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Tuesday, December 17, 2013

This Is What A Rewrite Looks Like


What is the most important screenwriting tool?  (originally I answered this question on Quora)

For me, a "tool" is some process, habit or approach that can be taught. When I work with screenwriters at USC's School of Cinematic Arts, I can't help the students with talent or luck, which are by far the two most important factors in a screenwriter's success.

Likewise, I can't really teach imagination, stamina, or even self-delusion (important as they are). Practical knowledge of industry standards as well as willingness to listen to honest feedback are certainly necessary, but I expect both of these when a student walks into the classroom or an aspiring screenwriter asks me for advice.  What I can teach is a process.

The Rewrite Cycle


Anyone who takes screenwriting seriously must commit to a continuous, circular process of collection, collation, execution, and presentation.  As the saying goes, "all writing is rewriting." 

This process seems to work best in the context of a class, writers’ group, and/or group of trusted collaborators and fellow filmmakers. The strategies we go over in class are meant to be applicable to any professional and/or personal project a writer might encounter.

Collection 

In this phase the writer must be extremely open to ideas. When first looking for stories to tell, he or she must write down any an all impressions, images, jokes, fragments, and half-baked schemes that could be the seed of a film. Whether the writer collects ideas in a paper notebook, a smartphone app, or Evernote, he or she must collect everything. I liken it to carrying around A Bucket and picking up and collecting anything that is shiny or odd.

In later cycles of the rewrite loop, collection is the phase in which a writer patiently collects every note, suggestion or criticism he or she gets from people who have read the current draft (sometimes producers, executives or directors.)  Some notes will seem helpful; some will seem unhelpful.  Some will be exciting and others infuriating.  The key is to collect them all patiently and without judgment.  Write them all down.  Treat every single note as a gift, one that will be unwrapped and examined sometime later.

Collation

When first starting a screenplay, the collation phase involves sifting through all the ideas collected in notebooks and "buckets." Which ones have potential? Which ones trigger excitement? Which ones keep the writer up at night?  "Collation" is a more focused and analytical step in the process, in which the writer uses knowledge of structure, tension and characterization to build the armature of a complete story.

In later cycles of the rewrite loop, collation is the phase in which the writer takes all the notes received from readers, collaborators and/or employers and sifts through them all. Too often beginning screenwriters either accept every note they get without question, or stubbornly refuse to take any at all. A veteran screenwriter does neither.

Instead, the veteran organizes notes according to character, structure, tone, and clarity.  He or she looks for notes that come up repeatedly for every reader, and notes that some catch but most miss.  Rather than reject suggestions that make the her bristle, the writer looks for deeper meaning behind the note.  If the readers aren't getting what was intended, does something earlier in the story need to be clearer?  Does plot complexity need to be simplified?  Are the readers tracking the main tension?  

Conversely, rather than take a note that initially strikes her as clever, the writer must ask herself if the change might require further adjustments throughout the script, perhaps creating more problems than it solves.  I often tell students to look for notes that are contradictory - some people suggest one thing and others suggest the exact opposite; this usually indicates they simply haven't made a strong enough choice somewhere earlier in the screenplay.

No note or suggestion can be taken at face value; the writer has to work and sift and ponder.

Ultimately, the writer comes up with a game plan for the rewrite. This often takes the form of a new beat sheet or treatment to organize all the changes. I like to use colorful index cards and map out the entire revision on a 5'x5' cork board on my office wall.   Did you think you only had to do this once?  No, you do this for every draft - for every loop of the cycle.

Execution

This is the part that involves a lot of typing, coffee, and returns to earlier steps. The writer pounds out the draft based on all the notes and ideas he or she has collected and collated. The writer keeps at it until it is in good enough shape to hand off to his readers.

In a classroom or in a writer’s group that is focused on a rewrite of a first draft, we generally break down a draft into pieces: either eight sequences, or four acts. We execute these rewritten sections weekly or bi-weekly, and share them with the group.  However, in professional situations it's better not to show work-in-progress to producers or studio executives, until there is a complete draft.

Presentation

This could mean handing in the script to a professor, delivering the script to a studio, passing it out to a writer's group, or just showing the pages to Mom. The important thing is that this should be the writer's best attempt at a "finished" draft. But alas, no script is ever finished. The writer will get notes, and return to the collection phase as she gets more and more feedback... 

...and the cycle is repeated, again and again and again.

The Cycle

This Rewrite Process begins with the first draft and goes on with the second and third.  If the writer gets a manager or agent, they will also get notes.  If the screenplay is optioned or sold, the buyers will have additional thoughts and the cycle continues.  If an actor or director is attached to the project, they will have new suggestions.  As the project goes into pre-production, adjustments and compromises will need to be made due to budget, schedule, unforeseen opportunities and unmitigated disasters.  As the project is edited and re-shot in post, further changes must be made.  The script will likely go through rewrite after rewrite, churning through the cycle, all the way up to the premier.

The better the screenwriter can navigate this process, the faster and more effectively the writer can move through this cycle again and again, shepherding the core story so that each loop improves and clarifies the work, the better the screenplay will be.



Nested Cycles


What I have found is that not only do effective screenwriters work this cycle, but that they work on multiple projects at the same time...

Blue - Ideas, Pitches, Treatments

Screenwriters collect ideas while in the shower, driving their car, or reading the paper. They collate these ideas, sift through them and mull them over in their offices. They execute and present these ideas to friends and collaborators, usually over drinks and coffee and get feedback. They always have a bag of ideas brewing.

These ideas are developed into Pitches and Treatments.  These too are distributed and rehearsed, tweaked and re-imagined, presented to buyers and collaborators, only to get more feedback and more loops in the cycle.

Green - First Drafts and Spec Scripts. 

While ideas are brewing and pitches are performed, the writer is simultaneously polishing and rewriting completed drafts, hoping that just a few more turns of the wheel will make it good enough to sell.

Red - Scripts in Production 

Simultaneously the writer is working on projects that are actually in production. These could be short films, indie features, webisodes, or the current episode in a TV series. These projects are getting feedback from producers and directors and unit production managers, and the script is changing to fit the reality of filmmaking on the ground.

So, when one stage is done, another begins.  Once a film is made, the writer must be ready with a new script. Once a script is sold, the writer must be ready with a new pitch or treatment.  Once a pitch is abandoned, the writer must be ready with a new idea.  All these cycles have to happen simultaneously.

Software engineers will recognize the screenwriters' rewrite process as just a specific example of a general feedback loop, one that can be applied to any creative endeavor. 




An article Wired Magazine, Harnessing the Power of Feedback Loops, suggested that feedback tools can be used to make just about any human activity more effective.

But as I am only a screenwriter, not an engineer, a psychiatrist or a cognitive scientist, I'll just leave with 20 Great Writers On The Art of Revision.



I write this blog in order to connect with intelligent, ambitious, and creative people. If you leave a comment, you will inspire me to write more. If you liked the article, please share it.

Monday, December 2, 2013

On Camera Workshops For Young Actors

Scenes created in On Camera Workshops are often stilted and awkward, and recently Saturday Night Live parodied these "professional" services for kids. Watch Spotlightz and laugh.

As many of you know, I work with Deborah Lemen Studios and I direct scenes for Deb's On Camera Workshops. You can see the difference in the kind of work she does in scenes like this one...




I recently interviewed Deb and asked her about what makes her workshops unique.

How is your approach to teaching young actors different than other studios?

There are many on Camera Workshops out there in LA. Many do not spend time with each individual actor, preparing and rehearsing them for his or her scene. They do not shoot on professional cameras. They do not shoot on location, but instead shoot against a black wall.  They don't provide professional directors to work with the students. They are also extremely expensive and provide a result that looks nothing like a real movie or television program.  As a result, these filmed scenes are usually a bad showcase for actors.

After my workshops, actors get two scenes that look like clips from an independent film.


Why do your students look so natural on camera, as opposed to the awkward stagey-ness so often seen on young people's reels?

With intense study and practice in the classroom, on set and on camera, I  place special emphasis on training the actor to respond quickly and fully to all stimuli, enabling each student to make fearless, confident and ultimately winning choices.  This leads to more natural, more engaging, and more stand-out performances. Younger actors are taught with the same emphasis on craft and authentic human behavior as are adults.

I take special care with each student. Every young actor has specific needs and individual strengths. I don't rely on any one method at the exclusion of others. I take all I have learned from a variety of renowned teachers and I find an approach that is best for each student - both teen and child actors who may be learning these approaches for the first time, and young adults who may already be comfortable with a particular method.

I myself have studied with George Morrison and Jack Waltzer in New York (Meisner, Strasberg, Stanoslavsky, Adler.) In Los Angeles I studied with Peter Flood (Strasberg, Meisner,) and for 15 years in a Master Class with Ivana Chubbuck. I was founder of the Youth and Teen Division of the Ivana Chubbuck Studio, and I was the first to adapt the Chubbuck technique for kids and teens.  

So often kids, teens and young adults are taught wrote memorization and this can lead to stiff, stilted and unnatural performances. My students learn their lines rather than memorize them. They know what they are saying, and they listen before they speak. If the words are not there, I teach them to breathe, and the words come. In life we often do not know what we are going to say next. So if the words are not there as an actor, I tell my students"That is a gift". Often times something will happen and forces the actor to be present.  It forces the actor to be in the reality of the moment. Forces them to breath. To just... be.

I also teach script analysis. Each student - kid, teen, or adult - is taught to break down the script in Beats, Actions, Moments Before, Personalizations, Inner Objects, and Inner Monologues. We discus Doings and Previous Circumstances. Most importantly, I teach that after this rigorous script analysis, the actors Lets It Go. Once the work has been done (really done) it is inside.  The actor knows what it is that he or she wants and what to do to get it, or what to do "to win."

My teaching is about Human Behavior.  It's not about the words, but rather what is underneath the words




Why is it important to have experience working on camera as opposed to working in class.

There is a huge difference between learning how to be an actor in a classroom environment and actually putting it into practice. My workshop is an opportunity to test an actor's work in a professional environment, which can be distracting and overwhelming to actors experiencing it for the first time. We take what they know and what they have learned and we put it into action.

My On Camera Workshops give the student the authentic experience of being on a movie set: Real Locations, Award Winning Directors, Professional DP, State of the Art Epic Red Camera, and a Professional editor.  Students receive two edited scenes. 

I offer classes, for kids, teens, young adults and adults. The On Camera Workshop is a wonderful compliment to the acting classes. Everything learned in class is applied to the on camera experience.  After taking On Camera Workshop a student's work grows exponentially in terms of craft, but they also learn the practical skills that only comes from experience in front of a camera.




What is the advantage to having scenes shot professionally when building a reel? 
 
If one wants to be a professional actor they need to show their work to the world. Getting cast in a film or on TV will do that, but often in order to get those gigs or to even get your foot in the door you have to find a way to show them where your talents lie. That is what an actor can gain from your on camera workshop. They will ultimately leave with two professionally, directed, shot and edited scenes that promote their talents. It is perfect reel footage!

When professionals in the industry look at scenes shot professionally, they take the actor more seriously. They are able to see an actors look and talent without by bad picture or sound. If the scene looks like a movie clip, a professional can imagine casting the actor in a movie. The work will grab their attention. And that is what is all about, to have people understand an actor's talent, her beauty, and all the ineffable qualities that makes an her unique.