to use the book when tackling a particular rewrite?

First, use the book to help organize notes and create a game plan to attack the rewrite. Secondly, decide which elements to prioritize in the first pass. It’s really easy to get lost in the middle of a rewrite, and the book can serve as a guide to help the writer work through their rewrite. I stress throughout the book how much work rewriting is, but I also hope it will serve as inspiration for those times when the writer feels like throwing in the towel. We’ve all been there, but it’s those writers to stay at it, and continue to dig deep, who will succeed.

Rewriting is hard work. If you stay at it, not only will you get a significantly better screenplay, but you will also become a much better screenwriter by going through the rewrite experience. You will definitely know what you “must” have before you begin your next project. The goal is to become a better, more efficient screenwriter. As I tell my students, writing never gets easier, but you can become more efficient.

Also on Genre Hacks...

Interview with Head of Amazon Studios Roy Price: How to Write for Amazon.