Story Story Story

Interview: Benjamin Sant
Monday, August 23, 2010

(My friend(Randin Graves – film composer) sent me this article…..thought this article would be helpful if i posted here on NT….especially for aspiring writers/filmmaker.have a good read folks)

Over the past year, my colleagues and I have received a lot of scripts to read over in order to provide constructive criticism for aspiring writers. In light of this, I have discovered quite a few things that makes me quite bitter and angry with writers and how they structure their stories. First off (and quite possibly the biggest frustration I have with writers) is they need to learn to take constructive criticism well.

I may hate your script. I generally will never say I hate it. I, more times than not, will say I like the concept (I almost always do), but find that their structuring and writing is often times boring, pathetic, and poorly executed. So I write notes as I read and give them my feedback. These writers get quite offended that I didn’t enjoy their script. I often am told that I don’t understand their vision. This may be the case, but how do they expect any respectful individual to understand their vision if it’s poorly written? If I am not approving of their “amazing screenplay”, how do they expect anyone else to? Am I saying that I am high up and revered as a script consultant? Not necessarily. But I have quite a few films under my belt to know what makes a good screenplay and what doesn’t. If you don’t approve of what I’m saying, grin and take it because almost always you will run into people who don’t like it. Move past your ego and start learning for once. If you disagree, plead your case as to why a scene in particular is good. I’m willing to not only go 9 rounds in a healthy discussion over scripting issues, and I’m even willing to concede if I’m proven wrong.

Often times I discover that these writers have great ideas. Most of them have really good starting points, but they don’t know how to properly and originally convey this idea on the page. Trying to tell them this also hard. I can paint that scenario any which way, but it always comes back with “well, you think my script sucks so I’ll just show someone else and never speak to you again’.

That’s fine. However, the problem is is these writers generally go to friends or to people who have no understanding of script structure and end up blowing smoke up someone’s ass over how cool the script is. Beyond this, they never grow as writers. They never learn from their mistakes and continue making the same disastrous, flawed errors time and time again and wonder why they aren’t in Hollywood.

Then these guys usually create screenwriting groups to meet with others so they can get people to read their horrible screenplays. Or worse yet, find some aspiring director who takes the project forward and when the end result is not as they wanted it to be, criticize the director’s choices instead of taking mental notes on what works and what doesn’t and apply those lessons in their next projects.

(Screenwriters aside, I’ve noticed that a lot of people in this community criticize and blame others for failed projects instead of reflecting on how they themselves can improve a project).

At any rate, this process goes and on and usually ends in one of about sixty scenarios. The writer can’t get anyone to approve of their miserable work so they give up. Or they make it themselves and spend the rest of the next several years trying to defend on why their film is an amazing piece of work that defines them as not only people, but as screenwriters or directors. Or they continue writing tripe. Most of this, if not all, can be avoided if people merely place their ego’s aside and be willing to learn on how to make a great script.

In dealing with these writers (and even directors), I’ve come to consensus that these people are avid film fans and think making movies is easy. Well, it’s not. And not everyone can do it. It’s not for everybody. I’ve worked with a director in the very recent past who believes that because he loves movies, he has what it takes to make something amazing that Warner Bros is going to pick up instantly. That’s not the case. Is it possible? Only if they are willing to learn and grow.

As a producer, I often will greenlight terrible scripts even if the writer and or/director isn’t willing to accept my feedback. Why do I do this? Because I want to them to see for themselves their mistakes. Hopefully at the end of the project, they can see a finished piece of work and criticize themselves and move forward. At the end of every project I do, I have a period of self reflection. I analyze my work and find myself being my biggest critic. I take notes on what worked and what didn’t. I apply these techniques to my next project and do the same thing afterwards. And I’m always finding mistakes and changes that need to be made. It’s foolish to think that any director in Hollywood doesn’t do the same thing. Or any screenwriter for that matter.

Another issue with these scripts I read is that they are all about the same thing. And while I won’t go into detail about such subject matter, but I can assure any reader that it’s the same concept that is found in independent film circles and film schools that ends up giving the indie film circuits a bad reputation. “Oh, this film is about Subject X. The last ten indie films were about Subject X as well.”

Everyone complains that Hollywood isn’t unique and original anymore but the independent film channels, especially local like Ogden and Salt Lake are no different than the organizations we’re aspiring to change.

While Subject X is sometimes hard to avoid, the problem doesn’t lie in the subject matter itself, but rather the execution. Find new ways to present Subject X and you may have a good script. The problem is, these writers and directors don’t think too far out of the box so it’s simple, repeated material we see all the time. One example is zombies. I thought we’ve all seen zombies burned into the ground. How many Night of the Living Dead rip-offs do we need? Well then a little film comes around called 28 Days Later that changes that. Its the same as Subject X, but it was presented in such an original way, that it revitalized the subject matter and made it fun and fresh again.

I want people to take note of their favorite films that they think have excellent scripts and dissect them. Analyze them. Find out what makes them so great. And then apply that to what you’re working on. The Dark Knight is a prime example of a beautifully crafted screenplay. One element in The Dark Knight that stands out so profoundly (at least to me) is it’s brilliant first act. Indie film auteurs don’t understand how structuring will make or break a film and this all begins with understanding the three (and sometimes four) act structure.

Let’s take a look at The Dark Knight’s first act in more detail:

The First Scene

The first scene of the project is a bank robbery masterminded and executed by The Joker. This scene itself is telling us key things about the Joker.

1. The Joker is already a threat (yes, we learn this at the end of Batman Begins) 2. No one really knows about The Joker, even his own henchmen who throughout the first several minutes are discussing him (‘I hear he wears make-up like warpaint to scare people’ ‘He thinks he sit back and still take a slice?’, so on and so forth. 3. We learn that The Joker is very much present at this event telling us that he’s not afraid to get his hands dirty and uses cunning subterfuge and trickery to get what he wants 4. The Joker robs a mob bank as described by the Bank Manager who is willing to confront them about their “brave” act 5. The Joker’s stunning reveal talks about one of the key elements of the entire picture is that criminals in this city (Gotham) used to have honor and respect. Things have changed because of the Batman and thus the theme of the movie is revealed; Escalation.

The first scene of this movie already tells us so much. In what is really just a scene that sets up The Joker is actually written to present themes that will be present throughout the rest of the picture. This my fellow reader, is brilliant scriptwriting. It’s not in your face, it’s merely well written dialogue that is often overlooked because it is written and performed in such a realistic, subtle way.

The Second Scene

The second scene is a quick montage of sorts describing what is going on in Gotham City. This sets up other characters. 1. It sets up Gotham City and how it has changed. 2. It introduces News Reporter Mike Engel (who will be used in the Third Act) and the Mayor (used throughout Act 2) 3. Introduces Gordon who is being helped by Batman despite that his unit is investigating who the Batman really is. 4. Introduces Ramirez who in one piece of dialogue during her introduction reveals a big aspect of Act 3 when she says “My mother was put back in the hospital”. This scene sets up the hospital scene in Act 3 and is a huge motivation to her character and more importantly to the overall story. 5. We are introduced to Wuertz, who reveals in his scene that he is a skeptic to the Batman mythology and doesn’t really care about his job (all done in characterization) and 6. Sets up perfectly how scared criminals are in Gotham when the sun goes down. In a scene that is a direct homage to Tim Burton’s film, shows two criminals who are scared stiff over the Batman and therefore they are forced to do “good” in their own fear.

The Third Scene

The third scene of the film introduces the films protagonist, Batman. But this scene is also used to tie up loose ends. This scene explores Batman going after the Scarecrow, a villain that was left open from the last picture. So what is this scene telling us?

1. The Scarecrow is still there, but also is captured to close off the story from the first picture. 2. Some citizens have been “inspired” by Batman and are doing what they can to help him (This is called upon in the Second Act) 3. It sets up another character/villain of the story, The Chechen who at the end of the first act is one of the catalysts to bring The Joker into the mix 4. It shows that Batman is still very much human and not a superhero. He realizes that his suit is heavy and cumbersome and needs to make a more efficient suit.

The Fourth Scene

The fourth scene sets up Alfred and Bruce. This not only sets up their relationship in greater detail, but it also reveals that Rachel is still in the picture and she’s dating someone that Bruce is keeping a close eye on; Harvey Dent.

A continuation to the fourth scene re-introduces Lucius Fox who plays a very big part in the overall story as he helps Batman out with designing suits and toys (used prominently in the third act) but knows that the business deals Wayne Enterprises is doing is a way for Batman to spy on corrupt businessmen, i.e. Lau, who later on the first act it is revealed that he’s working for the mob and becomes a key player in The Joker’s scheme. This scene also sets up the new character of the Lawyer Coleman Reese. In this scene, Lucius tells him to dig deeper into the financials just to keep him busy…. which will later come out in the beginning of the third act when Reese tries blackmailing Wayne and is used for part of the Joker’s schemes as well.

The Fifth Scene

The fifth scene sets up the characters of Rachel Dawes (already revealed) and Harvey Dent as D.A.’s prosecuting the Gotham mob. This scene not only sets up Sal Maroni as another key antagonist in the story, but explores how Dent’s prosecutions are greatly upsetting the Gotham City underground. They are willing to sneak in weapons to the hearing to kill or intimidate Dent.

At the end of the fifth scene, all characters and many themes have been introduced. All characters who will play an important part in the rest of the film are introduced, their motivations are already established, allowing the rest of the first act to go into further detail about the theme of the movie and the story.

The Sixth and Seventh Scenes

The next two scenes in the film introduces Bruce to Harvey in which Bruce is able to understand that Dent is someone not only he can trust, but Batman as well. The seventh scene introduces The Joker to the Mob who reveals that he wants to get paid to kill the Batman. This obviously is not his end game, which is revealed a little later on in the film, but this act on The Joker’s behalf was merely a way for him to get into the organization and begin to demonize and transform it because he can.

As you can see, that even before the first act is over, everything the audience needs to know has been presented to us in a very stylish, subtle and realistic way. Seven scenes in and despite a few additional scenes to help push the story forward, we can already see where this story is going. The first act of your script is the most important. Everything needs to be there. Follow the first act beats of setting up characters and events and the rest of the screenplay should be easier to write. The second act has beats as well. It should follow a structure based upon the already established elements from the first act. This act should also be the funnest to write. It allows a writer to remove all the stops; to open the flood gates of creativity to the max and unleash upon the reader and ultimately viewer a fun filled ride. The third act once again has beats and should be structured in a way that everything that has been established before this has a satisfying pay off to the viewer. If you want to have a trick ending, the audience shouldn’t feel cheated that everything in the first two acts meant nothing to them. You’ll get better responses if all the information is presented earlier and if you’re still able to surprise people with a deceiving Shyamalan twist, then it will be better enjoyed. The Sixth Sense’ had a brilliant ending in that it used small flashbacks to show the audience what they have been seeing ahead of time which made the audience feel like they were watching a masterful magician at work. Because they didn’t feel “cheated”, the film became an overnight success story.

A lot of people are in debate over the ending of Christopher Nolan’s Inception. If you really dissect and pay attention to the first two acts of that movie, you’ll understand that it only has one specific ending as opposed to the alternative of “Was it all just a dream?”, “Did he wake up or not?” If the ending is the alternative, then the entire picture was a waste of masterful storytelling and everyone has been cheated. Dissect that film and you’ll understand that it can only have one ending.

My two pieces of advice for screenwriters and directors alike is to study story structure and to place your arrogant ego’s aside to take constructive criticism so you can make that amazing film that you claim will one day define you.